Thursday, 22 January 2015

D-r Tchékhov: A Skirmish with Wolves and the Last of an English Racketeer.

As various extracts from my as-yet-unpublished crime novel, D-r Tchékhov, Detektiv, have lately suggested, a thread of healthy self-iconoclasm may be discerned in the narrative, see
http://catherineeisnerfrance.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/khar-r-r-kai-khar-r-r-kai-khar-r-r-kai.html
or
http://catherineeisnerfrance.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/dead-wife-new-hat-femme-morte-chapeau.html
or
http://catherineeisnerfrance.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/inductive-detection.html

The transcription, then, and restoration of a long lost crime novel by Chekhov (he, himself, referred to such a work in progress in 1888) has been transgressive, revisionist and, admittedly, really rather fun.

That ‘Mestur Godam’, the loathsome English engineer 
Alfred Wellbeloved, exerted his authority over the garrison 
was plain to see in the assignment of his very own batman.


Scatological profanities

However, the handwriting of the manuscript is not wholly in Chekhov’s own distinctive pen-script, but in other hands . . . those of his siblings. My introduction to the text attempts a modest exegesis : 
Whether “A Text-book Case” (the manuscript’s working title) and the appended papers are a jeu d’esprit concocted by Tchékhov and his younger brother, Mikhail (Misha), to amuse his two headstrong older siblings, Aleksandr (Sasha) and Nicholai (Kolya), and further elaborated by Misha, must remain for scholars a matter of debate. Clearly, traces of three of Tchékhov’s brothers can be found in this text : in the scatological profanities on pages 229 & 243 can be heard the bitter tongue of Sasha in his cups ; the “pubic scribble” on page 129 is the work of the fledgling artist, Kolya, as, too, the “bugs and weeds” studies and the horrified face drawn in crayon on pages 58 and 212, respectively ; the parody of Ouida* on page 180 is clearly an exercise in style by his favoured kid brother, Misha, who was a translator of this authoress’s work. A censorious fourth hand, of course, is also busying itself (apart from Tchékhov’s) ; that hand belonging to his sister, Marya (Masha), the keeper of his conscience. 
Nevertheless, D-r Tchékhov’s painfully raw account of his detective work in his mission to unmask ‘Mestur Godam’, a corrupt English engineer, remains for the most part unbowdlerised. 
Mr Wellbeloved was a specimen of ruddy-faced foreigner as untrustworthy as any Anton had ever met.  After all, he would often reflect, was not the English Iscariot who betrayed the Dekabristi also possessed of that bifshtek complexion which set apart the perfidious sons of Albion. (Tchékhov had always resented the fact that the spy ennobled by Tsar Nicholas I for exposing the 1825 Decembrist revolutionaries’ plot was another damned Englishman.) The speech of Mr Wellbeloved tended to project from his dexter profile where his good right eye could hold sway, and shield from view the sinister facial blotch of portwine-stained bubukles that damned the malar flesh below his curdled left eye. There was no doubt that Mr Wellbeloved had his rotten side. Topped by his ice-capped brown derby and enveloped in vast sorrel-coloured furs which encased a jacket of waterproof tweed, Mr Wellbeloved wore more and more the aspect of a hairy beetle – a crooked zhuchilo – at once afflicted with a bolter’s eye and armed with a viperous sting.
So, here, having identified Anton’s antagonist, I publish for the first time three extracts from the novel, which charts how the English engineer single-handedly bribed and blackmailed a remote northern garrison into submission. And be warned. Tchékhov’s eventual showdown with ‘Mestur Godam’ is not without ‘scatological profanities’. 

Explanatory note: Morphia-addict, D-r Anton Tchékhov, aged 28 years, investigates the mysterious duelling death of an aristocratic cadet in a remote snowbound northern garrison. Despite succumbing to tubercular fevers, Tchékhov – in a contest between the animistic pagan beliefs of a shaman-medicineman and his own psychopathological insights as a graduate doctor – succeeds in solving the case.

