Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To His Sister.

STEAMER “ALEXANDR NEVSKY 23,” April, 1890, early in the morning.

My dear Tunguses!

Did you have rain when Ivan was coming back from the monastery? In Yaroslavl there was such a downpour that I had to swathe myself in my leather chiton. My first impression of the Volga was poisoned by the rain, by the tear-stained windows of the cabin, and the wet nose of G., who came to meet me at the station. In the rain Yaroslavl looks like Zvenigorod, and its churches remind me of Perervinsky Monastery; there are lots of illiterate signboards, it’s muddy, jackdaws with big heads strut about the pavement.

In the steamer I made it my first duty to indulge my talent — that is, to sleep. When I woke I beheld the sun. The Volga is not bad; water meadows, monasteries bathed in sunshine, white churches; the wide expanse is marvellous, wherever one looks it would be a nice place to sit down and begin fishing. Class ladies [Translator’s Note: I.e., School chaperons, whose duty it is to sit in the classroom while the girls are receiving instruction from a master.] wander about on the banks, nipping at the green grass. The shepherd’s horn can be heard now and then. White gulls, looking like the younger Drishka, hover over the water.

The steamer is not up to much. . . .

* * * * *

Kundasova is travelling with me. Where she is going and with what object I don’t know. When I question her about it, she launches off into extremely misty allusions about someone who has appointed a tryst with her in a ravine near Kineshma, then goes off into a wild giggle and begins stamping her feet or prodding with her elbow whatever comes first. We have passed both Kineshma and the ravine, but she still goes on in the steamer, at which of course I am very much pleased; by the way, yesterday for the first time in my life I saw her eating. She eats no less than other people, but she eats mechanically, as though she were munching oats.

Kostroma is a nice town. I saw the stretch of river on which the languid Levitan used to live. I saw Kineshma, where I walked along the boulevard and watched the local beaus. Here I went into the chemist’s shop to buy some Bertholet salts for my tongue, which was like leather after the medicine I had taken. The chemist, on seeing Olga Petrovna, was overcome with delight and confusion; she was the same. They were evidently old acquaintances, and judging from the conversation between them they had walked more than once about the ravines near Kineshma.

. . . It’s rather cold and rather dull, but interesting on the whole. The steamer whistles every minute; its whistle is midway between the bray of an ass and an Aeolian harp. In five or six hours we shall be in Nizhni. The sun is rising. I slept last night artistically. My money is safe; that is because I am constantly pressing my hands on my stomach.

Very beautiful are the steam-tugs, dragging after them four or five barges each; they look like some fine young intellectual trying to run away while a plebeian wife, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and wife’s grandmother hold on to his coat-tails.

* * * * *

The sun is hiding behind the clouds, the sky is overcast, and the broad Volga looks gloomy. Levitan ought not to live on the Volga. It lays a weight of gloom on the soul. Though it would not be bad to have an estate on its banks.

* * * * *

If the waiter would wake I should ask him for some coffee; as it is, I have to drink water without any relish for it. My greetings to Maryushka and Olga. [Footnote: The Chekhovs’ servants.]

Well, keep well and take care of yourselves. I will write regularly.

Your bored Volga-travelling
Homo Sachaliensis,
A. Chekhov.

FROM THE STEAMER, Evening, April 24, 1890.

MY DEAR TUNGUSES!

I am floating on the Kama, but I can’t fix the exact locality; I believe we are near Tchistopol. I cannot extol the beauties of the scenery either, as it is hellishly cold; the birches are not yet out, there are still patches of snow here and there, bits of ice float by — in short, the picturesque has gone to the dogs. I sit in the cabin, where people of all sorts and conditions sit at the table, and listen to the conversation, wondering whether it is not time for me to have tea. If I had my way I should do nothing all day but eat; as I haven’t the money to be eating all day long I sleep and sleep. I don’t go up on deck, it’s cold. By night it rains and by day there is an unpleasant wind.

Oh, the caviare! I eat it and eat and never have enough.

. . . It is a pity I did not think to get myself a little bag for tea and sugar. I have to order it a glass at a time, which is tiresome and expensive. I meant to buy some tea and sugar to-day at Kazan, but I over-slept myself.

Rejoice, O mother! I believe I stop twenty-four hours at Ekaterinburg, and shall see the relations. Perhaps their hearts may be softened and they will give me three roubles and an ounce of tea.

From the conversation I am listening to at this moment, I gather that the members of a judicial tribunal are travelling with me. They are not gifted persons. The merchants, who put in their word from time to time seem, however, intelligent. One comes across fearfully rich people.

Sterlets are cheaper than mushrooms; you soon get sick of them. What more is there for me to write about? There is nothing. . . . There is a General, though, and a lean fair man. The former keeps dashing from his cabin to the deck and back again, and sending his photograph off somewhere; the latter is got up to look like Nadson, and tries thereby to give one to know that he is a writer. Today he was mendaciously telling a lady that he had a book published by Suvorin; I, of course, put on an expression of awe.

My money is all safe, except what I have eaten. They won’t feed me for nothing, the scoundrels.

I am neither gay nor bored, but there is a sort of numbness in my soul. I like to sit without moving or speaking. To-day, for instance, I have scarcely uttered five words. That’s not true, though: I talked to a priest on deck.

We begin to come across natives; there are lots of Tatars: they are a respectable and well-behaved people.

I beg Father and Mother not to worry, and not to imagine dangers which do not exist.

