To Chekhov's Memory by Alexander Kuprin
He lived among us….
You remember how, in early childhood, after the long summer holidays, one went back to school. Everything was gray; it was like a barrack; it smelt of fresh paint and putty; one's school-fellows rough, the authorities unkind. Still one tried somehow to keep up one's courage, though at moments one was seized with home-sickness. One was occupied in greeting friends, struck by changes in faces, deafened by the noise and movement.
But when evening comes and the bustle in the half dark dormitory ceases, O what an unbearable sadness, what despair possesses one's soul. One bites one's pillow, suppressing one's sobs, one whispers dear names and cries, cries with tears that burn, and knows that this sorrow is unquenchable. It is then that one realizes for the first time all the shattering horror of two things: the irrevocability of the past and the feeling of loneliness. It seems as if one would gladly give up all the rest of life, gladly suffer any tortures, for a single day of that bright, beautiful life which will never repeat itself. It seems as if one would snatch each kind, caressing word and enclose it forever in one's memory, as if one would drink into one's soul, slowly and greedily, drop by drop, every caress. And one is cruelly tormented by the thought that, through carelessness, in the hurry, and because time seemed inexhaustible, one had not made the most of each hour and moment that flashed by in vain.
A child's sorrows are sharp, but will melt in sleep and disappear with the morning sun. We, grown-up people, do not feel them so passionately, but we remember longer and grieve more deeply. After Chekhov's funeral, coming back from the service in the cemetery, one great writer spoke words that were simple, but full of meaning:
“Now we have buried him, the hopeless keenness of the loss is passing away. But do you realize, forever, till the end of our days, there will remain in us a constant, dull, sad, consciousness that Chekhov is not there?”
And now that he is not here, one feels with peculiar pain how precious was each word of his, each smile, movement, glance, in which shone out his beautiful, elect, aristocratic soul. One is sorry that one was not always attentive to those special details, which sometimes more potently and intimately than great deeds reveal the inner man. One reproaches oneself that in the fluster of life one has not managed to remember—to write down much of what is interesting, characteristic and important. And at the same time one knows that these feelings are shared by all those who were near him, who loved him truly as a man of incomparable spiritual fineness and beauty; and with eternal gratitude they will respect his memory, as the memory of one of the most remarkable of Russian writers.
To the love, to the tender and subtle sorrow of these men, I dedicate these lines.
Chekhov's cottage in Yalta stood nearly outside the town, right on the white and dusty Antka road. I do not know who had built it, but it was the most original building in Yalta. All bright, pure, light, beautifully-proportioned, built in no definite architectural style whatsoever, with a watch-tower like a castle, with unexpected gables, with a glass verandah on the ground and an open terrace above, with scattered windows—both wide and narrow—the bungalow resembled a building of the modern school, if there were not obvious in its plan the attentive and original thought, the original, peculiar taste of an individual. The bungalow stood in the corner of an orchard, surrounded by a flower-garden. Adjoining the garden, on the side opposite the road was an old deserted Tartar cemetery, fenced with a low little wall; always green, still and unpeopled, with modest stones on the graves.
The flower garden was tiny, not at all luxurious, and the fruit orchard was still very young. There grew in it pears and crab-apples, apricots, peaches, almonds. During the last year the orchard began to bear fruit, which caused Anton Pavlovitch much worry and a touching and childish pleasure. When the time came to gather almonds, they were also gathered in Chekhov's orchard. They usually lay in a little heap in the window-sill of the drawing room, and it seemed as if nobody could be cruel enough to take them, although they were offered.
Anton Pavlovitch did not like it and was even cross when people told him that his bungalow was too little protected from the dust, which came from the Antka road, and that the orchard was insufficiently supplied with water. Without on the whole liking the Crimea, and certainly not Yalta, he regarded his orchard with a special, zealous love. People saw him sometimes in the morning, sitting on his heels, carefully coating the stems of his roses with sulphur or pulling weeds from the flower beds. And what rejoicing there would be, when in the summer drought there at last began a rain that filled the spare clay cisterns with water!
But his love was not that of a proprietor, it was something else—a mightier and wiser consciousness. He would often say, looking at his orchard with a twinkle in his eye:
“Look, I have planted each tree here and certainly they are dear to me. But this is of no consequence. Before I came here all this was waste land and ravines, all covered with stones and thistles. Then I came and turned this wilderness into a cultivated, beautiful place. Do you know?”—he would suddenly add with a grave face, in a tone of profound belief—“do you know that in three or four hundred years all the earth will become a flourishing garden. And life will then be exceedingly light and comfortable.”
The thought of the beauty of the coming life, which is expressed so tenderly, sadly, and charmingly in all his latest works, was in his life also one of his most intimate, most cherished thoughts. How often must he have thought of the future happiness of mankind when, in the mornings, alone, silently, he trimmed his roses, still moist from the dew, or examined carefully a young sapling, wounded by the wind. And how much there was in that thought of meek, wise, and humble self-forgetfulness.
No, it was not a thirst for life, a clinging to life coming from the insatiable human heart, neither was it a greedy curiosity as to what will come after one's own life, nor an envious jealousy of remote generations. It was the agony of an exceptionally refined, charming, and sensitive soul, who suffered beyond measure from banality, coarseness, dreariness, nothingness, violence, savagery—the whole horror and darkness of modern everyday existence. And that is why, when towards the end of his life there came to him immense fame and comparative security, together with the devoted love of all that was sensitive, talented and honest in Russian society,—that is why he did not lock himself up in the inaccessibility of cold greatness nor become a masterful prophet nor shrink into a venomous and petty hostility against the fame of others. No, the sum of his wide and hard experience of life, of his sorrows, joys, and disappointments was expressed in that beautiful, anxious, self-forgetting dream of the coming happiness of others.
—“How beautiful life will be in three or four hundred years.”
And that is why he looked lovingly after his flower beds, as if he saw in them the symbol of beauty to come, and watched new paths being laid out by human intellect and knowledge. He looked with pleasure at new original buildings and at large, seagoing steamers; he was eagerly interested in every new invention and was not bored by the company of specialists. With firm conviction he said that crimes such as murder, theft, and adultery are decreasing, and have nearly disappeared among the intelligentsia, teachers, doctors, and authors. He believed that in the future true culture would ennoble mankind.
Telling of Chekhov's orchard I forgot to mention that there stood in the middle of it swings and a wooden bench. Both these latter remained from “Uncle Vanya,” which play the Moscow Art Theatre acted at Yalta, evidently with the sole purpose of showing the performance to Anton Pavlovitch who was ill then. Both objects were specially dear to Chekhov and, pointing to them, he would recollect with gratitude the attention paid him so kindly by the Art Theatre. It is fitting to say here that these fine actors, by their exceptionally subtle response to Chekhov's talent and their friendly devotion to himself, much sweetened his last days. ...