At the house of Naroumov, a cavalry officer, the long winter night had been passed in gambling. At five in the morning breakfast was served to the weary players. The winners ate with relish; the losers, on the contrary, pushed back their plates and sat brooding gloomily. Under the influence of the good wine, however, the conversation then became general.
“Well, Sourine?” said the host inquiringly.
“Oh, I lost as usual. My luck is abominable. No matter how cool I keep, I never win.”
“How is it, Herman, that you never touch a card?” remarked one of the men, addressing a young officer of the Engineering Corps. “Here you are with the rest of us at five o’clock in the morning, and you have neither played nor bet all night.”
“Play interests me greatly,” replied the person addressed, “but I hardly care to sacrifice the necessaries of life for uncertain superfluities.”
“Herman is a German, therefore economical; that explains it,” said Tomsky. “But the person I can’t quite understand is my grandmother, the Countess Anna Fedorovna.”
“Why?” inquired a chorus of voices.
“I can’t understand why my grandmother never gambles.”
“I don’t see anything very striking in the fact that a woman of eighty refuses to gamble,” objected Naroumov.
“Have you never heard her story?”
“Well, then, listen to it. To begin with, sixty years ago my grandmother went to Paris, where she was all the fashion. People crowded each other in the streets to get a chance to see the ‘Muscovite Venus,’ as she was called. All the great ladies played faro, then. On one occasion, while playing with the Duke of Orleans, she lost an enormous sum. She told her husband of the debt, but he refused outright to pay it. Nothing could induce him to change his mind on the subject, and grandmother was at her wits’ ends. Finally, she remembered a friend of hers, Count Saint-Germain. You must have heard of him, as many wonderful stories have been told about him. He is said to have discovered the elixir of life, the philosopher’s stone, and many other equally marvelous things. He had money at his disposal, and my grandmother knew it. She sent him a note asking him to come to see her. He obeyed her summons and found her in great distress. She painted the cruelty of her husband in the darkest colors, and ended by telling the Count that she depended upon his friendship and generosity.
“‘I could lend you the money,’ replied the Count, after a moment of thoughtfulness, ‘but I know that you would not enjoy a moment’s rest until you had returned it; it would only add to your embarrassment. There is another way of freeing yourself.’
“‘But I have no money at all,’ insisted my grandmother.
“‘There is no need of money. Listen to me.’
“The Count then told her a secret which any of us would give a good deal to know.”
The young gamesters were all attention. Tomsky lit his pipe, took a few whiffs, then continued:
“The next evening, grandmother appeared at Versailles at the Queen’s gaming-table. The Duke of Orleans was the dealer. Grandmother made some excuse for not having brought any money, and began to punt. She chose three cards in succession, again and again, winning every time, and was soon out of debt.”
“A fable,” remarked Herman; “perhaps the cards were marked.”
“I hardly think so,” replied Tomsky, with an air of importance.
“So you have a grandmother who knows three winning cards, and you haven’t found out the magic secret.”
“I must say I have not. She had four sons, one of them being my father, all of whom are devoted to play; she never told the secret to one of them. But my uncle told me this much, on his word of honor. Tchaplitzky, who died in poverty after having squandered millions, lost at one time, at play, nearly three hundred thousand rubles. He was desperate and grandmother took pity on him. She told him the three cards, making him swear never to use them again. He returned to the game, staked fifty thousand rubles on each card, and came out ahead, after paying his debts.”
As day was dawning the party now broke up, each one draining his glass and taking his leave.
The Countess Anna Fedorovna was seated before her mirror in her dressing-room. Three women were assisting at her toilet. The old Countess no longer made the slightest pretensions to beauty, but she still clung to all the habits of her youth, and spent as much time at her toilet as she had done sixty years before. At the window a young girl, her ward, sat at her needlework.
“Good afternoon, grandmother,” cried a young officer, who had just entered the room. “I have come to ask a favor of you.”
“I want to be allowed to present one of my friends to you, and to take you to the ball on Tuesday night.”
“Take me to the ball and present him to me there.”
After a few more remarks the officer walked up to the window where Lisaveta Ivanovna sat.
“Whom do you wish to present?” asked the girl.
“Naroumov; do you know him?”
“No; is he a soldier?”
“No; why do you ask?”
The girl smiled and made no reply.
