Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

Biographical Sketch

In 1841 a serf belonging to a Russian nobleman purchased his freedom and the freedom of his family for 3,500 roubles, being at the rate of 700 roubles a soul, with one daughter, Alexandra, thrown in for nothing. The grandson of this serf was Anton Chekhov, the author; the son of the nobleman was Tchertkov, the Tolstoyan and friend of Tolstoy.

There is in this nothing striking to a Russian, but to the English student it is sufficiently significant for several reasons. It illustrates how recent a growth was the educated middle-class in pre-revolutionary Russia, and it shows, what is perhaps more significant, the homogeneity of the Russian people, and their capacity for completely changing their whole way of life.

Chekhov’s father started life as a slave, but the son of this slave was even more sensitive to the Arts, more innately civilized and in love with the things of the mind than the son of the slaveowner. Chekhov’s father, Pavel Yegorovitch, had a passion for music and singing; while he was still a serf boy he learned to read music at sight and to play the violin. A few years after his freedom had been purchased he settled at Taganrog, a town on the Sea of Azov, where he afterwards opened a “Colonial Stores.”

This business did well until the construction of the railway to Vladikavkaz, which greatly diminished the importance of Taganrog as a port and a trading centre. But Pavel Yegorovitch was always inclined to neglect his business. He took an active part in all the affairs of the town, devoted himself to church singing, conducted the choir, played on the violin, and painted ikons.

In 1854 he married Yevgenia Yakovlevna Morozov, the daughter of a cloth merchant of fairly good education who had settled down at Taganrog after a life spent in travelling about Russia in the course of his business.

There were six children, five of whom were boys, Anton being the third son. The family was an ordinary patriarchal household of the kind common at that time. The father was severe, and in exceptional cases even went so far as to chastise his children, but they all lived on warm and affectionate terms. Everyone got up early, the boys went to the high school, and when they returned learned their lessons. All of them had their hobbies. The eldest, Alexandr, would construct an electric battery, Nikolay used to draw, Ivan to bind books, while Anton was always writing stories. In the evening, when their father came home from the shop, there was choral singing or a duet.

Pavel Yegorovitch trained his children into a regular choir, taught them to sing music at sight, and play on the violin, while at one time they had a music teacher for the piano too. There was also a French governess who came to teach the children languages. Every Saturday the whole family went to the evening service, and on their return sang hymns and burned incense. On Sunday morning they went to early mass, after which they all sang hymns in chorus at home. Anton had to learn the whole church service by heart and sing it over with his brothers.

The chief characteristic distinguishing the Chekhov family from their neighbours was their habit of singing and having religious services at home.

Though the boys had often to take their father’s place in the shop, they had leisure enough to enjoy themselves. They sometimes went for whole days to the sea fishing, played Russian tennis, and went for excursions to their grandfather’s in the country. Anton was a sturdy, lively boy, extremely intelligent, and inexhaustible in jokes and enterprises of all kinds. He used to get up lectures and performances, and was always acting and mimicking. As children, the brothers got up a performance of Gogol’s “Inspector General,” in which Anton took the part of Gorodnitchy. One of Anton’s favourite improvisations was a scene in which the Governor of the town attended church parade at a festival and stood in the centre of the church, on a rug surrounded by foreign consuls. Anton, dressed in his high-school uniform, with his grandfather’s old sabre coming to his shoulder, used to act the part of the Governor with extraordinary subtlety and carry out a review of imaginary Cossacks. Often the children would gather round their mother or their old nurse to hear stories.

Chekhov’s story “Happiness” was written under the influence of one of his nurse’s tales, which were always of the mysterious, of the extraordinary, of the terrible, and poetical.

Their mother, on the other hand, told the children stories of real life, describing how she had travelled all over Russia as a little girl, how the Allies had bombarded Taganrog during the Crimean War, and how hard life had been for the peasants in the days of serfdom. She instilled into her children a hatred of brutality and a feeling of regard for all who were in an inferior position, and for birds and animals.

Chekhov in later years used to say: “Our talents we got from our father, but our soul from our mother.”

In 1875 the two elder boys went to Moscow.

After their departure the business went from bad to worse, and the family sank into poverty.

In 1876 Pavel Yegorovitch closed his shop, and went to join his sons in Moscow. While earning their own living, one was a student at the University, and the other a student at the School of Sculpture and Painting. The house was sold by auction, one of the creditors took all the furniture, and Chekhov’s mother was left with nothing. Some months afterwards she went to rejoin her husband in Moscow, taking the younger children with her, while Anton, who was then sixteen, lived on in solitude at Taganrog for three whole years, earning his own living, and paying for his education at the high school.

He lived in the house that had been his father’s, in the family of one Selivanov, the creditor who had bought it, and gave lessons to the latter’s nephew, a Cossack. He went with his pupil to the latter’s house in the country, and learned to ride and shoot. During the last two years he was very fond of the society of the high-school girls, and used to tell his brothers that he had had the most delightful flirtations.

At the same time he went frequently to the theatre and was very fond of French melodramas, so that he was by no means crushed by his early struggle for existence. In 1879 he went to Moscow to enter the University, bringing with him two school-fellows who boarded with his family. He found his father had just succeeded in getting work away from home, so that from the first day of his arrival he found himself head of the family, every member of which had to work for their common livelihood. Even little Mihail used to copy out lectures for students, and so made a little money. It was the absolute necessity of earning money to pay for his fees at the University and to help in supporting the household that forced Anton to write. That winter he wrote his first published story, “A Letter to a Learned Neighbour.” All the members of the family were closely bound together round one common centre — Anton. “What will Anton say?” was always their uppermost thought on every occasion.

Ivan soon became the master of the parish school at Voskresensk, a little town in the Moscow province. Living was cheap there, so the other members of the family spent the summer there; they were joined by Anton when he had taken his degree, and the Chekhovs soon had a large circle of friends in the neighbourhood. Every day the company met, went long walks, played croquet, discussed politics, read aloud, and went into raptures over Shtchedrin. Here Chekhov gained an insight into military society which he afterwards turned to account in his play “The Three Sisters.”

