A STRANGE MAN HAD APPEARED

Lisaveta was just taking off her shawl and her bonnet, when the
Countess sent for her. She had had the horses put in again.

While two footmen were helping the old lady into the carriage, Lisaveta
saw the young officer at her side. She felt him take her by the hand,
lost her head, and found, when the young officer had walked away, that
he had left a paper between her fingers. She hastily concealed it in
her glove.

During the whole of the drive she neither saw nor heard. When they were
in the carriage together the Countess was in the habit of questioning
Lisaveta perpetually.

“Who is that man that bowed to us? What is the name of this bridge?
What is there written on that signboard?”

Lisaveta now gave the most absurd answers, and was accordingly scolded
by the Countess.

“What is the matter with you, my child?” she asked. “What are you
thinking about? Or do you really not hear me? I speak distinctly
enough, however, and I have not yet lost my head, have I?”

Lisaveta was not listening. When she got back to the house, she ran to
her room, locked the door, and took the scrap of paper from her glove.
It was not sealed, and it was impossible, therefore, not to read it.
The letter contained protestations of love. It was tender, respectful,
and translated word for word from a German novel. But Lisaveta did
not read German, and she was quite delighted. She was, however,
much embarrassed. For the first time in her life she had a secret.
Correspond with a young man! The idea of such a thing frightened her.
How imprudent she had been! She had reproached herself, but knew not
now what to do.

Cease to do her work at the window, and by persistent coldness try and
disgust the _young_ officer? Send him back his letter? Answer him in
a firm, decided manner? What line of conduct was she to pursue? She
had no friend, no one to advise her. She at last decided to send an
answer. She sat down at her little table, took pen and paper, and began
to think. More than once she wrote a sentence and then tore up the
paper. What she had written seemed too stiff, or else it was wanting in
reserve. At last, after much trouble, she succeeded in composing a few
lines which seemed to meet the case.

“I believe,” she wrote, “that your intentions are those of an
honourable man, and that you would not wish to offend me by any
thoughtless conduct. But you must understand that our acquaintance
cannot begin in this way. I return your letter, and trust that you will
not give me cause to regret my imprudence.”

Next day, as soon as Hermann made his appearance, Lisaveta left her
embroidery, and went into the drawing-room, opened the ventilator, and
threw her letter into the street, making sure that the young officer
would pick it up.

[Illustration: SHE TORE IT INTO A HUNDRED PIECES.]

Hermann, in fact, at once saw it, and picking it up, entered a
confectioner’s shop in order to read it. Finding nothing discouraging
in it, he went home sufficiently pleased with the first step in his
love adventure.

Some days afterwards, a young person with lively eyes called to see
Miss Lisaveta, on the part of a milliner. Lisaveta wondered what she
could want, and suspected, as she received her, some secret intention.
She was much surprised, however, when she recognised, on the letter
that was now handed to her, the writing of Hermann.

“You make a mistake,” she said; “this letter is not for me.”

“I beg your pardon,” said the milliner, with a slight smile; “be kind
enough to read it.”

Lisaveta glanced at it. Hermann was asking for an appointment.

“Impossible!” she cried, alarmed both at the boldness of the request,
and at the manner in which it was made. “This letter is not for me,”
she repeated; and she tore it into a hundred pieces.

“If the letter was not for you, why did you tear it up? You should have
given it me back, that I might take it to the person it was meant for.”

“True,” said Lisaveta, quite disconcerted.

“But bring me no more letters, and tell the person who gave you this
one that he ought to blush for his conduct.”

