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- Letters of Anton Chekhov - 3/64 -
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
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