Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To His Sister.

IRKUTSK, June 6, 1890.

Greetings to you, dear mother, Ivan, Masha and Misha, and all of you!

In my last long letter I wrote to you that the mountains near Krasnoyarsk are like the Donets Ridge, but that’s not true; when I looked at them from the street I saw they were like high walls surrounding the city, and I was vividly reminded of the Caucasus. And when towards evening I left the town and was crossing the Yenissey, I saw on the other bank mountains that were exactly like the Caucasus, as misty and dreamy. The Yenissey is a broad, swift, winding river, beautiful, finer than the Volga. And the ferry across it is wonderful, ingeniously constructed, moving against the current; I will tell you when I am home about the construction of it. And so the mountains and the Yenissey are the first things original and new that I have met in Siberia. The mountains and the Yenissey have given me sensations which have made up to me a hundredfold for all the trials and troubles of the journey, and which have made me call Levitan a fool for being so stupid as not to come with me.

The Taiga stretches unbroken from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk. The trees are not bigger than in Sokolniki, but not one driver knows how far it goes. There is no end to be seen to it. It stretches for hundreds of versts. No one knows who or what is in the Taiga, and it only happens in winter that people come through the Taiga from the far north with reindeer for bread. When you get to the top of a mountain and look down, you see a mountain before you, then another, mountains at the sides too — and all thickly covered with forest. It makes one feel almost frightened. That’s the second thing original and new.

From Krasnoyarsk it began to be hot and dusty. The heat was terrible. My sheepskin and cap lie buried away. The dust is in my mouth, in my nose, down my neck — tfoo! We were approaching Irkutsk — we had to cross the Angara by ferry. As though to mock us a high wind sprang up. My military companions and I, after dreaming for ten days of a bath, dinner, and sleep, stood on the bank and turned pale at the thought that we should have to spend the night not at Irkutsk, but in the village. The ferry could not succeed in reaching the bank. We stood an hour, a second, and — oh Heavens! — the ferry made an effort and reached the bank. Bravo, we shall have a bath, we shall have supper and sleep! Oh, how sweet to steam oneself, to eat, to sleep!

Irkutsk is a fine town. Quite a cultured town. There is a theatre, a museum, a town garden with a band, a good hotel. . . . No hideous fences, no absurd shop-signs, and no waste places with warming placards. There is a tavern called “Taganrog”; sugar costs twenty-four kopecks a pound, pine kernels six kopecks a pound.

* * * * *

I am quite well. My money is safe. I am saving up my coffee for Sahalin. I have splendid tea here, after which I am aware of an agreeable excitement. I see Chinamen. They are a good-natured and intelligent people. At the Siberian bank they gave me money at once, received me cordially, regaled me with cigarettes, and invited me to their summer villa. There is a magnificent confectioner’s but everything is fiendishly dear. The pavements are of wood.

Last night I drove with the officers about the town. We heard someone cry “help” six times. It must have been someone being murdered. We went to look, but could not find anyone.

The cabs in Irkutsk have springs. It is a better town than Ekaterinburg or Tomsk. Quite European.

Have a Mass celebrated on June 17th, [Footnote: The anniversary of the death of his brother Nikolay.] and keep the 29th [Footnote: His father’s name-day.] as festively as you can; I shall be with you in thought and you must drink my health.

* * * * *

Everything I have is crumpled, dirty, torn! I look like a pickpocket.

I shall not bring you any furs most likely. I do not know where they are sold, and I am too lazy to ask.

One must take at least two big pillows for a journey and dark pillow cases are essential.

What is Ivan doing? Where has he been? Has he been to the south? I am going from Irkutsk to Baikal. My companions are preparing for sea-sickness.

My big boots have grown looser with wearing, and don’t hurt my heels now.

I have ordered buckwheat porridge for to-morrow. On the journey here I thought of curds and began having them with milk at the stations.

Did you get my postcards from the little towns? Keep them: I shall be able to judge from them how long the post takes. The post here is in no hurry.

IRKUTSK, June 7, 1890.

. . . The steamer from Sryetensk leaves on June 20th. Good Christians, what am I to do till the 20th? How am I to dispose of myself? The journey to Sryetensk will only take five or six days. I have greatly altered the route of my journey. From Habarovsk (look at the map [Footnote: Chekhov’s family had, during his absence, a map of Siberia on the wall by means of which they followed his progress.]) I am going not to Nikolaevsk, but by the Ussuri to Vladivostok, and from there to Sahalin. I must have a look at the Ussuri region. At Vladivostok I shall bathe in the sea and eat oysters.

It was cold till I reached Kansk; from Kansk (see map) I began to go down to the south. Everything is as green as with you, even the oaks are out. The birches here are darker than in Russia, the green is not so sentimental. There are masses of the Russian white service-tree, which here takes the place of both the lilac and the cherry. They say they make an excellent jam from the service-tree. I tasted some of the fruit pickled; it was not bad.

