A toast before dying

Issue 2/2005 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Voin jo paljon paremmin. Tšehov Badenweilerissa (‘I already feel much better. Chekhov in Badenweiler’, Loki, 2004). Introduction by Hannu Marttila

I went to meet them Friday and I did not plan to take other patients that week. They had a small but comfortable room with striped wallpaper.

The Russian was a tall man, but stooped. It soon became apparent that his wife spoke fluent German because she was of German descent. That made it much easier to take care of things.

Of course I knew who the patient was. I have always enjoyed literature and other forms of art. I could play several pieces rather well on the piano. When I was younger I had even written a couple of stories set in the mountains, though I had never offered them for publication. As for Chekhov, I had read a couple of his stories that had just come out in German translation, and I had liked them quite a lot in a way, even though they of course reflected that characteristic Russian nature, with its vodka and untidiness.

The patient’s wife seized both my hands when I entered. It was a bit confusing, but not necessarily unpleasant.

‘Our name is Chekhov. We have come from Russia,’ the woman said in a strong, carrying voice. ‘I trust you’ve been told?’

‘Yes, I’ve been told. I knew immediately who was at question. And there he is – good.’

The man mumbled some pleasantry at me. I took off my coat and the wife hung it on the rack. I opened my bag, although I did not yet know what it might hold that would be of use. There really was no medicine available for the people who came to Badenweiler to see me. There was nothing to offer but more talk about nutrition, clothing and sun.

‘My husband is not very well,’ the woman said in a low voice. ‘His lungs….’

‘His lungs, of course,’ I said. ‘It’s almost always the lungs that bring people here. Let’s take a look.’

I took hold of the man’s cold and sweaty hand.

‘Hello there, Mr Chekhov. Please be so good as to remove your shirt.’

He understood and obeyed. I listened to his lungs and heart and tried to speak soothingly at the same time. His wife sat to the side, ready to help and interpret.

‘So you have come to stay at Badenweiler for a while?’

‘Until my husband’s health is better.’

I’ve read some of your stories,’ I told the man. He did not understand, but his wife interpreted and the man nodded.

‘Excellent stories. “The Steppe” is of course in a class of its own. But “Romance with Double Bass”, too – where someone steals the musician’s clothes and he hides in the double bass case – very funny. Take a deep breath. Cough, please. Has your health changed for better or worse recently? Or remained the same?’

‘In April in Yalta,’ Chekhov began hoarsely, and cleared his throat while his wife translated his words.

‘Yalta, yes. Well-known area on the Black Sea coast. Popular holiday site. Sun, palm trees….’

‘I wasn’t going to talk about Yalta’s palm trees,’ the patient said in a clearer voice. ‘I had to race to the toilet five times a day. Cough never left me.’

‘So, a bit of diarrhoea and a cough,’ I said, marking it in my notebook.

‘Then in Moscow in May… intestinal catarrh, pneumonia. I was practically bedridden. But now I’m doing much better. This was just a historical overview of my complaints.’

‘Nice to hear,’ I agreed, though I did not believe he understood much about the situation. ‘Change of climate plays its part.’

‘Dr Taube forbade me coffee and eggs. My wife’s family doctor, German, very competent. The result was good. He recommended Badenweiler.’

‘Nice of him. I have always done my best, I dare say.’

Through the years I had had a couple of assistants. But the credit for the level of care was mine. I had no intention of feigning modesty.

‘I also had a Russian doctor,’ the author continued, warming to the subject. ‘Nothing but non-stop chatter.’

Then he imitated the Russian doctor in Russian and his wife imitated his imitation very skilfully in German. ‘”One must not treat diarrhoea if it has become chronic!”’ I laughed heartily, as was sometimes my wont.

‘Is that what he said? Of course one must maintain professional loyalty to a colleague, even a Russian one, but, but… did he mean you should only treat diarrhoea when it is temporary?’

‘I guess that’s how it has to be understood. However, he did tell me to eat eight eggs a day.’

‘When Dr Taube on the other hand forbade you eggs altogether? Rather amusing. Figuring mathematically, then, you should eat four eggs a day, that’s the average of the two!’

