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Table of Contents - 13

An Unquiet Day

On Friday morning, that is, the day after the accursed seance, all the available staff of the Variety - the bookkeeper Vassily Stepanovich Lastochkin, two accountants, three typists, both box-office girls, the messengers, ushers, cleaning women — in short, all those available, were not at their places doing their jobs, but were all sitting on the window-sills looking out on Sadovaya and watching what was going on by the wall of the Variety. By this wall a queue of many thousands clung in two rows, its tail reaching to Kudrinskaya Square. At the head of the line stood some two dozen scalpers well known to theatrical Moscow.
The line behaved with much agitation, attracting the notice of the citizens streaming past, and was occupied with the discussion of inflammatory tales about yesterday’s unprecedented seance of black magic. These same tales caused the greatest consternation in the bookkeeper Vassily Stepanovich, who had not been present at the previous evening’s performance. The ushers told of God knows what, among other things that after the conclusion of the famous seance, some female citizens went running around in the street looking quite indecent, and so on in the same vein. The modest and quiet Vassily Stepanovich merely blinked his eyes, listening to the tall tales of these wonders, and decidedly did not know what to undertake, and yet something had to be undertaken, and precisely by him, because he now turned out to be the senior member of the whole Variety team.
By ten o‘clock the line of people desiring tickets had swelled so much that rumour of it reached the police, and with astonishing swiftness detachments were sent, both on foot and mounted, to bring this line into some sort of order. However, in itself even an orderly snake a half-mile long presented a great temptation, and caused utter amazement in the citizens on Sadovaya.
That was outside, but inside the Variety things were also none too great. Early in the morning the telephones began to ring and went on ringing without interruption in Likhodeev’s office, in Rimsky’s office, at the bookkeeper‘s, in the box office, and in Varenukha’s office. Vassily Stepanovich at first made some answer, the box-office girl also answered, the ushers mumbled something into the telephones, but then they stopped altogether, because to questions of where Likhodeev, Varenukha and Rimsky were, there was decidedly no answer. At first they tried to get off by saying ’Likhodeev’s at home‘, but the reply to this was that they had called him at home, and at home they said Likhodeev was at the Variety.
An agitated lady called, started asking for Rimsky, was advised to call his wife, to which the receiver, sobbing, answered that she was his wife and that Rimsky was nowhere to be found. Some sort of nonsense was beginning. The cleaning woman had already told everybody that when she came to the findirector’s office to clean, she saw the door wide open, the lights on, the window to the garden broken, the armchair lying on the floor, and no one in the office.
Shortly after ten o‘clock, Madame Rimsky burst into the Variety. She was sobbing and wringing her hands. Vassily Stepanovich was utterly at a loss and did not know how to counsel her. Then at half past ten came the police. Their first and perfectly reasonable question was:
‘What’s going on here, citizens? What’s this all about?’
The team stepped back, bringing forward the pale and agitated Vassily Stepanovich. He had to call things by their names and confess that the administration of the Variety in the persons of the director, the findirector and the administrator had vanished and no one knew where, that the master of ceremonies had been taken to a psychiatric hospital after yesterday’s seance, and that, to put it briefly, this seance yesterday had frankly been a scandalous seance.
The sobbing Madame Rimsky, having been calmed down as much as possible, was sent home, and the greatest interest was shown in the cleaning woman’s story about the shape in which the findirector’s office had been found. The staff were asked to go to their places and get busy, and in a short while the investigation appeared in the Variety building, accompanied by a sharp-eared, muscular, ash-coloured dog with extremely intelligent eyes. The whisper spread at once among the Variety staff that the dog was none other than the famous Ace of Diamonds. And so it was. His behaviour amazed them all. The moment Ace of Diamonds ran into the findirector’s office, he growled, baring his monstrous yellow fangs, then crouched on his belly and, with some sort of look of anguish and at the same time of rage in his eyes, crawled towards the broken window. Overcoming his fear, he suddenly jumped up on the window-sill and, throwing back his sharp muzzle, howled savagely and angrily. He refused to leave the window, growled and twitched, and kept trying to jump out.
