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- Letters of Anton Chekhov - 5/64 -
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.
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