The Revenge of Ivan Ilych
The Revenge of Ivan Ilych
The Revenge of Ivan Ilyich.
St Petersburg Russia August 1882.
Praskovya sat in front of the large oval antique mirror in her bedroom. She carefully inspected her hair, catching the grey strands with disdain, and looking at her lined etched face with dismay. She attempted to take the wisps of hair and put them in a chignon, but her efforts failed. She grunted, thinking how, until recently, she had her upstairs maid assist her in such matters. Oh, where was the life she believed she would be living not one year ago? Her life had been so difficult these past six months, ever since her husband Ivan, a circuit court judge, had suffered from and died due to an incurable and unnamed disease. She sighed heavily and arose from the overstuffed chair positioned at her vanity, and walked toward her desk to write the letter she had to send to the courthouse to assume ownership of her husband’s land. Her life was now one of uncertainty and confusion, her options were scarce and her resolve beginning to ebb. Women in Russia could not be landowners without the expressed permission of the court, and then only if widowed. She knew she needed to write a convincing letter to the judges to get a meeting set up, and hoped that they would remember her husbands service as the late judge Ivan Ilyich.
Ivan Ilyich had died in February of that year, leaving Praskovya alone with no way to pay the debts he had accumulated from the move to their country house near St. Petersburg, Russia. The year was 1882, and her daughter was engaged to a wonderful man, her son still attending school. Life for her children would probably be difficult for a year or two at most if she could not get the land switched into her name, but they would both eventually make their way into the world. She, however, would grow old and be alone. What would become of her? At 44 years old, Praskovya was past childbearing age, and her girlish figure had given way to a matronly and rotund stature.
Her life with her husband had been wrought with resentment and pain, especially in the end when he was ill, and she had borne and lost children, accumulated great distress over the disagreements her husband and she had endured and had begun to make adjustments when Ivan could not continue to work after he became ill. Praskovya was confused by all the paperwork and responsibilities she inherited upon his death as well, not having had been privy to all the correct procedures and responsibilities and she spent the last six months cursing God for taking away the only security she had once had: Ivan’s income.
Adding to the burden of Praskovya’s life was the introduction of a new book, written by Ivan’s louse of a friend: Lev Tolstoy. Lev had written his book about the death of her husband and included passages about her in such a mean spirited way, making her appear to be a shrew. His novella about the illness and death of her husband Ivan had sold many copies in the district, and her reputation was beginning to become the topic of gossip and maligning comments directed her way. The account he had written further irritated Praskovya as it was filled with lies and untruths about their marital relationship and the feelings she held toward him in the later years of his life. Tolstoy made her out to be the villain in the marriage by examining her responses and affectations during their less happy times together in their later years of marriage. Although the work was sold as a fiction story, anyone who knew her husband and his association with that scoundrel Tolstoy would know it was more than an imaginative tale.
In order to clear her good name, Praskovya decided she would go to Tolstoy to implore him not to continue publishing the story of the end of her husbands life. She had inquired as to his whereabouts in the country, but was told he had become a friend of the peasant class, grown a beard and moved to the country. Even if she could find him, he might still refuse to honor her request for a meeting. Praskovya felt compelled to find a way to get her side of the story published or condemn the author for his insensitive portrayal of her character.
“There are always two sides to everything,” Praskovya grumbled.Of course as a 19th century widow in Russia, her options were limited, she thought to herself, and she also decided she needed to petition the court for the land, and then ask one of the judges about her legal rights to go after Tolstoy.
Praskovya sat at her desk and dipped her pen into the ink well while snatching up a fresh piece of vellum paper and began writing a letter to the court judges who would hear her case. Her hand shook a bit as she began her writing and the wind blew in from her open bedroom window and was rustling the paper. Before she could close the window and begin writing again a knock came at the bedroom door.
“Madam, are you in need of anything before I head back to the village?” came the soft and kind voice of Gerasim, her husband’s former manservant.
Praskovya started to answer in a nasty tone, and then shifted her voice covering the annoyance she felt inside.
“No, thank you Gerasim. Good night.” she replied.
“Goodnight madam, I shall return in the morning to make the breakfast for you and Vladimir,” Gerasim answered.
