Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To His Sister.

TAGANROG, April 2, 1887.

The journey from Moscow to Serpuhov was dull. My fellow-travellers were practical persons of strong character who did nothing but talk of the prices of flour. . . .

. . . At twelve o’clock we were at Kursk. An hour of waiting, a glass of vodka, a tidy-up and a wash, and cabbage soup. Change to another train. The carriage was crammed full. Immediately after Kursk I made friends with my neighbours: a landowner from Harkov, as jocose as Sasha K.; a lady who had just had an operation in Petersburg; a police captain; an officer from Little Russia; and a general in military uniform. We settled social questions. The general’s arguments were sound, short, and liberal; the police captain was the type of an old battered sinner of an hussar yearning for amorous adventures. He had the affectations of a governor: he opened his mouth long before he began to speak, and having said a word he gave a long growl like a dog, “er-r-r.” The lady was injecting morphia, and sent the men to fetch her ice at the stations.

At Belgrade I had cabbage soup. We got to Harkov at nine o’clock. A touching parting from the police captain, the general and the others. . . . I woke up at Slavyansk and sent you a postcard. A new lot of passengers got in: a landowner and a railway inspector. We talked of railways. The inspector told us how the Sevastopol railway stole three hundred carriages from the Azov line and painted them its own colour. [Footnote: See the story “Cold Blood.”]

. . . Twelve o’clock. Lovely weather. There is a scent of the steppe and one hears the birds sing. I see my old friends the ravens flying over the steppe.

The barrows, the water-towers, the buildings — everything is familiar and well-remembered. At the station I have a helping of remarkably good and rich sorrel soup. Then I walk along the platform. Young ladies. At an upper window at the far end of the station sits a young girl (or a married lady, goodness knows which) in a white blouse, beautiful and languid. [Footnote: See the story “Two Beauties.”] I look at her, she looks at me. . . . I put on my glasses, she does the same. . . . Oh, lovely vision! I caught a catarrh of the heart and continued my journey. The weather is devilishly, revoltingly fine. Little Russians, oxen, ravens, white huts, rivers, the line of the Donets railway with one telegraph wire, daughters of landowners and farmers, red dogs, the trees — it all flits by like a dream. . . . It is hot. The inspector begins to bore me. The rissoles and pies, half of which I have not got through, begin to smell bitter. . . . I shove them under somebody else’s seat, together with the remains of the vodka.

. . . I arrive at Taganrog. . . . It gives one the impression of Herculaneum and Pompeii; there are no people, and instead of mummies there are sleepy drishpaks [Footnote: Uneducated young men in the jargon of Taganrog.] and melon-shaped heads. All the houses look flattened out, and as though they had long needed replastering, the roofs want painting, the shutters are closed. . . .

At eight o’clock in the evening my uncle, his family, Irina, the dogs, the rats that live in the storeroom, the rabbits were fast asleep. There was nothing for it but to go to bed too. I sleep on the drawing-room sofa. The sofa has not increased in length, and is as short as it was before, and so when I go to bed I have either to stick up my legs in an unseemly way or to let them hang down to the floor. I think of Procrustes and his bed. . . .

April 6.

I wake up at five. The sky is grey. There is a cold, unpleasant wind that reminds one of Moscow. It is dull. I wait for the church bells and go to late Mass. In the cathedral it is all very charming, decorous, and not boring. The choir sings well, not at all in a plebeian style, and the congregation entirely consists of young ladies in olive-green dresses and chocolate-coloured jackets. . . .

April 8, 9, and 10.

Frightfully dull. It is cold and grey. . . . During all my stay in Taganrog I could only do justice to the following things: remarkably good ring rolls sold at the market, the Santurninsky wine, fresh caviare, excellent crabs and uncle’s genuine hospitality. Everything else is poor and not to be envied. The young ladies here are not bad, but it takes some time to get used to them. They are abrupt in their movements, frivolous in their attitude to men, run away from their parents with actors, laugh loudly, easily fall in love, whistle to dogs, drink wine, etc. . . .

On Saturday I continued my journey. At the Moskaya station the air is lovely and fresh, caviare is seventy kopecks a pound. At Rostdov I had two hours to wait, at Taganrog twenty. I spent the night at an acquaintance’s. The devil only knows what I haven’t spent a night on: on beds with bugs, on sofas, settees, boxes. Last night I spent in a long and narrow parlour on a sofa under a looking-glass. . . .

