Thursday, 18 October 2012

Dead Wife, New Hat. (Femme morte, chapeau neuf.)

Fish and guests smell at three days old, Anton Chekhov mused.
    In truth, that year at Madame Lintvaryova’s country villa in the Ukraine he had grown restless after two.
    On his solitary walks beside the teeming fishpools to the village his thoughts returned again and again to the problem of a short story considered worthy of inclusion in the memorial collection dedicated to his celebrated friend, the late storyteller Garshin.
    To refuse to contribute would be uncomradely and irreverent towards a man he’d loved. Anton despaired: All the short stories I have in my pending drawer are unsuitable. They’re either very vulgar, very frivolous or very long.
    He felt a compulsion to write a story about a writer of no talent, a neurasthenic undergraduate who affects to wears blue-lens spectacles, and whose return home to a lonely country-house is driven by the wish to die: He  reads French monologues, drinks alone, then everything turns out stupid, and he shoots himself.
    Anton struck his fist against his palm. Appalling bad taste! Hadn’t poor Garshin thrown himself down the stairwell from the fifth floor of his own apartment house only hours before Anton had planned to visit him?
    The recent tragedy was surely no fit subject for the symposium volume! Yet, in the beginning, Anton had found the villa’s old overgrown gardens highly poetical and a stimulant to his torpid, novelettish fancies.

    The countryside along the river, with its melancholy boarded-up manor-houses, seemed like some fabled enchanted domain, where the souls of beautiful women dwelled – to say nothing of ossified butlers and footmen still dressed like jesters who fondly recalled their days of serfdom – and where romantic young ladies pined for the most operetta-ish kind of love.
    Anton yawned. He, the braggart who’d once claimed he could write a feuilleton in five minutes whose subject was merely an ashtray, was reluctant to admit he was stumped.
    Pathological fatigue! There could be no other explanation for the feuilletoniste’s inertia. Twelve hours’ earlier, at two in the morning, he’d awakened with an attack of the night sweats in the room Aleksandra had assigned him. He had forgotten to pack his nightshirt and imagined he would appear foolish to ask his hostess for one. But a bad shift is better than no shift at all, so he’d attempted to sleep in his undervest.
    Except, dammit ... he could not cast from his mind the memory of a shy student teacher who’d stayed one night at the villa the previous spring. The young man had been sound asleep when suddenly a deaf old woman entered his room, carrying an enema, and with rapid dexterity inserted it. Thinking this visit must be the usual thing, the teacher did not protest; and in the morning, of course, when Aleksandra heard of it, she’d not had the heart to tell the blushing ninny the old woman had made a mistake.
    At this recollection, sleep had eluded Anton and, thereafter, he had lain shivering long into the small hours, his pulse contrapunto to the boom of a water-bittern from the marshes.
    Later that morning, however, by chance, he had retrieved his post: an unexpected package whose wrappings when torn off disclosed his abandoned nightshirt and combinations, laundered and neatly pressed.
    Inside was a note from the droll, red-haired porter, Motovilov, who’d guarded the door to Anton’s last lodgings. This importunate, lynx-eyed dvornick, observing Chekhov’s infirmities, had tormented the long-suffering doctor at every turn with meddlesome homespun remedies, which – because they were well meant – his victims were invariably too kindly disposed to decry.  Anton had tipped him handsomely, and Motovilov’s honest act was recompense for the many handouts.
    The enclosure was typical of the man:

Respected Sir
I dutifully enclose the eminent gentleman’s change of linen trusting by St. Paul who commanded Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomock’s sake that Your Honourableness will likewise partake of fifteen Botkin drops in five glasses of wine as having long acquaintance with the illconvenience of the colic and such disorders numbered among your complaints occasioned by The Hydropathy I am certain of a cure.
Begging to remain yr most humble obedient servant
Sergei Platonovich Motovilov
at the sign of The ❚❚❚❚❚ ❚❚❚❚

