Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Pushkin – The Queen of Spades – Contents
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Chapter III > > >
The old Countess A—— was seated in her dressings room in front of her looking-glass. Three waiting maids stood around her. One held a small pot of rouge, another a box of hair-pins, and the third a tall cap with bright red ribbons. The Countess had no longer the slightest pretensions to beauty, but she still preserved the habits of her youth, dressed in strict accordance with the fashion of seventy years before, and made as long and as careful a toilette as she would have done sixty years previously. Near the window, at an embroidery frame, sat a young lady, her ward.
“Good morning, grandmamma,” said a young officer, entering the room. “Bonjour, Mademoiselle Lise. Grandmamma, I want to ask you something.”
“What is it, Paul?”
“I want you to let me introduce one of my friends to you, and to allow me to bring him to the ball on Friday.”
“Bring him direct to the ball and introduce him to me there. Were you at B——’s yesterday?”
“Yes; everything went off very pleasantly, and dancing was kept up until five o’clock. How charming Eletskaia was!”
“But, my dear, what is there charming about her? Isn’t she like her grandmother, the Princess Daria Petrovna? By the way, she must be very old, the Princess Daria Petrovna.”
“How do you mean, old?” cried Tomsky thoughtlessly; “she died seven years ago.”
The young lady raised her head and made a sign to the young officer. He then remembered that the old Countess was never to be informed of the death of any of her contemporaries, and he bit his lips. But the old Countess heard the news with the greatest indifference.
“Dead!” said she; “and I did not know it. We were appointed maids of honour at the same time, and when we were presented to the Empress….”
And the Countess for the hundredth time related to her grandson one of her anecdotes.
“Come, Paul,” said she, when she had finished her story, “help me to get up. Lizanka, where is my snuff-box?”
And the Countess with her three maids went behind a screen to finish her toilette. Tomsky was left alone with the young lady.
“Who is the gentleman you wish to introduce to the Countess?” asked Lizaveta Ivanovna in a whisper.
“Naroumoff. Do you know him?”
“No. Is he a soldier or a civilian?”
“Is he in the Engineers?”
“No, in the Cavalry. What made you think that he was in the Engineers?”
The young lady smiled, but made no reply.
“Paul,” cried the Countess from behind the screen, “send me some new novel, only pray don’t let it be one of the present day style.”
“What do you mean, grandmother?”
“That is, a novel, in which the hero strangles neither his father nor his mother, and in which there are no drowned bodies. I have a great horror of drowned persons.”
“There are no such novels nowadays. Would you like a Russian one?”
“Are there any Russian novels? Send me one, my dear, pray send me one!”
“Good-bye, grandmother: I am in a hurry…. Goodbye, Lizaveta Ivanovna. What made you think that Naroumoff was in the Engineers?”
And Tomsky left the boudoir.
Lizaveta Ivanovna was left alone: she laid aside her work and began to look out of the window. A few moments afterwards, at a corner house on the other side of the street, a young officer appeared. A deep blush covered her cheeks; she took up her work again and bent her head down over the frame. At the same moment the Countess returned completely dressed.
“Order the carriage, Lizaveta,” said she; “we will go out for a drive.”
Lizaveta arose from the frame and began to arrange her work.
“What is the matter with you, my child, are you deaf?” cried the Countess. “Order the carriage to be got ready at once.”
“I will do so this moment,” replied the young lady, hastening into the ante-room.
A servant entered and gave the Countess some books from Prince Paul Alexandrovitch.
“Tell him that I am much obliged to him,” said the Countess. “Lizaveta! Lizaveta! where are you running to?”
“I am going to dress.”
“There is plenty of time, my dear. Sit down here. Open the first volume and read to me aloud.”
Her companion took the book and read a few lines.
“Louder,” said the Countess. “What is the matter with you, my child? Have you lost your voice? Wait—give me that footstool—a little nearer—that will do!”
Lizaveta read two more pages. The Countess yawned.