Sometimes I enjoyed joking around with the patients, and I never could understand the people who said we Germans had no sense of humour. We merely took care that the humour fit the subject and the circumstances.

For form’s sake I tapped Chekhov’s ribs and looked into his mouth.

‘Isn’t medicine amazing?’ he said humbly. ‘I tell anyone who will listen: have yourself taken care of by Germans! By the way, in Berlin I met Professor Ewald. He did not say much. Just shook his head. Seems to be a habit of his.’

‘You can get dressed now, Mr Chekhov, before you catch cold. There is no denying that you are somewhat in need of treatment. I will give you instructions about food and other things right now. Your teeth are also a source of concern, but that’s not my business. If you do not understand everything, please do not worry, just ask.’

‘Anton is a doctor himself,’ said Mrs Chekhov.

I felt myself stiffen and begin to perspire. Were these people making fun of me?

‘A doctor?’ I roared. ‘Why didn’t you tell me right away that I had the wrong person? Some dimwit downstairs said you were the famous writer.’

My patient had got one arm into his shirt sleeve and was trying to make reassuring gestures with his free hand.

‘That is true, too. It’s all true. But right now I am just a patient and that is work enough.’

I was quiet for a moment. I needed to think about the correct and dignified way to respond. I decided I must not sound angry.

‘Since the matter has taken this sort of a turn,’ I said, ‘of course I will gladly listen to your own views of the treatment programme, since you are able to assess the situation yourself, as well.’

‘I rather doubt it,’ said Chekhov.

‘He could, but he can’t be bothered,’ said his wife from the chair in the corner.

‘I hope you will not be too critical. Lung processes are a complicated problem and no one can yet say where science will ultimately lead.’

‘With all due respect I do thank you, but I have complete confidence in you,’ said the man with the sunken cheeks. ‘Medicine is my legal wife and I have been unfaithful to her for too long.’

‘Nicely phrased! All right. First and foremost, I recommend a lot of rest. The second pillar of treatment is nourishment. Hot chocolate….’

‘I guessed it.’

‘… and plenty of butter, oatmeal porridge, and strawberry tea. How does this sound?’

‘Very promising. Every day?’

‘Preferably a number of times each day. Eating butter may be unpleasant at first, and there’s no need to go to extremes with it. A few spoonfuls every three hours.’

He began painstakingly adjusting his tie. It seemed to take a long time.

‘Would you mind if I speakwith your wife a moment? You and I have this language problem. You can rest on the couch while we speak.’

He nodded, if a bit suspiciously. I gestured his wife a little to the side and whispered, with perhaps undue zeal, ‘Mrs Chekhov… I would like to ask you something. Why did you wait till now to come here?’

‘He did not want to. Or his doctor did not insist strongly enough. Or… I don’t know! Tell me how he is doing. Careful, he’s listening….’

‘Another question first, if you’ll permit. Why was he brought here when he is so… worn out?’

‘Was it right or wrong of us to come, then? I sense you are angry with me.’

I did not answer that. It was not at all a bad thing for her to think so. And actually I was a bit angry, although the case was no different from dozens of others which I had had to handle.

‘I suppose he at least remained in Yalta over the winter?’

‘No. He absolutely wanted to return to Moscow. He loves Moscow’s winter.’

Now I began to get angry in earnest. This was almost cheeky carelessness. Was there even any point to offering assistance to people like that?

‘So he loves the winter, eh? I have not visited Moscow, but I have heard dreadful tales of Moscow’s winter.’

‘He was determined to go on a sleigh ride, too, and that might not have been for the best….’

‘Might not have been for the best?? Goodness gracious!’

‘Are you reproaching me for something?’

‘Not at all. Nor would it do any good.’

‘It certainly sounded that way. On the sleigh ride he wore a fur coat and a beaver hat which I had had made for him without his permission!’

Chekhov asked what we were talking about for so long. His wife told him to put on a sweater she pulled from some drawer. Then his wife looked beseechingly at me and said, ‘Forgive us, Dr Schwörer, if we have made mistakes!’