Two lieutenants and an army doctor are travelling with me. They have received their travelling expenses three times over, but have spent all the money, though they are travelling in one carriage. They are sitting without a farthing, waiting for the pay department to send them some money. They are nice fellows. They have had from fifteen hundred to two thousand roubles each for travelling expenses, and the journey will cost them next to nothing (excluding, of course, the cost of the stopping places). They do nothing but pitch into everybody at hotels and stations so that people are positively afraid to present their bills. In their company I pay less than usual. . . . To-day for the first time in my life I saw a Siberian cat. It has long soft fur, and a gentle disposition.

. . . I felt homesick and sent you a telegram today asking you to subscribe together and send me a long telegram. It would be nothing to all of you, inhabitants of Luka, to fling away five roubles.

. . . With whom is Mishka in love? To what happy woman is Ivanenko telling stories of his uncle? . . . I must be in love with Jamais as I dreamed of her yesterday. In comparison with all the “jeunes Siberiennes” with their Yakut-Buriat physiognomies, who do not know how to dress, to sing, and to laugh, our Jamais, Drishka, and Gundassiha are simply queens. The Siberian girls and women are like frozen fish; one would have to be a walrus or a seal to get up a flirtation with them.

I am tired of my companions. It is much nicer travelling alone. I like silence better than anything on the journey and my companions talk and sing without stopping, and they talk of nothing but women. They borrowed a hundred and thirty-six roubles from me till to-morrow and have already spent it. They are regular sieves.

. . . The stations are sometimes thirty to thirty-five versts apart. You drive by night, you drive and drive, till you feel silly and light-headed, and if you venture to ask the driver how far it is to the next station, he will never say less than seventeen versts. That’s particularly agonizing when you have to go at a walking pace along a muddy road full of holes, and when you are thirsty. I have learned to do without sleep; I don’t mind a bit when they wake me. As a rule one does not sleep for one day and night, and then the next day at dinner-time there is a strained feeling in one’s eyelids; in the evening and in the night towards daybreak of the third day, one dozes in the chaise and sometimes falls asleep for a minute as one sits; at dinner and after dinner at the stations, while the horses are being harnessed, one lolls on the sofa, and the real torture only begins at night. In the evening, after drinking five glasses of tea, one’s face begins to burn, one’s body feels limp all over and longs to bend backwards; one’s eyes close, one’s feet ache in one’s big boots, one’s brain is in a tangle. If I allow myself to put up for the night I fall into a dead sleep at once; if I have strength of will to go on, I drop asleep in the chaise, however violent the jolting may be; at the stations the drivers wake one up, as one has to get out of the chaise and pay for the journey. They wake one not so much by shouting and tugging at one’s sleeve, as by the stink of garlic that issues from their lips; they smell of garlic and onion till they make me sick. I only learned to sleep in the chaise after Krasnoyarsk. On the way to Irkutsk I slept for fifty-eight versts, and was only once woken up. But the sleep one gets as one drives makes one feel no better. It’s not real sleep, but a sort of unconscious condition, after which one’s head is muddled and there’s a bad taste in one’s mouth.

Chinamen are like those decrepit old gentlemen dear Nikolay [Footnote: Chekhov’s brother.] used to like drawing. Some of them have splendid pigtails.

The police came to see me at Tomsk. Towards eleven o’clock the waiter suddenly announced to me that the assistant police-master wanted to see me. What was this for? Could it be politics? Could they suspect me of being a Voltairian? I said to the waiter, “Ask him in.” A gentleman with long moustaches walks in and introduces himself. It appears he is devoted to literature, writes himself, and has come to me in my hotel room as though to Mahomed at Mecca to worship. I’ll tell you why I thought of him. Late in the autumn he is going to Petersburg, and I have foisted my trunk upon him and asked him to leave it at the Novoye Vremya office. You might keep that in mind in case any one of us or our friends goes to Petersburg.

You might, by the way, look out for a place in the country. When I get back to Russia I shall take five years’ rest — that is, stay in one place and twiddle my thumbs. A place in the country will come in very handy. I think the money will be found, for things don’t look bad. If I work off the money I have had in advance (half of it is worked off already) I shall certainly borrow two or three thousand in the spring, to be paid off over a period of five years. That will not be against my conscience, as I have already let the publishing department of the Novoye Vremya make two or three thousand out of my books, and I shall let them make more.

I think I shall not begin on any serious work till I am five and thirty. . . . I want to try personal life, of which I have had some before, but have not noticed it owing to various circumstances.

To-day I rubbed my leather coat with grease. It’s a splendid coat. It has saved me from catching cold. My sheepskin is a capital thing, too: it serves me as a coat and a mattress, both. One is as warm in it as on a stove. It’s wretched without pillows. Hay does not take the place of them, and with the continual friction there’s a lot of dust from it which tickles one’s face and prevents one from dozing. I haven’t a single sheet. That’s horrid too. And I ought to have taken some more trousers. The more luggage one has the better — there’s less jolting and more comfort.