One day a young doctor called Uspensky came in from Zvenigorod, a small town fourteen miles away. “Look here,” he said to Chekhov, “I am going away for a holiday and can’t find anyone to take my place. . . . You take the job on. My Pelageya will cook for you, and there is a guitar there. . . . ”

Voskresensk and Zvenigorod played an important part in Chekhov’s life as a writer; a whole series of his tales is founded on his experiences there, besides which it was his first introduction to the society of literary and artistic people. Three or four miles from Voskresensk was the estate of a landowner, A. S. Kiselyov, whose wife was the daughter of Begitchev, the director of the Moscow Imperial Theatre. The Chekhovs made the acquaintance of the Kiselyovs, and spent three summers in succession on their estate, Babkino.

The Kiselyovs were musical and cultivated people, and intimate friends of Dargomyzhsky, Tchaykovsky the composer, and the Italian actor Salvini. Madame Kiselyov was passionately fond of fishing, and would spend hours at a time sitting on the river bank with Anton, fishing and talking about literature. She was herself a writer. Chekhov was always playing with the Kiselyov children and running about the old park with them. The people he met, the huntsman, the gardener, the carpenters, the sick women who came to him for treatment, and the place itself, river, forests, nightingales — all provided Chekhov with subjects to write about and put him in the mood for writing. He always got up early and began writing by seven o’clock in the morning. After lunch the whole party set off to look for mushrooms in the woods. Anton was fond of looking for mushrooms, and said it stimulated the imagination. At this time he was always talking nonsense.

Levitan, the painter, lived in the neighbourhood, and Chekhov and he dressed up, blacked their faces and put on turbans. Levitan then rode off on a donkey through the fields, where Anton suddenly sprang out of the bushes with a gun and began firing blank cartridges at him.

In 1886 Chekhov suffered for the second time from an attack of spitting blood. There is no doubt that consumption was developing, but apparently he refused to believe this himself. He went on being as gay as ever, though he slept badly and often had terrible dreams. It was one of these dreams that suggested the subject of his story “The Black Monk.”

That year he began to write for the Novoye Vremya, which made a special feature of his work. Under the influence of letters from Grigorovitch, who was the first person to appreciate his talent, Chekhov began to take his writing more seriously.

In 1887 he visited the south of Russia and stayed at the Holy Mountains, which gave him the subjects of two of his stories, “Easter Eve” and “Uprooted.” In the autumn of that year he was asked by Korsh, a theatrical manager who knew him as a humorous writer, to write something for his theatre. Chekhov sat down and wrote “Ivanov” in a fortnight, sending off every act for rehearsal as it was completed.

By this time he had won a certain amount of recognition, everyone was talking of him, and there was consequently great curiosity about his new play. The performance was, however, only partially a success; the audience, divided into two parties, hissed vigorously and clapped noisily. For a long time afterwards the newspapers were full of discussions of the character and personality of the hero, while the novelty of the dramatic method attracted great attention.

In January, 1889, the play was performed at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in Petersburg and the controversy broke out again.

“Ivanov” was the turning-point in Chekhov’s mental development, and literary career. He took up his position definitely as a writer, though his brass plate continued to hang on the door. Shortly after writing “Ivanov,” he wrote a one-act play called “The Bear.” The following season Solovtsev, who had taken the chief character in “The Bear,” opened a theatre of his own in Moscow, which was not at first a success. He appealed to Chekhov to save him with a play for Christmas, which was only ten days off. Chekhov set to work and wrote an act every day. The play was produced in time, but the author was never satisfied with it, and after a short, very successful run took it off the stage. Several years later he completely remodelled it and produced it as “Uncle Vanya” at the Art Theatre in Moscow. At this time he was writing a long novel, of which he often dreamed aloud, and which he liked to talk about. He was for several years writing at this novel, but no doubt finally destroyed it, as no trace of it could be found after his death. He wanted it to embody his views on life, opinions which he expressed in a letter to Plestcheyev in these words:

“I am not a Liberal, not a Conservative. . . . I should have liked to have been a free artist and nothing more — and I regret that God has not given me the strength to be one. I hate lying and violence in all their forms — the most absolute freedom, freedom from force and fraud in whatever form the two latter may be expressed, that is the programme I would hold to if I were a great artist.”

At this time he was always gay and insisted on having people round him while he worked. His little house in Moscow, which “looked like a chest of drawers,” was a centre to which people, and especially young people, flocked in swarms. Upstairs they played the piano, a hired one, while downstairs he sat writing through it all. “I positively can’t live without visitors,” he wrote to Suvorin; “when I am alone, for some reason I am frightened.” This gay life which seemed so full of promise was, however, interrupted by violent fits of coughing. He tried to persuade other people, and perhaps himself, that it was not serious, and he would not consent to be properly examined. He was sometimes so weak from haemorrhage that he could see no one, but as soon as the attack was over his mood changed, the doors were thrown open, visitors arrived, there was music again, and Chekhov was once more in the wildest spirits.

The summers of those two years, 1888 and 1889, he spent with his family in a summer villa at Luka, in the province of Harkov. He was in ecstasies beforehand over the deep, broad river, full of fish and crayfish, the pond full of carp, the woods, the old garden, and the abundance of young ladies. His expectations were fulfilled in every particular, and he had all the fishing and musical society he could wish for. Soon after his arrival Plestcheyev came to stay with him on a month’s visit.

He was an old man in feeble health, but attractive to everyone. Young ladies in particular were immediately fascinated by him. He used to compose his works aloud, sometimes shouting at the top of his voice, so that Chekhov would run in and ask him if he wanted anything. Then the old man would give a sweet and guilty smile and go on with his work. Chekhov was in constant anxiety about the old man’s health, as he was very fond of cakes and pastry, and Chekhov’s mother used to regale him on them to such an extent that Anton was constantly having to give him medicine. Afterwards Suvorin, the editor of Novoye Vremya, came to stay. Chekhov and he used to paddle in a canoe, hollowed out of a tree, to an old mill, where they would spend hours fishing and talking about literature.