And her ankle flashed into view. Or rather, her whole lower leg, halfway up or almost halfway, at least fifteen centimetres up from the edge of her high shoe. It was probably accidental, but there was a slight possibility that it was intentional. Something happened inside me that I cannot remember even now without my cheeks flushing.

‘Mrs Chekhov,’ I managed to say hoarsely, ‘I cannot leave quite yet before explaining. You must understand me. Too much work. Herds of patients. Without meaning to, I have become the Black Forest’s pre-eminent lung doctor, to whom colleagues turn for advice with tricky cases. And now you, in turn, are angry with me! Forgive me! Excuse me! You must certainly not think I was reproaching you. And if you permit me to say… I can see that you are a woman of the world. You could very well be an actress, even.’

The woman suddenly smiled.

‘As a matter of fact, I am an actress.’

‘So I guessed right?’ I cried in delight. ‘One comes to know human nature pretty well in this business, I’m starting to believe! I intend to come check on Mr Chekhov regularly. From this point on, you may count me among your numerous admirers!’

And then I performed a bold act. The man had turned over on the couch and was dozing. I kissed his wife’s hand. I believe I did so quite well: a bow, a gentle raising of the woman’s hand to a half centimetre away from one’s own lips, and a mock kiss with absolutely no smacking sound.

‘I anticipate our meeting often in the next days!’

Then I left. Just as I was closing the door, I heard Anton Chekhov’s sleepy, discontented voice.

Dr Schwörer certainly did intend to delve into this case! An actress! And half Russian! But I hated the man and hoped he would die quickly. Not too quickly, though.

‘It’s swinish!’ the writer Chekhov had said of Germany’s neutrality in the Russo -Japanese war, and I had not even got angry. Quite as if I had guessed how favourably that day would turn out.

The weather was pleasant, dry and overcast, and on top of that, it was a Friday. Mrs Knipper-Chekhov had no excuse ready when I surprised her buying early green apples at the town’s small market square. I once again offered, a bit timidly, I must confess, to show her the rose garden which spread below the castle. I assured her no one would have any cause for rumours. It was only natural for the locals to show the town to tourists and spa guests. Before she could answer, I explained in impeccably pronounced Latin that the text above the spa door, TEPIDA TENUISSIMA SIMPLICISSIMA, meant WARM CLEAN CLEAR.

I supposed that this would be a refreshing change for her, and she admitted as much. Laughing light-heartedly I told her how mothers and daughters were often sent to Badenweiler, ostensibly for treatment, but actually to find the daughter a husband. Olga laughed and was emboldened to ask me, then, what was in the jugs which the country women tried to sell in front of the hotels in the mornings.

‘Donkey’s milk, believe it or not. Many doctors believe that donkey’s milk is most like mother’s milk. Goat’s milk is also acceptable, but cow’s milk is only good for bathing.’

She laughed again, and I felt like a teenager.

We climbed the hill towards the castle. Olga Knipper was a healthy, spirited woman, but I had to struggle not to pant. I had once been an athlete but I had grown fatter, and my body was reminding me of that now. Even the sparrows were tittering at me.

‘I guess I needed something like this,’ she said. ‘It’s terrible to say, but I quarrelled with my husband.’

‘Aw-oh,’ I said playfully. ‘He’s not by any chance jealous or something?’

She gazed at me gravely, her eyes wide, and I felt embarrassed. I had to explain.

‘Of course he knows that a doctor cannot have improper relations with a patient or a patient’s family members.’

She continued to gaze without saying anything, exactly as if she had guessed that an improper relation with a patient’s family member was precisely my uppermost thought.

I asked her to sit on a bench and I was just about to touch her somewhere, I had not yet decided where, when a crowd of noisy urchins burst into the park with their balls. It was impossible even to hold a conversation there, with their shouts and screams drowning out all other sound. Children are a loathsome lot.

We sat a moment and then we rose and began to climb back down to the main street. I accompanied her as politely as possible to the Hotel Sommer’s main entrance. She had not rebuffed me very convincingly. Me, a German doctor, a former soldier and athlete – I would not give in. Furthermore, I knew that at home I would once again have to face a dinner consisting primarily of cabbage, turnips and chervil, with big, sweet, greasy pastries for dessert. Nor could I utter any sort of criticism, because my wife was a farmer’s daughter, an honest and talented woman.