    The Censor had blanked out the offending words, beneath which was rubber-stamped: With the Permission of the Censor. When Anton examined the seals on the packing thread he saw they had been carefully replaced.
    Apparently, the waggish Motovilov had alluded to the tavern’s sign, the Imperial Eagle, in terms which savoured of lèse-majesté by committing to paper the name by which the tavern was more familiarly known: The Split Crow.
    No doubt Dr. Chekhov would again be the subject of a ‘See All, Tell All’ report to the Censorship Committee, with confidential memoranda attached to his dossier positing new speculations as to his views on schismatic separatists.
    So, in spidery writing, do the tenacula of a provincial state’s apparat fasten their grip.
    In recent months, censorship of letters by order of the Governor had been particularly vigorous as there were whispers of revolutionaries sent to foment civil unrest in the provinces.  Anton knew that he, himself, was among the first rank in the long catalogue of enemies of the state under surveillance by the despotic Political Department; not even new-born babes-in-arms were free from suspicion.
    A dame who kept a forbidden crèche of toddlers had been condemned for harbouring an illegal assembly of infants
    Inside the Secret Chancellery, the Internal Agency marshalled a vast army of anti-terrorist and counter-espionage agents who were supervised in systematic undercover activity connivant in penetrating all social ranks.
    The disguised men – Vidocqesque informers, correspondents and rumour-catchers – were planted as collaborators within all known revolutionary organisations and suborned by the higher police in every profession and craft to smell out sedition within the monarchical state.
    Spy fever knew no surcease.  Not a day passed without the exposure of yet another clandestine printing press or the betrayal of hidden archives, treasonable pamphlets, secret mimeographs, conspiracies, bomb factories and arsenals of the People’s Will Party or the public burning of the terrorists’ forbidden libraries.
    Once in Chekhov’s early years, the Censor of the Mails had intercepted the draft of a juvenile playlet, but the opusculum slipped the net without sanction since no trace of a plot was found.
    He recalled a former student at University who dreamt of devoting himself to literature and, at last, gave up the civil service and followed his calling to St. Petersburg. He became a censor.  Anton imagined him – even now – chewing on a stub, while he blue-pencilled his own tongue as well as better men’s brains.
    In the Customs Houses they treated a revolver with flippancy, but regarded typewriters as more dangerous than dynamite.
        No! In these oppressive times, the writer was like a whipped cur and his neck was in the noose of an editorial choke-chain, for there was no subject safe from the Tsar’s forbidding system of mental drill.
    Anton sighed. Frustratingly, the essential theme – the leitmotif – of the commissioned short story had yet to suggest itself.  The nagging thought was like the tongue ever turning to an aching tooth.  As he filed Motovilov’s letter in his correspondence case, he glanced at the quaint terms of the invitation he’d received in Moscow from his hostess, Madame Lintvaryova.
    How appropriate that the private passion of dear Aleksandra was the collecting of fossils, he thought, with a rueful smile.  One of the penalties of her acquaintanceship was her insistence that prospective guests should fossick for specimens for her study, and submit them to be tagged.
    He remembered how, the previous week, his unfolding of Aleksandra’s letter on the train had prompted him to send a hasty telegram to the Ukraine to advise his time of arrival.
    The train had halted by a woodstack to take on more fuel.
    According to the earnest railway steward, the track in the middle of the Russian forests was said to be laid so crooked the enginemen would throw crooked logs, grown on moonless nights, into the firebox.
    At the station refreshment room, the air fragrant with burning pine cones, a huge hissing samovar had dispensed a large glassful of fishy-tasting tea made from dried raspberry leaves.
    Anton’s immediate feeling had been of vexation that the fat peasant with the grizzled beard, in the soiled green tunic and red belt, should sell such filth.

