Tchekalinsky, a man who had passed his whole life at cards, opened a club at St. Petersburg. His long experience secured for him the confidence of his companions, and his hospitality and genial humor conciliated society.
The gilded youth flocked around him, neglecting society, preferring the charms of faro to those of their sweethearts. Naroumov invited Herman to accompany him to the club, and the young man accepted the invitation only too willingly.
The two officers found the apartments full. Generals and statesmen played whist; young men lounged on sofas, eating ices or smoking. In the principal salon stood a long table, at which about twenty men sat playing faro, the host of the establishment being the banker.
He was a man of about sixty, gray-haired and respectable. His ruddy face shone with genial humor; his eyes sparkled and a constant smile hovered around his lips.
Naroumov presented Herman. The host gave him a cordial handshake, begged him not to stand upon ceremony, and returned, to his dealing. More than thirty cards were already on the table. Tchekalinsky paused after each coup, to allow the punters time to recognize their gains or losses, politely answering all questions and constantly smiling.
After the deal was over, the cards were shuffled and the game began again.
“Permit me to choose a card,” said Herman, stretching out his hand over the head of a portly gentleman, to reach a livret. The banker bowed without replying.
Herman chose a card, and wrote the amount of his stake upon it with a piece of chalk.
“How much is that?” asked the banker; “excuse me, sir, but I do not see well.”
“Forty thousand rubles,” said Herman coolly.
All eyes were instantly turned upon the speaker.
“He has lost his wits,” thought Naroumov.
“Allow me to observe,” said Tchekalinsky, with his eternal smile, “that your stake is excessive.”
“What of it?” replied Herman, nettled. “Do you accept it or not?”
The banker nodded in assent. “I have only to remind you that the cash will be necessary; of course your word is good, but in order to keep the confidence of my patrons, I prefer the ready money.”
Herman took a bank-check from his pocket and handed it to his host. The latter examined it attentively, then laid it on the card chosen.
He began dealing: to the right, a nine; to the left, a tray.
“The tray wins,” said Herman, showing the card he held—a tray.
A murmur ran through the crowd. Tchekalinsky frowned for a second only, then his smile returned. He took a roll of bankbills from his pocket and counted out the required sum. Herman received it and at once left the table.
The next evening saw him at the place again. Every one eyed him curiously, and Tchekalinsky greeted him cordially.
He selected his card and placed upon it his fresh stake. The banker began dealing: to the right, a nine; to the left, a seven.
Herman then showed his card—a seven spot. The onlookers exclaimed, and the host was visibly disturbed. He counted out ninety-four-thousand rubles and passed them to Herman, who accepted them without showing the least surprise, and at once withdrew.
The following evening he went again. His appearance was the signal for the cessation of all occupation, every one being eager to watch the developments of events. He selected his card—an ace.
The dealing began: to the right, a queen; to the left, an ace.
“The ace wins,” remarked Herman, turning up his card without glancing at it.
“Your queen is killed,” remarked Tchekalinsky quietly.
Herman trembled; looking down, he saw, not the ace he had selected, but the queen of spades. He could scarcely believe his eyes. It seemed impossible that he could have made such a mistake. As he stared at the card it seemed to him that the queen winked one eye at him mockingly.
“The old woman!” he exclaimed involuntarily.
The croupier raked in the money while he looked on in stupid terror. When he left the table, all made way for him to pass; the cards were shuffled, and the gambling went on.
Herman became a lunatic. He was confined at the hospital at Oboukov, where he spoke to no one, but kept constantly murmuring in a monotonous tone: “The tray, seven, ace! The tray, seven, queen!”
Translated by H. Twitchell. Copyright, 1901, by The Current Literature Publishing Company