Hermann, however, was not a man to give up what he had once undertaken.
Every day Lisaveta received a fresh letter from him, sent now in one
way, now in another. They were no longer translated from the German.
Hermann wrote under the influence of a commanding passion, and spoke a
language which was his own. Lisaveta could not hold out against such
torrents of eloquence. She received the letters, kept them, and at last
answered them. Every day her answers were longer and more affectionate,
until at last she threw out of the window a letter couched as follows:–

“This evening there is a ball at the Embassy. The Countess will be
there. We shall remain until two in the morning. You may manage to
see me alone. As soon as the Countess leaves home, that is to say
towards eleven o’clock, the servants are sure to go out, and there
will be no one left but the porter, who will be sure to be asleep in
his box. Enter as soon as it strikes eleven, and go upstairs as fast
as possible. If you find anyone in the ante-chamber, ask whether the
Countess is at home, and you will be told that she is out, and, in
that case, you must resign yourself, and go away. In all probability,
however, you will meet no one. The Countess’s women are together in a
distant room. When you are once in the ante-chamber, turn to the left,
and walk straight on, until you reach the Countess’s bedroom. There,
behind a large screen, you will see two doors. The one on the right
leads to a dark room. The one on the left leads to a corridor, at the
end of which is a little winding staircase, which leads to my parlour.”

At, ten o’clock Hermann was already on duty before the Countess’s door.
It was a frightful night. The winds had been unloosed, and the snow was
falling in large flakes; the lamps gave an uncertain light; the streets
were deserted; from time to time passed a sledge, drawn by a wretched
hack, on the look-out for a fare. Covered by a thick overcoat, Hermann
felt neither the wind nor the snow. At last the Countesses carriage
drew up. He saw two huge footmen come forward and take beneath the arms
a dilapidated spectre, and place it on the cushions well wrapped up in
an enormous fur cloak. Immediately afterwards, in a cloak of lighter
make, her head crowned with natural flowers, came Lisaveta, who sprang
into the carriage like a dart. The door was closed, and the carriage
rolled on softly over the snow.

The porter closed the street door, and soon the windows of the first
floor became dark. Silence reigned throughout the house. Hermann walked
backwards and forwards; then coming to a lamp he looked at his watch.
It was twenty minutes to eleven. Leaning against the lamp-post, his
eyes fixed on the long hand of his watch, he counted impatiently the
minutes which had yet to pass. At eleven o’clock precisely Hermann
walked up the steps, pushed open the street door, and went into the
vestibule, which was well lighted. As it happened the porter was not
there. With a firm and rapid step he rushed up the staircase and
reached the ante-chamber. There, before a lamp, a footman was sleeping,
stretched out in a dirty greasy dressing-gown. Hermann passed quickly
before him and crossed the dining-room and the drawing-room, where
there was no light. But the lamp of the ante-chamber helped him to see.
At last he reached the Countess’s bedroom. Before a screen covered with
old icons (sacred pictures) a golden lamp was burning. Gilt arm-chairs,
sofas of faded colours, furnished with soft cushions, were arranged
symmetrically along the walls, which were hung with China silk. He
saw two large portraits painted by Madame le Brun. One represented a
man of forty, stout and full coloured, dressed in a light green coat,
with a decoration on his breast. The second portrait was that of an
elegant young woman, with an aquiline nose, powdered hair rolled back
on the temples, and with a rose over her ear. Everywhere might be seen
shepherds and shepherdesses in Dresden china, with vases of all shapes,
clocks by Leroy, work-baskets, fans, and all the thousand playthings
for the use of ladies of fashion, discovered in the last century, at
the time of Montgolfier’s balloons and Mesmer’s animal magnetism.

[Illustration: “A FOOTMAN IN A GREASY DRESSING GOWN.”]

Hermann passed behind the screen, which concealed a little iron
bedstead. He saw the two doors; the one on the right leading to the
dark room, the one on the left to the corridor. He opened the latter,
saw the staircase which led to the poor little companion’s parlour, and
then, closing this door, went into the dark room.