“Put the book down,” said she: “what a lot of nonsense! Send it back to Prince Paul with my thanks…. But where is the carriage?”
“The carriage is ready,” said Lizaveta, looking out into the street.
“How is it that you are not dressed?” said the Countess: “I must always wait for you. It is intolerable, my dear!”
Liza hastened to her room. She had not been there two minutes, before the Countess began to ring with all her might. The three waiting-maids came running in at one door and the valet at another.
“How is it that you cannot hear me when I ring for you?” said the Countess. “Tell Lizaveta Ivanovna that I am waiting for her.”
Lizaveta returned with her hat and cloak on.
“At last you are here!” said the Countess. “But why such an elaborate toilette? Whom do you intend to captivate? What sort of weather is it? It seems rather windy.”
“No, Your Ladyship, it is very calm,” replied the valet.
“You never think of what you are talking about. Open the window. So it is: windy and bitterly cold. Unharness the horses. Lizaveta, we won’t go out—there was no need for you to deck yourself like that.”
“What a life is mine!” thought Lizaveta Ivanovna.
And, in truth, Lizaveta Ivanovna was a very unfortunate creature. “The bread of the stranger is bitter,” says Dante, “and his staircase hard to climb.” But who can know what the bitterness of dependence is so well as the poor companion of an old lady of quality? The Countess A—— had by no means a bad heart, but she was capricious, like a woman who had been spoilt by the world, as well as being avaricious and egotistical, like all old people who have seen their best days, and whose thoughts are with the past and not the present. She participated in all the vanities of the great world, went to balls, where she sat in a corner, painted and dressed in old-fashioned style, like a deformed but indispensable ornament of the ball-room; all the guests on entering approached her and made a profound bow, as if in accordance with a set ceremony, but after that nobody took any further notice of her. She received the whole town at her house, and observed the strictest etiquette, although she could no longer recognize the faces of people. Her numerous domestics, growing fat and old in her ante-chamber and servants’ hall, did just as they liked, and vied with each other in robbing the aged Countess in the most bare-faced manner. Lizaveta Ivanovna was the martyr of the household. She made tea, and was reproached with using too much sugar; she read novels aloud to the Countess, and the faults of the author were visited upon her head; she accompanied the Countess in her walks, and was held answerable for the weather or the state of the pavement. A salary was attached to the post, but she very rarely received it, although she was expected to dress like everybody else, that is to say, like very few indeed. In society she played the most pitiable rôle. Everybody knew her, and nobody paid her any attention. At balls she danced only when a partner was wanted, and ladies would only take hold of her arm when it was necessary to lead her out of the room to attend to their dresses. She was very self-conscious, and felt her position keenly, and she looked about her with impatience for a deliverer to come to her rescue; but the young men, calculating in their giddiness, honoured her with but very little attention, although Lizaveta Ivanovna was a hundred times prettier than the bare-faced and cold-hearted marriageable girls around whom they hovered. Many a time did she quietly slink away from the glittering but wearisome drawing-room, to go and cry in her own poor little room, in which stood a screen, a chest of drawers, a looking-glass and a painted bedstead, and where a tallow candle burnt feebly in a copper candle-stick.
One morning—this was about two days after the evening party described at the beginning of this story, and a week previous to the scene at which we have just assisted—Lizaveta Ivanovna was seated near the window at her embroidery frame, when, happening to look out into the street, she caught sight of a young Engineer officer, standing motionless with his eyes fixed upon her window. She lowered her head and went on again with her work. About five minutes afterwards she looked out again—the young officer was still standing in the same place. Not being in the habit of coquetting with passing officers, she did not continue to gaze out into the street, but went on sewing for, a couple of hours, without raising her head. Dinner was announced. She rose up and began to put her embroidery away, but glancing casually out of the window, she perceived the officer again. This seemed to her very strange. After dinner she went to the window with a certain feeling of uneasiness, but the officer was no longer there—and she thought no more about him.
