Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To His Sister.

June 21, 1890.

6 o’clock in the evening, not far from the Stanitsa Pokrovskaya.

We ran upon a rock, stove a hole in the steamer, and are now undergoing repairs. We are aground on a sandbank and pumping out water. On the left is the Russian bank, on the right the Chinese. If I were back at home now I should have the right to boast: “Though I have not been in China I have seen China only twenty feet off.” We are to stay the night in Pokrovskaya. We shall make up a party to see the place.

If I were a millionaire I should certainly have a steamer of my own on the Amur. It is a fine, interesting country. I advise Yegor Mihailovitch not to go to Tuapse but here; there are here by the way neither tarantulas nor phalangas. On the Chinese side there is a sentry post — a small hut; sacks of flour are piled up on the bank, ragged Chinamen are dragging the sacks on barrows to the hut. And beyond is the dense, endless forest.

Some schoolgirls are travelling with us from Irkutsk — Russian faces, but not good-looking.

POKROVSKAYA STANITSA, June 23, 1890.

I have told you already we are aground on a sandbank. At Ust-Stryelka, where the Shilka joins the Argun (see map), the steamer went aground in two and a half feet of water, struck a rock, and stove in several holes in its side and, the hold filling with water, the steamer sank to the bottom. They began pumping out water and putting on patches; a naked sailor crawled into the hold, stood up to his neck in water, and tried the holes with his heels. Each hole was covered on the inside with cloth smeared with grease: they lay a board on the top, and stuck a support upon the latter which pressed against the ceiling like a column. Such is the repairing. They were pumping from five o’clock in the evening till night, but still the water did not abate: they had to put off the work till morning. In the morning they discovered some more holes, and began patching and pumping again. The sailors pump while we, the general public, pace up and down the decks, criticize, eat, drink, and sleep; the captain and his mate do the same as the general public, and seem in no hurry. On the right is the Chinese bank, on the left is the stanitsa, Pokrovskaya, with the Cossacks of the Amur; if one likes one can stay in Russia, if one likes one can go into China, there is nothing to hinder one. It is insufferably hot in the daytime, so that one has to put on a silk shirt. They give us dinner at twelve o’clock, supper at seven.

Unluckily the steamer Vyestnik coming the other way with a crowd of passengers is approaching the stanitsa. The Vyestnik cannot go on either, and both steamers stay stock-still. There is a military band on the Vyestnik, consequently there has been a regular festival. All yesterday the band was playing on deck to the entertainment of the captain and sailors, and consequently to the delay of the repairing. The feminine half of the public were highly delighted; a band, officers, naval men . . . oh! The schoolgirls were particularly pleased. Yesterday evening we walked about the Cossack settlement, where the same band, hired by the Cossacks, was playing. Today we are continuing the repairs.

The captain promises that we shall start after dinner, but he promises it listlessly, gazing away into space — obviously he does not mean it. We are in no haste. When I asked a passenger, “Whenever are we going on?” he asked, “Why, aren’t you all right here!”

And that’s true. Why not stay, as long as we are not bored?

The captain, his mate, and his agent are the acme of politeness. The Chinese in the third class are good-natured and funny. Yesterday a Chinaman sat on the deck and sang something very mournful in a falsetto voice; as he did so his profile was funnier than any caricature. Everybody looked at him and laughed, while he took not the slightest notice. He sang falsetto and then began singing tenor. My God, what a voice! It was like the bleat of a sheep or a calf. The Chinese remind me of good-natured tame animals, their pigtails are long and black like Natalya Mihailovna’s. Apropos of tame animals, there’s a tame fox cub living in the toilet-room. It sits and looks on as one washes. If it sees no one for a long time it begins to whine.

What strange conversations one hears! They talk of nothing but gold, the mines, the Volunteer Fleet and Japan. In Pokrovskaya all the peasants and even the priests mine for gold. The exiles follow the same occupation and grow rich as quickly as they grow poor. There are people who look like artizans and who never drink anything but champagne, and walk to the tavern on red baize which is laid down from their hut to the tavern.

* * * * *

The Amur country is exceedingly interesting. Highly original. The life here is such as people have no conception of in Europe. It reminds me of American stories. The shores of the Amur are so wild, original, and luxuriant that one longs to live there all one’s life. I am writing these last few lines on the 25th of June. The steamer rocks and prevents my writing properly. We are moving again. I have come a thousand versts down the Amur already, and have seen a million gorgeous landscapes; I feel giddy with ecstasy. . . . It’s marvellous scenery, and how hot! What warm nights! There is a mist in the mornings but it is warm.

I look through an opera-glass at the shore and see a prodigious number of ducks, geese, grebes, herons and all sorts of creatures with long beaks. This would be the place to take a summer villa in! At a little place called Reinov a goldminer asked me to see his sick wife. As I was leaving him he thrust into my hands a roll of notes. I felt ashamed. I was beginning to refuse and thrust it back, saying that I was very rich myself; we talked together for a long time trying to persuade each other, and yet in the end fifteen roubles remained in my hands. Yesterday a goldminer with the face of Petya Polevaev dined in my cabin; at dinner he drank champagne instead of water, and treated us to it.

The villages here are like those on the Don. There is a difference in the buildings but nothing to speak of. The inhabitants don’t keep the fasts, and eat meat even in Holy Week; the girls smoke cigarettes, and old women smoke pipes — it is the correct thing. It’s strange to see peasants with cigarettes! And what liberalism! Oh, what liberalism!

The air on the steamer is positively red-hot with the talk that goes on. People are not afraid to talk aloud here. There’s no one to arrest them and nowhere to exile them to, so you can be as liberal as you like. The people for the most part are independent, self-reliant, and logical. If there is any misunderstanding at Ust-Kara, where the convicts work (among them many politicals who don’t work), all the Amur region is in revolt. It is not the thing to tell tales. An escaped convict can travel freely on the steamer to the ocean, without any fear of the captain’s giving him up. This is partly due to the absolute indifference to everything that is done in Russia. Everybody says: “What is it to do with me?”

I forgot to tell you that in Transbaikalia the drivers are not Russians but Buriats. A funny people! Their horses are regular vipers; they could never be harnessed without trouble — more furious than fire-brigade horses. While the trace-horse is being harnessed, its legs are hobbled; as soon as they are set free the chaise goes flying to the devil, so that one holds one’s breath. If one does not hobble a horse while it is being harnessed, it kicks, knocks bits out of the shaft with its hoofs, tears the harness, and behaves like a young devil that has been caught by the horns.

June 26.

We are getting near Blagoveshtchensk. Be well and merry, and don’t get used to being without me. No doubt you have already? Respectful greetings to all, and a friendly kiss.

I am perfectly well.

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