The old Countess A---- was seated in her dressing-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 can
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
"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 Yeletzkaya 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
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
"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.
"Narumov. 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
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
"Good-bye, grandmother: I am in a hurry... Good-bye, Lizaveta
Ivanovna. What made you think that Narumov 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
"Order the carriage, Lizaveta," said she; "we will go out for a
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
A servant entered and gave the Countess some books from Prince Paul
"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, bat 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 recognise 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 role. 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
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
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 Narumov was not an Engineer, she regretted
that by her thoughtless question, she had betrayed her secret to the
Hermann was the son of a German who had become a naturalised 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
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 equipages;
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 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, be 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.