The time passed slowly. Everything was quiet in the house. The
drawing-room clock struck midnight, and again there was silence.
Hermann was standing up, leaning against the stove, in which there was
no fire. He was calm; but his heart beat with quick pulsations, like
that of a man determined to brave all dangers he might have to meet,
because he knows them to be inevitable. He heard one o’clock strike;
then two; and soon afterwards the distant roll of a carriage. He now,
in spite of himself, experienced some emotion. The carriage approached
rapidly and stopped. There was at once a great noise of servants
running about the staircases, and a confusion of voices. Suddenly the
rooms were all lit up, and the Countess’s three antiquated maids came
at once into the bed-room. At last appeared the Countess herself.

The walking mummy sank into a large Voltaire arm-chair. Hermann looked
through the crack in the door; he saw Lisaveta pass close to him, and
heard her hurried step as she went up the little winding staircase.
For a moment he felt something like remorse; but it soon passed off,
and his heart was once more of stone.

The Countess began to undress before a looking-glass. Her head-dress of
roses was taken off, and her powdered wig separated from her own hair,
which was very short and quite white. Pins fell in showers around
her. At last she was in her dressing-gown and night cap, and in this
costume, more suitable to her age, was less hideous than before.

Like most old people, the Countess was tormented by sleeplessness. She
had her armchair rolled towards one of the windows, and told her maids
to leave her. The lights were put out, and the room was lighted only by
the lamp which burned before the holy images. The Countess, sallow and
wrinkled, balanced herself gently from right to left. In her dull eyes
could be read an utter absence of thought; and as she moved from side
to side, one might have said that she did so not by any action of the
will, but through some secret mechanism.

Suddenly this death’s-head assumed a new expression; the lips ceased to
tremble, and the eyes became alive. A strange man had appeared before
the Countess!

It was Hermann.

“Do not be alarmed, madam,” said Hermann, in a low voice, but very
distinctly. “For the love of Heaven, do not be alarmed. I do not wish
to do you the slightest harm; on the contrary, I come to implore a
favour of you.”

The old woman looked at him in silence, as if she did not understand.
Thinking she was deaf, he leaned towards her ear and repeated what he
had said; but the Countess still remained silent.

“You can ensure the happiness of my whole life, and without its costing
you a farthing. I know that you can name to me three cards—-”

The Countess now understood what he required.

“It was a joke,” she interrupted. “I swear to you it was only a joke.”

“No, madam,” replied Hermann in an angry tone. “Remember Tchaplitzki,
and how you enabled him to win.”

The Countess was agitated. For a moment her features expressed strong
emotion; but they soon resumed their former dulness.

“Cannot you name to me,” said Hermann, “three winning cards?”

The Countess remained silent. “Why keep this secret for your
great-grandchildren,” he continued. “They are rich enough without;
they do not know the value of money. Of what profit would your three
cards be to them? They are debauchees. The man who cannot keep his
inheritance will die in want, though he had the science of demons at
his command. I am a steady man. I know the value of money. Your three
cards will not be lost upon me. Come!”

He stopped tremblingly, awaiting a reply. The Countess did not utter a
word. Hermann went upon his knees.

“If your heart has ever known the passion of love; if you can remember
its sweet ecstasies; if you Pave ever been touched by the cry of a
newborn babe; if any human feeling has ever caused your heart to beat,
I entreat you by the love of a husband, a lover, a mother, by all
that is sacred in life, not to reject my prayer. Tell me your secret!
Reflect! You are old; you Pave not long to live! Remember that the
happiness of a man is in your hands; that not only myself, but my
children and my grandchildren will bless your memory as a saint.”

The old Countess answered not a word.

Hermann rose, and drew a pistol from his pocket.

“Hag!” he exclaimed, “I will make you speak.”

At the sight of the pistol the Countess for the second time showed
agitation. Her head shook violently she stretched out her hands as if
to put the weapon aside. Then suddenly she fell back motionless.

“Come, don’t be childish!” said Hermann. “I adjure you for the last
time; will you name the three cards?”

The Countess did not answer. Hermann saw that she was dead!

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