Read an Excerpt
The Queen of Spades
And Selected Works
By Alexander Pushkin, Anthony Briggs
Steerforth Press Copyright © 2012 Pushkin Press
All rights reserved.
THE QUEEN OF SPADES
The Queen of Spades has a hidden meaning — bad blood.
Fortune-Telling Companion, Latest Edition
In all kinds of weather
They sat down together
And soon — for God's sake! —
They were doubling the stake
At the table.
They marked cards with crosses,
And wrote down their losses
Yes, in all kinds of weather
They got down together
There was once a card game at the residence of Horse Guardsman Narumov. A long winter night had slipped by unnoticed, and it was past four o'clock when they sat down to dine. The winners thoroughly enjoyed their dinner; the others sat there at empty places, unable to concentrate on anything. But champagne was served, the conversation struck up again, and everybody was involved.
"How'd you get on, Surin?" asked the host.
"Lost. I always do. To be honest, I'm just not lucky I don't take any risks, I never raise the stakes, I don't let anything put me off, and I still end up losing!"
"And you've never been tempted? Never done any doubling up? ... Your willpower amazes me."
"Well, what about Hermann?" said one of the guests, gesturing towards a young Engineers officer. "Never picked up a card since the day he was born, never doubled a stake, and he sits here till five in the morning just watching us gamble."
"I'm very interested in gambling," said Hermann, "but I'm in no situation to sacrifice what is essential in the hope of winning something superfluous."
"Hermann's from Germany. He calculates the odds. Nothing more to it than that," put in Tomsky. "If there's one person I don't understand, it's my grandmother, Countess Anna Fedotovna."
"Why? What d'you mean?" cried the company.
"What I can't work out," Tomsky went on, "is why my grandmother never has a bet."
"What's so funny about that?" said Narumov. "An old woman of eighty who doesn't gamble?"
"So, you've never heard anything about her?"
"No! Honestly, I haven't. Nothing at all!"
"Oh, well, listen to this. You ought to know that, fifty-odd years ago, my grandmother used to go to Paris, where she was considered the latest thing. People flocked after her to get a glimpse of the 'Venus from Moscow'. Richelieu pursued her, and Grandmother swears he nearly shot himself because of her hard heart. At that time the ladies liked to play faro. One day at court she lost to the Duke of Orléans on credit — it was a large sum of money. Back home, as she peeled off her beauty spots and unfastened her crinoline, Grandmother declared her loss to my grandfather and ordered him to pay it off. My late grandfather, I seem to recall, was like a butler to my grandmother. He dreaded her like fire, but when he heard about this terrible loss of hers he lost his temper, brought out the accounts, pointing out that they had spent half a million in half a year, that living near Paris wasn't the same as living on their own estates near Moscow or Saratov, and refused point-blank to pay. Grandmother slapped his face and went off to bed alone as a sign of her displeasure. The next morning she sent for her husband, hoping that marital punishment would have had its effect on him, but she found him intransigent. For the first time in her life she was reduced to persuasion and argument with him; her idea was to bring him to heel by deigning to point out that there are different kinds of debt, and that there is a difference between a prince and a coach-builder. No use! Grandfather was in revolt. Nothing more to be said. Grandmother had no idea what to do.
"She numbered among her acquaintances one quite remarkable man. You will have heard the name of Count Saint-Germain, about whom such wonderful stories are told. You will know that he had claimed to be the Wandering Jew, the discoverer of the elixir of life, and the philosopher's stone, and so on. He was ridiculed as a charlatan, but Casanova in his memoirs refers to him as a spy. Putting that aside, Saint-Germain, for all his air of mystery, had a handsome look about him and a charismatic personality. To this day Grandmother loves him to distraction, and she gets angry when disrespectful things are said about him. Grandmother knew that he had access to big money. Deciding to throw herself on his mercy, she wrote him a note asking him to come round and see her without delay. The old eccentric lost no time in getting there, and found her prostrate with grief. She described her husband's barbarity in the darkest terms, and ended by placing all her hopes on his friendship and generosity.
"Saint-Germain gave it some thought. 'I can oblige you with that sum of money,' he said, 'but I know you will never rest until you have been able to pay me back, and I wouldn't wish to cause you any more trouble. There is another solution: you can win it all back.'
"'But, my dear Count,' Grandmother replied, 'I'm telling you — we have no money at all.'
"'Money is not required,' replied Saint-Germain. 'Please let me finish.'
"At this point he told her a secret that any of us would pay a good deal to learn ..."
The young gamblers redoubled their interest. Tomsky lit his pipe, pulled on it, and spoke further.
"That same evening Grandmother turned up at the Jeu de la Reine in Versailles. The Duke of Orléans was dealing. Grandmother muttered a word of apology for not bringing the money to pay off her debt, concocting a little story by way of excuse, and she began to bet against him. She chose three cards, and played them one after the other; all three won at the first turn of the cards, doubling up in series, and Grandmother had recouped her entire debt."
