SEATED BEFORE HER LOOKING-GLASS

The old Countess Anna Fedotovna was in her dressing-room, seated before
her looking-glass. Three maids were in attendance. One held her pot of
rouge, another a box of black pins, a third an enormous lace cap, with
flaming ribbons. The Countess had no longer the slightest pretence to
beauty, but she preserved all the habits of her youth. She dressed in
the style of fifty years before, and gave as much time and attention to
her toilet as a fashionable beauty of the last century. Her companion
was working at a frame in a corner of the window.

“Good morning, grandmother,” said the young officer, as he entered the
dressing-room. “Good morning, Mademoiselle Lise. Grandmother, I have
come to ask you a favour.”

“What is it, Paul?”

“I want to introduce to you one of my friends, and to ask you to give
him an invitation to your ball.”

“Bring him to the ball and introduce him to me there. Did you go
yesterday to the Princess’s?”

“Certainly. It was delightful! We danced until five o’clock in the
morning. Mademoiselle Eletzki was charming.”

“My dear nephew, you are really not difficult to please. As to beauty,
you should have seen her grandmother, the Princess Daria Petrovna. But
she must be very old the Princess Daria Petrovna!”

“How do you mean old?” cried Tomski thoughtlessly; “she died seven
years ago.”

The young lady who acted as companion raised her head and made a sign
to the officer, who then remembered that it was an understood thing to
conceal from the Princess the death of any of her contemporaries. He
bit his lips. The Countess, however, was not in any way disturbed on
hearing that her old friend was no longer in this world.

“Dead!” she said, “and I never knew it! We were maids of honour in
the same year, and when we were presented, the Empress'”–and the
old Countess related for the hundredth time an anecdote of her young
days. “Paul,” she said, as she finished her story, “help me to get up.
Lisaveta, where is my snuff-box?”

And, followed by the three maids, she went behind a great screen to
finish her toilet. Tomski was now alone with the companion.

“Who is the gentleman you wish to introduce to madame?” asked Lisaveta.

“Narumoff. Do you know him?”

“No. Is he in the army?”

“Yes.”

“In the Engineers?”

“No, in the Horse Guards. Why did you think he was in the Engineers?”

The young lady smiled, but made no answer.

“Paul,” cried the Countess from behind the screen, “send me a new
novel; no matter what. Only see that it is not in the style of the
present day.”

“What style would you like, grandmother?”

“A novel in which the hero strangles neither his father nor his mother,
and in which no one gets drowned. Nothing frightens me so much as the
idea of getting drowned.”

[Illustration: PAUL AND LISAVETA.]

“But how is it possible to find you such a book? Do you want it in
Russian?”

“Are there any novels in Russian? However, send me something or other.
You won’t forget?”

“I will not forget, grandmother. I am in a great hurry. Good-bye,
Lisaveta. What made you fancy Narumoff was in the Engineers?” and
Tomski took his departure.

Lisaveta, left alone, took out her embroidery, and sat down close to
the window. Immediately afterwards, in the street, at the corner of a
neighbouring house, appeared a young officer. The sight of him made the
companion blush to her ears. She lowered her head, and almost concealed
it in the canvas. At this moment the Counters returned, fully dressed.

“Lisaveta,” she said “have the horses put in; we will go out for a
drive.”

Lisaveta rose from her chair, and began to arrange her embroidery.

“Well, my dear child, are you deaf? Go and tell them to put the horses
in at once.”

“I am going,” replied the young lady, as she went out into the
ante-chamber.

A servant now came in, bringing some books from Prince Paul
Alexandrovitch.

“Say I am much obliged to him. Lisaveta! Lisaveta! Where has she run
off to?”

“I was going to dress.”

“We have plenty of time, my dear. Sit down, take the first volume, and
read to me.”

The companion took the book and read a few lines.

“Louder,” said the Countess. “What is the matter with you? Have you a
cold? Wait a moment; bring me that stool. A little closer; that will
do.”

Lisaveta read two pages of the book.

