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The Queen of Spades

by Alexsandr S. Pushkin

Overview I II III IV V VI


Lizaveta Ivanovna had scarcely taken off her hat and cloak, when the
Countess sent for her and again ordered her to get the carriage ready.
The vehicle drew up before the door, and they prepared to take their
seats. Just at the moment when two footmen were assisting the old lady
to enter the carriage, Lizaveta saw her Engineer standing close beside
the wheel; he grasped her hand; alarm caused her to lose her presence
of mind, and the young man disappeared—but not before he had left a
letter between her fingers. She concealed it in her glove, and during
the whole of the drive she neither saw nor heard anything. It was the
custom of the Countess, when out for an airing in her carriage, to be
constantly asking such questions as: "Who was that person that met us
just now? What is the name of this bridge? What is written on that
signboard?" On this occasion, however, Lizaveta returned such vague
and absurd answers, that the Countess became angry with her.

"What is the matter with you, my dear?" she exclaimed. "Have you taken
leave of your senses, or what is it? Do you not hear me or understand
what I say?... Heaven be thanked, I am still in my right mind and
speak plainly enough!"

Lizaveta Ivanovna did not hear her. On returning home she ran to her
room, and drew the letter out of her glove: it was not sealed.
Lizaveta read it. The letter contained a declaration of love; it was
tender, respectful, and copied word for word from a German novel. But
Lizaveta did not know anything of the German language, and she was
quite delighted.

For all that, the letter caused her to feel exceedingly uneasy. For
the first time in her life she was entering into secret and
confidential relations with a young man. His boldness alarmed her. She
reproached herself for her imprudent behaviour, and knew not what to
do. Should she cease to sit at the window and, by assuming an
appearance of indifference towards him, put a check upon the young
officer's desire for further acquaintance with her? Should she send
his letter back to him, or should she answer him in a cold and decided
manner? There was nobody to whom she could turn in her perplexity, for
she had neither female friend nor adviser... At length she resolved to
reply to him.

She sat down at her little writing-table, took pen and paper, and
began to think. Several times she began her letter, and then tore it
up: the way she had expressed herself seemed to her either too
inviting or too cold and decisive. At last she succeeded in writing a
few lines with which she felt satisfied.

"I am convinced," she wrote, "that your intentions are honourable, and
that you do not wish to offend me by any imprudent behaviour, but our
acquaintance must not begin in such a manner. I return you your
letter, and I hope that I shall never have any cause to complain of
this undeserved slight."

The next day, as soon as Hermann made his appearance, Lizaveta rose
from her embroidery, went into the drawing-room, opened the ventilator
and threw the letter into the street, trusting that the young officer
would have the perception to pick it up.

Hermann hastened forward, picked it up and then repaired to a
confectioner's shop. Breaking the seal of the envelope, he found
inside it his own letter and Lizaveta's reply. He had expected this,
and he returned home, his mind deeply occupied with his intrigue.

Three days afterwards, a bright-eyed young girl from a milliner's
establishment brought Lizaveta a letter. Lizaveta opened it with great
uneasiness, fearing that it was a demand for money, when suddenly she
recognised Hermann's hand-writing.

"You have made a mistake, my dear," said she: "this letter is not for

"Oh, yes, it is for you," replied the girl, smiling very knowingly.
"Have the goodness to read it."

Lizaveta glanced at the letter. Hermann requested an interview.

"It cannot be," she cried, alarmed at the audacious request, and the
manner in which it was made. "This letter is certainly not for me."

And she tore it into fragments.

"If the letter was not for you, why have you torn it up?" said the
girl. "I should have given it back to the person who sent it."

"Be good enough, my dear," said Lizaveta, disconcerted by this remark,
"not to bring me any more letters for the future, and tell the person
who sent you that he ought to be ashamed..."