"Fluke!" said one of the guests.
"Fairy tale!" cried Hermann.
"Could have been marked cards," was the response from a third guest, eager to join in.
"I think not," observed Tomsky with some gravity
"What?" said Narumov. "You have a grandmother who can play three winning cards in a row, and in all this time you haven't got hold of her magic formula?"
"Not much chance of that!" replied Tomsky. "She had four sons, one of them being my father. They were all desperate gamblers, and she never told her secret to any one of them, even though it could have done them a lot of good, and me, too, for that matter. But my uncle, Count Ivan Ilyich, told me something which he swore was true. That man Chaplitsky — he's dead now, squandered millions and died in poverty — in his youth once lost about three hundred thousand — to Zorich, if memory serves. He was in despair. Grandmother always came down hard on young people's stupid indiscretions, but for some reason she took pity on Chaplitsky. She told him the three cards, provided that he played them in the right sequence and gave his word never to gamble again. Chaplitsky turned up to face his victorious opponent; they sat down to play. Chaplitsky staked fifty thousand on the first card — a straight win — and by doubling and redoubling he recouped all his losses, with a bit left over ...
"Anyway, it's bedtime. A quarter to six."
Yes, indeed, it was getting light. The young men downed their drinks and went their separate ways.
"Il paraît que monsieur est décidément pour les suivantes."
"Que voulez-vous, madame? Elles sont les plus fraîches."'
From a society conversation
Old Countess — — was sitting in her dressing room, facing the mirror. She was surrounded by three maids. One was holding a pot of rouge; another, a box of hairpins; and the third, a tall cap with flame-coloured ribbons. The Countess had not the slightest pretension to a beauty now long-faded, but she had retained all the habits of her young days; she was a slave to the fashions of the Seventies, and she took just as long, and just as much care, over her toilette as she had done sixty years before. Over by the window, at an embroidery frame, sat a young woman, her ward.
"Hello, grand'maman!" said a young man, walking in. "Bonjour, Mademoiselle Lise. Grand'maman, I've come to ask a favour."
"What's that, Paul?"
"Would you please allow me to introduce one of my friends, and bring him to see you at the ball on Friday evening?"
"Just bring him to the ball, and then you can introduce him. Were you at's last night?'
"Oh, yes! We had a marvellous time. Still dancing at five o'clock. Yeletskaya looked so attractive."
"Oh, my dear child. Is there anything attractive about her? You should have seen her grandmother, Princess Darya Petrovna ... By the way, I imagine she must have aged quite a bit, Princess Darya Petrovna, hasn't she?"
"Aged?" asked Tomsky, his thoughts miles away "She's been dead these last seven years."
The young lady looked up and sent a signal to the young man. He remembered that they had been hiding the deaths of the old Countess's contemporaries from her, and he bit his lip. But the Countess heard the news with the utmost indifference.
"Dead?" she said, "And I didn't know. We were appointed maids of honour at the same time, and just as we were being presented ..."
And, for the benefit of her grandson, the Countess launched forth into her story for the hundredth time.
"Well, Paul," she said eventually. "Now you must help me up. Lizanka, where is my snuffbox?"
And the Countess disappeared behind a screen with her three maids to finish dressing. Tomsky stayed outside with the young lady.
"Who is it you want to introduce?" asked Lizaveta Ivanovna in a low voice.
"Narumov. Do you know him?"
"No. Military or civilian?"
"In the Engineers?"
"No, he's in the Horse Guards. Why did you think he was an Engineer?"
The young lady gave a light laugh, and said nothing in reply.
"Paul!" the Countess called out from behind the screen. "Send me another novel, but not one of those modern ones."
"What do you mean, grand'maman?"
"I mean a novel in which the hero doesn't strangle his father or his mother, and there aren't any drowned bodies. I cannot abide drowned bodies."
"There aren't any novels like that nowadays. Do you want Russian novels?"
'Are there any? ... Send me something, sir, just send it."
"Sorry, grand'maman, I'm in a bit of a hurry. Excuse me, Lizaveta Ivanovna! But why did you think Narumov was an Engineer?"
And Tomsky walked out of the dressing room.
Lizaveta Ivanovna, left on her own, abandoned her work and turned to look out of the window. It wasn't long before a young officer came round the corner house on the other side of the street. Her cheeks reddened; she took up her work again, bending over her canvas. At this moment the Countess emerged, fully dressed.
"Lizanka," she said. "Order the carriage. Let's go for a drive."
Liza stood up from her frame, and started collecting her work.
"My dear girl, are you deaf?" cried the Countess. "Order the carriage now."
"Yes, madam," said the young lady in a muted reply, and she ran out into the entrance hall.
A servant came in and handed the Countess some books from Prince Paul.
"Jolly good! Send my thanks," said the Countess. "Lizanka, Lizanka, where are you running off to?"
"I'm going to get dressed."
"Plenty of time, my dear. Stay where you are. Open the first volume and read to me ..."
The young lady opened the book and read a few lines.