    The slovenly oaf had sported a scorched fingerstall; the vodka on his breath smelled rank; and the sugar bowl was alive with reptant beetles, the grains spattered black with specks of fly-dirt like the pen-scratched elisions of a censorious revisionist hand.
    And he had no doubt the state’s reptant censors had read Aleksandra’s letter also; they must have crawled all over it for telltale signs of his having succumbed to anti-imperialistic sympathies.
    His seat safely retrieved in the second class compartment – among the merry, holidaying Little Russians bound for their summer cabins – he’d reread Madame Lintvaryova’s affectionate letter confirming the details of the rooms she had placed at his disposal at the villa, and the arrangements the good lady had advanced for the reception of Anton’s venerable admirer, the poet Pleshcheyev – St. Petersburg’s most ancient rehabilitated revolutionary. (Perhaps, in this regard, Anton considered, she would come to accept that old Pleshcheyev himself sufficed as a rare enough crustaceous relic to be added to her fossil collection.)
    Her letter clearly revealed that the passage of another year had not diminished her eccentricity, her enthusiasm, nor, mercifully, her caution.

Ave Antonius,
I have only now had time to examine your consignment.
    The Pleurotoma denticula ex petras was broken when it reached me. The Turbinolia sp. are very typical of that littoral. Your best find is the fine example of Dentalium subeburneum, which is quite scarce, and your Batillaria bouei seldom turns up.  I congratulate you on this. I rather guessed your Turritella would be a sulcifera, as this is the largest species I know in the Lutetian.
    Life here without you is too drear, dear, too, too drear.
Do come soon.
Your sincerely devoted
madame châtelaine et maîtresse d’hôtel.