At the General’s insistence, Tchékhov is appointed locum medical officer at the garrison. (Now read on . . . ) 


The English Ramp

Anton shifted his position in D-r Pitchinienko’s chair and stretched his legs. The sinews of his ham-strings felt drawn out like hammer wire. 
  Vańuška paused, sniffed, winked, then continued his report.
  According to Vanka, the most flagrant instance of fraud was rumoured to have been perpetrated by Wellbeloved when the existing trunk line, which connected the garrison’s railhead, had required re-ballasting “two winters since” due to falls of earth and subsidences of the track from heavy freight.
   The Englishman’s ramp had been the simple ploy to make his embankment of snow instead of earth, so that when the thaw came, by which time he had been paid, the track subsided two arshines throughout the length of his section. 
  He had escaped censure by specifying rails weighing one and a half poods to the arshine which he knew contractually could never be met by the railroadmen who were forced to make reparations to the Government account. Wellbeloved had known from the first that the contractors’ rail-steel was too light for the heavy engines and rolling stock of the state military traffic and would buckle or spread under successive loads.
  Vanka wrinked his nose as at a bad smell. 
  Of course, the contractors were never out of pocket. In the end, the Government purse paid for errors commissioned in the name of the State. He had seen with his own eyes the railway contractors’ deceptions. 
  The dodge was well known at the railhead.  
  When the government inspectors called on stock-taking visits, by the device of altering with white paint the numbers on the freight-wagons and sending them on ahead from the marshalling yards, the railwaymen made sure many of the trucks were counted twice or oftener and thus answered to the annual audit.
  Even today, Vańuška went on, the steel-rail (manufactured, Anton noted without comment, apparently at the mill which had so outraged the General when they first met) was too light to bear the reserves of water which were carried in tubs on bowser-trucks along the line. 
  Of late, one of Wellbeloved’s official commissions was to connect the Garrison’s water supply to a water-column at the loco’s refuelling-stop. 
  Since the track skirted close to the homes of the town-fathers, the work was delayed whilst Inzheneer Wellbeloved linked covertly, for a private fee, the well-connected merchants – the powerful kupetshestvo – to the public mains.


The Sanitation Inspector’s Report

On secondment at the behest of a Special Commission for State Hygiene to write a Report on Concessions granted by the Emperor of All the Russias, a reluctant Sanitation Inspector — the commandeered D-r Tchékhov (clasping a half-completed field pocket-book whose provisional title An Investigation into the Mineral Spring at ... trailed off beneath his arm) — stood on an incline above a river to observe the site for a new Water Works.  
  He was chilled to the marrow and aware his numbed toes no longer responded inside his cracked, down-at-heel boots. They were now wet as a latrine from squelching, ankle-deep, in churned snow.  
  His socks reminded him of a sopping wet, mucilaginous handkerchief on which a lingering patient has unremittingly blown his nose in the throes of acute naso-sinusitis.   
  His face was peaked ; clenched as a fist with the cold. With trembling blue fingers, he chose a fresh page and strove to write in the headlong running hand he reserved for draft copies : 
“The location is free from inundations, and in every respect well situated for this purpose or other manufactory in its vicinage, the Town being at an elevation some 25 sazhens above the level of the river. At present the Town is imperfectly supplied with water from a well (worked by machinery) situated about 4 versts outside the municipal boundary. The need to supply potable water to some 10,000 souls, the population of the Garrison and the surrounding Town, amounting to 3½ vedros per head, per diem, has prompted a proposal to convey water into the Town from a river some 12 versts distant. As the water is at times troubled (becoming clouded after a North wind) beds will have to be formed on the river banks for filtering it.” 
  Pointing to the plan, Mr. Alfred Wellbeloved (a wall-eyed English engineer with a vicious temper and “crooked face” — his enemies had branded him “Krivomordy” — who, to judge from his black-loam stomach, loved nothing better than sausages and sauerkraut) observed that the small additional source — a mineral spring streaming from the side of a hill — was conveniently located near the proposed site to yield a further 50 vedros per minute. 
  From the inset street map Tchékhov learned that three fountains were to be erected in different parts of the town, a scheme, Mr Wellbeloved murmured shiftily, now abandoned by the Town Authorities who had rejected the fontany in favour of more drinking troughs.
  Turning the page, Tchékhov made, in rough, a rapid calculation of revenue:

   Sale of Water Barrels (25 vedros capacity) to the Carriers 
   (1000 x 10 kopecks per barrel
   replenished once per diem) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36,500
   Drinking Troughs for Oxen
   (200,000 pairs at 2 kopecks per draught) . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  4,000
   40 odd Houses supplied with 18,000 vedros per annum  
   (say 16 roubles per mensum) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   8,000
                                                                                                    -------
   Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Roubles (Silver) 48,500
   Deduct contractors’ Working Expenses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10,000

