Chekhov. On the evening of March 22, 1897, he went to dinner in Moscow
with his friend and confidant Alexei Suvorin. This Suvorin was a very
rich newspaper and book publisher, a reactionary, a self-made man whose
father was a private at the battle of Borodino. Like Chekhov, he was the
grandson of a serf. They had that in common: each had peasant's blood in
his veins. Otherwise, politically and temperamentally, they were miles
apart. Nevertheless, Suvorin was one of Chekhov's few intimates, and
Chekhov enjoyed his company.
Naturally, they went to the best restaurant in the city, a former town
house called the Hermitage--a place where it could take hours, half the
night even, to get through a ten-course meal that would, of course,
include several wines, liqueurs, and coffee. Chekhov was impeccably
dressed, as always--a dark suit and waistcoat, his usual pince-nez. He
looked that night very much as he looks in the photographs taken of him
during this period. He was relaxed, jovial. He shook hands with the
maitre d', and with a glance took in the large dining room. It was
brilliantly illuminated by ornate chandeliers, the tables occupied by
elegantly dressed men and women. Waiters came and went ceaselessly. He
had just been seated across the table from Suvorin when suddenly,
without warning, blood began gushing from his mouth. Suvorin and two
waiters helped him to the gentlemen's room and tried to stanch the flow
of blood with ice packs. Suvorin saw him back to his own hotel and had a
bed prepared for Chekhov in one of the rooms of the suite. Later, after
another hemorrhage, Chekhov allowed himself to be moved to a clinic that
specialized in the treatment of tuberculosis and related respiratory
infections. When Suvorin visited him there, Chekhov apologized for the
"scandal" at the
restaurant three nights earlier but continued to
insist there was nothing seriously wrong. "He laughed and jested as
usual," Suvorin noted in his diary, "while spitting blood into a large
Maria Chekhov, his younger sister, visited Chekhov in the clinic during
the last days of March. The weather was miserable; a sleet storm was in
progress, and frozen heaps of snow lay everywhere. It was hard for her
to wave down a carriage to take her to the hospital. By the time she
arrived she was filled with dread and anxiety.
"Anton Pavlovich lay on his back," Maria wrote in her Memoirs. "He was
not allowed to speak. After greeting him, I went over to the table to
hide my emotions." There, among bottles of champagne, jars of caviar,
bouquets of flowers from well-wishers, she saw something that terrified
her: a freehand drawing, obviously done by a specialist in these
matters, of Chekhov's lungs. It was the kind of sketch a doctor often
makes in order to show his patient what he thinks is taking place. The
lungs were outlined in blue, but the upper parts were filled in with
red. "I realized they were diseased," Maria wrote.
Leo Tolstoy was another visitor. The hospital staff were awed to find
themselves in the presence of the country's greatest writer. The most
famous man in Russia? Of course they had to let him in to see Chekhov,
even though "nonessential" visitors were forbidden. With much
obsequiousness on the part of the nurses and resident doctors, the
bearded, fierce-looking old man was shown into Chekhov's room. Despite
his low opinion of Chekhov's abilities as a playwright (Tolstoy felt the
plays were static and lacking in any moral vision. "Where do your
characters take you?" he once demanded of Chekhov. "From the sofa to the
junk room and back"), Tolstoy liked Chekhov's short stories.
Furthermore, and quite simply, he loved the man. He told Gorky, "What a
beautiful, magnificent man: modest and quiet, like a girl. He even walks
like a girl. He's simply wonderful." And Tolstoy wrote in his journal
(everyone kept a journal or a diary in those days), "I am glad I love...