    Had her cunning covert reference to the broken health of old Pleshcheyev from St. Petersburg (ex petras!) sufficiently pulled the wool over the spying eyes of the apparatchiki in the Post Office, Anton wondered listlessly.
    Anton had a suspicion that Madame Lintvaryova, a keen follower of Schopenhauer, would come to regard Pleshcheyev in the Ukraine as the same sort of symbol of the Will as was upheld by his coterie in Petersburg, that is, as an icon that the people worshipped because it was old and had once hung side by side with wonder-working icons.  (The wonder-working ikoni, in question, being that ex-revolutionary Dostoevsky, and the wild man Petrashevsky.)
    Now, as he strolled through the kitchen gardens towards the hothouses, Chekhov made a note to quiz Pleshcheyev on the madcap antics of his friend, Petrashevsky, and, with a degree of luck, to record them for posterity.
    All the same, Anton was damnably irritable.
    The railway on which he’d arrived for the house party was a little pully-hauly-push-me-pull-you affair, but the conductor was sprightly and sped efficiently on errands in long brightly polished boots. As a matter of habit, Anton had recorded this local colour in his notebook. The conductor wore a hat of Astrakhan black wool, blue trousers, and a surtout buttoned to the neck, bound round the waist with a magenta-coloured sash ending in long blue tassels.
    Anton had tipped him to be moved to another carriage. The tobacco smoke in the former car had been as thick as a Sikh’s beard.
      He had lately learned that Tolstoy had given up smoking for good, and Dr. Chekhov had decided to emulate the unpredictable patriarch by keeping St. Peter’s Fast, which had began on Trinity Sunday and was to be observed until the end of July. What’s more, from that day Anton had decided to restrict his chameleon diet to three cinnamon cakes and a dose from a bottle containing a solution of quinine, kalium bromatum, an infusion of rhubarb, tincture of gentian, and fennel water – all in one mixture, quantum sufficit.
    But his good intentions, he knew, were as enfeebled as his own illhealth and the slippery slope to moral backsliding was simply a matter of time.
    ‘Do not tell me that the Struggle is futile ...’ Anton murmured, quoting Pleshcheyev, an ironic twist to his lips. He felt frazzled from the heat.
    Then, suddenly, almost as though by a stroke of his own editorial pen, a new scene opened out before him, a sketchy new paragraph, as it were, suggested by an entrance pillar with a chipped capital where a collapsed brick coping broke the line of the crumbling kitchen garden wall.
        And there – in the nethermost corner of the abandoned nursery, basking in the sun-trap of a sunken flower garden – was seated Pleshcheyev, fast asleep.
    Dr. Chekhov, hardly containing his delight, sat down beside him.
    Surely no moment could be more promising.
    (When at last Pleshcheyev had arrived at Mme Lintvaryova’s Anton had been overjoyed; but a hectic round of parlour games and family outings had so conspired to deny the Grand Old Man and his protégé the respite of even one precious minute alone together and, in consequence, Anton had been thwarted of the occasion he sought to steer the old boy’s recollections towards his painful memory of the long-haired rebel, Mikhail Vasilyevich Butashevich-Petrashevsky.)
    Now, at this somnolent hour after lunch, Anton reflected, their tuft-hunting hostess was prone to sentimental reverie in her sitting room, for she regarded her old chairs, stools and sofas with the same respectful tenderness as she regarded her old dogs and horses, and, therefore, her home was something like an almshouse for furniture, never mind broken-winded literati.
    Pleshcheyev’s chin had sunk on his neck-tie; he lay with withered hands clasped on his belly, legs stretched out at full length; his breathing was light.
    Anton sent the under-gardener to fetch a sun-hat. The sun beat harshly on a glass of tea undrunk and on his patron’s mottled forehead.
     Soon the young man returned brushing moss from the crown of a panama the size of a parasol.
    Shaded by the hat, Pleshcheyev, understandably, at once awoke and protested, at which Anton saw his moment and seized it.
    An occasion lost cannot be redeemed, Anton thought, and promptly asserted that Petrashevsky’s hat had been, surely, considerably larger.
    Gently, Dr. Chekhov took the old man’s wrist and felt the pulse flutter under his fingertips as Alexie Pleshcheyev, sinking further into a brocaded cushion, described his first sighting of Anton’s childhood hero.
    On that memorable occasion, of course, Petrashevsky had been wearing his preposterously wide raincoat and equally preposterous wide-brimmed hat – a veritable sombrero.
    In this ensemble, calculated to scandalise the conservatively dressed civil servants of St. Petersburg, he would saunter to work; and, indeed, at times he would wear a four-cornered hat of a more recent French revolutionary vintage, delighting in the sensation he created.
    He abominated the fopperies of fawning courtiers, and those who studied to flatter the Autocrat made him feel quite faint.
    Petrashevsky had flouted the Palace’s disapproval of long hair by wearing curls to the shoulders and when ordered by his superiors to conform, he had appeared the next day with hair even longer.
    ‘But just as his director prepared to reprimand him,’ Alexie chuckled and his pulse leapt, ‘Petrashevsky yanked off a wig and revealed a completely shaven head!’
      Extraordinarily, Alexie continued, Petrashevsky had even once worn a woman’s dress to Kazan cathedral.  He had stood there, among the women, and pretended to pray.  His extremely masculine physique and black beard, however, soon attracted the attention of a deacon, who approached him and said: ‘Respected sir, you are, it appears to me, a man in a woman’s clothes.’ Petrashevsky had reportedly replied to the dignitary:  ‘My dear, it is not me but you who are clearly a woman masquerading in a man’s dress.’
     The deacon was so shocked by this answer from the sans-culottist that Petrashevsky was able to disappear into the crowd of worshippers.
    Pleshcheyev then attempted, in an amateurish sort of way, to analyse the deeper anti-authoritarian motives of Petrashevsky.
    ‘In truth, Antoine, his bizarre performance was mostly an infantile regression, you know, simply attention-seeking behaviour to compensate for the withdrawal of maternal love. The long hair, the defiance, it was all a result of the moral trauma of childhood neglect.’
    Pleshcheyev paused to savour his tea and the scents from the sunlit garden.
