Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Winter Rules and Le Diable Boiteux.

Another excerpt from my as-yet-unpublished crime novel, D-r Tchékhov, Detektiv, see

This long lost crime novel by Chekhov (he, himself, referred to such a work in progress in 1888) charts the misadventures of morphia-addict, D-r Anton Tchékhov, aged 28 years, as he investigates the mysterious duelling death of an aristocratic cadet in a remote snowbound northern garrison. In a contest between the animistic pagan beliefs of a Cheremissian shaman-medicineman and his own psychopathological insights as a graduate doctor, Tchékhov, weakened by tubercular fevers and drug dependency, succeeds in solving the case and saving the life of a young prostitute, Mariya.  
     In this extract we catch up with him as he leaves the garrison ballroom late at night in answer to the General’s order for the attendance of a doctor at the duelling ground.


In the lobby Anton saw Mariya’s shoulders shake in solitary weeping. 
     He would very much have liked to take her in his arms ; to relive even for one second the breathless span of their mis-tryst.   
     Tears stained the dark red silk of her basquine ; the skirt’s belt was studded with bright rivets like a prison door. 
     He felt a quickening of the pulse, instinct with desire.
     The General brought his guest the adjutant’s polushubok – a short sheepskin coat – which Anton hastily buttoned on, pausing only to cover his dancing pumps with his galoshes.
     The gasoliers effloresced as the General opened the door.

Winter Rules
To a hungry man with a drunken headache whose every nerve shatters at the sound of breaking glass, the moon can appear, after a banquet, as an unbroken dish of slops above the rooftops. 
     So the moon appeared to D-r Tchékhov.
     Anton stood where he was bid – en prise – a hired hand waiting to be taken.
     A meteor fell and he winced as shooting pains attacked his right arm, but whether this was due to the tightness of the adjutant’s coat or his hacking cough he could not be sure.
     The General shouted for escorts to form an undertaker squad. Odd to see the General in ancient felt top-boots yet still cutting a dash in his swagger uniform.
     Shivering in third-wear uniforms and government-issue camelhair hooded bashlyki, two young ensigns, and the two bruised angel-faced recruits relieved from punishment fatigues – now thoroughly shorn and chastened – unstrapped a stretcher from the ambulance wagon’s kit of nosilki.
     Supreme in his vicegerency, the General beckoned to Tchékhov to fall into line.
     The two ensigns formed the vanguard, each carrying a bull’s-eye kerosin lantern with a reflector which sent lampblack shadows swinging in the moonlight.
     The party advanced through an inner archway and across a court towards an embattled parapet between two gun embrasures where, by a snow-covered merlon, a dark robed penitent stood with bowed head awaiting their approach.
     At the sight of a priest, Anton – as ever – shivered in apprehension. His right shoulder continued to twinge, and a new pain gnawed at his left subclavicular region ; all the conclusive signs, in truth, of the incipient tuberculosis his conscious mind had dismissed.*
     However, he could not fail to be aware of the fact that the inflammation of his leg had not subsided and, in consequence, his limp was, to his burning shame, growing hourly more pronounced.  
     To be outrun by a priest was more than he could bear.
     The General had called for the college chaplain as soon as they were clear of the ballroom, with precise orders to seal a vow from him of absolute discretion.
     Father Abiathar (so named with forlorn expectations by his Bishop) had all the bored manner of a priest who was feeling Mondayish even though it was a Saturday, and his eyes (Anton thought) had the cunning look of a mendicant prior dismissed for simony who had been driven to peddle indulgences in bulk.
     His cincture was tight over his grain-sack belly and he smelled of pickled herring. His breath declared the buffet had allowed him a skinful of the chasse-cousin rotgut they reserved for the clergy.
     ‘Nowadays our fellows crawl out from all sorts of unexpected holes,’ said the General, sotto voce
     The General spoke gravely of their special mission and ordered the priest to bless his six-man snatch-squad. 
      As the only two non-combatants present, Father Abiathar and D-r Tchékhov were assigned to the rear of the column.
      Anton thought : ‘Like flies, a doctor or a priest can enter any house. Just as the the First Functionary of the Empire, the Secret Police Chief Count Shuvalov, had a right of Audience, by day and night, with the Tsar and could walk into the Emperor’s cabinet or bedchamber at any hour without risking his imperial displeasure. In this we share the advantage of the house-fly. We enter unannounced and roam at will.’
      Anton had learned from the General that the priest was called Brimstone by the students and most of the Camp. 
     He was tolerated yet heartily loathed.
     ‘It’s as useless as shooting at ravens as clergy,’ the General had said.
     To augment his meagre salary of one hundred and fifty roubles a year there were innumerable fees this Levite could exact, and he fined soldiers fifteen kopecks who had not communicated in Lent, and likewise extracted dues from the Old Ritualists.
      After he pocketed his fee the priest would wring his hands and lower his eyes like a monk who held the Chair for Abjectness. 
      ‘He speaks as though he would creep into one’s mouth,’ the General had added in disgust.
      The Levitical caste was a subject of continuing fascination for Anton and he committed to memory the details of Brimstone’s broad-brimmed, wideawake hat, his large heavy boots, the patched, dingy brown cassock and coarse hodden-gray over-mantle attached to a worn capuche which clung to his head to protect his ears.  
      Within these fuscous robes Father Abiathar concealed his priestcraft : a portable altar in a satchel, a miracle-working triptych from his collection of tchudotvornikh icons, and a crucifix wrapped in his stole, which he clutched for warmth, his hands thrust up his sleeves.
      A series of steps descended the ramparts to a path leading to the forest edge.
      They stepped out on to a tableland laid with linen-white snow.
      Under the soaring revetment the soldiers’ lamps guided them to the first of the raised logging roads covered in impacted snow.
      To keep his spirits up (and to terrify the body-snatching crew) the General sang, in his staunchest basso profundo, a verse by Nekrasov :

            In the sepulchres, King Winter said,
            With flowers of ice I deck the dead ;
            I freeze the blood in the living veins,
            And in living heads I freeze the brains.