I had firmly resolved to present myself to best advantage to Olga Knipper, and I sensed in myself the most delicate transformation. My perception of myself had always been positive in any case, and for compelling reasons. Distinguished medical lieutenant from the time of the French War, removed the tonsils of a frightened corporal in a tent while guns roared a few steps away. One of Badenweiler’s pre-eminent citizens. Trustworthy father, three children. My wife was the daughter of a wealthy landowner from the Wutach River area. She had made sure there was an orchard behind our house and the cabinets filled with marmalades, preserves and fruit wines.

Slightly over a week ago I had faced an unpleasant situation at Villa Friederik. The Russian had looked as if he wished to order me away, but he did not have time. Perhaps he had learned somewhere that I had a private relationship with his wife. And sinful intentions!

Now I needed to go there again, because it was the only way to touch even the hand of Lady Olga. It had been some time since I had last set out to visit a patient on a Saturday. I had to admit that I was struggling in the claws of passions stronger than I. This is an everyday sort of thing for the French, but in my case it caused considerable effort.

I dealt with Anton Chekhov in a friendly fashion; how else? In return I received very unpleasant comments, but I forgave him them.

‘Is it absolutely necessary for you to come here every single day?’ the man asked.

‘But my good Mr Chekhov, it’s a week since I was last here!’

‘I am quite able to eat my oatmeal porridge and drink my hot chocolate without anyone’s supervision.’

‘Anton!’ said his wife. ‘Please excuse him, Doctor. He has felt poorly all day.’

‘I understand perfectly. There is no need to trouble yourself.’

I wished to demonstrate my magnanimity, and I insisted on maintaining a conversation with the author in spite of his sour demeanour.

‘Did you know,’ I asked as I wound the blood pressure cuff around his thin upper arm, ‘that the Kaiser spoke on the Edison roll about the education of the German people? The Edison roll lets you preserve human speech and then listen to it again later. And the German Parliament continues to defend Germany’s neutrality in the Russo-Japanese War as firmly as ever. But in your opinion this position is wrong?’

‘I say once again that it is absolutely shameless!’

‘But you cannot do anything to change the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm II is the world’s most powerful man! It is high time that all acknowledged it, in eluding that little tsar of yours!’

But my ethics did not allow me to argue with a patient. As I left, I was seriously planning the seduction of Olga Knipper.

Only four days had passed since the school brats had ruined my promising scene with Mrs Knipper. I had slept restlessly for three nights now. On top of it all, I had rudely shoved my wife, deserving of all respect, who had awakened screaming and wakened the parlour maid as well, even though the maid slept on the lower level at the other end of the house. My wife had been tired from copying recipes for meat soup and liver stew for hours on end. She had borrowed the recipes from the pharmacist’s wife. They were not worth buying, because apparently they cost ten gold marks apiece.

My situation was unbearable, but on the other hand mine was also a bit of an artist’s nature, and it seemed to me that a strong, healthy man should give in to passion if he finds himself under its power.

I had already opened the piano cover to play a little Schumann, the few small pieces I had been forced to learn when I was eleven. I changed my mind and went straight to the Hotel Sommer.

Olga Knipper opened the door and I explained to her that the heat wave concerned me and I wished to conduct a special examination of the writer.

She raised her fingers gracefully to her lips. I found myself imagining her performing the same gesture on the stage – almost imperceptibly, but nevertheless in such a way that even the furthest row would see and understand. She explained that her husband was still sound asleep. The night had been very difficult.

We spoke in subdued tones of the weather and of my great work load. Then my patience ran out and I seized her by the hand.

‘I also came for your sake, as you no doubt suspect.’

She drew her hand away.

‘I’m afraid I don’t understand.’

‘There in the rose garden… I wanted to confess something. You well know what I mean, but for some reason you want to dishearten me right at the start!’

She was going to reply, but just then Anton Chekhov awoke and asked, ‘Look, the doctor. How’s the world doing?’

‘The world is as mixed up as ever,’ I replied rather peevishly. ‘Germany has not obtained the position it needs as a great power. But we will obtain it yet!’