“Throw that stupid book away,” said the Countess. “What nonsense! Send
it back to Prince Paul, and tell him I am much obliged to him; and the
carriage, is it never coming?

“Here it is,” replied Lisaveta, going to the window.

“And now you are not dressed. Why do you always keep ‘me waiting? It is
intolerable.”

Lisaveta ran to her room. She had scarcely been there two minutes when
the Countess rang with all her might. Her maids rushed in at one door
and her valet at the other.

“You do not seem to hear me when I ring,” she cried. “Go and tell
Lisaveta that I am waiting for her.”

At this moment Lisaveta entered, wearing a new walking dress and a
fashionable bonnet.

“At last, miss,” cried the Countess. “But what is that you have got on?
and why? For whom are you dressing? What sort of weather is it? Quite
stormy, I believe.”

“No, your Excellency,” said the valet; “it is exceedingly fine.”

“What do you know about it? Open the ventilator. Just what I told you!
A frightful wind, and as icy as can be. Unharness the horses. Lisaveta,
my child, we will not go out to-day. It was scarcely worth while to
dress so much.”

“What an existence!” said the companion to herself.

Lisaveta Ivanovna was, in fact, a most unhappy creature. “The bread of
the stranger is bitter,” says Dante, “and his staircase hard to climb.”
But who can tell the torments of a poor little companion attached to
an old lady of quality? The Countess had all the caprices of a woman
spoilt by the world. She was avaricious and egotistical, and thought
all the more of herself now that she had ceased to play an active part
in society. She never missed a ball, and she dressed and painted in the
style of a bygone age. She remained in a corner of the room, where she
seemed to have been placed expressly to serve as a scarecrow. Every
one on coming in went to her and made her a low bow, but this ceremony
once at an end no one spoke a word to her. She received the whole city
at her house, observing the strictest etiquette, and never failing to
give to everyone his or her proper name. Her innumerable servants,
growing pale and fat in the ante-chamber, did absolutely as they liked,
so that that the house was pillaged as if its owner were really dead.
Lisaveta passed her life in continual torture. If she made tea she was
reproached with wasting the sugar. If she read a novel to the Countess
she was held responsible for all the absurdities of the author. If she
went out with the noble lady for a walk or drive, it was she who was to
blame if the weather was bad or the pavement muddy. Her salary, more
than modest, was never punctually paid, and she was expected to dress
“like every one else,” that is to say, like very few people indeed.
When she went into society her position was sad. Everyone knew her; no
one paid her any attention. At a ball she sometimes danced, but only
when a _vis-à-vis_ was wanted. Women would come up to her, take her by
the arm, and lead her out of the room if their dress required attending
to. She had her portion of self-respect, and felt deeply the misery
of her position. She looked with impatience for a liberator to break
her chain. But the young men, prudent in the midst of their affected
giddiness, took care not to honour her with their attentions, though
Lisaveta Ivanovna was a hundred times prettier than the shameless or
stupid girls whom they surrounded with their homage. More than once
she slunk away from the splendour of the drawing-room to shut herself
up alone in her little bed-room, furnished with an old screen and a
pieced carpet, a chest of drawers, a small looking-glass, and a wooden
bedstead. There she shed tears at her ease by the light of a tallow
candle in a tin candlestick.

One morning–it was two days after the party at Narumoff’s, and a
week before the scene we have just sketched–Lisaveta was sitting at
her embroidery before the window, when, looking carelessly into the
street, she saw an officer, in the uniform of the Engineers, standing
motionless with his eyes fixed upon her. She lowered her head, and
applied herself to her work more attentively than ever. Five minutes
afterwards she locked mechanically into the street, and the officer was
still in the same place. Not being in the habit of exchanging glances
with young men who passed by her window, she remained with her eyes
fixed on her work for nearly two hours, until she was told that lunch
was ready. She got up to put her embroidery away, and while doing so,
looked into the street, and saw the officer still in the same place.
This seemed to her very strange. After lunch she went to the window
with a certain emotion, but the officer of Engineers was no longer in
the street.