Tolstoy removed his woollen scarf and bearskin coat, then lowered
himself into a chair next to Chekhov's bed. Never mind that Chekhov was
taking medication and not permitted to talk, much less carry on a
conversation. He had to listen, amazedly, as the Count began to
discourse on his theories of the immortality of the soul. Concerning
that visit, Chekhov later wrote, "Tolstoy assumes that all of us (humans
and animals alike) will live on in a principle (such as reason or love)
the essence and goals of
which are a mystery to us.... I have no use for that kind of
immortality. I don't understand it, and Lev Nikolayevich was astonished
Nevertheless, Chekhov was impressed with the solicitude shown by
Tolstoy's visit. But, unlike Tolstoy, Chekhov didn't believe in an
afterlife and never had. He didn't believe in anything that couldn't be
apprehended by one or more of his five senses. And as far as his outlook
on life and writing went, he once told someone that he lacked "a
political, religious, and philosophical world view. I change it every
month, so I'll have to limit myself to the description of how my heroes
love, marry, give birth, die, and how they speak."
Earlier, before his t.b. was diagnosed, Chekhov had remarked, "When a
peasant has consumption, he says, There's nothing I can do. I'll go off
in the spring with the melting of the snows.'" (Chekhov himself died in
the summer, during a heat wave.) But once Chekhov's own tuberculosis was
discovered he continually tried to minimize the seriousness of his
condition. To all appearances, it was as if he felt, right up to the
end, that he might be able to throw off the disease as he would a
lingering catarrh. Well into his final days, he spoke with seeming
conviction of the possibility of an improvement. In fact, in a letter
written shortly before his end, he went so far as to tell his sister
that he was "getting fat" and felt much better now that he was in
Badenweiler is a spa and resort city
in the western area of the Black Forest, not far from Basel. The Vosges
are visible from nearly anywhere in the city, and in those days the air
was pure and invigorating. Russians had been going there for years to
soak in the hot mineral baths and promenade on the boulevards. In June,
1904, Chekhov went there to die.
Earlier that month, he'd made a difficult journey by train from Moscow
to Berlin. He traveled with his wife, the actress Olga Knipper, a woman
he'd met in 1898 during rehearsals for "The Seagull." Her contemporaries
describe her as an excellent actress. She was talented, pretty, and
almost ten years younger than the playwright. Chekhov had been
immediately attracted to her, but was slow to act on his feelings. As
always, he preferred a flirtation to marriage. Finally, after a
three-year courtship involving many separations, letters, and the
they were at last married, in a private ceremony in Moscow, on May 25,
1901. Chekhov was enormously happy. He called Olga his "pony," and
sometimes "dog" or "puppy." He was also fond of addressing her as
"little turkey" or simply as "my joy."
In Berlin, Chekhov consulted with a renowned specialist in pulmonary
disorders, a Dr. Karl Ewald. But, according to an eyewitness, after the
doctor examined Chekhov he threw up his hands and left the room without
a word. Chekhov was too far gone for help: this Dr Ewald was furious
with himself for not being able to work miracles, and with Chekhov for
being so ill.
A Russian journalist happened to visit the Chekhovs at their hotel and
sent back this dispatch to his editor: "Chekhov's days are numbered. He
seems mortally ill, is terribly thin, coughs all the time, gasps for
breath at the slightest movement, and is running a high temperature."
This same journalist saw the Chekhovs off at Potsdam Station when they
boarded their train for Badenweiler. According to his account, "Chekhov
had trouble making his way up the small staircase at the station. He had
to sit down for several minutes to catch his breath." In fact, it was
painful for Chekhov to move: his legs ached continually and his insides
hurt. The disease had attacked his intestines and spinal cord. At this
point he had less than a month to live. When Chekhov spoke of his
condition now, it was, according to Olga, "with an almost reckless
Dr. Schwohrer was one of the many Badenweiler physicians who earned a
good living by treating the well-to-do who came to the spa seeking
relief from various maladies. Some of his patients were ill and infirm,
others simply old and hypochondriacal. But Chekhov's was a special case:
he was clearly beyond help and in his last days. He was also very
famous. Even Dr. Schwohrer knew his name: he'd read some of Chekhov's
stories in a German magazine. When he examined the writer early in June,
he voiced his appreciation of Chekhov's art but kept his medical
opinions to himself. Instead, he prescribed a diet of cocoa, oatmeal
drenched in butter, and strawberry tea. This last was supposed to help
Chekhov sleep at night. On June 13, less than three weeks before he
died, Chekhov wrote a letter to his mother in which he told her his
health was on the mend. In it he said, "It's likely that I'll be
completely cured in a week." Who knows why he said this? What could he
have been thinking? He was a doctor himself, and he knew better. He was
dying, it was as simple and as unavoidable as that. Nevertheless, he sat
out on the balcony of his hotel
room and read railway timetables. He asked for information on sailings
of boats bound for Odessa from Marseilles. But he knew. At this stage he
had to have known. Yet in one of the last letters he ever wrote he told
his sister he was growing stronger by the day.