Chekhov sat up, astonished.

‘So what is wrong with Germany’s position?’

The whole man was revolting to me.

‘Germany must have free hands in the world, just as much so as Britain or the United States. Or Russia. Germany should get its share of Africa, America and Asia. We’re doing the work. We deserve our reward.’

They both stared uncertainly at me, as if they were not sure whether I was serious. I swept them a military bow and left. I completely forgot that I was supposed to examine the patient!

The dreary result of that day was that I had to force myself to relinquish all my fantasies. I had also made myself ridiculous, and that was all that had been missing.

I let my thoughts wander. Why not get myself some frivolous woman, there were always some of them at Badenweiler. When I thought about returning home and my fat wife and quarrelling children, I gritted my teeth and pounded my fist against my knee. Had I been at home, Bismarck and Moltke would have given me strength of purpose. Their pictures hung on my office wall and I was in the habit of looking them both in the eye before leaving to see a patient. But I also could already taste the potato, carrot and celery in my mouth, smell the kitchen’s smoky oil lamp, and imagine my wife’s glower when I tried to suggest something new.

Why couldn’t there be something beautiful and artistic and stylish in life, instead of just reliable, practical and economic? Why couldn’t the bed have two sheets, the way the French made it?

I was fed up and angry, but a doctor does not have permission to show such feelings. Not even if he is called at three in the morning to room 14 of the second floor of Hotel Sommer to look at a patient who can no longer do anything but rave and wheeze like a child’s rubber ball with a hole in it.

I muttered to Olga Chekhov that perhaps she had called me too late and moreover at an inappropriate time. I had only slept four hours and my wife had snored and almost rolled me out of the bed onto the floor. Of course I didn’t say that.

When I looked into Olga’s large, tear-filled eyes, I quickly relented, and attended to my business as expertly as always. The little that was left to do.

I was just about to leave when it occurred to me that something was missing. We needed something handsome, something stylish. Champagne?

‘It’s a custom here and perhaps in Russia, as well-to open a bottle of champagne when a colleague is …in so lamentable a condition. Would it be all right if I were to send for a bottle?’

‘If you think so. If you believe Anton would like it. You have surely done your best, but is there anything you could still do? Anything at all?’

I agreed to give him another camphor injection and I took out an oxygen cylinder, for her sake. Surely a glass of champagne was the best we could devise. Dignity had to be preserved now; treatments were past.

When I had taken apart the pieces of the oxygen cylinder and separated the hose and mask, I sat for a moment to look at both of them. Olga was standing, her mouth tight; evidently she had resolved to stay strong or at least to appear strong.

The champagne was brought. A frightened-looking boy lugged it in. I had to help uncork it. I gave the boy several coins from my own pocket and sent him on his way before he could cause any trouble or say anything daft. He was much too immature a creature to witness this sort of ceremony.

I poured the champagne into a glass, just one glass. Believe it or not, Chekhov was able to stretch out his hand and even to thank me. He swallowed a couple of swigs, turned his back, and that was all. Seeing death is an everyday thing for me and I thought only that it was a great waste to open the bottle if a tubercular person was going to drink only a couple of spoonfuls from it. But it was I who had suggested this handsome gesture.

I mumbled my regrets and promised to give directions to the hotel director. I tried once more to touch Olga on the cheek or hand or anywhere at all, but she took a step backwards and avoided me. I understood her well.

I did not have any other patients that day. Now I needed to go on with healthy normal life. I needed to forget my secret indiscretion and forgive myself. I needed to pull myself together. The house needed painting, I had been planning to have it done for too long already. The broken board in the servants’ quarters needed changing, before I found a patient with a broken limb from my own household in addition to all the tuberculars. I needed to provide my son and my two daughters with the service of teaching them to sweep the floors of their rooms. They were all very good at singing folk songs, but that was not quite enough. Due to her corpulence, their mother could no longer do everything, but she certainly was still able to fear bacteria beyond all reason.

And I must not forget that the Badenweiler French War veterans would be meeting again in the back room of the Hotel Sommer’s restaurant next Saturday.

Translated by Jill G. Timbers

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