Both the grandsons of serfs, both cultivated and talented men, they were greatly attracted by each other. Their friendship lasted for several years, and on account of Suvorin’s reactionary opinions, exposed Chekhov to a great deal of criticism in Russia. Chekhov’s feelings for Suvorin began to change at the time of the Dreyfus case, but he never broke entirely with him. Suvorin’s feelings for Chekhov remained unchanged.

In the spring of 1889 his brother Nikolay, the artist, fell ill with consumption, and his illness occupied Anton entirely, and completely prevented his working. That summer Nikolay died, and it was under the influence of this, his first great sorrow, that Chekhov wrote “A Dreary Story.” For several months after the death of his brother he was extremely restless and depressed.

In 1890 his younger brother Mihail was taking his degree in law at Moscow, and studying treatises on the management of prisons. Chekhov got hold of them, became intensely interested in prisons, and resolved to visit the penal settlement of Sahalin. He made up his mind to go to the Far East so unexpectedly that it was difficult for his family to believe that he was in earnest.

He was afraid that after Kennan’s revelations about the penal system in Siberia, he would, as a writer, be refused permission to visit the prisons in Sahalin, and therefore tried to get a free pass from the head of the prison administration, Galkin-Vrasskoy. When this proved fruitless he set off in April, 1890, with no credentials but his card as a newspaper correspondent.

The Siberian railway did not then exist, and only after great hardships, being held up by floods and by the impassable state of the roads, Chekhov succeeded in reaching Sahalin on the 11th of July, having driven nearly 3,000 miles. He stayed three months on the island, traversed it from north to south, made a census of the population, talked to every one of the ten thousand convicts, and made a careful study of the convict system. Apparently the chief reason for all this was the consciousness that “We have destroyed millions of men in prisons. . . . It is not the superintendents of the prisons who are to blame, but all of us.” In Russia it was not possible to be a “free artist and nothing more.”

Chekhov left Sahalin in October and returned to Europe by way of India and the Suez Canal. He wanted to visit Japan, but the steamer was not allowed to put in at the port on account of cholera.

In the Indian Ocean he used to bathe by diving off the forecastle deck when the steamer was going at full speed, and catching a rope which was let down from the stern. Once while he was doing this he saw a shark and a shoal of pilot fish close to him in the water, as he describes in his story “Gusev.”

The fruits of this journey were a series of articles in Russkaya Myssl on the island of Sahalin, and two short stories, “Gusev” and “In Exile.” His articles on Sahalin were looked on with a favourable eye in Petersburg, and, who knows, it is possible that the reforms which followed in regard to penal servitude and exile would not have taken place but for their influence.

After about a month in Moscow, Chekhov went to Petersburg to see Suvorin. The majority of his Petersburg friends and admirers met him with feelings of envy and ill-will. People gave dinners in his honour and praised him to the skies, but at the same time they were ready to “tear him to pieces.” Even in Moscow such people did not give him a moment for work or rest. He was so prostrated by the feeling of hostility surrounding him that he accepted an invitation from Suvorin to go abroad with him. When Chekhov had completed arrangements for equipping the Sahalin schools with the necessary books, they set off for the South of Europe. Vienna delighted him, and Venice surpassed all his expectations and threw him into a state of childlike ecstasy.

Everything fascinated him — and then there was a change in the weather and a steady downpour of rain. Chekhov’s spirits drooped. Venice was damp and seemed horrible, and he longed to escape from it.

He had had just such a change of mood in Singapore, which interested him immensely and suddenly filled him with such misery that he wanted to cry.

After Venice Chekhov did not get the pleasure he expected from any Italian town. Florence did not attract him; the sun was not shining. Rome gave him the impression of a provincial town. He was feeling exhausted, and to add to his depression he had got into debt, and had the prospect of spending the summer without any money at all.

Travelling with Suvorin, who did not stint himself, drew him into spending more than he intended, and he owed Suvorin a sum which was further increased at Monte Carlo by Chekhov’s losing nine hundred roubles at roulette. But this loss was a blessing to him in so far as, for some reason, it made him feel satisfied with himself. At the end of April, 1891, after a stay in Paris, Chekhov returned to Moscow. Except at Vienna and for the first days in Venice and at Nice, it had rained the whole time. On his return he had to work extremely hard to pay for his two tours. His brother Mihail was at this time inspector of taxes at Alexino, and Chekhov and his household spent the summer not far from that town in the province of Kaluga, so as to be near him. They took a house dating from the days of Catherine. Chekhov’s mother had to sit down and rest halfway when she crossed the hall, the rooms were so large. He liked the place with its endless avenues of lime-trees and poetical river, while fishing and gathering mushrooms soothed him and put him in the mood for work. Here he went on with his story “The Duel,” which he had begun before going abroad. From the windows there was the view of an old house which Chekhov described in “An Artist’s Story,” and which he was very eager to buy. Indeed from this time he began thinking of buying a country place of his own, not in Little Russia, but in Central Russia. Petersburg seemed to him more and more idle, cold and egoistic, and he had lost all faith in his Petersburg acquaintances. On the other hand, Moscow no longer seemed to him as before “like a cook,” and he grew to love it. He grew fond of its climate, its people and its bells. He always delighted in bells. Sometimes in earlier days he had gathered together a party of friends and gone with them to Kamenny Bridge to listen to the Easter bells. After eagerly listening to them he would set off to wander from church to church, and with his legs giving way under him from fatigue would, only when Easter night was over, make his way homewards. Meanwhile his father, who was fond of staying till the end of the service, would return from the parish church, and all the brothers would sing “Christ is risen” in chorus, and then they all sat down to break their fast. Chekhov never spent an Easter night in bed.