The dog was taken from the office and turned loose in the lobby, whence he walked out through the main entrance to the street and led those following him to the cab stand. There he lost the trail he had been pursuing. After that Ace of Diamonds was taken away.
The investigation settled in Varenukha’s office, where they began summoning in turn all the Variety staff members who had witnessed yesterday’s events during the seance. It must be said that the investigation had at every step to overcome unforeseen difficulties. The thread kept snapping off in their hands.
There had been posters, right? Right. But during the night they had been pasted over with new ones, and now, strike me dead, there wasn’t a single one to be found! And the magician himself, where had he come from? Ah, who knows! But there was a contract drawn up with him?
‘I suppose so,’ the agitated Vassily Stepanovich replied.
‘And if one was drawn up, it had to go through bookkeeping?’
‘Most assuredly,’ responded the agitated Vassily Stepanovich.
‘Then where is it?’
‘Not here,’ the bookkeeper replied, turning ever more pale and spreading his arms.
And indeed no trace of the contract was found in the files of the bookkeeping office, nor at the findirector‘s, nor at Likhodeev’s or Varenukha’s.
And what was this magician’s name? Vassily Stepanovich did not know, he had not been at the seance yesterday. The ushers did not know, the box-office girl wrinkled her brow, wrinkled it, thought and thought, and finally said:
‘Wo ... Woland, seems like ...’
Or maybe not Woland? Maybe not Woland. Maybe Faland.
It turned out that in the foreigners’ bureau they had heard precisely nothing either about any Woland, or for that matter any Faland, the magician.
The messenger Karpov said that this same magician was supposedly staying in Likhodeev’s apartment. The apartment was, of course, visited at once — no magician was found there. Likhodeev himself was not there either. The housekeeper Grunya was not there, and where she had gone nobody knew. The chairman of the management, Nikanor Ivanovich, was not there, Bedsornev was not there!
Something utterly preposterous was coming out: the whole top administration had vanished, a strange, scandalous seance had taken place the day before, but who had produced it and at whose prompting, no one knew.
And meanwhile it was drawing towards noon, when the box office was to open. But, of course, there could be no talk of that! A huge piece of cardboard was straight away posted on the doors of the Variety reading: ‘Today’s Show Cancelled’. The line became agitated, beginning at its head, but after some agitation, it nevertheless began to break up, and about an hour later no trace of it remained on Sadovaya. The investigation departed to continue its work elsewhere, the staff was sent home, leaving only the watchmen, and the doors of the Variety were locked.
The bookkeeper Vassily Stepanovich had urgently to perform two tasks. First, to go to the Commission on Spectacles and Entertainment of the Lighter Type with a report on yesterday’s events and, second, to visit the Finspectacle sector so as to turn over yesterday’s receipts — 21,711 roubles.
The precise and efficient Vassily Stepanovich wrapped the money in newspaper, criss-crossed it with string, put it in his briefcase, and, knowing his instructions very well, set out, of course, not for a bus or a tram, but for the cab stand.
The moment the drivers of the three cabs saw a passenger hurrying towards the stand with a tightly stuffed briefcase, all three left empty right under his nose, looking back at him angrily for some reason.
Struck by this circumstance, the bookkeeper stood like a post for a long time, trying to grasp what it might mean.
About three minutes later, an empty cab drove up, but the driver’s face twisted the moment he saw the passenger.
‘Are you free?’ Vassily Stepanovich asked with a cough of surprise.
‘Show your money,’ the driver replied angrily, without looking at the passenger.
With increasing amazement, the bookkeeper, pressing the precious briefcase under his arm, pulled a ten-rouble bill from his wallet and showed it to the driver.
‘I won’t go!’ the man said curtly.
‘I beg your pardon ...’ the bookkeeper tried to begin, but the driver interrupted him.
