A Meeting with Chekhov

Alexander Tikhonov

Preparations were in full swing for Savva Morozov’s arrival at his estate. The manager, a busy, paunchy little man reminiscent of Mr Pickwick, and known to everyone as ‘Uncle Kostia’, had been busy for two entire weeks frantically scuttling from one end of the large estate to the other – so frantically he hardly knew whether it was day or night. He had plenty to worry about: bridges had to be mended, footpaths repaired; at one end of the estate men were shooting game, at the other they’d been commanded to catch fish in the mountain streams – all in order to have plenty of food ready for Morozov’s arrival. Exhausted, covered in mosquito bites and mud, poor Uncle Kostia only ever managed to get home to the Vsevolod Volnevsky factory in time to grab a night’s sleep. Even his round spectacles, perching precariously on his small nose, were spattered with mud. The outside of the house had to be repainted and everything inside cleaned and polished; the park had to be put in order, manure had to be moved from the stables, and the dogs, of which there were far too many, had to be rounded up and in some cases put down. The idea was to hang their carcasses outside the kitchen door as a warning to the others. The coachman, Chariton, a large man with red hair and the look of a hangman, had been asked to do this, but although he was a bad-tempered fellow he was only able to kill a few of the dogs; the others, sensing trouble, managed to hide. Officially, the new school building was ready, but it still didn’t have any windows or doors.

The cook, who had been brought over from Perm, looked like a eunuch and appeared to have a drink problem. He kept breaking the crockery and asking Amfisa Nikolaevna, Uncle Kostia’s wife, for unknown or unobtainable ingredients without which, he claimed, he would not be able to prepare a single ‘decent’ dish worthy of a ‘governor’.

From early morning Amfisa Nikolaevna bustled about in her pink flannel dressinggown, squawking like a hysterical hen. She quarrelled with the painters, the chambermaid and the girl scrubbing the floor – who had already broken two window-panes and overturned the precious pot-plant that her mistress had been nursing for the past two years.

Four of Uncle Kostia’s grandsons took advantage of the fact that they’d been left to their own devices and formed themselves into a band of robbers. They tore through the garden slashing at the newly planted flower-beds with wooden swords and ran into the house, marvelling at their own footprints on the freshly stained floors.

Uncle Kostia had long ago given up trying to control them. He had no time for himself. His one pleasure was the new water-closet that he’d had installed in Morozov’s honour. It had a splendid porcelain base and a flushing system that cascaded like Niagara Falls. Every time Uncle Kostia came out of the bathroom, pulling up his trousers, and always forgetting to button his flies, he would exclaim admiringly: ‘That’s what I call European culture.’

Even the factory workers who lived near the railway station were caught up in the general excitement. In the evenings you could hear their deep voices discussing the petition they were planning to take to Morozov – something to do with unresolved land disputes. You could also hear the choir rehearsing a welcoming cantata and the voice of Father Gennady, who was in charge and whom everyone called ‘Little Jesus’. The bearded stationmaster, perhaps because of his grovelling nature, was inspired to have the station clock polished and the platform decorated with flowers, though Morozov’s visit was no concern of his.

At last the great day arrived: 23 June 1902. At ten in the morning, Uncle Kostia and Chariton set out in a newly lacquered carriage to meet Morozov; the coachman was in the driving seat, wearing a pleated and embroidered waistcoat.

I stayed behind, sitting on a bench in the sun, impatient to see Savva, whom I knew from Moscow. (Morozov was always called Savva behind his back.) Half an hour later, the troika hurtled round the corner, and stopped abruptly at the main entrance, leaving a cloud of dust behind it. Morozov leapt out of the carriage with the agility of a young man. He was wearing a linen shirt and high hunting boots, but no hat. His face, like the face of a bearded Mongolian statue, had a mischievous expression. ‘I’ve brought you a visitor!’ he whispered as he greeted me.

Immediately behind him, carefully lowering himself off the ledge of the carriage, stepped a tall, bent man in a peaked cap; he was wearing a close-fitting black suit with a crumpled bow-tie. His tired face and his pointed beard were grey from exhaustion and dust. A square flask in a leather case of the kind that hunters use was hanging on a strap from his shoulder. His wrinkled trousers fell loosely over his long, X-shaped legs.

He was only a few steps away from us when he was overcome by a long coughing fit. When it finished he unscrewed the metal top of the flask, turned away from us in embarrassment, and spat a sticky red liquid into the opening. Then he extended his damp hand to me in silence; adjusted his pince-nez and, knitting his brow, looked down across the deep, winding river into the hot, misty distance. In a deep voice – its hoarseness aggravated by coughing – he said: ‘There must be plenty of pike in there.’ It was Chekhov.

The day passed in a festive mood. After a light lunch we were taken to see the sights: the spirits factory, the new school, the park with its birch trees. Chekhov walked slowly, watching his step and often falling behind the others. The earth had cracked in the heat and he prodded it with his thin, bendy walking-stick as if he mistrusted it. ‘Chekhov,’ Gorky once wrote to me, ‘walks across the earth the way a doctor walks through a hospital: the hospital has many sick people, but no medicines. And the doctor isn’t altogether sure that the sick should be cured.’

Chekhov clearly didn’t enjoy being shown the dark, low-lying spirits factory. All kinds of liquids were fermenting in huge containers and refrigerators, although there was no noise from the machines or even an open fire. Put off by the acrid smell, he wrinkled his nose; and though he listened to the engineer’s explanations, you could tell he had no interest in them. It was only out of politeness that he tapped one of the vast containers with his walking-stick; then, without waiting for Morozov, he stepped out into the open air.

He hardly glanced at the new school; the main entrance had not yet been completed and he would have had to climb a steep staircase. While Savva was measuring the future classrooms, Chekhov sat on a pile of logs nearby, playing with the small metal box that he always carried in his waistcoat pocket. The village children had been sent out to collect wood shavings for firewood, and he tried enticing them with his mint pastilles. The children giggled and nudged each other, but none of them had the courage to go up to the strange old man to take the proffered sweet.

In the shade of the birch trees in the park, Chekhov, remarkably, came to life. He took his hat off as though he were in church, wiped the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief and with a deep sigh murmured: ‘What a nice place you have here – the birches aren’t like those we have in Yalta.’ Almost petulantly, he added: ‘I can’t think why healthy people bother to go to Yalta. There is nothing there of any beauty – not a birch tree, no cherry trees, not even any starlings!’

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[*] Gorky is the Russian word for ‘bitter’.