A Night in the Cemetery and Other Stories of Crime & Suspense, p.1Anton Chekhov
IN THE CEMETERY
IN THE CEMETERY
AND OTHER STORIES OF
CRIME & SUSPENSE
TRANSLATED BY PETER SEKIRIN
A NIGHT IN THE CEMETERY
WHAT YOU USUALLY FIND IN NOVELS
THE SWEDISH MATCH
A NIGHT OF HORROR
THE ONLY WAY OUT
AN EXPENSIVE DOG
A COURT CASE
THE BROTHER: A SLICE OF LIFE
IN THE DARKNESS OF THE NIGHT
THE INTENTIONAL DECEPTION
ON THE SEA: A SAILOR’S STORY
IVAN THE CABMAN
DEATH OF AN OFFICE WORKER
AT THE CEMETERY
THE CONVERSATION OF A MAN WITH A DOG
A DEAD BODY
TOO MUCH TALKING!
CONVERSATION OF A DRUNKEN MAN WITH A SOBER DEVIL
FIRE IN THE STEPPE: AN EVIL NIGHT
A CRIME: A DOUBLE MURDER CASE
THE MAN WHO WANTED REVENGE
THE DRAMA AT THE HUNT
IN THE CEMETERY
While the plays and novellas by Anton Chekhov are known and loved the world over, it will come as a surprise to many to learn that he actually began his career as a crime and mystery writer. He had always been fond of the genre, and during his mid-twenties, he began writing suspense stories as a hobby while still in medical school at Moscow University. His first story, “What is Met in the Novels,” was published shortly thereafter in Dragonfly magazine. As befitting Chekhov’s exceptional style and sensibilities, the letter he received from the editors at Dragonfly on January 13, 1880, began his writing career in an equally absurdist way: “This isn’t bad at all. We will publish the material you sent us. Best blessings to you and your future work.” He continued to write suspense stories as a young doctor, eventually segueing into the more “literary” forms that cemented his place in literary history, returning to the crime and mystery genre at the end of his life.
From 1881 to 1883, Chekhov lived in Moscow and continued to study medicine at the university. He wrote many humorous crime stories for Dragonfly, Spectator, and Alarm-Clock magazines, including “The Swedish Match” and “Night of Horror.” His stories were very popular, and a close friend mentioned in his memoirs that since Chekhov was so prolific, his writing was the main source of income for his entire family. His attention to his formal studies, however, never wavered, and he continued to excel in the classroom and clinic. (M. Chelnov, “Chekhov and Medicine.” Russian News, 1906) If anything, Chekhov was able to use his medical knowledge to supplement his literary pursuits—his thorough knowledge of anatomy recurs again and again throughout this collection as various police officers and detectives sort their way through every kind of murderous mystery.
Chekhov graduated from medical school in 1884 and moved to the countryside outside Moscow as a practicing family doctor. In January 1885, he wrote to his brother, Mikhail Chekhov, betraying mixed feelings about his current profession. “Medicine is all right. I continue to treat sick patients…. I have a lot of friends, many of whom also seem to need medical care, and of course I treat half of them for free.” In another letter later that month, he writes: “Sick patients bore me to death. I had several hundred patients this summer, and made only one ruble.” Fortunately, life soon became more interesting out in the villages, as Chekhov began to accompany the local police on criminal investigations and perform autopsies for them. Many of stories from 1884 to 1886 feature a doctor or medic assisting the detective as the main protagonist, most notably in “Drama at the Hunt,” “The Dead Body,” and “Double Murder.”
In 1886, Dmitry Grigorovich, a prominent writer then in his mid-seventies and a close personal friend of the literary luminaries Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Nekrasov, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, wrote a letter to Chekhov, expressing admiration for his literary talents. Grigorovich passed Chekhov’s stories around to his various acquaintances, and Chekhov’s star continued to rise in the Russian literary world, with the St. Petersburg Daily, a prominent national paper, publishing several more of his stories.
As his reputation grew, friends and critics encouraged Chekhov to move away from these short crime and suspense pieces and focus on “big” literature. In a letter dated August 9, 1886, the journalist M. Remezov wrote: “I think the time has come for you to write serious, lengthy stories, and claim your place in literature.” Taking this advice to heart, Chekhov became more and more entrenched in literary society, establishing close friendships with Leo Tolstoy and composer Peter Tchaikovsky. He staged his first play, Ivanov, later that year. But he was not quite ready to give up the mystery genre entirely. He published three collections of his crime stories between 1886 and 1889, and wrote twenty more new stories. Most of these stories were scattered throughout a variety of periodicals (see Annotated Table of Contents), and until now have managed to escape the notice of contemporary translators and editors.