Meanwhile in the spring of 1892 there began to be fears about the crops. These apprehensions were soon confirmed. An unfortunate summer was followed by a hard autumn and winter, in which many districts were famine-stricken. Side by side with the Government relief of the starving population there was a widespread movement for organizing relief, in which various societies and private persons took part. Chekhov naturally was drawn into this movement. The provinces of Nizhni-Novogorod and Voronezh were in the greatest distress, and in the former of these two provinces, Yegorov, an old friend of Chekhov’s Voskresensk days, was a district captain (Zemsky Natchalnik). Chekhov wrote to Yegorov, got up a subscription fund among his acquaintance, and finally set off himself for Nizhni-Novogorod. As the starving peasants were selling their horses and cattle for next to nothing, or even slaughtering them for food, it was feared that as spring came on there would be no beasts to plough with, so that the coming year threatened to be one of famine also.

Chekhov organized a scheme for buying up the horses and feeding them till the spring at the expense of a relief fund, and then, as soon as field labour was possible, distributing them among the peasants who were without horses.

After visiting the province of Nizhni-Novogorod, Chekhov went with Suvorin to Voronezh. But this expedition was not a successful one. He was revolted by the ceremonious dinners with which he was welcomed as an author, while the whole province was suffering from famine. Moreover travelling with Suvorin tied him down and hindered his independent action. Chekhov longed for intense personal activity such as he displayed later in his campaign against the cholera.

In the winter of the same year his long-cherished dream was realized: he bought himself an estate. It was in the province of Moscow, near the hamlet of Melihovo. As an estate it had nothing to recommend it but an old, badly laid out homestead, wastes of land, and a forest that had been felled. It had been bought on the spur of the moment, simply because it had happened to turn up. Chekhov had never been to the place before he bought it, and only visited it when all the formalities had been completed. One could hardly turn round near the house for the mass of hurdles and fences. Moreover the Chekhovs moved into it in the winter when it was under snow, and all boundaries being obliterated, it was impossible to tell what was theirs and what was not. But in spite of all that, Chekhov’s first impression was favourable, and he never showed a sign of being disappointed. He was delighted by the approach of spring and the fresh surprises that were continually being revealed by the melting snow. Suddenly it would appear that a whole haystack belonged to him which he had supposed to be a neighbour’s, then an avenue of lime-trees came to light which they had not distinguished before under the snow. Everything that was amiss in the place, everything he did not like, was at once abolished or altered. But in spite of all the defects of the house and its surroundings, and the appalling road from the station (nearly nine miles) and the lack of rooms, so many visitors came that there was nowhere to put them, and beds had sometimes to be made up in the passages. Chekhov’s household at this time consisted of his father and mother, his sister, and his younger brother Mihail. These were all permanent inmates of Melihovo.

As soon as the snow had disappeared the various duties in the house and on the land were assigned: Chekhov’s sister undertook the flower-beds and the kitchen garden, his younger brother undertook the field work. Chekhov himself planted the trees and looked after them. His father worked from morning till night weeding the paths in the garden and making new ones.

Everything attracted the new landowner: planting the bulbs and watching the flight of rooks and starlings, sowing the clover, and the goose hatching out her goslings. By four o’clock in the morning Chekhov was up and about. After drinking his coffee he would go out into the garden and would spend a long time scrutinizing every fruit-tree and every rose-bush, now cutting off a branch, now training a shoot, or he would squat on his heels by a stump and gaze at something on the ground. It turned out that there was more land than they needed (639 acres), and they farmed it themselves, with no bailiff or steward, assisted only by two labourers, Frol and Ivan.

At eleven o’clock Chekhov, who got through a good deal of writing in the morning, would go into the dining-room and look significantly at the clock. His mother would jump up from her seat and her sewing-machine and begin to bustle about, crying: “Oh dear! Antosha wants his dinner!”

When the table was laid there were so many homemade and other dainties prepared by his mother that there would hardly be space on the table for them. There was not room to sit at the table either. Besides the five permanent members of the family there were invariably outsiders as well. After dinner Chekhov used to go off to his bedroom and lock himself in to “read.” Between his after-dinner nap and tea-time he wrote again. The time between tea and supper (at seven o’clock in the evening) was devoted to walks and outdoor work. At ten o’clock they went to bed. Lights were put out and all was stillness in the house; the only sound was a subdued singing and monotonous recitation. This was Pavel Yegorovitch repeating the evening service in his room: he was religious and liked to say his prayers aloud.

From the first day that Chekhov moved to Melihovo the sick began flocking to him from twenty miles around. They came on foot or were brought in carts, and often he was fetched to patients at a distance. Sometimes from early in the morning peasant women and children were standing before his door waiting. He would go out, listen to them and sound them, and would never let one go away without advice and medicine. His expenditure on drugs was considerable, as he had to keep a regular store of them. Once some wayfarers brought Chekhov a man they had picked up by the roadside in the middle of the night, stabbed in the stomach with a pitchfork. The peasant was carried into his study and put down in the middle of the floor, and Chekhov spent a long time looking after him, examining his wounds and bandaging them up. But what was hardest for Chekhov was visiting the sick at their own homes: sometimes there was a journey of several hours, and in this way the time essential for writing was wasted.

The first winter at Melihovo was cold; it lasted late and food was short. Easter came in the snow. There was a church at Melihovo in which a service was held only once a year, at Easter. Visitors from Moscow were staying with Chekhov. The family got up a choir among themselves and sang all the Easter matins and mass. Pavel Yegorovitch conducted as usual. It was out of the ordinary and touching, and the peasants were delighted: it warmed their hearts to their new neighbours.

Then the thaw came. The roads became appalling. There were only three broken-down horses on the estate and not a wisp of hay. The horses had to be fed on rye straw chopped up with an axe and sprinkled with flour. One of the horses was vicious and there was no getting it out of the yard. Another was stolen in the fields and a dead horse left in its place. And so for a long time there was only one poor spiritless beast to drive which was nicknamed Anna Petrovna. This Anna Petrovna contrived to trot to the station, to take Chekhov to his patients, to haul logs and to eat nothing but straw sprinkled with flour. But Chekhov and his family did not lose heart. Always affectionate, gay and plucky, he cheered the others, work went ahead, and in less than three months everything in the place was changed: the house was furnished with crockery; there was the ring of carpenters’ axes; six horses were bought, and all the field work for the spring had been completed in good time and in accordance with the rules of agricultural science. They had no experience at all, but bought masses of books on the management of the land, and every question, however small, was debated in common.