   Net Profit . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  Roubles (Silver) 38,500

Query. Anton hazarded that somewhere buried within this silvern total and the contractor’s profit were some hefty sweeteners. 
  But where to bung the boodle? He tried hard to imagine a bribe to an engineer (a crammed rendrock dynamite cartridge, void of kieselguhr, tamped with one-hundred-rouble notes?) and thought of Wellbeloved’s cold wall eye, blank to the palmgreasing of the bribe-takers from the local zemstvo who sat on the Board of Health.  
     Sensing perhaps a judgement in Anton’s prolonged silence, Mr Wellbeloved began to bluster as he folded the map and protested that the plan had been much trimmed by an authority higher than his own and that his personal advocacy of a system of adits for the water’s lodgement – as a countermeasure against frost-heave had been over-ruled.


Concluding chapter . . .


Pursued by Wolves

Ahead of him a white curtain had descended and the effort to distinguish on the horizon where earth ended and sky began soon became futile.
  The clouds multiplied into snowheads. Bursts of wind-borne leaves bombarded him like a rafale; a sure sign a whiteout blizzard was in the offing.
  Accordingly, with a chuck of the bridle, he pushed on at his ancient mount’s topmost speed, steady and perseverant despite her great age.
  Save for the furious barking of the village dogs, there was a deathlike stillness in the sombre and sleeping settlements through which the horseman passed and not one light showed.
  He passed the log pyramids of outlying homesteads, thatched with moss, their impoverished soil enclosed by broken fences and guttered with frozen boundary dykes, until, at length, he drew near to a hamlet straddling a lane leading to the marshalling yards.
  The neighbourhood well was not unlike the empty socket of a gigantic candlestick, with its broad sheets of ice spread all around it; and the ropes of frozen waterdrops strung over the stone slabs at its rim gleamed in the moonlight like the drippings from melted candle-wax.
  Beside the well, in the shadow of a tarred shingled housing which gave entrance to a donkey-engine shed, the greased spindle from a rack-and-pinion gearing-wheel protruded. 
  The words of his own Sanitation Report suddenly leapt before his mind’s eye, and he remembered the English surveyor’s audit, and its dismissal, as of little account, of the “...water from a well worked by machinery situated about 4 versts outside the municipal boundary”
  “Goddam!” A voice detonated with a roar like a mortar.
  Inside one of the hutments a dog whimpered in pain.
  On the frosty air wafted the aroma of the finest Turkish tobacco.
  An Akhisar sigara.
  D-r Tchékhov stared intently into the darkness and discerned the knife-slit of a lighted shutter.
  Inside the cabin, the excrescence — the sarkoma — that was the waterworks engineer, Alfred Wellbeloved, the un-beloved anglichanin, could be seen, seated, drinking spirits with the water carrier-men; the bribers and the bribed, in a conclave he had summoned to drive his subtle trade.
  “God damn his angliiskii soul!” 
  The words sprang from Anton’s lips of their own volition.
  The door was flung open and Wellbeloved appeared, fists clenched, his beefy, hairy bared arms thrust through his overalls — a poddevku, a sleeveless overcoat worn by coachmen and peasants.
  He glanced over his shoulder at the burmister and his men, and drawled in his drunkeness: “Gentlemen, I have the honour to introduce you to Saint Snivelling Bleeding-Heart-Holier-Than-Thou, in person.”
  In his look there was something simultaneously blank and insolent, like the eye of a greyhound as it chases a hare.
  He stood aside, and snarled :  “Loose the dogs on the interferin’ young cub!  Teach the fellow some manners!”
  The dogs were as near wolves as dogs can be; white, with more hair than the brutes that guarded the Camp.  
  They circled, slavering; their paws were so large they looked as if they were wearing galoshes.
  The wise old mare immediately plunged, breast-deep, into the drifts which flanked the track, a ruse which so maddened the albinic pack that they began to lope in circles, howling in frustration.
  “Otyebis! Vonyuchiy bzdum-kastrat!” Wellbeloved bawled. “Fuck off home! You preachifying mealy-mouthed half-hung cripple!  Otyebis! Pizdorvanets huyeviy! Fuck off! You lousy fucker!” 
  D-r Tchékhov called our cheerfully: “Uyobivay! Zasranets yobaniy!” He turned in the saddle and shouted as lustily as his feeble lungs allowed. “Fuck away! Fucking shitarse! Chtob tebya, govnjuka, vsiu zhizn v zhopu dryuchili!” He essayed a crisp salute. “And may you, shitarse, be fucked all your life in the arse!” 
  Very soon the Scylla-like yelps of the dogs pursued him no more, and he heard only the savage laughter of Wellbeloved ringing in his ears.
  A musket shot ripped a hole in the air above his right shoulder.
  What an idiot he’d been! 
  How imprudent to taunt the evil fellow, and risk his neck to satisfy his own dull, priggish conscience! 
  He had acted from sheer vindictiveness, and with a viciousness no different from the engineer’s in order to vent his rancour.
  In three days, life in the garrison had robbed him of all self respect, and brought him to the utter degradation of institutional mindlessness, consumed, like the common soldiers, by a crude and bitter resentment.
  Around him he saw only darkness, barbarity, monotony and the dumb, brutish indifference of callous men stripped of all humanity.
  A melancholy whistle sounded like a chamade of defeat.
  In the far distance, a railway engine laboured on a curve, and then the railway lights came into view over the brow of a hill, and a high column of grey smoke and sparks shifted fretfully hither and thither, trapped in the cutting between the forest trees.
  As though at a familiar signal, the mare whickered and broke into a risyu — a military trot at a brisk, even pace towards the flaring funnel. 
  Below them, a long goods train passed, pulled by two panting engines that belched shafts of crimson flame from their funnels, respiring like the high blowers who filled the rear ranks for draught service alongside Old Roarer.
  Soon, the double yolk of a yellow approach-signal shimmered in a glair of mist.
  In another moment Anton had reached the track and crossed the line to enter the station yard.
  He patted the mare’s neck, smoothing a mane caparisoned by snow and, in places, standing in frozen quiffs.  Her flanks were streaked with frozen sweat.
  “She’s a regular sweetlin’,” he said to the waiting groom.
  He swung out his leg and dismounted smoothly, like a well-turned period.