He quietly turned and went down the stairs and Praskovya sat quietly until she knew he was at the bottom and far enough away to make any retort.
“Harumph! Foolish peasant! Just because he is not being paid anymore means nothing to me! The serfs should have remained enslaved as they were born to be! Now I have to pretend to appreciate every little thing he does for me, until I can afford once again to be the mistress of this home! Ivan deliberately died just to make my life one of suffering and misery!”
She threw a small book toward the door as though it would assuage her wanting to throw a tantrum.
“Sarah Bernhardt does not have to deal with this sort of rubbish!” she said aloud.
Sarah Bernhardt was her favorite actress and she had seen her a few weeks before Ivan died. She remembered that night as though it were yesterday, and the odious look Ivan gave her as she left for the theater with her daughter and her future son-in law.
Perching herself upon her chair at her desk,, Praskovya began her letter to the court, and having some difficulty writing in Russian, as her French was much better. Since Russian was the language of the peasant class, she rarely wrote it, as she did not want to appear to be coarse or uneducated. She completed her letter and read it aloud to herself:
12 August 1882.
To the High Court of the jurisdiction of St Petersburg:
My name is Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina and my husband Ivan Ilyich Golovina was a court judge for many years. A few months ago, he succumbed to an illness and he left me a widow, alone with two children, and no way to pay the debts he owed to various creditors. I have never held a position of employment as my husband always attended to my every need when he was living. I am in need of the land deed being transferred to my name so that I may sell a parcel of it in order to pay the expenses of my husband’s debts and also to have a small stipend in which to live my life. I implore the court to allow me the rights to this property and help me pay these bills as well as the expenses of my husbands funerary expenses, which still remain unpaid to this day. I thank you for your every consideration.
Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina
Praskovya held the letter and waved it about so as to dry the ink on the vellum. She blew on a part of it until it dried and folded it over and sealed it with a wax seal. Standing up, she walked over to the fireplace in her bedroom, pulled her shawl around her tightly and looked into the fire absently.
What had she done in her life that had brought her to this horrible place? she thought.
She always worked diligently to keep her husband comfortable, even when he became sullen and difficult to live with, and she continued to care for him, kiss his face each night, and listen to his horrible lamentations. She did what society asked of her to do and yet, according to the dictates of her class, she did not do enough to make him happy.
There was a knock at the door. This disturbance seemed to come from no where, and reminded her that she was not alone in the house as she had envisioned.
“ Mama ? ” came a call from the other side of the door.
It was her son Vladimir, whom she often called Vasya, standing alone in the hallway. Vasya was fifteen, and a lanky lad, who looked like his father so much that sometimes she was taken aback at the twin-like resemblance. His hair was often disheveled and he was a rather emotional boy, but he was good at his studies, and was also helping her a great deal with all the transitions occurring in their life after Ivan died. Walking to the door and opening it to greet him, she placed the letter in her bag so she could take it to the mail post later in the morning. Her son smiled as she opened the door, his boyish grin met her steely eyes and she noticed his clothing was somewhat dirty apparently from working in the stables. He wiped his hands on the back of his pants to remove some of the dirt that remained on his hands, but it was a gesture that went unnoticed. She gasped at his appearance and he stood watching her reaction with mild annoyance.
“Mother, there is no dishonor in being a working man. Gerasim is helping me learn how to handle the horses and is a great teacher! I am happy that I can help retain the horses for our family stables and still attend school during the afternoons” he stated, eager to win his mother’s approval for his earnest efforts.
“Gerasim! You sound just like your father! Spending time with the lower classes only cheapens your stature in society! You should be served by them, not toil with them! Run along and clean yourself up! I will go down and start the water for tea. You’ll end up sick if you do not take better care of yourself!”
Praskovya pushed by him in a huff and walked downstairs to the kitchen. She knew she was going to have to be less contrary in the outside world in order to persuade others that she was not the evil woman Tolstoy depicted her to be in that ridiculous story! Sarah Bernhardt would be impressed by the time she was done convincing them with her performanceand soon all of those judges would be eating out of her hand.