Their first successes delighted Chekhov. He had thirty acres under rye, thirty under oats, and fully thirty under hay. Marvels were being done in the kitchen garden: tomatoes and artichokes did well in the open air. A dry spring and summer ruined the oats and the rye; the peasants cut the hay in return for half the crop, and Chekhov’s half seemed a small stack; only in the kitchen garden things went well.

The position of Melihovo on the highroad and the news that Chekhov the author had settled there inevitably led to new acquaintances. Doctors and members of the local Zemstvos began visiting Chekhov; acquaintance was made with the officials of the district, and Chekhov was elected a member of the Serpuhov Sanitary Council.

At that time cholera was raging in the South of Russia. Every day it came nearer and nearer to the province of Moscow, and everywhere it found favourable conditions among the population weakened by the famine of autumn and winter. It was essential to take immediate measures for meeting the cholera, and the Zemstvo of Serpuhov worked its hardest. Chekhov as a doctor and a member of the Sanitary Council was asked to take charge of a section. He immediately gave his services for nothing. He had to drive about among the manufacturers of the district persuading them to take adequate measures to combat the cholera. Owing to his efforts the whole section containing twenty-five villages and hamlets was covered with a network of the necessary institutions. For several months Chekhov scarcely got out of his chaise. During that time he had to drive all over his section, receive patients at home, and do his literary work. He returned home shattered and exhausted, but always behaved as though he were doing something trivial; he cracked little jokes and made everyone laugh as before, and carried on conversations with his dachshund, Quinine, about her supposed sufferings.

By early autumn the place had become unrecognizable. The outhouses had been rebuilt, unnecessary fences had been removed, rose-trees had been planted, a flower-bed had been laid out; in the fields before the gates Chekhov was planning to dig a big new pond. With what interest he watched each day the progress of the work upon it! He planted trees round it and dropped into it tiny carp and perch which he brought with him in a jar from Moscow. The pond became later on more like an ichthyological station than a pond, as there was no kind of fish in Russia, except the pike, of which Chekhov had not representatives in this pond. He liked sitting on the dam on its bank and watching with ecstasy shoals of little fish coming suddenly to the surface and then hiding in its depths. An excellent well had been dug in Melihovo before this. Chekhov had been very anxious that it should be in Little Russian style with a crane. But the position did not allow of this, and it was made with a big wheel painted yellow like the wells at Russian railway stations. The question where to dig this well and whether the water in it would be good greatly interested Chekhov. He wanted exact information and a theory based on good grounds, seeing that nine-tenths of Russia uses water out of wells, and has done so since time immemorial; but whenever he questioned the well-sinkers who came to him, he received the same vague answer: “Who can tell? It’s in God’s hands. Can you find out beforehand what the water will be like?”

But the well, like the pond, was a great success, and the water turned out to be excellent.

He began seriously planning to build a new house and farm buildings. Creative activity was his passion. He was never satisfied with what he had ready-made; he longed to make something new. He planted little trees, raised pines and fir-trees from seed, looked after them as though they were his children, and, like Colonel Vershinin in his “Three Sisters,” dreamed as he looked at them of what they would be like in three or four hundred years.

The winter of 1893 was a severe one with a great deal of snow. The snow was so high under the windows that the hares who ran into the garden stood on their hind-legs and looked into the window of Chekhov’s study. The swept paths in the garden were like deep trenches. By then Chekhov had finished his work in connection with the cholera and he began to live the life of a hermit. His sister found employment in Moscow; only his father and mother were left with him in the house, and the hours seemed very long. They went to bed even earlier than in the summer, but Chekhov would wake up at one in the morning, sit down to his work and then go back to bed and sleep again. At six o’clock in the morning all the household was up. Chekhov wrote a great deal that winter. But as soon as visitors arrived, life was completely transformed. There was singing, playing on the piano, laughter. Chekhov’s mother did her utmost to load the tables with dainties; his father with a mysterious air would produce various specially prepared cordials and liqueurs from some hidden recess; and then it seemed that Melihovo had something of its own, peculiar to it, which could be found in no other country estate. Chekhov was always particularly pleased at the visits of Miss Mizinov and of Potapenko. He was particularly fond of them, and his whole family rejoiced at their arrival. They stayed up long after midnight on such days, and Chekhov wrote only by snatches. And every time he wrote five or six lines, he would get up again and go back to his visitors.

“I have written sixty kopecks’ worth,” he would say with a smile.

Braga’s “Serenade” was the fashion at that time, and Chekhov was fond of hearing Potapenko play it on the violin while Miss Mizinov sang it.

Having been a student at the Moscow University, Chekhov liked to celebrate St. Tatyana’s Day. He never missed making a holiday of it when he lived in Moscow. That winter, for the first time, he chanced to be in Petersburg on the 12th of January. He did not forget “St. Tatyana,” and assembled all his literary friends on that day in a Petersburg restaurant. They made speeches and kept the holiday, and this festivity initiated by him was so successful that the authors went on meeting regularly afterwards.

Though Melihovo was his permanent home, Chekhov often paid visits to Moscow and Petersburg. He frequently stayed at hotels, and there he sometimes had difficulties over his passport. As a landowner he had no need of credentials from the police in the Serpuhov district, and found his University diploma sufficient. In Petersburg and Moscow, under the old passport regulations they would not give him a passport because he resided permanently in the provinces. Misunderstandings arose, sometimes developing into disagreeable incidents and compelling Chekhov to return home earlier than he had intended. Someone suggested to Chekhov that he should enter the Government service and immediately retire from it, as retired officials used at that time to receive a permanent passport from the department in which they had served. Chekhov sent a petition to the Department of Medicine for a post to be assigned to him, and received an appointment as an extra junior medical clerk in that Department, and soon afterwards sent in his resignation, after which he had no more trouble.