April 25.

. . . Yesterday was the wedding — a real Cossack wedding with music, feminine bleating, and revolting drunkenness. . . . The bride is sixteen. They were married in the cathedral. I acted as best man, and was dressed in somebody else’s evening suit with fearfully wide trousers, and not a single stud on my shirt. In Moscow such a best man would have been kicked out, but here I looked smarter than anyone.

I saw many rich and eligible young ladies. The choice is enormous, but I was so drunk all the time that I took bottles for young ladies and young ladies for bottles. Probably owing to my drunken condition the local ladies found me witty and satirical! The young ladies here are regular sheep, if one gets up from her place and walks out of the room all the others follow her. One of them, the boldest and the most brainy, wishing to show that she is not a stranger to social polish and subtlety, kept slapping me on the hand and saying, “Oh, you wretch!” though her face still retained its scared expression. I taught her to say to her partners, “How naive you are!”

The bride and bridegroom, probably because of the local custom of kissing every minute, kissed with such gusto that their lips made a loud smack, and it gave me a taste of sugary raisins in my mouth and a spasm in my left calf. The inflammation of the vein in my left leg got worse through their kisses.

. . . At Zvyerevo I shall have to wait from nine in the evening till five in the morning. Last time I spent the night there in a second-class railway-carriage on the siding. I went out of the carriage in the night and outside I found veritable marvels: the moon, the limitless steppe, the barrows, the wilderness; deathly stillness, and the carriages and the railway lines sharply standing out from the dusk. It seemed as though the world were dead. . . . It was a picture one would not forget for ages and ages.

RAGOZINA BALKA, April 30, 1887.

It is April 30. The evening is warm. There are storm-clouds about, and so one cannot see a thing. The air is close and there is a smell of grass.

I am staying in the Ragozina Balka at K.’s. There is a small house with a thatched roof, and barns made of flat stone. There are three rooms, with earthen floors, crooked ceilings, and windows that lift up and down instead of opening outwards. . . . The walls are covered with rifles, pistols, sabres and whips. The chest of drawers and the window-sills are littered with cartridges, instruments for mending rifles, tins of gunpowder, and bags of shot. The furniture is lame and the veneer is coming off it. I have to sleep on a consumptive sofa, very hard, and not upholstered . . . Ash-trays and all such luxuries are not to be found within a radius of ten versts. . . . The first necessaries are conspicuous by their absence, and one has in all weathers to slip out to the ravine, and one is warned to make sure there is not a viper or some other creature under the bushes.

The population consists of old K., his wife, Pyotr, a Cossack officer with broad red stripes on his trousers, Alyosha, Hahko (that is, Alexandr), Zoika, Ninka, the shepherd Nikita and the cook Akulina. There are immense numbers of dogs who are furiously spiteful and don’t let anyone pass them by day or by night. I have to go about under escort, or there will be one writer less in Russia. . . . The most cursed of the dogs is Muhtar, an old cur on whose face dirty tow hangs instead of wool. He hates me and rushes at me with a roar every time I go out of the house.

Now about food. In the morning there is tea, eggs, ham and bacon fat. At midday, soup with goose, roast goose with pickled sloes, or a turkey, roast chicken, milk pudding, and sour milk. No vodka or pepper allowed. At five o’clock they make on a camp fire in the wood a porridge of millet and bacon fat. In the evening there is tea, ham, and all that has been left over from dinner.

The entertainments are: shooting bustards, making bonfires, going to Ivanovka, shooting at a mark, setting the dogs at one another, preparing gunpowder paste for fireworks, talking politics, building turrets of stone, etc.

The chief occupation is scientific farming, introduced by the youthful Cossack, who bought five roubles’ worth of works on agriculture. The most important part of this farming consists of wholesale slaughter, which does not cease for a single moment in the day. They kill sparrows, swallows, bumblebees, ants, magpies, crows — to prevent them eating bees; to prevent the bees from spoiling the blossom on the fruit-trees they kill bees, and to prevent the fruit-trees from exhausting the ground they cut down the fruit-trees. One gets thus a regular circle which, though somewhat original, is based on the latest data of science.