He no longer had any appetite for literary work, and hadn't for a long
time. In fact, he had very nearly failed to complete The Cherry Orchard
the year before. Writing that play was the hardest thing he'd ever done
in his life. Toward the end, he was able to manage only six or seven
lines a day. "I've started losing heart," he wrote Olga. "I feel I'm
finished as a writer, and every sentence strikes me as worthless and of
no use whatever.'' But he didn't stop. He finished his play in October,
1903. It was the last thing he ever wrote, except for letters and a few
entries in his notebook.
A little after midnight on July 2, 1904, Olga sent someone to fetch Dr.
Schwohrer. It was an emergency: Chekhov was delirious. Two young
Russians on holiday happened to have the adjacent room, and Olga hurried
next door to explain what was happening. One of the youths was in his
bed asleep, but the other was still awake, smoking and reading. He left
the hotel at a run to find Dr. Schwohrer. "I can still hear the sound of
the gravel under his shoes in the silence of that stifling July night,"
Olga wrote later on in her memoirs. Chekhov was hallucinating, talking
about sailors, and there were snatches of something about the Japanese.
"You don't put ice on an empty stomach," he said when she tried to place
an ice pack on his chest.
Dr. Schwohrer arrived and unpacked his bag, all the while keeping his
gaze fastened on Chekhov, who lay gasping in the bed. The sick man's
pupils were dilated and his temples glistened with sweat. Dr.
Schwohrer's face didn't register anything. He was not an emotional man,
but he knew Chekhov's end was near. Still, he was a doctor, sworn to do
his utmost, and Chekhov held on to life, however tenuously. Dr.
Schwohrer prepared a hypodermic and administered an injection of
camphor, something that was supposed to speed up the heart. But the
injection didn't help-- nothing, of course, could have helped.
Nevertheless, the doctor made known to Olga his intention of sending for
oxygen. Suddenly, Chekhov roused himself, became lucid, and said
quietly, "What's the use? Before it arrives I'll be a corpse."
Dr. Schwohrer pulled on his big moustache and stared at Chekhov. The
writer'-s cheeks were sunken and gray, his complexion waxen; his breath
was raspy. Dr. Schwohrer knew the time could be reckoned in minutes.
Without a word, without conferring with Olga, he went over to
an alcove where there was a telephone on the wall. He read the
instructions for using the device. If he activated it by holding his
finger on a button and turning a handle on the side of the phone, he
could reach the lower regions of the hotel--the kitchen. He picked up
the receiver, held it to his ear, and did as the instructions told him.
When someone finally answered, Dr. Schwohrer ordered a bottle of the
hotel's best champagne. "How many glasses?" he was asked. "Three
glasses!" the doctor shouted into the mouthpiece. "And hurry, do you
hear?" It was one of those rare moments of inspiration that can easily
enough be overlooked later on, because the action is so entirely
appropriate it seems inevitable.