But Hermann was not the man to be thus put off. Every day Lizaveta
received from him a letter, sent now in this way, now in that. They
were no longer translated from the German. Hermann wrote them under
the inspiration of passion, and spoke in his own language, and they
bore full testimony to the inflexibility of his desire and the
disordered condition of his uncontrollable imagination. Lizaveta no
longer thought of sending them back to him: she became intoxicated
with them and began to reply to them, and little by little her answers
became longer and more affectionate. At last she threw out of the
window to him the following letter:

"This evening there is going to be a ball at the Embassy. The Countess
will be there. We shall remain until two o'clock. You have now an
opportunity of seeing me alone. As soon as the Countess is gone, the
servants will very probably go out, and there will be nobody left but
the Swiss, but he usually goes to sleep in his lodge. Come about
half-past eleven. Walk straight upstairs. If you meet anybody in the
ante-room, ask if the Countess is at home. You will be told 'No,' in
which case there will be nothing left for you to do but to go away
again. But it is most probable that you will meet nobody. The
maidservants will all be together in one room. On leaving the
ante-room, turn to the left, and walk straight on until you reach the
Countess's bedroom. In the bedroom, behind a screen, you will find two
doors: the one on the right leads to a cabinet, which the Countess
never enters; the one on the left leads to a corridor, at the end of
which is a little winding staircase; this leads to my room."

Hermann trembled like a tiger, as he waited for the appointed time to
arrive. At ten o'clock in the evening he was already in front of the
Countess's house. The weather was terrible; the wind blew with great
violence; the sleety snow fell in large flakes; the lamps emitted a
feeble light, the streets were deserted; from time to time a sledge,
drawn by a sorry-looking hack, passed by, on the look-out for a
belated passenger. Hermann was enveloped in a thick overcoat, and felt
neither wind nor snow.

At last the Countess's carriage drew up. Hermann saw two footmen carry
out in their arms the bent form of the old lady, wrapped in sable fur,
and immediately behind her, clad in a warm mantle, and with her head
ornamented with a wreath of fresh flowers, followed Lizaveta. The door
was closed. The carriage rolled away heavily through the yielding
snow. The porter shut the street-door; the windows became dark.

Hermann began walking up and down near the deserted house; at length
he stopped under a lamp, and glanced at his watch: it was twenty
minutes past eleven. He remained standing under the lamp, his eyes
fixed upon the watch, impatiently waiting for the remaining minutes to
pass. At half-past eleven precisely, Hermann ascended the steps of the
house, and made his way into the brightly-illuminated vestibule. The
porter was not there. Hermann hastily ascended the staircase, opened
the door of the ante-room and saw a footman sitting asleep in an
antique chair by the side of a lamp. With a light firm step Hermann
passed by him. The drawing-room and dining-room were in darkness, but
a feeble reflection penetrated thither from the lamp in the ante-room.

Hermann reached the Countess's bedroom. Before a shrine, which was
full of old images, a golden lamp was burning. Faded stuffed chairs
and divans with soft cushions stood in melancholy symmetry around the
room, the walls of which were hung with China silk. On one side of the
room hung two portraits painted in Paris by Madame Lebrun. One of
these represented a stout, red-faced man of about forty years of age
in a bright-green uniform and with a star upon his breast; the
other—a beautiful young woman, with an aquiline nose, forehead curls
and a rose in her powdered hair. In the corners stood porcelain
shepherds and shepherdesses, dining-room clocks from the workshop of
the celebrated Lefroy, bandboxes, roulettes, fans and the various
playthings for the amusement of ladies that were in vogue at the end
of the last century, when Montgolfier's balloons and Mesmer's
magnetism were the rage. Hermann stepped behind the screen. At the
back of it stood a little iron bedstead; on the right was the door
which led to the cabinet; on the left—the other which led to the
corridor. He opened the latter, and saw the little winding staircase
which led to the room of the poor companion... But he retraced his
steps and entered the dark cabinet.

The time passed slowly. All was still. The clock in the drawing-room
struck twelve; the strokes echoed through the room one after the
other, and everything was quiet again. Hermann stood leaning against
the cold stove. He was calm; his heart beat regularly, like that of a
man resolved upon a dangerous but inevitable undertaking. One o'clock
in the morning struck; then two; and he heard the distant noise of
carriage-wheels. An involuntary agitation took possession of him. The
carriage drew near and stopped. He heard the sound of the
carriage-steps being let down. All was bustle within the house. The
servants were running hither and thither, there was a confusion of
voices, and the rooms were lit up. Three antiquated chamber-maids
entered the bedroom, and they were shortly afterwards followed by the
Countess who, more dead than alive, sank into a Voltaire armchair.
Hermann peeped through a chink. Lizaveta Ivanovna passed close by him,
and he heard her hurried steps as she hastened up the little spiral
staircase. For a moment his heart was assailed by something like a
pricking of conscience, but the emotion was only transitory, and his
heart became petrified as before.