And, as he sang, Anton’s blood, too, seemed to turn to ice as the party struck out from the shelter of the garrison and stepped into the teeth of a north wind.
     ‘In cold like this it’s Winter Rules!’ the General shouted grimly.
      Anton painfully limped ahead, outstripped the column, and drew abreast of the General who linked arms.  The two men put their heads down to face the whip of the wind.
     ‘Ten paces is the minimum but the Prince would have been perfectly within his rights to shoot at eight. At minus twenty degrees your hand’s so palsied by the chills, and the light’s so dim, that – even if you were to find a line of sight to guide your aim – you’d be more likely to wing the other fella’s second!’
     The path – lined with stunted birch and pine – began to fall away sharply. Tchékhov realised the solid going underfoot was due to successive squads of cadets beating a path to the exercise grounds which lay ahead. A deceptive surface was sprinkled with a powdering of diamond-glinting snow.  
     Beneath his feet was a skin of trodden ice which covered the tangled dead sedges, dried cotton grass and other reliquiæ of a muskeg.
     They crossed a boundary rail polished by friction from generations of Academy cadets. Anton noticed the General’s eyes never ceased to search the snow for signs of the duellists’ trail.
     The General found his second wind and, to pass the time, began to tell of sporting contests he had witnessed when he was a cadet. 
     ‘There was young Nezlobin – a very small youth – who had a dispute with his classmate Mychetzky, who was very stout. Words ran high on both sides, so little Nezlobin calls him out. Mychetzky, however, won’t have it. You are so little, he said, that I might fire at you a dozen times without hitting, whereas, the chance is that you may shoot me at the first fire.’ To convince you I don’t want to take advantage of you, says little Nezlobin, you shall chalk my size upon your body, and all hits out of the ring shall go for nothing! 
     Anton laughed with delight. The General paused and offered a swig from his hip-flask which Anton declined.
     ‘My God, you’re an incorporated temperance society!’ exploded the General. 
     But, under the pretext of coughing into his handkerchief, Anton managed to take a deep pull from Old Vańuška’s berézovka.  
      Soon his veins were on fire.
      ‘They were always sparring,’ resumed the General. ‘Mychetzky broke his ankle once, falling off his horse. Blamed Nezlobin for crossing his path on an exercise so they set to wrangling once more. So Nezlobin challenges him and Mychetzky accepted.  But being very lame, Mychetzky requests that he might have a prop. Suppose, says he, I lean against this road sign. Nezlobin, then points to a farther sign at a cross-roads a verst distant and says, With pleasure, on condition that I may lean against the next.’  The joke settled the quarrel. A pity the same could not be said of the Prince.’

Le Diable Boiteux.

Curiously, at that moment, they, too, reached a junction where their path joined a corduroy road from the forest which led to the garrison by a lower route. Here, at last, two sets of footprints were visible, entering and leaving a gate giving on to the exercise grounds.   
     The old frontier scout released a grunt of satisfaction.
     ‘The Prince’s footsteps. Small heels. Impression of spurs in the deeper places. Let’s follow the scent.’
      The single set of tracks leading to the butts was regularly paced yet the returning tracks were of a different character, suggesting the dragging left foot of a limping man, so the General concluded.
     ‘Le Diable Boiteux!’ Anton whispered.
     Most fascinating of all, the two sets of tracks became three at a point where they passed close to a prostrate pine and other fagotage and led beyond, across a terrain broken by hairy tussocks and the fallen shafts of reed clumps. 
     To Anton, the springiness of their prints on the quaggy snow suggested the mossy ground and slippery pine needles underneath.
     ‘Ahah!’ exclaimed the General. ‘Enter Kulikov.’
     ‘How can you be so sure?’ urged Tchékhov, immediately rushing to the defence of the young Class-Lance-Corporal Pomidorchik.  
     The bearer party halted.
     ‘Understand this, Antosha,’ the General knelt beside the meeting place, ‘the first set of tracks pauses here, heels close together, then continues in the same direction, suggesting the acknowledgement by a senior of a junior officer’s salute.’ 
     He straightened, stiffly, and continued.
     ‘Do-ye-see? Kulikov takes the shortcut through the forest, meets up with his adversary, salutes, crosses the tracks from the rear and joins the Prince on the lefthand side.’
     ‘I don’t see how...’
     ‘Regulations. Quote : When officers are walking together, the junior officer should at all times position himself on the left so the senior officer’s saluting arm is disengaged. See?’
     ‘Perfectly. Our Imperial Table of Ranks is even written on the remotest Russian snow.’
     Anton rubbed his eyes. He saw only – imperfectly – that the muddle of the tracks in the snow was like a profusion of those slovenly typographical misprints on a galley proof with which he was so familiar – and which he was too fatigued to correct. 
     And Kulikov?  Where was he?
     ‘In quod. Under lock and key.’

*    In fact, as was later proved, the right lung was badly affected, and emphysema was found to have spread to the left lung. At the end of Tchékhov’s life a relapse of pleurisy was complicated by an intestinal catarrh which indicated that the tuberculosis had spread to the abdominal region.

†    ‘Father of Excellence” - see Samuel xxiii, 9.

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