During a break in the hearing of the Melvinski case in the great hall of the Law Courts, members of the judicial council and the public prosecutor met in Ivan Yegorovich Shebek's private chambers. The conversation turned to the famous Krasov affair. Feodor Vassilievich grew heated demonstrating that it was not subject to jurisdiction. Ivan Yegorovich held his own. Piotr Ivanovich, who had not participated initially, took no part in the argument and leafed through the newly delivered Gazette.
"Gentlemen!" he said, "Ivan Ilyich is dead."
"Here; read it for yourself," he said to Feodor Vassilievich, passing him the fresh sheets, still with their own smell.
The black-framed notice ran: "It is with deep regret that Praskovya Feodorovna Golovina informs relatives and friends of the death of her beloved husband, Ivan Ilyich Golovin, Member of the Court of Justice, on February the fourth of this year, 1882. The body will be laid to rest on Friday at 1 p.m."
Ivan Ilyich was a colleague of the gentlemen present, and everyone liked him. He had been ill for several weeks; people said the disease was incurable. His place had been kept open for him, but it was generally assumed that, were he to die, Alexeyev might get his place, and Alexeyev's place would be taken either by Vinnikov or Shtabel. So when they heard of the death of Ivan Ilyich, the first thought of all those present in Shebek's chambers was how this might affect their own relocations and promotions, and those of their friends.
"Now I'll probably get Shtabel's place or Vinnikov's," thought Feodor Vassilievich. "It's been promised to me for a long time. The promotion will bring me a raise of eight hundred rubles, apart from the allowance for office expenses."1
"I'll have to put in for my brother-in-law's transfer from Kaluga," thought Piotr Ivanovich. "My wife will be very pleased. And then no one can say I never did anything for her relatives."
"I thought he'd never get up from his bed again," said Piotr Ivanovich aloud. "Very sad."
"What exactly was wrong with him?"
"The doctors couldn't make it out. That is, they could, but each one thought something different. The last time I saw him, I thought he'd get better."
"And I didn't manage to visit him after the holidays. I kept meaning to go."
"Did he have property?"
"I think something very small came to him through his wife. But really quite insignificant."
"Yes, we'll have to pay our respects. They lived a dreadfully long way out."
"A long way from you, you mean. Everything's a long way from you."
"He just can't forgive my living beyond the river," said Piotr Ivanovich, smiling at Shebek. The conversation passed to the distances between different parts of the city, and they went back into court.
Apart from the considerations prompted by this death-the changes of post and possible permutations at work that were its probable consequences-the fact of a near acquaintance dying evoked in everyone who heard about it the happy feeling that he is dead, not I.
"Well, there you go, he's dead, but I'm not," each of them thought. And close acquaintances, the so-called friends of Ivan Ilyich, involuntarily found themselves also thinking that now they would have to go through the tedious round of social duties, driving out to the funeral and paying their condolences to the widow.
The closest of all were Feodor Vassilievich and Piotr Ivanovich.
Piotr Ivanovich had been Ivan Ilyich's friend from their time at law school2 together, and felt under an obligation to him.
At lunchtime he told his wife about Ivan Ilyich's death and the possibility of his brother-in-law's transfer to their circle. Forgoing his usual after-dinner nap, he put on his tails and drove out to the Golovins.
A carriage and two cabs stood at the entrance to Ivan Ilyich's apartment. In the entrance hall downstairs, propped against the wall by the coat stand, was the coffin lid, draped in silk, decorated with tassels and burnished gold braid. Two ladies in black were taking off their furs. He knew one of them, the sister of Ivan Ilyich, but the other was a stranger. Schwartz, a colleague, was on his way downstairs. Glimpsing Piotr Ivanovich as he entered, Schwartz stopped and winked at him from the top step, suggesting, as it were, "Ivan Ilyich has made a real mess of things, not like you and me."
Schwartz's face with its English side-whiskers, and indeed his entire figure, slim in evening dress, wore its usual air of elegant solemnity-a solemnity which was constantly contradicted by Schwartz's jocular character, acquiring a particular piquancy in the present setting. Or so Piotr Ivanovich thought.
Piotr Ivanovich allowed the ladies to pass before him and followed them slowly upstairs. Schwartz did not come down but waited at the top. Piotr Ivanovich understood why: he wanted to arrange where they would play cards that evening. The ladies went through to visit the widow, and Schwartz, with tight, serious mouth and a playful glance, inclined his head, motioning Piotr Ivanovich to the right, the room where the corpse was laid out.
