Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1053
As the story opens, a group of young military officers are playing cards into the early morning. One officer remarks that Hermann, an officer in the Engineer Corps, likes to watch the others play, but he himself does not play. The prudent and industrious Hermann replies that he is attempting to build a fortune and does not want to risk the essential in order to gain the superfluous. Prince Pavel Tomsky changes the conversation by telling the story of his grandmother, a strong-willed socialite when she was younger. While on a trip to France, the young beauty lost a large sum at cards, a sum that her long-suffering husband refused to give her in order to honor her debt. The countess ran to a friend, the count St. Germain, who gave her the secret of victory at cards. The countess returned to the tables the next evening, regained the money that she had lost, and settled her debts.
The officers who have listened to the story react to it in different ways. One believes that the story is fantasy, another that the cards were marked, and a third that the victory was a result of pure chance. Although Tomsky cannot explain what happened, he believes that a secret exists and that his grandmother has been derelict in not passing it on to her family. On this note, the officers break up their card game as the sun begins to rise.
The narrative changes to the countess, who is now an elderly lady unable to do much but terrorize her domestic staff. Elizaveta Ivanovna is a ward of the countess and completely dependent on the old lady for her sustenance. Elizaveta’s life is difficult, as she endures the conflicting orders and irrational opinions of the countess and can find no way out of her predicament.
One afternoon, Elizaveta looks out the window as she is sewing and spies a young officer standing on the corner and staring at her window. It is Hermann, who was strongly impressed by Tomsky’s story about his grandmother and wishes to learn the secret of the cards before the countess dies. He stands on the corner and dreams of ways to enter the house and confront the countess. When he notices Elizaveta Ivanovna at the window, an idea comes to him. He sends letters to her, some taken word-for-word from German novels, in which he professes his love and importunes her for a meeting. After an initial reluctance, Elizaveta Ivanovna, viewing the young officer as a potential deliverer from her dreary existence with the countess, concocts an elaborate plan to let the young officer into the house and into her room for a private meeting.
All goes according to plan; Hermann sneaks into the house while the countess and Elizaveta are at a ball. Instead of going to Elizaveta’s room, however, he enters the room of the countess, hiding until her return. Hermann surprises the old lady and pleads for the secret. The countess refuses to divulge the secret, and Hermann, losing patience, threatens her with a pistol. Seeing the gun, the countess gives a start and dies, presumably of fright. Hermann sneaks off to Elizaveta’s room, informing her of events and explaining why he had gone to the countess’s room. Elizaveta is brokenhearted, as she realizes that Hermann was cultivating her friendship in order to gain money, not because of love.
Although Hermann’s conscience is dulled by his obsession and his main regret is the loss of the secret, he still feels obligated to attend the old lady’s funeral. As Hermann looks into the casket to pay his last respects, the countess seems to open her eyes and wink at him. Taken by surprise, he falls backward to the floor and has to be helped up. Unnerved by this experience, he decides to eat a good meal and drive away his fright with wine.
After coming home and falling into a deep sleep induced by the wine, Hermann awakens at three in the morning. He looks at the...
(The entire section contains 1053 words.)
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