Several days had passed when a mail post came in from the court informing Praskovya she needed to appear in a private conference with several judges in the chamber-room within the next few days. She decided she needed to find the appropriate dress so as to appear to be in her “widow’s wear” to attend the hearing looking to be a ‘proper woman’ of bourgeois society. She also intended to ask the judges how she might be able to confront that horrible man Lev Tolstoy about the allegations he made that were defamatory in his published work about her husband.
Praskovya went to her wardrobe and found her brown duster to wear over the black dress she was wearing and she combed her hair up and held it with black onyx combs. As she made her way down the stairwell, she looked at herself in the mirror at the final landing and decided she might stop at the ladies shop for a new dress, after she posted her letter to the judges. Leaving the house, she turned the lock with her skeleton key and made her way out of the gate and down the street toward town. It was a lovely August morning, and the sound of a balalaika could be heard from one of the windows at her neighbors house.
Heading into the city, the smell of tangerine and lemon filled her nostrils and she stood watching for a moment as the flower vendors setting up to sell their wares for the day. If it were any other time in her life, Praskovya would have felt compelled to go shopping or visit some of her society friends for tea or an afternoon spritzer. Then she remembered her reality was one of limitation and loss and she started once again to feel sorry for herself and the cruel way fate had taken away all she once had with her husband.
Tolstoy had been right about one thing, she had grown to hate Ivan over the years and did indeed wish him dead at times, but it was natural wasn’t it to feel this way after so many years of him ignoring her needs and spending all his time working and leaving her to raise the children? As she turned the corner, she saw the ladies dress shop, the familiar sign and Miss Audette, the French shopkeeper from Paris whose shop was several blocks from the courthouse. As she walked into the shop Alexia Evanovich came around the corner and caught sight of her entering the building. Alexia made her way into the shop, and found Praskovya in the area of the dark black dresses that were hanging near the rear of the store.
“Why Praskovya Golovina! How lovely to find you out and about! And how have you been holding up since Judge Golovina has passed, leaving you to face the world alone?” purred Alexis, almost too sarcastically.
“Hello Alexis Evanovich” replied Praskovya, not really wanting to start a conversation with her at this time. “ We are well thank you, and Gerasim is helping us, teaching us how to do everything we have never once had to do before my late husband died. I am sure it will only be a temporary thing, as I have an appointment this week with the judges in the property division, and am certain they will allow me to take ownership of Ivan’s land and allow me to reinstate our cook and other servants in our home.”
“ Oh dear! How horrible for you Praskovya! I would never be able to survive without my handmaid and my other servants after having them for such a long time. Johan would be mortified if he thought I would need to lift one tiny little finger to do domestic work on my own!” cried Alexis, clearly attempting to irritate Praskovya and incite a loud disagreement.
“ Well, I am certain that had Ivan realized that he would become ill and die....” Praskovya started to respond, but Alexis cut her off by waving a leather bound book in her face.
“Have you heard? Tolstoy has written of Ivan’s horrible demise. I cannot wait to read it and see how he memorializes him in print ” smiled Alexis.
“One cannot trust the likes of Lev Tolstoy! Truth be told he is a misogynist, has taken to growing a beard and living with peasants and drinks too much vodka!” Praskovya cried.
Her fear was growing. Now the social circle of which she had long been a part of would be discussing her life at all the bridge games! How would she face these women after they read the lies Tolstoy had written about her! How could he know she was feeling she wanted Ivan to die, and how she never listened to him when he spoke, or that her suffering from his agonizing screams would appear to sound selfish to an educated audience of readers. The bastard!
Praskovya completely forgot she had come to the store to find a proper dress and stormed out, of the store and heading back to the safety of her cottage and her privacy. Everything was fine until Ivan fell off that damn ladder and injured himself one fine day. How could he have set into motion the extreme misery her life now had become? If it were possible to curse the dead, she cursed him, but silently, as she knew she needed to remain cool on the outside so she could convince the others she was not the monster Lev Tolstoy made her out to be!
Arriving home from her disastrous shopping trip to town, Praskovya found a calling card left at the door from a “Fedoyr Andreev” and the address listed was in a more upscale part of town. On the back he had written a simple note: “ Please allow me to call upon you tomorrow at 3:00 pm, if busy leave note on door for best time to come”.