A couple of days afterwards, just as she was stepping into the carriage with the Countess, she saw him again. He was standing close behind the door, with his face half-concealed by his fur collar, but his dark eyes sparkled beneath his cap. Lizaveta felt alarmed, though she knew not why, and she trembled as she seated herself in the carriage.
On returning home, she hastened to the window—the officer was standing in his accustomed place, with his eyes fixed upon her. She drew back, a prey to curiosity and agitated by a feeling which was quite new to her.
From that time forward’ not a day passed without the young officer making his appearance under the window at the customary hour, and between him and her there was established a sort of mute acquaintance. Sitting in her place at work, she used to feel his approach; and raising her head, she would look at him longer and longer each day. The young man seemed to be very grateful to her: she saw with the sharp eye of youth, how a sudden flush covered his pale cheeks each time that their glances met. After about a week she commenced to smile at him….
When Tomsky asked permission of his grandmother the Countess to present one of his friends to her, the young girl’s heart beat violently. But hearing that Naroumoff was not an Engineer, she regretted that by her thoughtless question, she had betrayed her secret to the volatile Tomsky.
Hermann was the son of a German who had become a naturalized Russian, and from whom he had inherited a small capital. Being firmly convinced of the necessity of preserving his independence, Hermann did not touch his private income, but lived on his pay, without allowing himself the slightest luxury. Moreover, he was reserved and ambitious, and his companions rarely had an opportunity of making merry at the expense of his extreme parsimony. He had strong passions and an ardent imagination, but his firmness of disposition preserved him from the ordinary errors of young men. Thus, though a gamester at heart, he never touched a card, for he considered his position did not allow him—as he said—”to risk the necessary in the hope of winning the superfluous,” yet he would sit for nights together at the card table and follow with feverish anxiety the different turns of the game.
The story of the three cards had produced a powerful impression upon his imagination, and all night long he could think of nothing else. “If,” he thought to himself the following evening, as he walked along the streets of St. Petersburg, “if the old Countess would but reveal her secret to me! if she would only tell me the names of the three winning cards. Why should I not try my fortune? I must get introduced to her and win her favour—become her lover…. But all that will take time, and she is eighty-seven years old: she might be dead in a week, in a couple of days even!… But the story itself: can it really be true?… No! Economy, temperance and industry: those are my three winning cards; by means of them I shall be able to double my capital—increase it sevenfold, and procure for myself ease and independence.”
Musing in this manner, he walked on until he found himself in one of the principal streets of St. Petersburg, in front of a house of antiquated architecture. The street was blocked with equipage; carriages one after the other drew up in front of the brilliantly illuminated doorway. At one moment there stepped out on to the pavement the well-shaped little foot of some young beauty, at another the heavy boot of a cavalry officer, and then the silk stockings and shoes of a member of the diplomatic world. Furs and cloaks passed in rapid succession before the gigantic porter at the entrance.
Hermann stopped. “Who’s house is this?” he asked of the watchman at the corner.
“The Countess A——’s,” replied the watchman.
Hermann started. The strange story of the three cards again presented itself to his imagination. He began walking up and down before the house, thinking of its owner and her strange secret. Returning late to his modest lodging, he could not go to sleep for a long time, and when at last he did doze off, he could dream of nothing but cards, green tables, piles of banknotes and heaps of ducats. He played one card after the other, winning uninterruptedly, and then he gathered up the gold and filled his pockets with the notes. When he woke up late the next morning, he sighed over the loss of his imaginary wealth, and then sallying out into the town, he found himself once more in front of the Countess’s residence. Some unknown power seemed to have attracted him thither. He stopped and looked up at the windows. At one of these he saw a head with luxuriant black hair, which was bent down probably over some book or an embroidery frame. The head was raised. Hermann saw a fresh complexion and a pair of dark eyes. That moment decided his fate.
Diminutive of Lizaveta (Elizabeth).
< < < Chapter I
Chapter III > > >
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Pushkin – The Queen of Spades – Contents
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