‘Got any threes?’
The completely bewildered bookkeeper took two three-rouble bills from his wallet and showed them to the driver.
‘Get in,’ he shouted, and slapped down the flag of the meter so that he almost broke it. ‘Let’s go!’
‘No change, is that it?’ the bookkeeper asked timidly.
‘A pocket full of change!’ the driver bawled, and the eyes in the mirror went bloodshot. ‘It’s my third case today. And the same thing happened with the others, too. Some son of a bitch gives me a tenner, I give him change - four-fifty. He gets out, the scum! About five minutes later, I look: instead of a tenner, it’s a label from a seltzer bottle!’ Here the driver uttered several unprintable words. ‘Another one, beyond Zubovskaya. A tenner. I give him three roubles change. He leaves. I go to my wallet, there’s a bee there — zap in the finger! Ah, you! ...’ and again the driver pasted on some unprintable words. ‘And no tenner. Yesterday, in the Variety here’ (unprintable words), ’some vermin of a conjurer did a seance with ten-rouble bills’ (unprintable words) ...
The bookkeeper went numb, shrank into himself, and pretended it was the first time he had heard even the word ‘Variety’, while thinking to himself: ‘Oh-oh! ...’
Having got where he had to go, having paid satisfactorily, the bookkeeper entered the building and went down the corridor towards the manager’s office, and realized on his way that he had come at the wrong time. Some sort of tumult reigned in the offices of the Spectacles Commission. A messenger girl ran past the bookkeeper, her kerchief all pushed back on her head and her eyes popping.
‘Nothing, nothing, nothing, my dears!’ she shouted, addressing no one knew whom. ‘The jacket and trousers are there, but inside the jacket there’s nothing!’
She disappeared through some door, and straight away from behind it came the noise of smashing dishes. The manager of the commission’s first sector, whom the bookkeeper knew, ran out of the secretary’s room, but he was in such a state that he did not recognize the bookkeeper and disappeared without a trace.
Shaken by all this, the bookkeeper reached the secretary’s room, which was the anteroom to the office of the chairman of the commission, and here he was definitively dumbfounded.
From behind the closed door of the office came a terrible voice, undoubtedly belonging to Prokhor Petrovich, the chairman of the commission. ‘Must be scolding somebody!’ the consternated bookkeeper thought and, looking around, saw something else: in a leather armchair, her head thrown back, sobbing unrestrainedly, a wet handkerchief in her hand, legs stretched out into the middle of the room, lay Prokhor Petrovich’s personal secretary — the beautiful Anna Richardovna.
Anna Richardovna’s chin was all smeared with lipstick, and down her peachy cheeks black streams of sodden mascara flowed from her eyelashes.
Seeing someone come in, Anna Richardovna jumped up, rushed to the bookkeeper, clutched the lapels of his jacket, began shaking him and shouting:
‘Thank God! At least one brave man has been found! Everybody ran away, everybody betrayed us! Let’s go, let’s go to him, I don’t know what to do!’ And, still sobbing, she dragged the bookkeeper into the office.
Once in the office, the bookkeeper first of all dropped his briefcase, and all the thoughts in his head turned upside-down. And, it must be said, not without reason.
At a huge writing desk with a massive inkstand an empty suit sat and with a dry pen, not dipped in ink, traced on a piece of paper. The suit was wearing a necktie, a fountain pen stuck from its pocket, but above the collar there was neither neck nor head, just as there were no hands sticking out of the sleeves. The suit was immersed in work and completely ignored the turmoil that reigned around it. Hearing someone come in, the suit leaned back and from above the collar came the voice, quite familiar to the bookkeeper, of Prokhor Petrovich:
‘What is this? Isn’t it written on the door that I’m not receiving?’
The beautiful secretary shrieked and, wringing her hands, cried out:
‘You see? You see?! He’s not there! He’s not! Bring him back, bring him back!’