Praskovya shook her head pondering who this Fedoyr person might be. “Why would I wish to meet with a stranger”, she muttered, and dismissed the note as a rather forward notion, until her son returned home and asked her if Fedoyr Andreev had come by today to speak with her.
“Who is this person my son? She queried curiously.
Vladimir did not hesitate to explain that this man was one of his school administrators and had needed to speak with his father. Vasya told Andreev that his father was deceased, so the administrator was wont to meet his mother at her earliest convenience.
“What sort of trouble is this all about Vasya, and why did you not tell me this morning when you came from the stables?” his mother replied.
“There is no trouble mama, he is wanting to discuss with you some future possibilities for my education. And you appeared cross when I came to your room this morning, so I did not wish to bother you until you were feeling better ” said her son.
Praskovya snorted and grumbled incoherently as she turned to wash up from her shopping trip. “More money no doubt...” she grumbled as she turned on the water spicket. Vasya looked at her with confusion, but did not say anything as Gerasim entered the back doorway and called to him to come to the stables.
“This is a man’s world and I am not prepared for all the duties I must assume!” lamented Praskovya when they left the house.
No doubt Ivan Ilyich was happy he was not privy to her complaining these past days, he was the one who was free, everyone else was now suffering from Praskovya’s moody tirades!
The day dawned bright through the heavy curtains, and Praskovya wondered about the impending visit she was to have this afternoon from one Mr. Fedoyr Andreev. She rose from her bed and drew on her dressing gown and found herself once again grumbling at the idea of having to attend to making the breakfast and other duties normally not done by her in the past. She opened the curtains to let in more light and noticed an unusual sound emanating from outside near the stables. She strained her eyes and noticed Gerasim, walking with one of the horses who seemed to be making loud whinnying noises as he led it out to pasture. Once again she found herself irritated and it made her hate Gerasim all the more.
The events of the day kept her busy, and when the mail post arrived, she received a response from the Court judge to appear in the chambers on 15 August 1882 at 11:00 am. Although she was a trifle nervous with the idea of having to speak to several men, Praskovya welcomed the attention of the judges, and decided to take some of the money she had been saving and find someone who could tend to her hair and accessories on that day, so she would appear competent and assured. One thing she knew for certain, was that she still felt completely desirable to men!
A knock came at the front door at precisely 3:00 pm, and having no one about to answer the door and announce her guest, she made her way to the door to greet Mr. Andreev and welcome him into the parlor. Andreev stood therestiffly at the door, and removed his hat when Praskovya opened the door to greet him. In his hand was a black walnut cane with a gold hand piece engraved with the letters FGA on the outside. Although he was a man of tall stature, Andreev appeared to be about Praskovya’s age and was well dressed and clean.
“Madam! I am Fedoyr Andreev from the Main Pedagogical Institute!” he snapped as though he were one of the Czars officers.
“ Welcome Mr Andreev” Praskovya said as she opened the door to the front hall. “Shall I take your hat and cane?”
“Not necessary, I can assure you madam!” he said walking in with a formal gait.
He stood awaiting her next move and she turned and led him into the parlor and offered him a wing back chair on which to sit.
“Would you care for a cup of hot tea or a shot of vodka?” she asked in her most kind voice.
“No thank you,madam. I am afraid I must get right to the business of my visit, if you do not mind. There is the issue of your son’s future education and a hope that he can be allowed to go to into service with the Russian Navy upon the Neva River.”
Praskovya listened intently to the words of Andreev and told him she would consider the offer he was making for the future of her son Vasya. She agreed to write him with her decision within a fortnight.
Andreev stood up and clicked his heels together while bowing slightly toward Praskovya. She found his formality off putting, but showed him to the door and watched him as he walked down the pathway to the road.
This might be a way for me to be free completely of all my responsibilities! Maybe I can find a man to remarry and I can take leave of all my debts, she thought.
She retired to her room to contemplate a new life she might be able to create once all this property business was out of the way. With the property in her name, she might attract a wealthy suitor.
She smiled as she sat in her chair, with a glint in her eye.
Judges Chambers, later that day.