    ‘His mother was a harsh, self-denying woman who, when his father died, grudged him every penny of his inheritance.  Petrashevsky told me himself that at his father’s funeral his mother had falsely denounced him before the family mourners with the bitter accusation : “Admire this man for a worthy son!  He is glad of his father’s death!” Maternal rebuke and rejection followed him all his life. Should we wonder that he went off the rails and fixated on humiliating the mother state! Mind you, he inherited his mother’s sour tongue. The wine at those fashionable drinking soirees he presided over for stoking up the Friday night liberals was unbelievably nasty. Yes, a deadly vinum nastissimum. Dostoevsky called it Chateau du Chamberpot!’
    Chekhov began to cautiously draw out Alexie on the subject of the capture and staged execution of the notorious Petrashevskian Circle to which Pleshcheyev and Dostoevsky had belonged.
    Pleshcheyev half-closed his eyes and began :
    ‘Imagine. 5 a.m. in the morning. In the midst of December. It was two overcoats colder than the day before and the snow reached over our knees when we were transported to Semenovskiy Square. The Tsar had chosen December to submit us to the ultimate indignity. I mean, young Kaskin had earned the full measure of the Tsar’s hatred by being a nephew of one of the original Decembrist plotters who had rebelled over a quarter of a century earlier. He had spent the entire previous eight months of the investigation in strictest solitary confinement. The ordeal in the dark-chamber had driven him practically insane. He was almost unrecognisable, and so were we all. The scaffold was draped in black. Steps led up to it and a railing surrounded it. A short distance from the scaffold stood three wooden posts.  The crowd filled three sides of the square, and standing guard were a considerable number of military units.’
    Suddenly, Pleshcheyev’s eyes snapped open and he turned abruptly to Chekhov, his gaze full on him.
    ‘The soldiers had blacked their buttons,’ he unburdened, his eyes moist, agleam with indignation. He spoke with that hasty breathless voice that old men use when there is sickness or death in the house. ‘Beware the fate of our nation when you see the buttons of our soldiers blacked.’
    Chekhov nodded, rapt, but did not interrupt.
    ‘As Petrashevsky climbed the steps he turned to me, ridiculously clutching his credentials (here Pleshcheyev demonstrated the action, by discreetly placing his hands over his groin and cupping his balls), and then Petrashevsky said, in a high, lisping voice, “I’m so cold I don’t know whether I’m a Mikhail or a Mikhailina!” ’
    From the condemned men there had burst forth a scattering of strained laughter.
    ‘Well you know the rest,’ Pleshcheyev said brokenly.
    ‘We Petrashevskians, one by one, were led up to the scaffold and were ordered to stand in two rows of twelve and nine men facing each other. The State Auditor mounted the scaffold and to each of our hatless, shivering comrades was read a statement of his guilt which ended with the words: “The Military-Civil Court has sentenced all to execution by shooting, and on the 19th of December the Tsar wrote in his own hand, ‘So be it.’ ”
    ‘Only then for the first time did we prisoners learn the conclusion of the case against us, and understood the significance of those three wooden posts,’ Pleshcheyev whispered gravely.
    The Auditor’s reading lasted over half an hour.
    Then a priest joined the accused on the scaffold and called them to confession. None answered, except Timkovskiy who stepped forward to kiss the cross and then returned to his place in the ranks.
    Petrashevsky then also kissed the cross and Dostoevsky whispered to Spesnev, ‘We will be together with Christ.’
    Spesnev answered, ‘A handful of dust, I think.’
    ‘At that moment we all crossed ourselves,’ sighed Pleshcheyev.
    The ceremonial executioner had then passed down the lines of the accused, breaking an incised sword ritualistically above each head.
    The Petrashevskians were given white shirts with caps and were ordered to put them on.
    ‘Lord, how absurd we must appear in these costumes,’ Petrashevsky had exclaimed scornfully, and snickered.
    Then the first three of them –  Petrashevsky, Mombelli and Grigoryev – were led down the steps and across to the posts to be tied facing the fifteen rifles of the firing squad.
    ‘Dostoevsky and I were next so we only had a few seconds to make our farewells and embrace,’ Pleshcheyev murmured.
    The soldiers had then taken aim, but the command, ‘Fire!’, never came.
    An official waved a white handkerchief.  The death sentences for all of them had been commuted, to Siberian exile or to hard labour (or, in the case of Pleshcheyev, to active service as a private in a rehabilitation unit, in a penal line battalion, deployed in the exhumation of the slain temporarily buried on battlefields).
    Petrashevsky was then forced to dress once more in his prison garb, and heavy snow was falling as two blacksmiths appeared to fit iron fetters to his legs.
    Petrashevsky took the smith’s hammer and drove the nails into the fetters himself.
    A black hooded sleigh with black curtains drew up to the scaffold.
    Petrashevsky hobbled down the line of men, and each prisoner bade him farewell.
    There were tears in Pleshcheyev’s eyes.
    ‘That was the first time I really loved him,’ Alexie said reverentially.
    He removed the hat and passed it to Anton, shielding his eyes.
    Asked how he viewed the past from the tranquillity of his present-day standpoint, Pleshcheyev’s eyes again half-closed, like those of a daydreamer sunk in Oblomovian torpor:  ‘After the late unpleasantness (his euphemism for the assassination of the Tsar’s father seven years’ earlier) the highest spiritual state I attempt to attain, these days, is one of an ambiguous unforgetfulnesslessness.’
    The real live revolutionary, letting his eyelids droop, appeared to fall asleep.
    Regretfully, Anton opened a first edition of Pleshcheyev’s poems he had brought for the old man to autograph. The opportunity was now lost. Where the pages opened, his glance dwelt on two forgiving Pleshcheyevian lines:
We shall teach the Love,
Whether as beggars or richmen.
For this we shall be pursued,
But we shall forgive our executioners.
    Pleshcheyev snored gently, his feet raised on an unfolded garden lounger of woven cane. His toe-caps were highly polished.
    As black as the buttons of soldiers in a penal regiment, Anton brooded. The meaning of the forcibly-conscripted old veteran’s remark was not lost on him.

