HE SAW BEFORE HIM A QUEEN OF SPADES

Two fixed ideas can no more exist together in the moral world, than in
the physical two bodies can occupy the same place at the same time; and
“Three, seven, ace” soon drove away Hermann’s recollection of the old
Countess’s last moments. “Three, seven, ace” were now in his head to
the exclusion of everything else.

They followed him in his dreams, and appeared to him under strange
forms. Threes seemed to be spread before him like magnolias, sevens
took the form of Gothic doors, and aces became gigantic spiders.

His thoughts concentrated themselves on one single point. How was he
to profit by the secret so dearly purchased? What if he applied for
leave to travel? At Paris, he said to himself, he would find some
gambling-house where, with his three cards, he could at once make his
fortune.

Chance soon came to his assistance. There was at Moscow a society of
rich gamblers, presided over by the celebrated Tchekalinski, who had
passed all his life playing at cards, and had amassed millions. For
while he lost silver only, he gained bank-notes. His magnificent house,
his excellent kitchen, his cordial manners, had brought him numerous
friends and secured for him general esteem.

When he came to St. Petersburg, the young men of the capital filled
his rooms, forsaking balls for his card-parties, and preferring the
emotions of gambling to the fascinations of flirting. Hermann was taken
to Tchekalinski by Narumoff. They passed through a long suite of rooms,
full of the most attentive, obsequious servants. The place was crowded.
Generals and high officials were playing at whist; young men were
stretched out on the sofas, eating ices and smoking long pipes. In the
principal room at the head of a long table, around which were assembled
a score of players, the master of the house held a faro bank.

He was a man of about sixty, with a sweet and noble expression of
face, and hair white as snow. On his full, florid countenance might
be read good humour and benevolence. His eyes shone with a perpetual
smile. Narumoff introduced Hermann. Tchekalinski took him by the hand,
told him that he was glad to see him, that no one stood on ceremony
in his house; and then went on dealing. The deal occupied some time,
and stakes were made on more than thirty cards. Tchekalinski waited
patiently to allow the winners time to double their stakes, paid what
he had lost, listened politely to all observations, and, more politely
still, put straight the corners of cards, when in a fit of absence some
one had taken the liberty of turning them down. At last when the game
was at an end, Tchekalinski collected the cards, shuffled them again,
had them cut, and then dealt anew.

“Will you allow me to take a card?” said Hermann, stretching out his
arm above a fat man who occupied nearly the whole of one side of the
table. Tchekalinski, with a gracious smile, bowed in consent. Naroumoff
complimented Hermann, with a laugh, on the cessation of the austerity
by which his conduct had hitherto been marked, and wished him all kinds
of happiness on the occasion of his first appearance in the character
of a gambler.

“There!” said Hermann, after writing some figures on the back of his
card.

“How much?” asked the banker, half closing his eyes. “Excuse me, I
cannot see.”

“Forty-seven thousand rubles,” said Hermann.

Everyone’s eyes were directed toward the new player.

“He has lost his head,” thought Harumoff.

“Allow me to point out to you,” said Tchekalinski, with his eternal
smile, “that you are playing rather high. We never put down here, as a
first stake, more than a hundred and seventy-five rubles.”

“Very well,” said Hermann; “but do you accept my stake or not?”

Tchekalinski bowed in token of acceptation. “I only wish to point out
to you,” he said, “that although I am perfectly sure of my friends,
I can only play against ready money. I am quite convinced that your
word is as good as gold; but to keep up the rules of the game, and to
facilitate calculations, I should be obliged to you if you would put
the money on your card.”

Hermann took a bank-note from his pocket and handed it to Tchekalinski,
who, after examining it with a glance, placed it on Hermann’s card.

Then he began to deal. He turned up on the right a ten, and on the left
a three.

“I win,” said Hermann, exhibiting his three.

A murmur of astonishment ran through the assembly. The banker knitted
his eyebrows, but speedily his face resumed its everlasting smile.

“Shall I settle at once?” he asked.

“If you will be kind enough to do so,” said Hermann.

Tchekalinski took a bundle of bank-notes from his pocket-book, and
paid. Hermann pocketed His winnings and left the table.

Narumoff was lost in astonishment. Hermann drank a glass of lemonade
and went home.

The next evening he returned to the house. Tchekalinski again held the
bank. Hermann went to the table, and this time the players hastened to
make room for him. Tchekalinski received him with a most gracious bow.
Hermann waited, took a card, and staked on it his forty-seven thousand
roubles, together with the like sum which he had gained the evening
before.

Tchekalinski began to deal. He turned up on the right a knave, and on
the left a seven.

Hermann exhibited a seven.

There was a general exclamation. Tchekalinski was evidently ill at
ease, but he counted out the ninety-four thousand roubles to Hermann,
who took them in the calmest manner, rose from, the table, and went
away.

The next evening, at the accustomed hour, he again appeared. Everyone
was expecting him. Generals and high officials had left their whist to
watch this extraordinary play. The young officers had quitted their
sofas, and even the servants of the house pressed round the table.

When Hermann took his seat, the other players ceased to stake, so
impatient were they to see him have it out with the banker, who, still
smiling, watched the approach of his antagonist and prepared to meet
him. Each of them untied at the same time a pack of cards. Tchekalinski
shuffled, and Hermann cut. Then the latter took up a card and covered
it with a heap of banknotes. It was like the preliminaries of a duel. A
deep silence reigned through the room.

Tchekalinski took up the cards with trembling hands and dealt. On one
side he put down a queen and on the other side an ace.

“Ace wins,” said Hermann.

“No. Queen loses,” said Tchekalinski.

Hermann looked. Instead of ace, he saw a queen of spades before him. He
could not trust his eyes! And now as he gazed, in fascination, on the
fatal card, he fancied that he saw the queen of spades open and then
close her eye, while at the same time she gave a mocking smile. He felt
a thrill of nameless horror. The queen of spades resembled the dead
Countess!

Hermann is now at the Obukhoff Asylum, room No. 17 a hopeless madman!
He answers no questions which we put to him. Only he mumbles to himself
without cessation, “Three, seven, ace; three, seven, _queen_!”

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