“Well done Dmitri, well done!” Tolstoy cried, upon finding out that Praskovya would be attending the judges hearing within the next few days. Dmitri had worked with Ivan at the courthouse for many years before his untimely demise.
“I cannot wait to see how she will appear before the judges, as she is so used to wearing a false face that it will be interesting to see how she can defend herself against the claims made by Ivan, and in turn what I have written in my book!” said Tolstoy, in a matter of fact tone.
Tolstoy unfolded the piece of paper he pulled from the pocket of his pants and carefully spread it out on the table, working the creases to make it more easily readable.
“Read this Dmitri…it is from the hand of Ivan himself, several months into the illness for which he loses his life on this earth.
Dmitri took the note up from the table and began to read the letter. It had been written in October of 1881 and he recognized the handwriting as being from his colleague and good friend, the late Ivan Illiych.
She tortures me on a daily basis, and the pain is so excruciating to bear that hearing the grating tone of her voice only makes me more agitated and worried for my Vasya. Why the other day she came into the room with a bowl of soup and shoved it at me so quickly some of it spilled onto my lap, scorching my leg! I sometimes think she puts poison into the soup, as after I take a few sips of the broth, I seem to feel worse than I had the moment before.
When Gerasim comes into the room, she bristles and makes a heavy sigh, stomping and tossing things around like a child having a tantrum! She is impossible! And so it goes on and on. She reminds me by shoving more morphine in my face that I am making her life misery, and there is no end to the comments she makes about money. Money this and money that!
I need you to take my land and sell the land with the proviso that I may stay in the home until I die, and that my family can remain for six months, so there is no immediate worry about moving my son out of the home. Contact Major Kiralov in the Russian Navy and see if Vasya can get a commission and later be allowed into law school. I believe he can contact Fedoyr Andreev at the school to do his bidding. Place most of the money into a trust account, and tell my story to the world. Do not mince words. Although Praskovya and I were happy for short spurts in our marriage, she was a horrible woman, one who would do anything for her own gain. I want her to have no part of the estate, and let her find another way to finance her life after I am gone. I have nothing more to say about this. I trust you Lev. You are like a brother to me.
Dmitri finished the letter and sat down at the desk, taking out a writing instrument and some paper to make notes.
“So tomorrow when Praskovya comes into the judges chamber, we will have to let her know she has only a few days in which to move her meager personal belongings out, as the land not only cannot become her land, but has actually been sold and assets frozen for the boy?”Dmitri asked.
“Yes, my man. This is true. Gerasim tells me she barely tolerates him and all he has done for her these past six months. The only reason he remains at the home is that Ivan requested he watch over the boy and give him tutelage in horsemanship and other landowners duties. He provided him with a wage so that he could live comfortably until the new owner took over the homestead, and he is anxious to be rid of Praskovya forever!” Tolstoy said.
“Tomorrow will be a bad day for Praskovya Golovina!” Dmitri said, with a mischievous glint in his eye.
“Indeed comrade, indeed”, Tolstoy replied.
Praskovya sighed. She awoke early and readied herself for the day. Today would be the day she was to go to court, and she wanted to make certain she appeared as the self assured and confident woman she knew she could be. She opened her wardrobe and assessed which outfit to wear to the courthouse. Black. Yes, black was the color she needed to wear. She placed her dress on the bed and gathered her undergarments to take to the bath. Her hair was pinned up so as not to become wet, and she entered the tub she had started filling with pails of hot water a few minutes before. She had a smug sense of satisfaction come over her as she thought of the land becoming her own, all her own! And she would parcel out the sections and have enough money to travel to France, and maybe Italy on one of those trains that go across many miles! As she lie in the tub soaking, she dreamed about all the things ahead of her in her life!
Who said that women over 40 were old anyway? Who cares what people think of what Lev Tolstoy wrote about me in his foolish book? All will be forgotten as soon as I get title to the land here and can then do as I please. Ha! Just wait until that foolish Alexis Evanovich finds out what I am going to do...she will be pea green with envy!
Praskovya heard the clock strike 11:00 AM on the downstairs mantlepiece and rose from her tub bath. She must make haste to get to the courthouse by 11:30. She dried herself and put on her robe and went into the dressing room to change into her clothing. There was deep satisfaction in knowing things would all be different within a few more hours.