The year 1889 was a watershed in Chekhov’s life and career. Following the deaths of his father and his brother Nikolai, Chekhov traveled throughout Siberia, visiting Russian prisons and observing village life in the easternmost parts of the country. His travels took him through the Volga Valley, Perm, Tiumen, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Khabarovsk, and Sakhalin. He kept an extensive diary, complete with detailed sketches and interviews of hundreds of officers and inmates from the notorious Sakhalin prisons. Upon his return, this diary was serialized in the newspaper The New Time under the title “From Siberia,” and was his darkest published piece to date. In a letter to his publisher, Anton Suvorin, he wrote: “I have been in northern Sakahlin for two months…. I don’t know what will come of this, but it will be big. I have enough material here for three books. Every day, I got up at 5 a.m. and went to bed late and stressed, as there are many things I have yet to do…. There is not a single prisoner out of the several thousand here, nor is there a settler in Sakhalin, with whom I haven’t spoken.” In December of 1890, following his return to Moscow, Chekhov wrote several more, and darker, crime stories, but these were the last of such stories for many years, as he turned his focus to theater and more literary short stories.
Needless to say, Chekhov’s plays, novellas and short fiction pieces were met with great success, and it is for these that he is best remembered. As he neared the end of his short life, Chekhov spent more and more time writing longer novellas. He married the actress Olga Knipper and won several prestigious literary prizes, and as he wrote his novellas, he came full circle and turned back to the mystery and suspense genre that had started his career. These crime and suspense stories are an important part of Chekhov’s literary journey, and even at this early stage in his literary career, his unique absurdist sensibilities, so beloved in his plays and novellas, are evident in raw form and are a compelling addition to the Chekhov canon.
A NIGHT IN
Please, Ivan Ivanovich, tell us something scary!” Ivan Ivanovich stroked his moustache, cleared his throat, smacked his lips, moved closer to the inquiring ladies, and began to tell his story.
My story begins, as do most traditional well-written Russian stories, with the phrase “I was drunk that day.”
It happened after the New Year’s Eve party where I celebrated with one of my best friends, and I got as drunk as a fish. In my defense, I should say that I had a good reason for getting drunk on that night. I believe it is a worthy pursuit for people to feel happy on New Year’s Eve. Every coming year is as bad as the previous one, the only difference being that in most cases it is even worse.
I think that during our traditional New Year’s Eve parties people should fight, be miserable, cry, and attempt suicide. One must remember that each new year leads you closer to death, the bald spot on your head spreads, the wrinkles on your face grow deeper, your wife gets older, and with every new year you have more kids and less money.
As a result of my misfortunes, I got drunk. When I left my friend’s house, the clock tower struck two o’clock in the morning. The weather outside was nasty. Only the devil himself could tell whether it was autumn or winter weather.
It was pitch black around me. Although I tried to look as far ahead as I could, I could not see anything. It was as if someone had put me in an enormous can of black shoe polish. It was also raining cats and dogs. The cold, sharp wind was singing terrible, horrifying notes—howling, moaning, and squeaking, as if an evil being were conducting an orchestra of nature. The mud stuck to my shoes with every slow step. The few streetlights that I accidentally encountered on my way resembled the crying widows one would see at funerals.
It seemed the weather itself felt like vomiting. A thief or a murderer might rejoice to have such weather, but for me, a drunken civil servant, it was very depressing.
“Life is boring,” I philosophized to myself as I tried not to fall. “This isn’t a life, but an empty, dull existence. Day after day, year after year, all the while still the same inside, no different than when you were young. Many years pass while you still only drink, eat, and sleep. In the end, they dig a grave for you, bury you, and have a party after your funeral with free food, telling each other, “He was a good man, but he didn’t leave enough money behind for us, the scoundrel.’ ”
I was walking from one end of town to another, which was a very long walk for a man who had just had too many drinks. As I made my way through the dark and narrow side streets, I did not meet a single living soul, nor hear a single sound. At first, I walked on the sidewalk, as I was trying not to wet my boots, but despite my good intentions, my boots became soaking wet. So, I began walking in the middle of the street. This way, I had less chance to hit a lamppost or fall into a ditch.
My way was cloaked with cold, impenetrable darkness. At the beginning of my trip I came across several dim lampposts, but once I had passed a couple of small streets, even those small lamps disappeared from view. It was then that I began trying to find my way by touch. I was trying hard to see anything through the pitch dark, and as I listened to the wind’s howl, I hurried. Little by little, I became filled with an inexplicable fear, which turned to horror as I realized that I had lost my way.
“Hey, taxi,” I cried, with no reply. I then decided I should walk in a straight line, reasoning that sooner or later, I would get to a big street, where there would be lights and taxis.
Without looking back, being afraid to look even to my sides, I started to run …
Ivan Ivanovich paused, downed a shot of vodka, and stroked his moustache, before continuing on.
I don’t really remember how long I ran. The only thing that I remember is bumping against something, badly hurting my knee, and extreme pain.
I remember sensing it was a strange object…. I could not see it in the darkness, but felt with my fingers that it was cold, wet and smoothly polished. I sat on it, while I rested. I won’t take advantage of your patience, but I can tell you that after a while, when I lit my match to light a cigarette, I saw that I was sitting on a tombstone!