"Louder!" said the Countess. "What's wrong with you, child? Have you lost your voice? ... Wait a minute ... move that footstool closer. A bit more. That's it!"
Lizaveta Ivanovna read a couple more pages. The Countess gave a yawn.
"Get rid of that book," she said. "It's all nonsense! Send it back to Prince Paul with my thanks ... Right, where's my carriage?"
"The carriage is ready," said Lizaveta Ivanovna, looking out into the street.
"Why aren't you dressed for going out?" said the Countess. "I'm always having to wait for you! It's intolerable, young lady!"
Liza sped off to her room. Before two minutes had passed the Countess was ringing as loud as could be. Three maids rushed in through one door, and a footman through the other.
"Can't you hear me calling?" the Countess said to them. "Tell Lizaveta Ivanovna that I'm waiting."
Lizaveta Ivanovna came in wearing a cloak and hat.
"At last, my dear girl!" said the Countess. "All dressed up, I see!. What's this for?. Trying to attract someone? ... What's the weather like? Windy, I suppose?"
"Not all, Your Ladyship! It's very still!" answered the footman.
"You always say the hrst thing that comes into your head!. Open that little window. I told you so — it's windy! And freezing cold! Send the carriage away. Lizanka, we're not going out. There was no need to get all dolled up."
"And this is my life," thought Lizaveta Ivanovna.
And indeed, Lizaveta Ivanovna was a truly miserable creature. How salt is the taste of another's bread, said Dante, and how hard it is going up and down another's stairs — and who has a better understanding of dependence than the poor ward of a grande dame? Countess — — was not, of course, a wicked person, but she was a capricious woman, spoilt by life in high society, tight-fisted and drowning in frigid egoism, like all old people whose affections have drained away with advancing age, leaving them alienated from the present day. She was a full participant in all high-society frivolities, taking herself off to every ball, where she sat things out in a corner, rouged up and dressed in the fashions of yesteryear, like a hideous but indispensable ballroom ornament. New arrivals came forward to grovel before her, acting out a kind of ancient, ritual performance, after which she was totally ignored. She was at home to the whole city, observing etiquette down to the last detail, without actually recognizing anyone. Her innumerable domestic staff, grown fat and grey-haired in the entrance hall and servants' quarters, did what she wanted while competitively fleecing the moribund old woman. Lizaveta Ivanovna was the household martyr. She poured the tea, and was told off for wasting sugar; she read novels aloud, and the authors' mistakes were all her fault; when she went out with the Countess, she was held responsible for the weather and the state of the pavements. She was supposed to receive an allowance, but it was never paid in full; even so, she was expected to be dressed like everybody else, which meant like very few others. Out in society she played the most pathetic role imaginable. Everybody knew who she was, but she was universally ignored; at balls she danced only when a vis-à-vis was needed, and the ladies were all over her only when they needed to withdraw to adjust their attire. Proud and sensitively aware of her position, she looked round, longing for someone to come and rescue her, but the young men, full of calculation for all their giddiness and vanity, simply ignored her, even though Lizaveta Ivanovna was a hundred times more attractive than the brazen, frigid young girls on whom they danced attendance. How often did she sneak away from the tedious luxury of the ballroom to go and weep in her poor little room with its wallpapered screen, chest of drawers, little mirror and painted bedstead, where a tallow candle guttered dimly on its brass stand.
One day — this occurred two days after the evening described at the beginning of this story, and a week before the scene on which we have just ended — one day Lizaveta Ivanovna, seated at her embroidery frame by the window, happened to glance down into the street, where she saw a young Engineers officer standing there, looking up attentively at her window. She lowered her gaze, and got back to work; five minutes later she looked down again, and the officer was still there in the same place. Unaccustomed to flirtation with passing officers, she stopped looking down at the street, and carried on sewing for two hours without looking up. The call came for dinner. She got to her feet and was beginning to put away her embroidery when she happened to glance down at the street and saw the officer once again. This seemed rather strange. When dinner was over she went to the window with a feeling of some trepidation, but the officer had gone — and she put him out of her mind ...
A couple of days later, as she walked out with the Countess to get into the carriage, she saw him again. He was standing right by the entry, with his face buried in a beaver collar, and black eyes gleaming under his hat. Lizaveta Ivanovna was shocked without knowing why, and she got into the carriage, shivering for no good reason. Once back home, she rushed across to the window — and the officer was standing in the same place, staring up at her. She backed away, tormented by curiosity and excitement — a completely new feeling.
From then on, not a day passed without the young officer appearing at a fixed time in front of the windows. A relationship built up spontaneously between the two of them. As she sat there at her work she could sense him approaching; she would look up from her work and glance down at him — a little longer every day. The young man seemed to be grateful to her; with the sharp eyes of youth she could make out a rapid flush that crossed his pale cheeks every time their eyes met. Within a week she had smiled at him.
Excerpted from The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin, Anthony Briggs. Copyright © 2012 Pushkin Press. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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