When Levitan found out in early May 1897 about Chekhov’s coughing up of blood and 15-day stay at a Moscow clinic, he himself was on his way to the brine baths of Bad Nauheim in Germany for treatment of his heart disease. He told Chekhov that the news made him “damn anxious,” and wonder whether the doctors had made a mistake: “They all lie, even to you.” He suggested Chekhov join him in Europe and “take the mare’s milk,” a common treatment for tuberculosis, offering to loan him money if he needed it. He affectionately signed his letter “your sincerely devoted Shmuel.” For a while, the relationship between the two men had warmed again, their mutual concern about each other’s health strengthening their bond.
Levitan returned to Russia in early June and the two men immediately made plans to see each other. The painter was spending the summer at his patron Sergei Morozov’s estate outside Moscow, a kitschy neo-Victorian castle designed to mimic the manor of an English baron. Chekhov’s visit was not a success. Levitan’s friendship with and dependence on Morozov grated on Chekhov, whose only patron, Suvorin, was a self-made man, like him, from a peasant family. Chekhov was appalled by the place. He wrote Suvorin: “The house is like the Vatican. The footmen wear white pique jackets with gold chains across their stomachs. The furniture is tasteless. They serve French wines from Levet. The owner has an expressionless face–so I ran away.”
In the fall, following his doctors’ orders, Chekhov left Moscow for Biarritz in the south of France. He let his friends know how worried he had become about the expense of going abroad for treatment. Levitan, behind Chekhov’s back and oblivious to his friend’s dislike of Morozov, convinced his patron to lend Chekhov 2,000 rubles. He wired the money to Biarritz and followed up with a letter that was solicitous but also emphatic to the point of condescension: “My sweet, dear one, I strongly urge you not to be concerned about money matters–everything will be taken care of, and you can sit in the south and take care of your health.” For Chekhov this unasked for beneficence became a major irritant. He told their mutual friend Lika Mizinova in confidence: “I didn’t ask for this money. I don’t want it and I asked Levitan to allow me to return it in such a way, of course, that no one would get offended. Levitan doesn’t want this, but just the same I’m sending it back,” which he did.
At first Levitan seemed resigned to the awkward outcome, although he still was unable to understand why Chekhov and Morozov didn’t hit if off, especially now that both of them were in Nice and could see each other. But when Chekhov and Morozov finally did meet in January 1898, Levitan unleashed at Chekhov, only half in jest, the full fury of his disappointment over the whole incident: “Oh, you striped hyena, you damned crocodile, you spineless wood demon with one nostril, you utter Quasimodo, I don’t know how else to curse you!” He remained very defensive about his friendship with Morozov, assuring Chekhov that his patron was “a good man, just too rich. That’s what’s bad–for him especially.”