PAPA and mamma and Aunt Nadya are not at home. They have gone to a christening party at the house of that old officer who rides on a little grey horse. While waiting for them to come home, Grisha, Anya, Alyosha, Sonya, and the cook’s son, Andrey, are sitting at the table in the dining-room, playing at loto. To tell the truth, it is bedtime, but how can one go to sleep without hearing from mamma what the baby was like at the christening, and what they had for supper? The table, lighted by a hanging lamp, is dotted with numbers, nutshells, scraps of paper, and little bits of glass. Two cards lie in front of each player, and a heap of bits of glass for covering the numbers. In the middle of the table is a white saucer with five kopecks in it. Beside the saucer, a half-eaten apple, a pair of scissors, and a plate on which they have been told to put their nutshells. The children are playing for money. The stake is a kopeck. The rule is: if anyone cheats, he is turned out at once. There is no one in the dining-room but the players, and nurse, Agafya Ivanovna, is in the kitchen, showing the cook how to cut a pattern, while their elder brother, Vasya, a schoolboy in the fifth class, is lying on the sofa in the drawing-room, feeling bored.
They are playing with zest. The greatest excitement is expressed on the face of Grisha. He is a small boy of nine, with a head cropped so that the bare skin shows through, chubby cheeks, and thick lips ... He is already in the preparatory class, and so is regarded as grown up, and the cleverest. He is playing entirely for the sake of the money. If there had been no kopecks in the saucer, he would have been asleep long ago. His brown eyes stray uneasily and jealously over the other players’ cards. The fear that he may not win, envy, and the financial combinations of which his cropped head is full, will not let him sit still and concentrate his mind. He fidgets as though he were sitting on thorns. When he wins, he snatches up the money greedily, and instantly puts it in his pocket. His sister, Anya, a girl of eight, with a sharp chin and clever shining eyes, is also afraid that someone else may win. She flushes and turns pale, and watches the players keenly. The kopecks do not interest her. Success in the game is for her a question of vanity. The other sister, Sonya, a child of six with a curly head, and a complexion such as is seen only in very healthy children, expensive dolls, and the faces on bonbon boxes, is playing loto for the process of the game itself. There is bliss all over her face. Whoever wins, she laughs and claps her hands. Alyosha, a chubby, spherical little figure, gasps, breathes hard through his nose, and stares open-eyed at the cards. He is moved neither by covetousness nor vanity. So long as he is not driven out of the room, or sent to bed, he is thankful. He looks phlegmatic, but at heart he is rather a little beast. He is not there so much for the sake of the loto, as for the sake of the misunderstandings which are inevitable in the game. He is greatly delighted if one hits another, or calls him names. He ought to have run off somewhere long ago, but he won’t leave the table for a minute, for fear they should steal his counters or his kopecks. As he can only count the units and numbers which end in nought, Anya covers his numbers for him. The fifth player, the cook’s son, Andrey, a dark-skinned and sickly looking boy in a cotton shirt, with a copper cross on his breast, stands motionless, looking dreamily at the numbers. He takes no interest in winning, or in the success of the others, because he is entirely engrossed by the arithmetic of the game, and its far from complex theory; “How many numbers there are in the world,” he is thinking, “and how is it they don’t get mixed up?”
They all shout out the numbers in turn, except Sonya and Alyosha. To vary the monotony, they have invented in the course of time a number of synonyms and comic nicknames. Seven, for instance, is called the “ovenrake,” eleven the “sticks,” seventy-seven “Semyon Semyonitch,” ninety “grandfather,” and so on. The game is going merrily.
“Thirty-two,” cries Grisha, drawing the little yellow cylinders out of his father’s cap. “Seventeen! Ovenrake! Twenty-eight! Lay them straight.…
Anya sees that Andrey has let twenty-eight slip. At any other time she would have pointed it out to him, but now when her vanity lies in the saucer with the kopecks, she is triumphant.
“Twenty-three!” Grisha goes on, “Semyon Semyonitch! Nine!”
“A beetle, a beetle,” cries Sonya, pointing to a beetle running across the table. “Aie!”
“Don’t kill it,” says Alyosha, in his deep bass, “perhaps it’s got children.…”
Sonya follows the black beetle with her eyes and wonders about its children: what tiny little beetles they must be!
“Forty-three! One!” Grisha goes on, unhappy at the thought that Anya has already made two fours. “Six!”
“Game! I have got the game!” cries Sonya, rolling her eyes coquettishly and giggling.
The players’ countenances lengthen.
“Must make sure!” says Grisha, looking with hatred at Sonya.
Exercising his rights as a big boy, and the cleverest, Grisha takes upon himself to decide. What he wants, that they do. Sonya’s reckoning is slowly and carefully verified, and to the great regret of her fellow players, it appears that she has not cheated. Another game is begun.
“I did see something yesterday!” says Anya, as though to herself. “Filipp Filippitch turned his eyelids inside out somehow and his eyes looked red and dreadful, like an evil spirit’s.”
“I saw it too,” says Grisha. “Eight! And a boy at our school can move his ears. Twenty-seven!”
Andrey looks up at Grisha, meditates, and says: “I can move my ears too.…”
“Well then, move them.”
Andrey moves his eyes, his lips, and his fingers, and fancies that his ears are moving too. Everyone laughs.
“He is a horrid man, that Filipp Filippitch,” sighs Sonya. “He came into our nursery yesterday, and I had nothing on but my chemise … And I felt so improper!”
“Game!” Grisha cries suddenly, snatching the money from the saucer. “I’ve got the game! You can look and see if you like.”
The cook’s son looks up and turns pale.
“Then I can’t go on playing any more,” he whispers.
“Because … because I have got no more money.”
“You can’t play without money,” says Grisha.
Andrey ransacks his pockets once more to make sure. Finding nothing in them but crumbs and a bitten pencil, he drops the corners of his mouth and begins blinking miserably. He is on the point of crying….
“I’ll put it down for you!” says Sonya, unable to endure his look of agony. “Only mind you must pay me back afterwards.”
The money is brought and the game goes on.
“I believe they are ringing somewhere,” says Anya, opening her eyes wide.
They all leave off playing and gaze open-mouthed at the dark window. The reflection of the lamp glimmers in the darkness.
“It was your fancy.”
“At night they only ring in the cemetery,” says Andrey.
“And what do they ring there for?”
“To prevent robbers from breaking into the church. They are afraid of the bells.”
“And what do robbers break into the church for?” asks Sonya.
“Everyone knows what for: to kill the watchmen.”
A minute passes in silence. They all look at one another, shudder, and go on playing. This time Andrey wins.
“He has cheated,” Alyosha booms out, apropos of nothing.
“What a lie, I haven’t cheated.”
Andrey turns pale, his mouth works, and he gives Alyosha a slap on the head! Alyosha glares angrily, jumps up, and with one knee on the table, slaps Andrey on the cheek! Each gives the other a second blow, and both howl. Sonya, feeling such horrors too much for her, begins crying too, and the dining-room resounds with lamentations in different notes. But do not imagine that that is the end of the game. Before five minutes are over, the children are laughing and talking peaceably again. Their faces are tear-stained, but that does not prevent them from smiling; Alyosha is positively blissful, there has been a squabble!