Chekhov spent the whole spring of 1893 at Melihovo, planted roses, looked after his fruit-trees, and was enthusiastic over country life. That summer Melihovo was especially crowded with visitors. Chekhov was visited not only by his friends, but also by people whose acquaintance he neither sought nor desired. People were sleeping on sofas and several in a room; some even spent the night in the passage. Young ladies, authors, local doctors, members of the Zemstvo, distant relations with their sons — all these people flitted through Melihovo. Life was a continual whirl, everyone was gay; this rush of visitors and the everlasting readiness of Chekhov’s mother to regale them with food and drink seemed like a return to the good old times of country life in the past. Chekhov was the centre on which all attention was concentrated. Everyone sought him, lived in him, and caught up every word he uttered. When he was with friends he liked taking walks or making expeditions to the neighbouring monastery. The chaise, the cart, and the racing droshky were brought out. Chekhov put on his white tunic, buckled a strap round his waist, and got on the racing droshky. A young lady would sit sideways behind him, holding on to the strap. The white tunic and strap used to make Chekhov call himself an Hussar. The party would set off; the “Hussar” in the racing droshky would lead the way, and then came the cart and the chaise full of visitors.

The numbers of guests necessitated more building, as the house would not contain them all. Instead of a farm, new buildings close to the house itself were begun. Some of the farm buildings were pulled down, others were put up after Chekhov’s own plans. A new cattle yard made its appearance, and by it a hut with a well and a hurdle fence in the Little Russian style, a bathhouse, a barn, and finally Chekhov’s dream — a lodge. It was a little house with three tiny rooms, in one of which a bedstead was put with difficulty, and in another a writing-table. At first this lodge was intended only for visitors, but afterwards Chekhov moved into it and there he wrote his “Seagull.” This little lodge was built among the fruit-bushes, and to reach it one had to pass through the orchard. In spring, when the apples and cherries were in blossom, it was pleasant to live in this lodge, but in winter it was so buried in the snow that pathways had to be cut to it through drifts as high as a man.

Chekhov suffered terribly about this time from his cough. It troubled him particularly in the morning. But he made light of it. He was afraid of worrying his family. His younger brother once saw his handkerchief spattered with blood, and asked what it meant. Chekhov seemed disconcerted and said:

“Oh, nothing; it is no matter. . . . Don’t tell Masha and Mother.”

The cough was the reason for Chekhov’s going in 1894 to the Crimea. He stayed in Yalta, though he evidently did not like it and longed to be home.

Chekhov’s activity in the campaign against the cholera resulted in his being elected a member of the Zemstvo. He was keenly interested in everything to do with the new roads to be constructed, and the new hospitals and schools it was intended to open. Besides this public work the neighbourhood was indebted to him for the making of a highroad from the station of Lopasnya to Melihovo, and for the building of schools at Talezh, Novoselka, and Melihovo. He made the plans for these schools himself, bought the material, and superintended the building of them. When he talked about them his eyes kindled, and it was evident that if he had had the means he would have built, not three, but a multitude.

At the opening of the school at Novoselka, the peasants brought him the ikon and offered him bread and salt. Chekhov was much embarrassed in responding to their gratitude, but his face and his shining eyes showed that he was pleased. Besides the schools he built a fire-station for the village and a belfry for the church, and ordered a cross made of looking-glass for the cupola, the flash of which in the sun or moonlight was visible more than eight miles away.

Chekhov spent the year 1894 at Melihovo, began writing “The Seagull,” and did a great deal of work. He paid a visit to Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, and returned enchanted with the old man and his family. Chekhov was already changing; he looked haggard, older, sallower. He coughed, he was tortured by intestinal trouble. Evidently he was now aware of the gravity of his illness, but, as before, made no complaint and tried to hide it from others.

In 1896 “The Seagull” was performed at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in Petersburg. It was a fiasco. The actors did not know their parts; in the theatre there was “a strained condition of boredom and bewilderment.” The notices in the press were prejudiced and stupid. Not wishing to see or meet anyone, Chekhov kept out of sight after the performance, and by next morning was in the train on his way back to Melihovo. The subsequent performances of “The Seagull,” when the actors understood it, were successful.

Chekhov had collected a large number of books, and in 1896 he resolved to present them to the public library in his native town of Taganrog. Whole bales of books were sent by Chekhov from Petersburg and Moscow, and Iordanov, the mayor of Taganrog, sent him lists of the books needed. At the same time, at Chekhov’s suggestion, something like an Information Bureau was instituted in connection with the Taganrog Library. There were to be catalogues of all the important commercial firms, all the existing regulations and government enactments on all current questions, everything, in fact, which might be of immediate service to a reader in any practical difficulty. The library at Taganrog has now developed into a fine educational institution, and is lodged in a special building designed and equipped for it and dedicated to the memory of Chekhov.

Chekhov took an active interest in the census of the people in 1896. It will be remembered that he had made a census of the whole convict population of the island of Sahalin on his own initiative and at his own expense in 1890. Now he was taking part in a census again. He studied peasant life in all its aspects; he was on intimate terms with his peasant neighbours, to whom he was now indispensable as a doctor and a friend always ready to give them good counsel.

Just before the census was completed Chekhov was taken ill with influenza, but that did not prevent his carrying out his duties. In spite of headache, he went from hut to hut and village to village, and then had to work at putting together his materials. He was absolutely alone in his work. The Zemsky Natchalniks, upon whom the government relied principally to carry out the census, were inert, and for the most part the work was left to private initiative.

In February, 1897, Chekhov was completely engrossed by a project of building a “People’s Palace” in Moscow. “People’s Palaces” had not been thought of; the common people spent their leisure in drink-shops. The “People’s Palace” in Moscow was designed on broad principles; there was to be a library, a reading-room, lecture-rooms, a museum, a theatre. It was proposed to run it by a company of shareholders with a capital of half a million roubles. Owing to various causes in no way connected with Chekhov, this scheme came to nothing.