Around me, I could not see anything but darkness, nor hear a single human sound. Then, I saw a tombstone! In horror, I closed my eyes and jumped to my feet. I took a step away from the tombstone, and stumbled into something else! Imagine my horror as I encountered a wooden cross from the cemetery!
“Oh my God, I am in a graveyard,” I thought, covering my face with my both hands, as I sat back down on the marble tombstone. Instead of the Presnya District Cemetery, I usually went to the Vagankovo Cemetery. As a rule, I am afraid neither of cemeteries nor of the dead. I am not prejudiced, nor do I believe in fairy tales. However, after finding myself among these silent graves in the middle of the night, with the wind howling and dark thoughts filling my mind, I suddenly felt my hair stand on end as a cold shiver went up my spine.
“This cannot be,” I spoke aloud to try and calm myself. “This is just an illusion, a hallucination. It’s all in my imagination, especially since I have recently read a book about spiritualism.”
At this moment, lost in my nightmarish thoughts, I heard some very weak and quiet footsteps. Someone was walking toward me, but they didn’t seem like human footsteps, for they were too light and way too frequent.
“A dead man walking,” I thought.
Finally, this mysterious someone drew close to me, touched my knee, and heaved a deep sigh. Then I heard a howl. It was a terrible, deadly howl coming from a grave, pulling at my nerves. If as a child you were scared of your nanny’s fairy tales, and stories about dead men, imagine how I felt as I heard the howl from somewhere near me!
I instantly became sober as I froze in horror. It seemed to me that if I opened my eyes, I would see a pale yellow bony face, covered in half-rotten cloth.
“Oh God! I wish morning would come faster!” I prayed.
However, before morning came, I went through another inexpressible horror, a horror impossible for me to describe. As I sat on the tombstone, listening to the howling of the grave dweller, I suddenly heard new steps.
Someone was coming straight toward me, with heavy rhythmic footsteps.
As soon as he came to me, the creature from the grave let out a deep sigh, and a moment later a cold, heavy and bony hand rested heavily on my shoulder.
At that moment, Ivan Ivanovich had another shot of vodka and cleared his throat for the second time.
“And what then?” the ladies asked him.
I woke up in a small square room. The dawn could hardly shine its light through the small barred window. “Well, well,” I thought. “This must mean the dead men pulled me deep into the graveyard.”
Suddenly, I was filled with joy, for I heard human voices behind the wall.
“Where did you find him?” a low but loud bass voice questioned.
“Yes, sir! I found him in front of the Mr. Whitehead’s Monument Store, sir!” another hoarse voice answered. “Right next to the showroom with tombstones. I saw him sitting there embracing the monument, with a dog howling next to him. My guess is he had quite a few drinks, sir.”
In the morning, when I was completely awake, they released me from the police station.
WHAT YOU USUALLY FIND IN NOVELS
A duke, a duchess who used to be a beautiful woman, a rich man who lives next door, a left-wing novelist, an impoverished nobleman, a foreign musician, various servants: butlers, nurses, and tutors, a German estate manager, a gentleman, and an heir from America.
All the characters are unremarkable, yet sympathetic and attractive people. The hero saves the heroine from a crazed horse; he is strong-willed, and he shows his strong fists at every opportunity.
The sky is wide, the distances are vast, and the vistas are broad, so broad that they are impossible to understand. This, in short, is Nature.
Friends are blond. Enemies are red-headed.
A rich uncle: a liberal or conservative, according to circumstan
An aunt, who lives in a remote provincial town. A doctor with a concerned expression on his face, who gives people hope for the coming health crisis. He has a walking stick with a bulb, and he is bald. And where there is a doctor, there are illnesses; arthritis caused by overwork, migraines, inflammation of the brain. A man wounded in a duel, and advice to go to the spa.
A servant who worked for the old masters and is ready to sacrifice everything for them. He is a very witty fellow.
A dog that can do everything but talk, a parrot, and a nightingale. A summer cottage near Moscow and a mortgaged estate, somewhere in the South. Electricity, which is stuck into the story for no reason.
A bag of the best Italian leather, a china set from Japan, an English leather saddle, a revolver that fires perfectly, an order on the lapel, and a feast of pineapples, champagne, truffles, and oysters.
Accidental overhearing, as a source of great discoveries. A huge number of interjections, and of attempts to use technical terms whenever possible.
Small hints about important circumstances. Very often, no conclusion.
Seven mortal sins at the beginning, a crime in the middle, and a wedding at the end.
THE SWEDISH MATCH
On the morning of October 6, 19__, a well-dressed young man came into the office of the Second Police Precinct of the City of S. He made a statement to the effect that his master, a retired officer, Mark Ivanovich Banks, had been murdered.
The young man was very excited while he was making his deposition. His hands were trembling, and his eyes were glazed with horror.
“To whom do I have the honor of speaking?” the chief of police asked.
“I am Mr. Post, Banks’s manager. Horticulturist and mechanic.”
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