Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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in Western Literature

An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, The Queen of Spades, 1834

 Translation – Gillon R. Aitken.

Death of the Countess

Death of the Countess:

The Countess began to undress before the looking-glass. Her rose-bedecked cap was unfastened; her powdered wig wads removed from her grey, closely-cropped hair. Pins fell in showers around her. Her yellow dress, embroidered with silver, fell at her swollen feet. Hermann witnessed all the loathsome mysteries of her dress; at last the Countess stood in her dressing-gown and night-cap; in this attire, more suitable to her age, she seemed less hideous and revolting.

Like most old people, the Countess suffered from insomnia. Having undressed, she sat down by the window in the Voltairean armchair and dismissed her maidservants. The candles were carried out; once again the room was lit by a single sanctuary lamp. Looking quite yellow, the Countess sat rocking to and fro in her chair, her flabby lips moving. Her dim eyes reflected a complete absence of thought and, looking at her one would have thought that the awful old woman’s rocking came not from her own volition, but by the action of some hidden galvanism.

Suddenly, an indescribable change came over her death-like face. Her lips ceased to move, her eyes came to life: before the Countess stood an unknown man.

"Don’t be alarmed, for God’s sake, don’t be alarmed," he said in a clear, low voice. "I have no intention of harming you; I have come to beseech a favour of you."

The old woman looked at him in silence, as if she had not heard him. Hermann imagined that she was deaf, and bending right down over her ear, he repeated what he had said. The old woman kept silent as before.

"You can ensure the happiness of my life," Hermann continued, "and it will cost you nothing: I know that you can guess three cards in succession…."

Hermann stopped. The Countess appeared to understand what was being demanded of her; she seemed to be seeking words for her reply.

"It was a joke," she said at last. "I swear to you, it was a joke."

"There’s no joking about it," Hermann retorted angrily. "Remember Chaplitsky whom you helped to win."

The Countess was visibly disconcerted, and her features expressed strong emotion; but she quickly resumed her former impassivity.

"Can you name these three winning cards?" Hermann continued.

The Countess was silent. Hermann went on.

"For whom do you keep your secret? For your grandsons? They are rich and they can do without it; they don’t know the value of money. Your three cards will not help a spendthrift. He who cannot keep his paternal inheritance will die in want, even if he has the devil at his side. I am not a spendthrift; I know the value of money. Your three cards will not be lost on me. Come…!

He stopped and awaited her answer with trepidation. The Countess was silent. Herman fell upon his knees.

"If your heart has ever known the feeling of love," he said. "if you remember its ecstasies, if you ever smiled at the wailing of your new-born son, if ever any human feeling has run through your breast, I entreat you by the feelings of a wife, a lover, a mother, by everything that is sacred in life, not to deny my request! Reveal your secret to me! What is it to you…? Perhaps it is bound up with some dreadful sin, with the loss of eternal bliss, with some contract made with the devil…Consider: you are old; you have not long to live — I am prepared to take your sins on my own soul. Only reveal to me your secret. Realize that the happiness of a man is in your hands, that not only I, but my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren will bless your memory and will revere it as something sacred.

The old woman answered not a word.

Hermann stood up.

"You old witch!" he said, clenching his teeth. "I’ll force you to answer…."

With these words he drew a pistol from his pocket. At the sight of the pistol, the Countess, for the second time, exhibited signs of strong emotion. She shook her head and raising her hand as though to shield herself from the shot, she rolled over on her back and remained motionless.

"Stop this childish behaviour now," Hermann said, taking her hand. "I’ll ask you for the last time: will you name your three cards or won’t you?"

The Countess made no reply. Hermann saw that she was dead.

The Ghost of the Countess:

It was already night when he awoke: the moon lit up his room. He glanced at his watch; it was a quarter to three. He found he could not go back to sleep; he sat down on his bed and thought about the funeral of the old Countess.

At that moment somebody in the street glanced in at his window, and immediately went away again. Hermann paid no attention to the incident. A minute or so later, he heard the door into the front room being opened. Hermann imagined that it was his orderly, drunk as usual, returning from some nocturnal outing. But he heard unfamiliar footsteps and the soft shuffling of slippers. The door opened: a woman in a white dress entered. Hermann mistook her for his old wet-nurse and wondered what could have brought her out at that time of night.

But the woman in white glided across the room and suddenly appeared before him — and Hermann recognized the Countess!

"I have come against my will," she said in a firm voice, "but I have been ordered to fulfill your request. Three, seven, ace, played in that order, will win for you, but only on condition that you play not more than one card in twenty-four hours, and that you never play again for the rest of your life. I’ll forgive you my death if you marry my ward, Lisaveta Ivanovna…."

With these word, she turned round quickly, walked towards the door and disappeared, her slippers shuffling. Hermann heard the door in the hall bang, and again saw somebody look in at him through the window.

For a long time Hermann could not collect his senses, He went out into the next room. His orderly was lying asleep on the floor; Hermann could scarcely wake him. The orderly was, as usual, drunk, and it was impossible to get any sense out of him. The door into the hall was locked. Herman returned to his room, lit a candle, and recorded the details of his vision.


Adrienne Nater, 2008

©© 2008 Adrienne Nater. All rights reserved.