By May 1904, Chekhov was terminally ill with tuberculosis. “Everyone who saw him secretly thought the end was not far off,” Mikhail Chekhov recalled, “but the nearer Chekhov was to the end, the less he seemed to realize it.” On 3 June he set off with Olga for the German spa town of Badenweiler in the Black Forest, from where he wrote outwardly jovial letters to his sister Masha describing the food and surroundings and assuring her and his mother that he was getting better. In his last letter, he complained about the way the German women dressed.
Chekhov’s death has become one of “the great set pieces of literary history”, retold, embroidered, and fictionalised many times since, notably in the short story Errand by Raymond Carver. In 1908, Olga wrote this account of her husband’s last moments:
Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe. The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: “It’s a long time since I drank champagne.” He drained it, lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child…
Chekhov’s body was transported to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car for fresh oysters, a detail which offended Gorky. Some of the thousands of mourners followed the funeral procession of a General Keller by mistake, to the accompaniment of a military band. Chekhov was buried next to his father at the Novodevichy Cemetery.