Here someone peeked in the door of the office, gasped, and flew out. The bookkeeper felt his legs trembling and sat on the edge of a chair, but did not forget to pick up his briefcase. Anna Richardovna hopped around the bookkeeper, worrying his jacket, and exclaiming:
‘I always, always stopped him when he swore by the devil! So now the devil’s got him!’ Here the beauty ran to the writing desk and in a tender, musical voice, slightly nasal from weeping, called out:
‘Prosha! Where are you!’
‘Who here is “Prosha” to you?’ the suit inquired haughtily, sinking still deeper into the armchair.
‘He doesn’t recognize me! Me he doesn’t! Do you understand? ...‘ the secretary burst into sobs.
‘I ask you not to sob in the office!’ the hot-tempered striped suit now said angrily, and with its sleeve it drew to itself a fresh stack of papers, with the obvious aim of appending its decision to them.
‘No, I can’t look at it, I can’t!‘ cried Anna Richardovna, and she ran out to the secretary’s room, and behind her, like a shot, flew the bookkeeper.
‘Imagine, I’m sitting here,’ Anna Richardovna recounted, shaking with agitation, again clutching at the bookkeeper’s sleeve, ‘and a cat walks in. Black, big as a behemoth. Of course, I shout “scat” to it. Out it goes, and in comes a fat fellow instead, also with a sort of cat-like mug, and says: “What are you doing, citizeness, shouting ’scat’ at visitors?” And — whoosh — straight to Prokhor Petrovich. Of course, I run after him, shouting: “Are you out of your mind?” And this brazen-face goes straight to Prokhor Petrovich and sits down opposite him in the armchair. Well, that one ... he’s the kindest-hearted man, but edgy. He blew up, I don’t deny it. An edgy man, works like an ox — he blew up. “Why do you barge in here unannounced?” he says. And that brazen-face, imagine, sprawls in the armchair and says, smiling: “I’ve come,” he says, “to discuss a little business with you.” Prokhor Petrovich blew up again: “I’m busy.” And the other one, just think, answers: “You’re not busy with anything ...” Eh? Well, here, of course, Prokhor Petrovich’s patience ran out, and he shouted: “What is all this? Get him out of here, devil take me!” And that one, imagine, smiles and says: “Devil take you? That, in fact, can be done!” And - bang! Before I had time to scream, I look: the one with the cat’s mug is gone, and th ... there ... sits ... the suit ... Waaa! ...‘ Stretching her mouth, which had lost all shape entirely, Anna Richardovna howled.
After choking with sobs, she caught her breath, but then began pouring out something completely incoherent:
‘And it writes, writes, writes! You could lose your mind! Talks on the telephone! A suit! They all ran away like rabbits!’
The bookkeeper only stood and shook. But here fate came to his aid. Into the secretary’s room, with calm, business-like strides, marched the police, to the number of two men. Seeing them, the beauty sobbed still harder, jabbing towards the door of the office with her hand.
‘Let’s not cry now, citizeness,’ the first said calmly, and the bookkeeper, feeling himself quite superfluous there, ran out of the secretary’s room and a minute later was already in the fresh air. There was some sort of draught in his head, a soughing as in a chimney, and through this soughing he heard scraps of the stories the ushers told about yesterday’s cat, who had taken part in the seance. ‘Oh-ho-ho! Might that not be our same little puss?’
Having got nowhere with the commission, the conscientious Vassily Stepanovich decided to visit its affiliate, located in Vagankovsky Lane, and to calm himself a little he walked the distance to the affiliate on foot.
The affiliate for city spectacles was housed in a peeling old mansion set back from the street, and was famous for the porphyry columns in its vestibule. But it was not the columns that struck visitors to the affiliate that day, but what was going on at the foot of them.
Several visitors stood in stupefaction and stared at a weeping girl sitting behind a small table on which lay special literature about various spectacles, which the girl sold. At that moment, the girl was not offering any of this literature to anyone, and only waved her hand at sympathetic inquiries, while at the same time, from above, from below, from the sides, and from all sections of the affiliate poured the ringing of at least twenty overwrought telephones.