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*Misha’s Ouidan Pastiche

Tchékhov tried hard to imagine how an interview with a suborned Prince might be conducted by the Deputy-Commissioner of the Internal Agency in the Secret Chancellery :
The Prince was led through a secret jib door. He retained a confused recollection of gigantic sentries, glittering officers, grave-looking ushers and other officials ; noble staircases and halls ; paintings, statues, tapestry and gilding ; then, following his guide, he entered a large apartment, at one end of which sat a man whose nod could seal the fate of millions upon millions of his fellow-creatures.
      “Good morning, my dear sir. Take a chair. I’m delighted you’re punctual ; I can see that you’re a military man.  I asked you to look me up so that we might resume our conversation of the other day.   I think I shall be able to make you a definite proposal.”
       His visitor’s eyes brightened.  The deputy-commissioner leant back in his chair and reflected for a moment.
       “To come to the point, I have an assignment for you.  If you care to take it up, I can promise you an appointment to General Staff.”
       The young man listened with amazement.
       “You don’t mean it!” he exclaimed, evidently overjoyed.
       “Yes, I do,” said the deputy softly, soothing the air with his palm.  “Listen to me.  Of course, you move in good society.  I know you do.  Well, I may say we have certain investigations to make in those circles.  Absolutely secret investigations.  Among the very best families.  I will give you their names.  Always providing you agree.”
       The Prince had visibly paled. 
       “Pardon me, commissioner, ya pro'testuyu,” the young noble ventured hesitantly, “but I am sorry to say I can’t do that.”
       “Why not?”
       “I can’t very well play spy in my own crowd!”
       “My dear fellow,” said the deputy-commissioner sententiously, “what a word to use!  There is no question of playing the spy.  Your service in this matter is to the Emperor alone. Are you not worthy of His trust?”
      The Prince was stirred and stood up. The deputat, too, rose ; but with impatience.
       “None of my people can take one step into a drawing room without being known for what they are.  Our flatfoots wouldn’t have the entrée.  Well, what is your answer : yes or no? Your future is assured if you say yes.”
      The Prince’s eyes shone with quickening zeal. 
      “If it’s a question of  collaring traitors, I’m your man.” Etcetera, etcetera, in æternum.

The quest for the truth of the Prince’s spy-masters was maddening, but Tchékhov felt himself to be drawing close.


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Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)

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