    Future terrors seemed to cast their shadow before them.
    In the penal regiments, the snipers used this ruse to conceal their shiny decorations when on night shooting patrol.
    The sunlight gleamed brightly on buffed shoe leather.
    Madame Lintvaryova had attended to this particular detail of her distinguished guest’s toilette herself.
    Anton recalled a remark by Tolstoy: ‘For the best kind of revolutionary commend me a man who has never blacked his own boots.’
    He placed the Petrashevskian hat on his own head but the larger crown did not fit.
    I, too, have often turned my mind uneasily in the same direction, Anton pondered, fearing not to admit my fear of the salon-revolutionary’s path.
    The hat made his head so devilishly hot he felt as if his brains were bubbling over.  His scalp itched and he remembered with irritation a remark of Sarah Bernhardt’s at their last meeting at the Mayakovsky Theatre.
    ‘Mais, mon ange! Femme morte, chapeau neuf!’
    That the Divine Sarah had contended that his short stories were too long was a gross effrontery he simply could not ignore!
    Sarah had arched her fine white throat for her admirers’ regard as she’d thrown back her head and laughed. ‘Dead wife, new hat! Voilà! In all Russia there is no short story shorter than that!’
    ‘Ah! That’s all very well, madame, but please to observe, medicine is my wife,’ Dr. Chekhov had protested, ‘and literature, my mistress. Perhaps you suggest I should kill the one to make room for the other?’
    Seated beside the ancient Petrashevskian revolutionary, the writer-without-a-tale could have been heard to murmur sorrowfully, as he sank into slumber: ‘Maybe that day has come. Let this cup pass from me.’
    But the young under-gardener who came with a sickle in his hand to retrieve the hat was deaf from shooting game in the woods so he heard nothing.
    And it was his hat, after all.

An edited extract from Catherine Eisner’s unpublished novel, D-r Tchékhov, Detektiv.
For further extracts see 
Inductive Detection
and Talking Raven . . .
and Winter Rules and Le Diable Boiteux . . .
and Prof. Yanychev’s Three-Cornered Duel

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremisCompulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
see Eisner’s 
Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)

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