Good-bye, though. I have got nothing more to write about. My greetings to all.

STATION LISTVENITCHNAYA, ON LAKE BAIKAL, June 13.

I am having an idiotic time. On the evening of the 11th of June, the day before yesterday, we set off from Irkutsk, in the fond hope of catching the Baikal steamer, which leaves at four o’clock in the morning. From Irkutsk to Baikal there are only three stations. At the first station they informed us that all the horses were exhausted and that it was therefore impossible to go. We had to put up for the night. Yesterday morning we set off from that station, and by midday we reached Baikal. We went to the harbour, and in answer to our inquiries were told that the steamer did not go till Friday the fifteenth. This meant that we should have to sit on the bank and look at the water and wait. As there is nothing that does not end in time, I have no objection to waiting, and always wait patiently; but the point is the steamer leaves Sryetensk on the 20th and sails down the Amur: if we don’t catch it we must wait for the next steamer, which does not go till the 30th. Merciful Heavens, when shall I get to Sahalin!

We drove to Baikal along the bank of the Angara, which rises out of Lake Baikal and flows into the Yenissey. Look at the map. The banks are picturesque. Mountains and mountains, and dense forests on the mountains. The weather was exquisite still, sunny and warm; as I drove I felt I was exceptionally well; I felt so happy that I cannot describe it. It was perhaps the contrast after the stay at Irkutsk, and because the scenery on the Angara is like Switzerland. It is something new and original. We drove along the river bank, came to the mouth of the river, and turned to the left; then we came upon the bank of Lake Baikal, which in Siberia is called the sea. It is like a mirror. The other side, of course, is out of sight; it is ninety versts away. The banks are high, steep, stony, and covered with forest, to right and to left there are promontories which jut into the sea like Au-dag or the Tohtebel at Feodosia. It’s like the Crimea. The station of Listvenitchnaya lies at the water’s edge, and is strikingly like Yalta: if the houses were white it would be exactly like Yalta. Only there are no buildings on the mountains, as they are too overhanging and it is impossible to build on them.

We have taken a little barn of a lodging that reminds one of any of the Kraskovsky summer villas. Just outside the window, two or three yards from the wall, is Lake Baikal. We pay a rouble a day. The mountains, the forests, the mirror-like Baikal are all poisoned for me by the thought that we shall have to stay here till the fifteenth. What are we to do here? What is more, we don’t know what there is for us to eat. The inhabitants feed upon nothing but garlic. There is neither meat nor fish. They have given us no milk, but have promised it. For a little white loaf they demanded sixteen kopecks. I bought some buckwheat and a piece of smoked pork, and asked them to make a thin porridge of it: it was not nice, but there was nothing to be done, I had to eat it. All the evening we hunted about the village to find someone who would sell us a hen, and found no one. . . . But there is vodka. The Russian is a great pig. If you ask him why he doesn’t eat meat and fish he justifies himself by the absence of transport, ways and communications, and so on, and yet vodka is to be found in the remotest villages and as much of it as you please. And yet one would have supposed that it would have been much easier to obtain meat and fish than vodka, which is more expensive and more difficult to transport. . . . Yes, drinking vodka must be much more interesting than fishing in Lake Baikal or rearing cattle.

At midnight a little steamer arrived; we went to look at it, and seized the opportunity to ask if there was anything to eat. We were told that to-morrow we should be able to get dinner, but that now it was late, the kitchen fire was out, and so on. We thanked them for “to-morrow”— it was something to look forward to anyway! But alas! the captain came in and told us that at four o’clock in the morning the steamer was setting off for Kultuk. We thanked him. In the refreshment bar, where there was not room to turn round, we drank a bottle of sour beer (thirty-five kopecks), and saw on a plate some amber beads — it was salmon caviare. We returned home, and to sleep. I am sick of sleeping. Every day one has to put down one’s sheepskin with the wool upwards, under one’s head one puts a folded greatcoat and a pillow, and one sleeps on this heap in one’s waistcoat and trousers. . . . Civilization, where art thou?

To-day there is rain and Lake Baikal is plunged in mist. “Interesting,” Semaskho would say. It’s dull. One ought to sit down and write, but one can never work in bad weather. One has a foreboding of merciless boredom; if I were alone I should not mind but there are two lieutenants and an army doctor with me, who are fond of talking and arguing. They don’t understand much but they talk about everything. One of the lieutenants, moreover, is a bit of a Hlestakov and a braggart. When one is travelling one absolutely must be alone. To sit in a chaise or in a room alone with one’s thoughts is much more interesting than being with people.

* * * * *

Congratulate me: I sold my own carriage at Irkutsk. How much I gained on it I won’t say, or mother would fall into a faint and not sleep for five nights.

Your Homo Sachaliensis,
A. Chekhov.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/chekhov/anton/c51lt/chapter39.html

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