* * * * *

Excuse me for writing about nothing but food. If I did not write about food I should have to write about cold, for I have no other subjects.

* * * * *

April 29, 1890.

MY DEAR TUNGUSES!

The Kama is a very dull river. To realise its beauties one would have to be a native sitting motionless on a barge beside a barrel of naphtha, or a sack of dried fish, continually taking a pull at the bottle. The river banks are bare, the trees are bare, the earth is a dull brown, there are patches of snow, and there is such a wind that the devil himself could not blow as keenly and hatefully. When a cold wind blows and ruffles up the water, which now after the floods is the colour of coffee slops, one feels cold and bored and miserable; the strains of a concertina on the bank sound dejected, figures in tattered sheepskins standing motionless on the barges that meet us look as though they were petrified by some unending grief. The towns on the Kama are grey; one would think the inhabitants were employed in the manufacture of clouds, boredom, soaking fences and mud in the streets, as their sole occupation. The stopping-places are thronged with inhabitants of the educated class, for whom the arrival of a steamer is an event. . . .

. . . To judge from appearances not one of them earns more than thirty-five roubles, and all of them are ailing in some way.

I have told you already there are some legal gentlemen in the steamer: the president of the court, one of the judges, and the prosecutor. The president is a hale and hearty old German who has embraced Orthodoxy, is pious, a homoeopath, and evidently a devotee of the sex. The judge is an old man such as dear Nikolay used to draw; he walks bent double, coughs, and is fond of facetious subjects. The prosecutor is a man of forty-three, dissatisfied with life, a liberal, a sceptic, and a very good-natured fellow. All the journey these gentlemen have been occupied in eating, settling mighty questions and eating, reading and eating. There is a library on the steamer, and I saw the prosecutor reading my “In the Twilight.” They began talking about me. Mamin-Sibiryak, who has described the Urals, is the author most liked in these parts. He is more talked of than Tolstoy.

I have been two and a half years sailing to Perm, so it seems to me. We reached there at two o’clock in the night. The train went at six o’clock in the evening. I had to wait. It rained. Rain, cold, mud . . . brrr! The Uralsky line is a good one. . . . That is due to the abundance of business-like people here, factories, mines, and so on, for whom time is precious.

Waking yesterday morning and looking out of the carriage window I felt an aversion for nature: the earth was white, trees covered with hoar-frost, and a regular blizzard pursuing the train. Now isn’t it revolting? Isn’t it disgusting? . . . I have no goloshes, I pulled on my big boots, and on my way to the refreshment-room for coffee I made the whole Ural region smell of tar. And when we got to Ekaterinburg there was rain, snow, and hail. I put on my leather coat. The cabs are something inconceivable, wretched, dirty, drenched, without springs, the horse’s four legs straddling, huge hoofs, gaunt spines . . . the droshkies here are a clumsy parody of our britchkas. A tattered top is put on to a britchka, that is all. And the more exactly I describe the cabman here and his vehicle, the more it will seem like a caricature. They drive not on the middle of the road where it is jolting, but near the gutter where it is muddy and soft. All the cabmen are like Dobrolyubov.

In Russia all the towns are alike. Ekaterinburg is exactly the same as Perm or Tula. The note of the bells is magnificent, velvety. I stopped at the American Hotel (not at all bad), and at once sent word of my arrival to A. M. S., telling him I meant to stay in my hotel room for two days.

The people here inspire the newcomer with a feeling akin to horror. They are big-browed, big-jawed, broad-shouldered fellows with huge fists and tiny eyes. They are born in the local iron foundries, and at their birth a mechanic officiates instead of an accoucheur. A specimen comes into your room with a samovar or a bottle of water, and you expect him every minute to murder you. I stand aside. This morning just such a one came in, big-browed, big-jawed, huge, towering up to the ceiling, seven feet across the shoulders and wearing a fur coat too.

Well, I thought, this one will certainly murder me. It appeared that this was our relation A. M. S. We began to talk. He is a member of the local Zemstvo and manager of his cousin’s mill, which is lighted by electric light; he is editor of the Ekaterinburg Week which is under the censorship of the police-master Baron Taube, is married and has two children, is growing rich and getting fat and elderly, and lives in a “substantial way.” He says he has no time to be bored. He advised me to visit the museum, the factories, and the mines; I thanked him for his advice. He invited me to tea to-morrow evening; I invited him to dine with me. He did not invite me to dinner, and altogether did not press me very much to visit him. From this mother may conclude that the relations’ heart is not softened. . . . Relations are a race in which I take no interest.

There is snow in the street, and I have purposely let down the blind over the windows so as not to see the Asiatic sight. I am sitting here waiting for an answer from Tyumen to my telegram. I telegraphed: “Tyumen. Kurbatov steamer line. Reply paid. Inform me when the passenger steamer starts Tomsk.” It depends on the answer whether I go by steamer or gallop fifteen hundred versts in the slush of the thaw.

All night long they beat on sheets of iron at every corner here. You need a head of iron not to go crazy from the incessant clanging. To-day I tried to make myself coffee. The result was a horrid mess. I just drank it with a shrug. I looked at five sheets, handled them, and did not take one. I am going to-day to buy rubber overshoes.

* * * * *

Shall I find a letter from you at Irkutsk?

Ask Lika not to leave such big margins in her letters.

Your Homo Sachaliensis,
A. Chekhov.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/chekhov/anton/c51lt/chapter31.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06