Praskovya walked into the courthouse and immediately saw Ivan’s former colleague Pytor Ivanovich, as she walked down the hallway.
“Praskovya, how are you doing these days?” he queried.
“I am fine thank you Pytor“ she responded stopping to tell him of her appointment in the judges chambers for the land being transferred into her name.
Pytor knew nothing of Ivan’s decision and the implementation of the sale, but he was a bit reticent reminding her that it was rare indeed that women, even widows, were granted land ownership.
“Pshaw! ” retorted Praskovya, in her most sassy manner. “ You do not know the extent of my wiles now do you Pytor Ivanovich!. I intend to leave this courthouse not one moment before holding the deed to my husbands land in my hands!” She stormed off leaving Judge Ivanovich to watch her mount the staircase, mouth gaping much like a fish out of water.
Praskovya entered the door to the judges chambers and found four judges awaiting her at the long mahogany table that took up most of the room. She entered and they all stood, and bowed slightly to Ivan’s widow who looked to them as though she was still in mourning. Dmitri shifted on his feet, knowing that he would be the one to inform Praskovya of the property sale some six months earlier.
“Gentlemen, thank you so much for this meeting”, Praskovya gushed, her face hidden behind the black netting of a widows hat. Removing her gloves, she sat with her back stiff in the hard mahogany chair.
After some pleasantries, the judges called the meeting to order and all sat facing Praskovya awaiting the proceeding. The first judge, Grigori Marchinoff read from the letter that Praskovya had sent to the judges asking them for the meeting, and after reading this he took off his glasses and looked directly at the widow.
“Madame, you know it is highly irregular that we grant land ownership to a woman in our Russia, and although you are the widow of an esteemed judge who worked here at the court, we cannot make exceptions due to some kind of favoritism...” he started.
“Excuse me Grigori, but there is something that has come to the attention of the court that was made aware to me yesterday, Dmitri interrupted, that will make that a moot point.”
Praskovya smiled to herself knowing that it must be the exception she knew they would make for her. She sat back a bit eagerly awaiting the explanation of the exception, smiling and nodding at Dmitri.
“You see, Dmitri continued, Ivan Illiych filed a document with the court some six months ago transferring the land to Igor Romanovich upon his death, plus six months. There is no land to deed to give to Mrs. Golovina judges, Ivan Illiych’s land is not hers to assume.”
Prayaska was stunned. How could Ivan Ilyich do this to her? After all she had done for him, given him?Her husband had made sure to haunt her from his grave! Would she ever have peace?
There was a huge thud from the end of the table. The judges found Praskovya Golovina on the floor. She had fainted and hit her head on the table as she went down.
The judges rose and went to her side. Dmitri opened the door to the chambers.
“Someone get a doctor!” came a shout into the corridor.
Praskovya groaned. She called out for understanding and assistance. No one was there. She was completely alone. The cold hospital room was bereft of curtains, and the other women upon their own beds near her were also groaning.
But no one came. Praskovya’s voice was mute. She had to accept she was now alone. Her son was gone now, out to sea with the Russian Navy, and her daughter married and moved to Moscow. She had no friends, no money, no home. The nuns had been charitable and took her into Mercy hospital for the indigent in the city. She was found to have complications from the injury to her head that she sustained from the fall in the judges chamber at the courthouse. There was nothing more to be done. Her fate, much like that of Ivan’s was to live in excruciating pain and unbearable sorrow. Her life, as she knew it was over. All was lost, forsaken. She thought back to the days when Ivan lie dying and she was cruel and heartless to him, and how she felt she had suffered by listening to him in pain. How she wished she could return to those days and make it all up to him! How could she have been so heartless, so mean and horrible, wanting him to be dead?
She then stiffened and grew angry.
No! How could he have been so cruel to her, leaving her this way with nothing and suffering in the way she now must, alone in a charity ward?
She cursed him for finding meaning in his life when she could find none in her own.
Grabbing her heart she screamed one last gut wrenching time, filling the air with her anguish, then Praskovya felt herself slipping from consciousness and was once again with her maker.
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