Pavel Tomsky took his leave, and, left to herself, Lisaveta glanced out of the window. Soon, a young officer appeared at the corner of the street; the girl blushed and bent her head low over her canvas. This appearance of the officer had become a daily occurrence. The man was totally unknown to her, and as she was not accustomed to coquetting with the soldiers she saw on the street, she hardly knew how to explain his presence. His persistence finally roused an interest entirely strange to her. One day, she even ventured to smile upon her admirer, for such he seemed to be.
The reader need hardly be told that the officer was no other than Herman, the would-be gambler, whose imagination had been strongly excited by the story told by Tomsky of the three magic cards.
“Ah,” he thought, “if the old Countess would only reveal the secret to me. Why not try to win her goodwill and appeal to her sympathy?”
With this idea in mind, he took up his daily station before the house, watching the pretty face at the window, and trusting to fate to bring about the desired acquaintance.
One day, as Lisaveta was standing on the pavement about to enter the carriage after the Countess, she felt herself jostled and a note was thrust into her hand. Turning, she saw the young officer at her elbow. As quick as thought, she put the note in her glove and entered the carriage. On her return from the drive, she hastened to her chamber to read the missive, in a state of excitement mingled with fear. It was a tender and respectful declaration of affection, copied word for word from a German novel. Of this fact, Lisa was, of course, ignorant.
The young girl was much impressed by the missive, but she felt that the writer must not be encouraged. She therefore wrote a few lines of explanation and, at the first opportunity, dropped it, with the letter, out of the window. The officer hastily crossed the street, picked up the papers and entered a shop to read them.
In no wise daunted by this rebuff, he found the opportunity to send her another note in a few days. He received no reply, but, evidently understanding the female heart, he presevered, begging for an interview. He was rewarded at last by the following:
“Tonight we go to the ambassador’s ball. We shall remain until two o’clock. I can arrange for a meeting in this way. After our departure, the servants will probably all go out, or go to sleep. At half-past eleven enter the vestibule boldly, and if you see any one, inquire for the Countess; if not, ascend the stairs, turn to the left and go on until you come to a door, which opens into her bedchamber. Enter this room and behind a screen you will find another door leading to a corridor; from this a spiral staircase leads to my sitting-room. I shall expect to find you there on my return.”
Herman trembled like a leaf as the appointed hour drew near. He obeyed instructions fully, and, as he met no one, he reached the old lady’s bedchamber without difficulty. Instead of going out of the small door behind the screen, however, he concealed himself in a closet to await the return of the old Countess.
The hours dragged slowly by; at last he heard the sound of wheels. Immediately lamps were lighted and servants began moving about. Finally the old woman tottered into the room, completely exhausted. Her women removed her wraps and proceeded to get her in readiness for the night. Herman watched the proceedings with a curiosity not unmingled with superstitious fear. When at last she was attired in cap and gown, the old woman looked less uncanny than when she wore her ball-dress of blue brocade.
She sat down in an easy chair beside a table, as she was in the habit of doing before retiring, and her women withdrew. As the old lady sat swaying to and fro, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings, Herman crept out of his hiding-place.
At the slight noise the old woman opened her eyes, and gazed at the intruder with a half dazed expression.
“Have no fear, I beg of you,” said Herman, in a calm voice. “I have not come to harm you, but to ask a favor of you instead.”
The Countess looked at him in silence, seemingly without comprehending him. Herman thought she might be deaf, so he put his lips close to her ear and repeated his remark. The listener remained perfectly mute.
“You could make my fortune without its costing you anything,” pleaded the young man; “only tell me the three cards which are sure to win, and—”
Herman paused as the old woman opened her lips as if about to speak.
“It was only a jest; I swear to you, it was only a jest,” came from the withered lips.
“There was no jesting about it. Remember Tchaplitzky, who, thanks to you, was able to pay his debts.”
An expression of interior agitation passed over the face of the old woman; then she relapsed into her former apathy.
“Will you tell me the names of the magic cards, or not?” asked Herman after a pause.
There was no reply.
The young man then drew a pistol from his pocket, exclaiming: “You old witch, I’ll force you to tell me!”
At the sight of the weapon the Countess gave a second sign of life. She threw back her head and put out her hands as if to protect herself; then they dropped and she sat motionless.
Herman grasped her arm roughly, and was about to renew his threats, when he saw that she was dead!
………..to be continued………..
Translated by H. Twitchell. Copyright, 1901, by The Current Literature Publishing Company