In March he paid a visit to Moscow, where Suvorin was expecting him. He had hardly sat down to dinner at The Hermitage when he had a sudden haemorrhage from the lungs. He was taken to a private hospital, where he remained till the 10th of April. When his sister, who knew nothing of his illness, arrived in Moscow, she was met by her brother Ivany who gave her a card of admission to visit the invalid at the hospital. On the card were the words: “Please don’t tell father or mother.” His sister went to the hospital. There casting a casual glance at a little table, she saw on it a diagram of the lungs, in which the upper part of the left lung was marked with a red pencil. She guessed at once that this was what was affected in Chekhov’s case. This and the sight of her brother alarmed her. Chekhov, who had always been so gay, so full of spirits and vitality, looked terribly ill; he was forbidden to move or to talk, and had hardly the strength to do so.

He was declared to be suffering from tuberculosis of the lungs, and it was essential to try and ward it off at all costs, and to escape the unwholesome northern spring. He recognized himself that this was essential.

When he left the hospital he returned to Melihovo and prepared to go abroad. He went first to Biarritz, but there he was met by bad weather. A fashionable, extravagant way of living did not suit his tastes, and although he was delighted with the sea and the life led (especially by the children) on the beach, he soon moved on to Nice. Here he stayed for a considerable time at the Pension Russe in the Rue Gounod. He seemed to be fully satisfied with the life there. He liked the warmth and the people he met, M. Kovalevsky, V. M. Sobolesky, V. T. Nemirovitch-Dantchenko, the artist V. T. Yakobi and I. N. Potapenko. Prince A. I. Sumbatov arrived at Nice too, and Chekhov used sometimes to go with him to Monte Carlo to roulette.

Chekhov followed all that he had left behind in Russia with keen attention: he was anxious about the Chronicle of Surgery, which he had more than once saved from ruin, made arrangements about Melihovo, and so on.

He spent the autumn and winter in Nice, and in February, 1898, meant to go to Africa. He wanted to visit Algiers and Tunis, but Kovalevsky, with whom he meant to travel, fell ill, and he had to give up the project. He contemplated a visit to Corsica, but did not carry out that plan either, as he was taken seriously ill himself. A wretched dentist used contaminated forceps in extracting a tooth, and Chekhov was attacked by periostitis in a malignant form. In his own words, “he was in such pain that he climbed up the wall.”

As soon as the spring had come he felt an irresistible yearning for Russia. He was weary of enforced idleness; he missed the snow and the Russian country, and at the same time he was depressed at having gained no weight in spite of the climate, good nourishment, and idleness.

While he was at Nice France was in the throes of the Dreyfus affair. Chekhov began studying the Dreyfus and Zola cases from shorthand notes, and becoming convinced of the innocence of both, wrote a heated letter to Suvorin, which led to a coolness between them.

He spent March, 1898, in Paris. He sent three hundred and nineteen volumes of French literature from Paris to the public library at Taganrog.

The lateness of the spring in Russia forced Chekhov to remain in Paris till May, when he returned to Melihovo. Melihovo became gay and lively on his arrival. Visitors began coming again; he was as hospitable as ever, but he was quieter, no longer jested as in the past, and perhaps owing to his illness talked little. But he still took as much pleasure in his roses.

After a comparatively good summer there came days of continual rain, and on the 14th of September Chekhov went away to Yalta. He had to choose between Nice and Yalta. He did not want to go abroad, and preferred the Crimea, reckoning that he might possibly seize an opportunity to pay a brief visit to Moscow, where his plays were to appear at the Art Theatre. His choice did not disappoint him. That autumn in Yalta was splendid; he felt well there, and the progress of his disease led him to settle in Yalta permanently.

Chekhov obtained a piece of land at Autka, and the same autumn began building. He spent whole days superintending the building. Stone and plaster was brought, Turks and Tatars dug the ground and laid the foundation, while he planted little trees and watched with fatherly anxiety every new shoot on them. Every stone, every tree there is eloquent of Chekhov’s creative energy. That same autumn he bought the little property of Kutchuka. It was twenty-four miles from Yalta, and attracted him by its wildness and primitive beauty. To reach it one had to drive along the road at a giddy height. He began once more dreaming and drawing plans. The possible future began to take a different shape to him now, and he was already dreaming of moving from Melihovo, farming and gardening and living there as in the country. He wanted to have hens, cows, a horse and donkeys, and, of course, all of this would have been quite possible and might have been realized if he had not been slowly dying. His dreams remained dreams, and Kutchuka stands uninhabited to this day.

The winter of 1898 was extremely severe in the Crimea. The cold, the snow, the stormy sea, and the complete lack of people akin to him in spirit and of “interesting women” wearied Chekhov; he began to be depressed. He was irresistibly drawn to the north, and began to fancy that if he moved for the winter to Moscow, where his plays were being acted with such success and where everything was so full of interest for him, it would be no worse for his health than staying in Yalta, and he began dreaming of buying a house in Moscow. He wanted at one moment to get something small and snug in the neighbourhood of Kursk Station, where it might be possible to stay the three winter months in every comfort; but when such a house was found his mood changed and he resigned himself to life at Yalta.

The January and February of 1899 were particularly irksome to Chekhov: he suffered from an intestinal trouble which poisoned his existence. Moreover consumptive patients from all over Russia began appealing to him to assist them to come to Yalta. These invalids were almost always poor, and on reaching Yalta mostly ended their lives in miserable conditions, pining for their native place. Chekhov exerted himself on behalf of everyone, printed appeals in the papers, collected money, and did his utmost to alleviate their condition.

After the unfavourable winter came an exquisite warm spring, and on the 12th of April Chekhov was in Moscow and by May in Melihovo. His father had died the previous October, and with his death a great link with the place was broken. The consciousness of having to go away early in the autumn gradually brought Chekhov to decide to sell the place.