The champagne was brought to the door by a tired-looking young man whose
blond hair was standing up. The trousers of his uniform were wrinkled,
the creases gone, and in his haste he'd missed a loop while buttoning
his jacket. His appearance was that of someone who'd been resting
(slumped in a chair, say, dozing a little), when off in the distance the
phone had clamored in the early-morning hours--great God in Heaven!--and
the next thing he knew he was being shaken awake by a superior and told
to deliver a bottle of Moet to Room 211. "And hurry, do you hear?"
The young man entered the room
carrying a silver ice bucket with the champagne in it and a silver tray
with three cut-crystal glasses. He found a place on the table for the
bucket and glasses, all the while craning his neck, trying to see into
the other room, where someone panted ferociously for breath. It was a
dreadful, harrowing sound, and the young man lowered his chin into his
collar and turned away as the ratchety breathing worsened. Forgetting
himself, he stared out the open window toward the darkened city. Then
this big imposing man with a thick moustache pressed some coins into his
hand--a large tip, by the feel of it--and suddenly the young man saw the
door open. He took some steps and found himself on the landing, whfere
he opened his hand and looked at the coins in amazement.
Methodically, the way he did everything, the doctor went about the
business of working the cork out of the bottle. He did it in such a way
as to minimize, as much as possible, the festive explosion. He poured
three glasses and, out of habit, pushed the cork back into the neck of
the bottle. He then took the glasses of champagne over to the bed. Olga
released her grip on Chekhov's hand--a hand, she said later, that
burned her fingers. She arranged another pillow behind his head. Then
she put the cool glass of champagne against Chekhov's palm and made sure
his fingers closed around the stem. They exchanged looks--Chekhov, Olga,
Dr. Schwohrer. They didn't touch glasses. There was no toast. What on
earth was there to drink to? To death? Chekhov summoned his remaining
strength and said, "It's been so long since I've had champagne." He
brought the glass to his lips and drank. In a minute or two Olga took
the empty glass from his hand and set it on the nightstand. Then Chekhov
turned onto his side. He closed his eyes and sighed. A minute later, his
Dr. Schwohrer picked up Chekhov's hand from the bedsheet. He held his
fingers to Chekhov's wrist and drew a gold watch from his vest pocket,
opening the lid of the watch as he did so. The second hand on the watch
moved slowly, very slowly. He let it move around the face of the watch
three times while he waited for signs of a pulse. It was three o'clock
in the morning and still sultry in the room. Badenweiler was in the grip
of its worst heat wave in years. All the windows in both rooms stood
open, but there was no sign of a breeze. A large, black-winged moth flew
through a window and banged wildly against the electric lamp. Dr.
Schwohrer let go of Chekhov's wrist. "It's over," he said. He closed the
lid of his watch and returned it to his vest pocket.
At once Olga dried her eyes and set about composing herself. She thanked
the doctor for coming. He asked if she wanted some medication
--laudanum, perhaps, or a few drops of valerian. She shook her head. She
did have one request, though: before the authorities were notified and
the newspapers found out, before the time came when Chekhov was no
longer in her keeping, she wanted to be alone with him for a while.
Could the doctor help with this? Could he withhold, for a while anyway,
news of what had just occurred?
Dr. Schwohrer stroked his moustache with the back of a finger. Why not?
After all, what difference would it make to anyone whether this matter
became known now or a few hours from now? The only detail that remained
was to fill out a death certificate, and this could be done at his
office later on in the morning, after he'd slept a few hours. Dr.
Schwohrer nodded his agreement and prepared to leave. He murmured a few
words of condolence. Olga inclined her head. "An honor," Dr. Schwohrer
said. He picked up his bag and left the room and, for that matter,
It was at this moment that the cork popped out of the champagne
bottle; foam spilled down onto the table. Olga went back to Chekhov's
bedside. She sat on a footstool, holding his hand, from time to time
stroking his face. "There were no human voices, no everyday sounds," she
wrote. "There was only beauty, peace, and the grandeur of death."