After weeping for a while, the girl suddenly gave a start and cried out hysterically:
‘Here it comes again!’ and unexpectedly began singing in a tremulous soprano:
‘Glorious sea, sacred Baikal ...’1
A messenger appeared on the stairs, shook his fist at someone, and began singing along with the girl in a dull, weak-voiced baritone:
‘Glorious boat, a barrel of cisco ...’2
The messenger’s voice was joined by distant voices, the choir began to swell, and finally the song resounded in all comers of the affiliate. In the neighbouring room no. 6, which housed the account comptroller’s section, one powerful, slightly husky octave stood out particularly.
‘Hey, Barguzin3 ... make the waves rise and fall! ...’ bawled the messenger on the stairs.
Tears flowed down the girl’s face, she tried to clench her teeth, but her mouth opened of itself, as she sang an octave higher than the messenger:
‘This young lad’s ready to frisk-o!’
What struck the silent visitors to the affiliate was that the choristers, scattered in various places, sang quite harmoniously, as if the whole choir stood there with its eyes fixed on some invisible director.
Passers-by in Vagankovsky Lane stopped by the fence of the yard, wondering at the gaiety that reigned in the affiliate.
As soon as the first verse came to an end, the singing suddenly ceased, again as if to a director’s baton. The messenger quietly swore and disappeared.
Here the front door opened, and in it appeared a citizen in a summer jacket, from under which protruded the skirts of a white coat, and with him a policeman.
‘Take measures, doctor, I implore you!’ the girl cried hysterically.
The secretary of the affiliate ran out to the stairs and, obviously burning with shame and embarrassment, began falteringly:
‘You see, doctor, we have a case of some sort of mass hypnosis, and so it’s necessary that ...’ He did not finish the sentence, began to choke on his words, and suddenly sang out in a tenor.
‘Shilka and Nerchinsk ...’4
‘Fool!’ the girl had time to shout, but, without explaining who she was abusing, produced instead a forced roulade and herself began singing about Shilka and Nerchinsk.
‘Get hold of yourself! Stop singing!’ the doctor addressed the secretary.
There was every indication that the secretary would himself have given anything to stop singing, but stop singing he could not, and together with the choir he brought to the hearing of passers-by in the lane the news that ‘in the wilderness he was not touched by voracious beast, nor brought down by bullet of shooters.’
The moment the verse ended, the girl was the first to receive a dose of valerian from the doctor, who then ran after the secretary to give the others theirs.
‘Excuse me, dear citizeness,’ Vassily Stepanovich addressed the girl, ‘did a black cat pay you a visit?’
‘What cat?’ the girl cried in anger. ‘An ass, it’s an ass we’ve got sitting in the affiliate!’ And adding to that: ‘Let him hear, I’ll tell everything’ - she indeed told what had happened.
It turned out that the manager of the city affiliate, ‘who has made a perfect mess of lightened entertainment’ (the girl’s words), suffered from a mania for organizing all sorts of little clubs.
‘Blew smoke in the authorities’ eyes!’ screamed the girl.
In the course of a year this manager had succeeded in organizing a club of Lermontov studies,5 of chess and checkers, of ping-pong, and of horseback riding. For the summer, he was threatening to organize clubs of fresh-water canoeing and alpinism. And so today, during lunch-break, this manager comes in ...
‘... with some son of a bitch on his arm,’ the girl went on, ‘hailing from nobody knows where, in wretched checkered trousers, a cracked pince-nez, and ... with a completely impossible mug! ...’
And straight away, the girl said, he recommended him to all those eating in the affiliate’s dining room as a prominent specialist in organizing choral-singing clubs.
The faces of the future alpinists darkened, but the manager immediately called on everyone to cheer up, while the specialist joked a little, laughed a little, and swore an oath that singing takes no time at all, but that, incidentally, there was a whole load of benefits to be derived from it.