Piotr Ivanovich entered, as one always does, in total uncertainty over what he should do when he got there. But one thing was quite clear-there can be no harm in crossing yourself in such circumstances. Because he was not certain whether you should bow at the same time, he chose to compromise: he began crossing himself and inclining his head slightly. At the same time he was taking in the room, so far as the movement of his hands and head allowed. Two young men, one a schoolboy-the nephews, probably-were coming out of the room, crossing themselves. An old lady was standing motionless. And a woman with strangely raised eyebrows was whispering something to her. A hearty church deacon3 in a frock coat was reading something loudly and resolutely, in a way that left no room for contradiction. Gerasim, the peasant who normally waited at table, passed in front of Piotr Ivanovich with a light step, strewing something over the floor. Seeing this, Piotr Ivanovich immediately caught the slight smell of decomposition. The last time Piotr Ivanovich had visited Ivan Ilyich, he had seen Gerasim in the sick room. He had taken on the duties of a nurse, and Ivan Ilyich was particularly fond of him. Piotr Ivanovich kept on crossing himself and bowing slightly to an indeterminate point somewhere between the coffin, the deacon, and the icons on the table in the corner. Then, when the movement of his hand crossing himself seemed to have gone on altogether too long, he paused and began looking at the corpse.
The dead man lay with that particular ponderousness common to all corpses, the dead limbs sunken deep in the lining of the coffin, the head bowed forever on its pillow, displaying-prominently, as the dead always do-a waxy yellow forehead with bald patches on the sunken brow, and a pendulous nose seemingly compressing the upper lip. He had grown much thinner and was considerably changed since Piotr Ivanovich last saw him, but his face, as with all the dead, was more beautiful and, more important than that, more meaningful than it had been in his lifetime. The expression on the face suggested that what needed to be done had been done, and done as it should be. Moreover, the expression held a rebuke or a reminder to the living. Such a reminder seemed to Piotr Ivanovich to be out of place here, or at least of no relevance to him. He became rather uncomfortable, somehow. He hastily crossed himself again-too quickly, it seemed to him, without due regard for the appropriate courtesies, and turned to leave. Schwartz was waiting for him in the next room, his legs set wide, his hands behind his back playing with his top hat. One look at Schwartz's playful, neat, and elegant figure refreshed Piotr Ivanovich. He realized that Schwartz rose above such things and did not succumb to unpleasant impressions. His mere appearance proclaimed: the incident of the present obsequies cannot, in any way, serve as an adequate reason for the order of the session to be disrupted-that is, nothing can stop a new pack of cards being unwrapped and shuffled this very evening, while the footman sets out four fresh candles; there are, in short, no grounds for thinking that this episode can stop us spending this evening as pleasantly as any other evening. Schwartz even whispered this to Piotr Ivanovich as he went past, suggesting he should join the company at Feodor Vassilievich's. But evidently it was not ordained that Piotr Ivanovich should play cards that evening. Praskovya Feodorovna came out of her quarters. She was a short, fat woman, whose figure grew progressively wider from head to foot, despite her attempts to achieve the opposite-dressed all in black, her head veiled in lace, and her eyebrows arched in the same peculiar manner as the other lady standing by the coffin. She was leading the other ladies to the room where the body lay, with the words, "The funeral will begin in a moment; please go through."
Schwartz paused, bowing ambiguously, neither visibly accepting nor refusing her invitation. Praskovya Feodorovna recognized Piotr Ivanovich, sighed, came directly to him, took him by the hand, and said, "I know that you were a true friend to Ivan Ilyich. . . ." She was looking at him in expectation of an appropriate response.
Piotr Ivanovich knew that, just as it had been correct to cross himself there, so it was proper to press her hand here, to sigh, and say, "Believe me . . ." Accordingly, he did so. And, having done so, felt that he had achieved the desired result, that he was moved, and so was she.
"Come with me, before they start in there; I must have a word with you," said the widow. "Give me your arm."
Piotr Ivanovich gave her his arm, and they went into the inner room, passing Schwartz, who winked mournfully at Piotr Ivanovich. "So much for our card game! Don't be offended if we find someone else. Five can always play, if you manage to get away," said his playful glance.
