Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To His Brother Mihail.

July 28, 1888.

On the Seas Black, Caspian, and of Life.

. . . A wretched little cargo steamer, Dir, is racing full steam from Suhum to Poti. It is about midnight. The little cabin — the only one in the steamer — is insufferably hot and stuffy. There is a smell of burning, of rope, of fish and of the sea. One hears the engine going “Boom-boom-boom.” . . . There are devils creaking up aloft and under the floor. The darkness is swaying in the cabin and the bed rocks up and down. . . . One’s stomach’s whole attention is concentrated on the bed, and, as though to find its level, it rolls the Seltzer water I had drunk right up to my throat and then lets it down to my heels. Not to be sick over my clothes in the dark I hastily put on my things and go out. . . . It is dark. My feet stumble against some invisible iron bars, a rope; wherever you step there are barrels, sacks, rags. There is coal dust under foot. In the dark I knock against a kind of grating: it is a cage with wild goats which I saw in the daytime. They are awake and anxiously listening to the rocking of the boat. By the cage sit two Turks who are not asleep either. . . . I grope my way up the stairs to the captain’s bridge. . . . A warm but violent and unpleasant wind tries to blow away my cap. . . . The steamer rocks. The mast in front of the captain’s bridge sways regularly and leisurely like a metronome; I try to look away from it, but my eyes will not obey me and, just like my stomach, insist on following moving objects. . . . The sky and the sea are dark, the shore is not in sight, the deck looks a dark blur . . . there is not a single light.

Behind me is a window . . . I look into it and see a man who looks attentively at something and turns a wheel with an expression as though he were playing the ninth symphony. . . . Next to me stands the little stout captain in tan shoes. . . . He talks to me of Caucasian emigrants, of the heat, of winter storms, and at the same time looks intently into the dark distance in the direction of the shore.

“You seem to be going too much to the left again,” he says to someone; or, “There ought to be lights here. . . . Do you see them?”

“No, sir,” someone answers from the dark.

“Climb up and look.”

A dark figure appears on the bridge and leisurely climbs up. In a minute we hear:

“Yes, sir.”

I look to the left where the lights of the lighthouse are supposed to be, borrow the captain’s glasses, but see nothing. . . . Half an hour passes, then an hour. The mast sways regularly, the devils creak, the wind makes dashes at my cap. . . . It is not pitch dark, but one feels uneasy.

Suddenly the captain dashes off somewhere to the rear of the ship, crying, “You devil’s doll!”

“To the left,” he shouts anxiously at the top of his voice. “To the left! . . . To the right! A-va-va-a!”

Incomprehensible words of command are heard. The steamer starts, the devils give a creak. . . . “A-va-va!” shouts the captain; at the bows a bell is rung, on the black deck there are sounds of running, knocking, cries of anxiety. . . . The Dir starts once more, puffs painfully, and apparently tries to move backwards.

“What is it?” I ask, and feel something like a faint terror. There is no answer.

“He’d like a collision, the devil’s doll!” I hear the captain’s harsh shout. “To the left!”

Red lights appear in front, and suddenly among the uproar is heard the whistling, not of the Dir, but of some other steamer. . . . Now I understand it: there is going to be a collision! The Dir puffs, trembles, and does not move, as though waiting for a signal to go down. . . . But just when I think all is lost, the red lights appear on the left of us, and the dark silhouette of a steamer can be discerned. . . . A long black body sails past us, guiltily blinks its red eyes, and gives a guilty whistle. . . .

“Oof! What steamer is it?” I ask the captain.

The captain looks at the silhouette through his glasses and replies:

“It is the Tweedie.”

After a pause we begin to talk of the Vesta, which collided with two steamers and went down. Under the influence of this conversation the sea, the night and the wind begin to seem hideous, created on purpose for man’s undoing, and I feel sorry as I look at the fat little captain. . . . Something whispers to me that this poor man, too, will sooner or later sink to the bottom and be choked with salt water. [Footnote: Chekhov’s presentiment about the captain was partly fulfilled: that very autumn the Dir was wrecked on the shores of Alupka.]

I go back to my cabin. . . . It is stuffy, and there is a smell of cooking. My travelling companion, Suvorin-fils, is asleep already. . . . I take off all my clothes and go to bed. . . . The darkness sways to and fro, the bed seems to breathe. . . . Boom-boom-boom! Bathed in perspiration, breathless, and feeling an oppression all over with the rocking, I ask myself, “What am I here for?”

I wake up. It is no longer dark. Wet all over, with a nasty taste in my mouth, I dress and go out. Everything is covered with dew. . . . The wild goats look with human eyes through the grating of their cage and seem to be asking “Why are we here?” The captain stands still as before and looks intently into the distance. . . .

A mountainous shore stretches on the left. . . . Elborus is seen from behind the mountains.

A blurred sun rises in the sky. . . . One can see the green valley of Rion and the Bay of Poti by the side of it.


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