On the 25th of August he went back to his own villa at Yalta, and soon afterwards Melihovo was sold, and his mother and sister joined him. During the last four and a half years of his life Chekhov’s health grew rapidly worse. His chief interest was centred in Moscow, in the Art Theatre, which had just been started, and the greater part of his dramatic work was done during this period.

Chekhov was ill all the winter of 1900, and only felt better towards the spring. During those long winter months he wrote “In the Ravine.” The detestable spring of that year affected his mood and his health even more. Snow fell on the 5th of March, and this had a shattering effect on him. In April he was again very ill. An attack of intestinal trouble prevented him from eating, drinking, or working. As soon as it was over Chekhov, homesick for the north, set off for Moscow, but there he was met by severe weather. Returning in August to Yalta, he wrote “The Three Sisters.”

He spent the autumn in Moscow, and at the beginning of December went to the French Riviera, settled in Nice, and dreamed again of a visit to Africa, but went instead to Rome. Here, as usual, he met with severe weather. Early in February he returned to Yalta. That year there was a soft, sunny spring. Chekhov spent whole days in the open air, engaged in his favourite occupations; he planted and pruned trees, looked after his garden, ordered all sorts of seeds, and watched them coming up. At the same time he was working on behalf of the invalids coming to Yalta, who appealed to him for help, and also completing the library he had founded at Taganrog, and planning to open a picture gallery there.

In May, 1901, Chekhov went to Moscow and was thoroughly examined by a physician, who urged him to go at once to Switzerland or to take a koumiss cure. Chekhov preferred the latter.

On the 25th of May he married Olga Knipper, one of the leading actresses at the Art Theatre, and with her went off to the province of Ufa for the koumiss cure. On the way they had to wait twenty-four hours for a steamer, in very unpleasant surroundings, at a place called Pyany Bor (“Drunken Market”), in the province of Vyatka.

In the autumn of 1901 Tolstoy was staying, for the sake of his health, at Gaspra. Chekhov was very fond of him and frequently visited him. Altogether that autumn was an eventful one for him: Kuprin, Bunin and Gorky visited the Crimea; the writer Elpatyevsky settled there also, and Chekhov felt fairly well. Tolstoy’s illness was the centre of general attention, and Chekhov was very uneasy about him.

In 1902 there was suddenly a change for the worse: violent haemorrhage exhausted him till the beginning of February; he was for over a month confined to his study. It was at this time that the incident of Gorky’s election to the Academy and subsequent expulsion from it led Chekhov to write a letter to the Royal President of the Academy asking that his own name should be struck off the list of Academicians.

Chekhov had hardly recovered when his wife was taken seriously ill. When she was a little better he made a tour by the Volga and the Kama as far as Perm. On his return he settled with his wife in a summer villa not far from Moscow; he spent July there and returned home to Yalta in August. But the longing for a life of movement and culture, the desire to be nearer to the theatre, drew him to the north again, and in September he was back in Moscow. Here he was not left in peace for one minute; swarms of visitors jostled each other from morning till night. Such a life exhausted him; he ran away from it to Yalta in December, but did not escape it there. His cough was worse; every day he had a high temperature, and these symptoms were followed by an attack of pleurisy. He did not get up all through the Christmas holidays; he still had an agonizing cough, and it was in this enforced idleness that he thought out his play “The Cherry Orchard.”

It is quite possible that if Chekhov had taken care of himself his disease would not have developed so rapidly or proved fatal. The feverish energy of his temperament, his readiness to respond to every impression, and his thirst for activity, drove him from south to north and hack again, regardless of his health and of the climate. Like all invalids, he ought to have gone on living in the same place, at Nice or at Yalta, until he was better, but he lived exactly as though he had been in good health. When he arrived in the north he was always excited and absorbed by what was going on, and this exhilaration he mistook for an improvement in his health; but he had only to return to Yalta for the reaction to set in, and it would seem to him at once that his case was hopeless, that the Crimea had no beneficial effect on consumptives, and that the climate was wretched.

The spring of 1903 passed fairly favourably. He recovered sufficiently to go to Moscow and even to Petersburg. On returning from Petersburg he began preparing to go to Switzerland. But his state of health was such that his doctor in Moscow advised him to give up the idea of Switzerland and even of Yalta, and to stay somewhere not very far from Moscow. He followed this advice and settled at Nar. Now that it was proposed that he should stay the winter in the north, all that he had created in Yalta — his house and his garden — seemed unnecessary and objectless. In the end he returned to Yalta and set to work on “The Cherry Orchard.”

In October, 1903, the play was finished and he set off to produce it himself in Moscow. He spent days at a time in the Art Theatre, producing his “Cherry Orchard,” and incidentally supervising the setting and performance of the plays of other authors. He gave advice and criticized, was excited and enthusiastic.

On the 17th of January, 1904, “The Cherry Orchard” was produced for the first time. The first performance was the occasion of the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Chekhov’s literary activity. A great number of addresses were read and speeches were made. Chekhov was many times called before the curtain, and this expression of universal sympathy exhausted him to such a degree that the very day after the performance he began to think with relief of going back to Yalta, where he spent the following spring.

His health was completely shattered, and everyone who saw him secretly thought the end was not far off; but the nearer Chekhov was to the end, the less he seemed to realize it. Ill as he was, at the beginning of May he set off for Moscow. He was terribly ill all the way on the journey, and on arrival took to his bed at once. He was laid up till June.

On the 3rd of June he set off with his wife for a cure abroad to the Black Forest, and settled in a little spa called Badenweiler. He was dying, although he wrote to everyone that he had almost recovered, and that health was coming back to him not by ounces but by hundredweights. He was dying, but he spent the time dreaming of going to the Italian lakes and returning to Yalta by sea from Trieste, and was already making inquiries about the steamers and the times they stopped at Odessa.

He died on the 2nd of July.

His body was taken to Moscow and buried in the Novodyevitchy Monastery, beside his father’s tomb.

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

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