We retire at nine in the evening. Sleep is disturbed, for Belonozhkas and Muhtars howl in the yard and Tseter furiously barks in answer to them from under my sofa. I am awakened by shooting: my hosts shoot with rifles from the windows at some animal which does damage to their crops. To leave the house at night one has to call the Cossack, for otherwise the dogs would tear one to bits.

The weather is fine. The grass is tall and in blossom. I watch bees and men among whom I feel myself something like a Mikluha-Maklay. Last night there was a beautiful thunderstorm.

. . . The coal mines are not far off. To-morrow morning early I am going on a one-horse droshky to Ivanovka (twenty-three versts) to fetch my letters from the post.

. . . We eat turkeys’ eggs. Turkeys lay eggs in the wood on last year’s leaves. They kill hens, geese, pigs, etc., by shooting here. The shooting is incessant.

TAGANROG, May 11.

. . . From K.’s I went to the Holy Mountains. . . . I came to Slavyansk on a dark evening. The cabmen refuse to take me to the Holy Mountains at night, and advise me to spend the night at Slavyansk, which I did very willingly, for I felt broken and lame with pain. . . . The town is something like Gogol’s Mirgorod; there is a hairdresser and a watchmaker, so that one may hope that in another thousand years there will be a telephone. The walls and fences are pasted with the advertisements of a menagerie. . . . On green and dusty streets walk pigs, cows, and other domestic creatures. The houses look cordial and friendly, rather like kindly grandmothers; the pavements are soft, the streets are wide, there is a smell of lilac and acacia in the air; from the distance come the singing of a nightingale, the croaking of frogs, barking, and sounds of a harmonium, of a woman screeching. . . . I stopped in Kulikov’s hotel, where I took a room for seventy-five kopecks. After sleeping on wooden sofas and washtubs it was a voluptuous sight to see a bed with a mattress, a washstand. . . . Fragrant breezes came in at the wide-open window and green branches thrust themselves in. It was a glorious morning. It was a holiday (May 6th) and the bells were ringing in the cathedral. People were coming out from mass. I saw police officers, justices of the peace, military superintendents, and other principalities and powers come out of the church. I bought two kopecks’ worth of sunflower seeds, and hired for six roubles a carriage on springs to take me to the Holy Mountains and back (in two days’ time). I drove out of the town through little streets literally drowned in the green of cherry, apricot, and apple trees. The birds sang unceasingly. Little Russians whom I met took off their caps, taking me probably for Turgenev; my driver jumped every minute off the box to put the harness to rights, or to crack his whip at the boys who ran after the carriage. . . . There were strings of pilgrims along the road. On all sides there were white hills, big and small. The horizon was bluish-white, the rye was tall, oak copses were met with here and there — the only things lacking were crocodiles and rattlesnakes.

I came to the Holy Mountains at twelve o’clock. It is a remarkably beautiful and unique place. The monastery stands on the bank of the river Donets at the foot of a huge white rock covered with gardens, oaks, and ancient pines crowded together and over-hanging, one above another. It seems as if the trees had not enough room on the rock, and as if some force were driving them upwards. . . . The pines literally hang in the air and look as though they might fall any minute. Cuckoos and nightingales sing night and day.

The monks, very pleasant people, gave me a very unpleasant room with a pancake-like mattress. I spent two nights at the monastery and gathered a mass of impressions. While I was there some fifteen thousand pilgrims assembled because of St. Nicolas’ Day; eight-ninths of them were old women. I did not know before that there were so many old women in the world; had I known, I would have shot myself long ago. About the monks, my acquaintance with them and how I gave medical advice to the monks and the old women, I will write to the Novoye Vremya and tell you when we meet. The services are endless: at midnight they ring for matins, at five for early mass, at nine for late mass, at three for the song of praise, at five for vespers, at six for the special prayers. Before every service one hears in the corridors the weeping sound of a bell, and a monk runs along crying in the voice of a creditor who implores his debtor to pay him at least five kopecks for a rouble:

“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us! Please come to matins!”

It is awkward to stay in one’s room, and so one gets up and goes out. I have chosen a spot on the bank of the Donets, where I sit during all the services.

I have bought an ikon for Auntie. [Translator’s Note: His mother’s sister.] The food is provided gratis by the monastery for all the fifteen thousand: cabbage soup with dried fresh-water fish and porridge. Both are good, and so is the rye bread.

The church bells are wonderful. The choir is not up to much. I took part in a religious procession on boats.

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