The Countess began to undress before her looking-glass. Her
rose-bedecked cap was taken off, and then her powdered wig was removed
from off her white and closely-cut hair. Hairpins fell in showers
around her. Her yellow satin dress, brocaded with silver, fell down at
her swollen feet.

Hermann was a witness of the repugnant mysteries of her toilette; at
last the Countess was in her night-cap and dressing-gown, and in this
costume, more suitable to her age, she appeared less hideous and

Like all old people in general, the Countess suffered from
sleeplessness. Having undressed, she seated herself at the window in a
Voltaire armchair and dismissed her maids. The candles were taken
away, and once more the room was left with only one lamp burning in
it. The Countess sat there looking quite yellow, mumbling with her
flaccid lips and swaying to and fro. Her dull eyes expressed complete
vacancy of mind, and, looking at her, one would have thought that the
rocking of her body was not a voluntary action of her own, but was
produced by the action of some concealed galvanic mechanism.

Suddenly the death-like face assumed an inexplicable expression. The
lips ceased to tremble, the eyes became animated: before the Countess
stood an unknown man.

"Do not be alarmed, for Heaven's sake, do not be alarmed!" said he in
a low but distinct voice. "I have no intention of doing you any harm,
I have only come to ask a favour of you."

The old woman looked at him in silence, as if she had not heard what
he had said. Hermann thought that she was deaf, and bending down
towards her ear, he repeated what he had said. The aged Countess
remained silent as before.

"You can insure the happiness of my life," continued Hermann, "and it
will cost you nothing. I know that you can name three cards in

Hermann stopped. The Countess appeared now to understand what he
wanted; she seemed as if seeking for words to reply.

"It was a joke," she replied at last: "I assure you it was only a

"There is no joking about the matter," replied Hermann angrily.
"Remember Chaplitzky, whom you helped to win."

The Countess became visibly uneasy. Her features expressed strong
emotion, but they quickly resumed their former immobility.

"Can you not name me these three winning cards?" continued Hermann.

The Countess remained silent; Hermann continued:

"For whom are you preserving your secret? For your grandsons? They are
rich enough without it; they do not know the worth of money. Your
cards would be of no use to a spendthrift. He who cannot preserve his
paternal inheritance, will die in want, even though he had a demon at
his service. I am not a man of that sort; I know the value of money.
Your three cards will not be thrown away upon me. Come!"...

He paused and tremblingly awaited her reply. The Countess remained
silent; Hermann fell upon his knees.

"If your heart has ever known the feeling of love," said he, "if you
remember its rapture, if you have ever smiled at the cry of your
new-born child, if any human feeling has ever entered into your
breast, I entreat you by the feelings of a wife, a lover, a mother, by
all that is most sacred in life, not to reject my prayer. Reveal to me
your secret. Of what use is it to you?... May be it is connected with
some terrible sin with the loss of eternal salvation, with some
bargain with the devil... Reflect,—you are old; you have not long to
live—I am ready to take your sins upon my soul. Only reveal to me
your secret. Remember that the happiness of a man is in your hands,
that not only I, but my children, and grandchildren will bless your
memory and reverence you as a saint..."

The old Countess answered not a word.

Hermann rose to his feet.

"You old hag!" he exclaimed, grinding his teeth, "then I will make you

With these words he drew a pistol from his pocket.

At the sight of the pistol, the Countess for the second time exhibited
strong emotion. She shook her head and raised her hands as if to
protect herself from the shot... then she fell backwards and remained

"Come, an end to this childish nonsense!" said Hermann, taking hold of
her hand. "I ask you for the last time: will you tell me the names of
your three cards, or will you not?"

The Countess made no reply. Hermann perceived that she was dead!