[Illustration: “THERE SHE SHED TEARS.”]

She thought no more of him. But two days afterwards, just as she was
getting into the carriage with the Countess, she saw him once more,
standing straight before the door. His face was half concealed by a fur
collar, but his black eyes sparkled beneath his helmet. Lisaveta was
afraid, without knowing why, and she trembled as she took her seat in
the carriage.

On returning home, she rushed with a beating heart towards the
window. The officer was in his habitual place, with his eyes fixed
ardently upon her. She at once withdrew, burning at the same time with
curiosity, and moved by a strange feeling which she now experienced for
the first time.

No day now passed but the young officer showed himself beneath the
window. Before long a dumb acquaintance was established between them.
Sitting at her work she felt his presence, and when she raised her head
she looked at him for a long time every day. The young man seemed full
of gratitude for these innocent favours.

She observed, with the deep and rapid perceptions of youth, that a
sudden redness covered the officer’s pale cheeks as soon as their eyes
met. After about a week she would smile at seeing him for the first
time.

When Tomski asked his grandmother’s permission to present one of his
friends, the heart of the poor young girl beat strongly, and when she
heard that it was Narumoff, she bitterly repented having compromised
her secret by letting it out to a giddy young man like Paul.

Hermann was the son of a German settled in Russia, from whom he had
inherited a small sum of money. Firmly resolved to preserve his
independence, he had made it a principle not to touch his private
income. He lived on his pay, and did not allow himself the slightest
luxury. He was not very communicative; and his reserve rendered it
difficult for his comrades to amuse themselves at his expense.

Under an assumed calm he concealed strong passions and a
highly-imaginative disposition. But he was always master of himself,
and kept himself free from the ordinary faults of young men. Thus, a
gambler by temperament, he never touched a card, feeling, as he himself
said, that his position did not allow him to “risk the necessary in
view of the superfluous.” Yet he would pass entire nights before a
card-table, watching with feverish anxiety the rapid changes of the
game. The anecdote of Count St. Germaines three cards had struck his
imagination, and he did nothing but think of it all that night.

“If,” he said to himself next day as he was walking along the streets
of St. Petersburg, “if she would only tell me her secret–if she would
only name the three winning cards! I must get presented to her, that I
may pay my court and gain her confidence. Yes! And she is eighty-seven!
She may die this week–to-morrow perhaps. But after all, is there a
word of truth in the story? No! Economy, Temperance, Work; these are
my three winning cards. With them I can double my capital; increase it
tenfold. They alone can ensure my independence and prosperity.”

Dreaming in this way as he walked along, his attention was attracted by
a house built in an antiquated style of architecture. The street was
full of carriages, which passed one by one before the old house, now
brilliantly illuminated. As the people stepped out of the carriages
Hermann saw now the little feet of a young woman, now the military boot
of a general. Then came a clocked stocking; then, again, a diplomatic
pump. Fur-lined cloaks and coats passed in procession before a gigantic
porter.

Hermann stopped. “Who lives here?” he said to a watchman in his box.

“The Countess Anna Fedotovna.” It was Tomski’s grandmother.

Hermann started. The story of the three cards came once more upon his
imagination. He walked to and fro before the house, thinking of the
woman to whom it belonged, of her wealth and her mysterious power. At
last he returned to his den. But for some time he could not get to
sleep; and when at last sleep came upon him, he saw, dancing before
his eyes, cards, a green table, and heaps of rubles and bank-notes.
He saw himself doubling stake after stake, always winning, and then
filling his pockets with piles of coin, and stuffing his pocket-book
with countless bank-notes. When he awoke, he sighed to find that his
treasures were but creations of a disordered fancy; and, to drive such
thoughts from him, he went out for a walk. But he had not gone far when
he found himself once more before the house of the Countess. He seemed
to have been attracted there by some irresistible force. He stopped,
and looked up at the windows. There he saw a girl’s head with beautiful
black hair, leaning gracefully over a book or an embroidery-frame. The
head was lifted, and he saw a fresh complexion and black eyes.

This moment decided his fate.

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