Well, of course, as the girl said, the first to pop up were Fanov and Kosarchuk, well-known affiliate toadies, who announced that they would sign up. Here the rest of the staff realized that there was no way around the singing, and they, too, had to sign up for the club. They decided to sing during the lunch break, since the rest of the time was taken up by Lermontov and checkers. The manager, to set an example, declared that he was a tenor, and everything after that went as in a bad dream. The checkered specialist-choirmaster bawled out:
‘Do, mi, sol, do!’ - dragged the most bashful from behind the bookcases, where they had tried to save themselves from singing, told Kosarchuk he had perfect pitch, began whining, squealing, begging them to be kind to an old singing-master, tapped the tuning fork on his knuckle, beseeched them to strike up ‘Glorious Sea’.
Strike up they did. And gloriously. The checkered one really knew his business. They finished the first verse. Here the director excused himself, said: ‘Back in a minute ...’, and disappeared. They thought he would actually come back in a minute. But ten minutes went by and he was not there. The staff was overjoyed - he had run away!
Then suddenly, somehow of themselves, they began the second verse. They were all led by Kosarchuk, who may not have had perfect pitch, but did have a rather pleasant high tenor. They sang it through. No director! They moved to their places, but had not managed to sit down when, against their will, they began to sing. To stop was impossible. After three minutes of silence, they would strike up again. Silence — strike up! Then they realized that they were in trouble. The manager locked himself in his office from shame!
Here the girl’s story was interrupted — the valerian had not done much good.
A quarter of an hour later, three trucks drove up to the fence in Vagankovsky, and the entire staff of the affiliate, the manager at its head, was loaded on to them.
As soon as the first truck, after lurching in the gateway, drove out into the lane, the staff members, who were standing on the platform holding each other’s shoulders, opened their mouths, and the whole lane resounded with the popular song. The second truck picked it up, then the third. And so they drove on. Passers-by hurrying about their own business would cast only a fleeting glance at the trucks, not surprised in the least, thinking it was a group excursion to the country. And they were indeed going to the country, though not on an excursion, but to Professor Stravinsky’s clinic.
Half an hour later, the bookkeeper, who had lost his head completely, reached the financial sector, hoping finally to get rid of the box-office money. Having learned from experience by now, he first peeked cautiously into the oblong hall where, behind frosted-glass windows with gold lettering, the staff was sitting. Here the bookkeeper discovered no signs of alarm or scandal. It was quiet, as it ought to be in a decent institution.
Vassily Stepanovich stuck his head through the window with ‘Cash Deposits’ written over it, greeted some unfamiliar clerk, and politely asked for a deposit slip.
‘What do you need it for?’ the clerk in the window asked.
The bookkeeper was amazed.
‘I want to turn over some cash. I’m from the Variety.’
‘One moment,’ the clerk replied and instantly closed the opening in the window with a grille.
‘Strange! ...’ thought the bookkeeper. His amazement was perfectly natural. It was the first time in his life that he had met with such a circumstance. Everybody knows how hard it is to get money; obstacles to it can always be found. But there had been no case in the bookkeeper’s thirty years of experience when anyone, either an official or a private person, had had a hard time accepting money.
But at last the little grille moved aside, and the bookkeeper again leaned to the window.
‘Do you have a lot?’ the clerk asked.
‘Twenty-one thousand seven hundred and eleven roubles.’
‘Oho!’ the clerk answered ironically for some reason and handed the bookkeeper a green slip.
Knowing the form well, the bookkeeper instantly filled it out and began to untie the string on the bundle. When he unpacked his load, everything swam before his eyes, he murmured something painfully.
Foreign money flitted before his eyes: there were stacks of Canadian dollars, British pounds, Dutch guldens, Latvian lats, Estonian kroons ...
‘There he is, one of those tricksters from the Variety!’ a menacing voice resounded over the dumbstruck bookkeeper. And straight away Vassily Stepanovich was arrested.
