Hermann seizes Liza by the hand as she is following the Countess into a carriage; he gives her a letter that she hides in her glove. After a ride in which Liza remains distracted, she rushes to her room and opens the love letter. She is pleased but worried, having never entered a secret and intimate relationship. His directness horrifies her. She drafts a reply, saying their acquaintance shouldn’t begin in this manner, and throws it on the street the next morning. Hermann reads it; her reply is as expected. He then walks home absorbed in his plot.
Three days later Hermann has a shop assistant at a hat store slip Liza a note asking to meet. She tears the note up. But Hermann is not dissuaded, sending more letters, expressions of his desire and determination. Liza enjoys them and begins to reply. Eventually she gives him instructions on where to wait inside the house while she and the Countess are at an embassy ball and the servants are off-duty.
Hermann trembles like a tiger as he waits outside the Countess’s house in the miserable wet snowy weather. At half-past eleven he strides into the house, past a servant asleep in an armchair. Hermann follows the route Liza gave him through the Countess’s bedroom to the spiral staircase that leads to her room. But instead of ascending, he walks into the dark study. His heart beats as he waits for the carriage to return at two. He peers through a crack in the door as the Countess and her servants enter the bedroom. He watches Liza stride past and go up her staircase. His heart shrinks—a feeling akin to remorse that quickly passes.
He watches the Countess undress and send her servants away. She has insomnia, so she sits in a chair next to a lamp. Suddenly Hermann is standing before her, telling her quietly not to be afraid; he has come to ask a favor. She looks at him in silence. Assuming she is deaf, Hermann bends close to her ear and says she has the power to complete his happiness by telling him how she can guess three cards in sequence.
After appearing to search for the words, she says it was a joke; she swears it was a joke. Hermann reminds her of the story of Chaplitsky, and the Countess looks visibly disturbed, her face reflecting a deep stirring of her spirit until she suddenly seems to be dozing off again. Hermann gets on his knees and pleads with her to tell him the winning cards, promising he won’t waste the money he wins. When she doesn’t reply to anything he says, he calls her an old witch and pulls a pistol out of his pocket. She shows strong emotion for the second time and raises her hand to ward off the shot before falling on her back, where she lies motionless and dead.
The point of view switches to Liza in her room, where she is deep in thought. It has been less than three weeks since she first saw Hermann from her window, and already she arranged a late-night meeting with him. She recalls how Tomsky had danced the mazurka with her earlier in the evening to make someone else jealous. Tomsky teased her about her predilection for Engineers officers, and hinted that his friend Hermann had his eye on her, saying that he is quite the romantic and capable of anything. She feigned ignorance and asked more questions until they were interrupted by another dancer.
While thinking about the evening, Liza looks up to see Hermann enter her room. He says he has been with the Countess. He says she is dead, and it seems that he was the cause. She remembers that Tomsky said Hermann “has at least three crimes on his conscience.” Liza listens with horror as Hermann comes clean about his plot, and she reflects that she was no more than the blind accessory to a criminal. She cries and Hermann is heartbroken too. Not that he is conscience-stricken at the Countess’s death—he is horrified that the secret he’d been counting on to make him rich is lost.
He says he didn’t mean to kill her, that the pistol wasn’t loaded. Daylight brightens the room. With a grim scowl, Hermann resembles a picture of Napoleon. Liza gives him a key and instructions on how to leave through the secret staircase. He passes through the dead woman’s bedroom; her face registers a sense of deep peace. He unlocks a door in the study and finds his way to a passageway leading to the street.
The impatience that results from Hermann’s greed nearly spoils his plot: the image Liza holds of steadily building romantic intrigue does quite match up with Hermann’s directness. However, in an instance of situational irony, it is revealed that he had already calculated and expected Liza’s rejection. Hermann’s greed will not allow him to stop what he has started; he continues what he needs to do, channeling his obsession into the imaginative and convincing love letters he sends Liza, which eventually win her over.
The narrator compares Hermann to a trembling tiger as he waits to enter the Countess’s. The simile speaks to how he has the patience of a predator who has the calculating intelligence to stalk prey for ages before making the kill. There is a brief moment when it seems as if Hermann feels remorse for how he has exploited Liza, but the feeling disappears, suggesting that Hermann’s greed and obsession have turned him into—or revealed him as—a person without a conscience.
When he confronts the Countess, Hermann mistakes her silence for refusal on her part. Showing strong emotion in her face only twice, when Hermann threatens her with a pistol she collapses and dies, and it becomes clear that the Countess is frozen into silence either by fear or some unknown entity.
While the crime drama has been playing out downstairs, Liza is in her room, still wrapped up in her love story. The two stories come together for her when Hermann appears and admits to everything. She realizes that she has been exploited and duped. It seems almost as if Hermann has grown a conscience, but his grief, like all of his emotions, is controlled by his greed, as he is dismayed by the death of the secret, not the woman.
Liza allows him to escape, as she is an unwitting accessory to the crime by having allowed Hermann entrance to the house. In this decision, Liza reveals that she too has some degree of calculation in her: knowing she would risk her own freedom, she sacrifices justice for the Countess.