She stayed with Chekhov until daybreak, when thrushes began to call from
the garden below. Then came the sound of tables and chairs being moved
about down there. Before long, voices carried up to her. It was then a
knock sounded at the door. Of course she thought it must be an official
of some sort--the medical examiner, say, or someone from the police who
had questions to ask and forms for her to fill out, or maybe, just
maybe, it could be Dr. Schwohrer returning with a mortician to render
assistance in embalming and transporting Chekhov's remains back to
But, instead, it was the same blond young man who'd brought the
champagne a few hours earlier. This time, however, his uniform trousers
were neatly pressed, with stiff creases in front, and every button on
his snug green jacket was fastened. He seemed quite another person. Not
only was he wide awake but his plump cheeks were smooth-shaven, his hair
was in place, and he appeared anxious to please. He was holding a
porcelain vase with three long-stemmed yellow roses. He presented these
to Olga with a smart click of his heels. She stepped back and let him
into the room. He was there, he said, to collect the glasses, ice
bucket, and tray, yes. But he also wanted to say that, because of the
extreme heat, breakfast would be served in the garden this morning. He
hoped this weather wasn't too bothersome; he apologized for it.
The woman seemed distracted. While he talked, she turned her eyes away
and looked down at something in the carpet. She crossed her arms and
held her elbows. Meanwhile, still holding his vase, waiting for a sign,
the young man took in the details of the room. Bright sunlight flooded
through the open windows. The room was tidy and seemed undisturbed,
almost untouched. No garments were flung over chairs, no shoes,
stockings, braces, or stays were in evidence, no open suitcases. In
short, there was no clutter, nothing but the usual heavy pieces of
hotel-room furniture. Then, because the woman was still looking down, he
looked down, too, and at once spied a cork near the toe of his shoe. The
woman did not see it--she was looking somewhere else. The young man
wanted to bend over
and pick up the cork, but he was still holding the roses and was afraid
of seeming to intrude even more by drawing any further attention to
himself. Reluctantly, he left the cork where it was and raised his eyes.
Everything was in order except for the uncorked, half-empty bottle of
champagne that stood alongside two crystal glasses over on the little
table. He cast his gaze about once more. Through an open door he saw
that the third glass was in the bedroom, on the nightstand. But someone
still occupied the bed! He couldn't see a face, but the figure under the
covers lay perfectly motionless and quiet. He noted the figure and
looked elsewhere. Then, for a reason he couldn't understand, a feeling
of uneasiness took hold of him. He cleared his throat and moved his
weight to the other leg. The woman still didn't look up or break her
silence. The young man felt his cheeks grow warm. It occurred to him,
quite without his having thought it through, that he should perhaps
suggest an alternative to breakfast in the garden. He coughed, hoping to
focus the woman's attention, but she didn't look at him. The
distinguished foreign guests could, he said, take breakfast in their
rooms this morning if they wished. The young man (his name hasn't
survived, and it's likely he perished in the Great War) said he would be
happy to bring up a tray. Two trays, he added, glancing uncertainly once
again in the direction of the bedroom.
He fell silent and ran a finger around the inside of his collar. He
didn't understand. He wasn't even sure the woman had been listening. He
didn't know what else to do now; he was still holding the vase. The
sweet odor of the roses filled his nostrils and inexplicably caused a
pang of regret. The entire time he'd been waiting, the woman had
apparently been lost in thought. It was as if all the while he'd been
standing there, talking, shifting his weight, holding his flowers, she
had been someplace else, somewhere far from Badenweiler. But now she
came back to herself, and her face assumed another expression. She
raised her eyes, looked at him, and then shook her head. She seemed to
be struggling to understand what on earth this young man could be doing
there in the room holding a vase with three yellow roses. Flowers? She
hadn't ordered flowers.
The moment passed. She went over to her handbag and scooped up some
coins. She drew out a number of banknotes as well. The young man touched
his lips with his tongue; another large tip was forthcoming, but for
what? What did she want him to do? He'd never before waited on such
guests. He cleared his throat once more.
