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- Letters of Anton Chekhov - 4/64 -
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
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