Piotr Ivanovich sighed even more deeply and despondently, and Praskovya Feodorovna pressed his hand gratefully. They entered her dimly lit sitting room, upholstered in pink cretonne, and sat down by a table-she on a divan, Piotr Ivanovich on a low ottoman, whose broken springs yielded unpredictably to his weight. Praskovya Feodorovna wanted to warn him that he should sit somewhere else, but thought such a warning inappropriate to her present circumstances and changed her mind. Sitting down on the ottoman, Piotr Ivanovich remembered Ivan Ilyich furnishing the room and asking his advice about this same pink cretonne with its pattern of green leaves. On her way to the divan, the widow passed an occasional table (the room was full of furniture and knickknacks), and the black lace of her mantilla caught on its carvings. Piotr Ivanovich half rose to unhook it, and the liberated ottoman heaved under him and gave him a shove. The widow began unhitching the lace herself. Piotr Ivanovich sat down again, crushing the rebellious springs. But the widow had not freed herself completely. Piotr Ivanovich rose to his feet again, and the ottoman bounced back with a twang. When all this was over, she took out a clean cambric handkerchief and began crying. However, the business with the lace and the contretemps with the ottoman had cooled Piotr Ivanovich. He sat, looking sullen. This uncomfortable situation was interrupted by the entry of Sokolov, Ivan Ilyich's butler, who announced that the plot in the cemetery ordered by Praskovya Feodorovna would cost two hundred rubles. She stopped crying and, with a martyred look at Piotr Ivanovich, said in French that it was very difficult for her. Piotr Ivanovich made a silent gesture indicating his incontrovertible conviction that it could not be otherwise.
"Do smoke," she said in a magnanimous yet crushed voice, and turned to discuss the price of the plot with Sokolov. Piotr Ivanovich lit up and listened to her minutely questioning the butler about the different plot prices and deciding on the right one. When that had been dealt with, she turned to the fees for the choir. Sokolov left.
"I have to do everything myself," she said to Piotr Ivanovich, moving to one side the albums lying on the table and, noticing that his cigarette ash threatened her table, promptly passed him an ashtray. "I find it mere affectation to protest that my grief prevents me from dealing with practical matters. On the contrary, if anything could console me . . . or at least distract me, it is the arrangements concerning him." She took out her handkerchief again, as though on the point of tears, and suddenly, as if mastering herself, gave a little shake and started speaking calmly. "However, I have something I must discuss with you."
Piotr Ivanovich bowed, repressing the ebullient ottoman springs, which immediately began to stir under him.
"He suffered dreadfully in his last days."
"Dreadfully?" asked Piotr Ivanovich.
"Oh, it was terrible! In the last hours, let alone minutes, he didn't stop screaming for a second. For three days on end he screamed without stopping. It was unbearable. I can't understand how I survived it; he could be heard three rooms off, even with the doors closed. My God, how I suffered!"
"Surely he wasn't conscious?" asked Piotr Ivanovich.
"Yes, he was," she whispered, "to the very last minute. He took his leave of us a quarter of an hour before he died, and even asked us to take Volodya out."
Piotr Ivanovich forgot his uncomfortable awareness of his and her hypocrisy. He remembered this man, whom he had known so well as a cheerful child, a schoolboy, and a colleague, and was suddenly appalled by the thought of his suffering. He saw once more that brow, that nose pressed to the upper lip, and felt frightened for himself.
"Three days of appalling suffering, and death. Why, it could happen to me, too, at any time, even now," he thought. For a moment he was terrified. But, he hardly knew how, the usual thoughts promptly came to his aid-that this had happened to Ivan Ilyich, not himself; that this neither could nor should happen to him; and that thinking such thoughts would only mean succumbing to gloom, which was not good for you, as Schwartz demonstrated. And, having followed this train of thought, Piotr Ivanovich grew calm and started eliciting the facts of Ivan Ilyich's decease with interest, as though death were an experience proper only to Ivan Ilyich and not in the least to himself.
After some remarks about the really dreadful physical suffering endured by Ivan Ilyich (Piotr Ivanovich could find out only those details which affected Praskovya Feodorovna's nervous disposition), the widow evidently decided it was time to get down to business.
"Oh, Piotr Ivanovich, it is so hard, so dreadfully hard, so dreadfully hard." And she started crying again.
Copyright © 2003 by Leo Tolstoy A New Translation, with an Introduction and Notes, by Ann Pasternak Slater. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.