No breakfast, the woman said. Not yet, at any rate. Breakfast wasn't the
important thing this morning. She required something else. She
needed him to go out and bring back a mortician. Did he understand her?
Herr Chekhov was dead, you see. Comprenez-vous? Young man? Anton Chekhov
was dead. Now listen carefully to me, she said. She wanted him to go
downstairs and ask someone at the front desk where he could go to find
the most respected mortician in the city. Someone reliable, who took
great pains in his work and whose manner was appropriately reserved. A
mortician, in short, worthy of a great artist. Here, she said, and
pressed the money on him. Tell them downstairs that I have specifically
requested you to perform this duty for me. Are you listening? Do you
understand what I'm saying to you?
The young man grappled to take in what she was saying. He chose not to
look again in the direction of the other room. He had sensed that
something was not right. He became aware of his heart beating rapidly
under his jacket, and he felt perspiration break out on his forehead. He
didn't know where he should turn his eyes. He wanted to put the vase
Please do this for me, the woman said. I'll remember you with gratitude.
Tell them downstairs that I insist. Say that. But don't call any
unnecessary attention to yourself or to the situation. Just say that
this is necessary, that I request it--and that's all. Do you hear me?
Nod if you understand. Above all, don't raise an alarm. Everything else,
all the rest, the commotion--that'll come soon enough. The worst is
over. Do we understand each other?
The young man's face had grown pale. He stood rigid, clasping the vase.
He managed to nod his head.
After securing permission to leave the hotel he was to proceed quieriy
and resolutely, though without any unbecoming haste, to the mortician's.
He was to behave exactly as if he were engaged on a very important
errand, nothing more. He was engaged on an important errand, she said.
And if it would help keep tu's movements purposeful he should imagine
himself as someone moving down the busy sidewalk carrying in his arms a
porcelain vase of roses that he had to deliver to an important man. (She
spoke quietly, almost confidentially, as if to a relative or a friend.)
He could even tell himself that the man he was going to see was
expecting him, was perhaps impatient for him to arrive with his flowers.
Nevertheless, the young man was not to become excited and run, or
otherwise break his stride. Remember the vase he was carrying! He was to
walk briskly, comporting himself at all times in as dignified a manner
as possible. He should keep walking until he came to the mortician's
stood before the door. He would then raise the brass knocker and let it
fall, once, twice, three times. In a minute the mortician himself would
This mortician would be in his forties, no doubt, or maybe early
fifties--bald, solidly built, wearing steel-frame spectacles set very
low on his nose. He would be modest, unassuming, a man who would ask
only the most direct and necessary questions. An apron. Probably he
would be wearing an apron. He might even be wiping his hands on a dark
towel while he listened to what was being said. There'd be a faint whiff
of formaldehyde on his clothes. But it was all right, and the young man
shouldn't worry. He was nearly a grown-up now and shouldn't be
frightened or repelled by any of this. The mortician would hear him out.
He was a man of restraint and bearing, this mortician, someone who could
help allay people's fears in this situation, not increase them. Long ago
he'd acquainted himself with death in all its various guises and forms;
death held no surprises for him any longer, no hidden secrets. It was
this man whose services were required this morning.
The mortician takes the vase of roses. Only once while the young man is
speaking does the mortician betray the least flicker of interest, or
indicate that he's heard anything out of the ordinary. But the one time
the young man mentions the name of the deceased, the mortician's
eyebrows rise just a little. Chekhov, you say? Just a minute, and I'll
be with you.
Do you understand what I'm saying, Olga said to the young man. Leave the
glasses. Don't worry about them. Forget about crystal wineglasses and
such. Leave the room as it is. Everything is ready now. We're ready.
Will you go?
But at that moment the young man was thinking of the cork still resting
near the toe of his shoe. To retrieve it he would have to bend over,
still gripping the vase. He would do this. He leaned over. Without
looking down, he reached out and closed it into his hand.