CHAPTER 18

^ Hapless Visitors

At the same time that the zealous bookkeeper was racing in a cab to his encounter with the self-writing suit, from first-class sleeping car no. 9 of the Kiev train, on its arrival in Moscow, there alighted, among others, a decent-looking passenger carrying a small fibreboard suitcase. This passenger was none other than the late Berlioz’s uncle, Maximilian Andreevich Poplavsky, an industrial economist, who lived in Kiev on the former Institutsky Street. The reason for Maximilian Andreevich’s coming to Moscow was a telegram received late in the evening two days before with the following content:
Have just been run over by tram-car at Patriarch’s Ponds
funeral Friday three pm come. Berlioz. Maximilian Andreevich was considered one of the most intelligent men in Kiev, and deservedly so. But even the most intelligent man might have been nonplussed by such a telegram. If someone sends a telegram saying he has been run over, it is clear that he has not died of it. But then, what was this about a funeral? Or was he in a bad way and foreseeing death? That was possible, but such precision was in the highest degree strange: how could he know he would be buried on Friday at three pm? An astonishing telegram!
However, intelligence is granted to intelligent people so as to sort out entangled affairs. Very simple. A mistake had been made, and the message had been distorted. The word ‘have’ had undoubtedly come there from some other telegram in place of the word Berlioz’, which got moved and wound up at the end of the telegram. With such an emendation, the meaning of the telegram became clear; though, of course, tragic.
When the outburst of grief that struck Maximilian Andreevich’s wife subsided, he at once started preparing to go to Moscow.
One secret about Maximilian Andreevich ought to be revealed. There is no arguing that he felt sorry for his wife’s nephew, who had died in the bloom of life. But, of course, being a practical man, he realized that there was no special need for his presence at the funeral. And nevertheless Maximilian Andreevich was in great haste to go to Moscow. What was the point? The point was the apartment. An apartment in Moscow is a serious thing! For some unknown reason, Maximilian Andreevich did not like Kiev,1 and the thought of moving to Moscow had been gnawing at him so much lately that he had even begun to sleep badly.
He did not rejoice in the spring flooding of the Dnieper, when, overflowing the islands by the lower bank, the water merged with the horizon. He did not rejoice in the staggeringly beautiful view which opened out from the foot of the monument to Prince Vladimir. He did not take delight in patches of sunlight playing in springtime on the brick paths of Vladimir’s Hill. He wanted none of it, he wanted only one thing - to move to Moscow.
Advertising in the newspapers about exchanging an apartment on Institutsky Street in Kiev for smaller quarters in Moscow brought no results. No takers were found, or if they occasionally were, their offers were disingenuous.
The telegram staggered Maximilian Andreevich. This was a moment it would be sinful to let slip. Practical people know that such moments do not come twice.
In short, despite all obstacles, he had to succeed in inheriting his nephew’s apartment on Sadovaya. Yes, it was difficult, very difficult, but these difficulties had to be overcome at whatever cost. The experienced Maximilian Andreevich knew that the first and necessary step towards that had to be the following: he must get himself registered, at least temporarily, as the tenant of his late nephew’s three rooms.
On Friday afternoon, Maximilian Andreevich walked through the door of the room which housed the management of no. 302-bis on Sadovaya Street in Moscow.
In the narrow room, with an old poster hanging on the wall illustrating in several pictures the ways of resuscitating people who have drowned in the river, an unshaven, middle-aged man with anxious eyes sat in perfect solitude at a wooden table.
‘May I see the chairman?’ the industrial economist inquired politely, taking off his hat and putting his suitcase on a vacant chair.
This seemingly simple little question for some reason so upset the seated man that he even changed countenance. Looking sideways in anxiety, he muttered unintelligibly that the chairman was not there.
‘Is he at home?’ asked Poplavsky. ‘I’ve come on the most urgent business.’
The seated man again replied quite incoherently, but all the same one could guess that the chairman was not at home.
‘And when will he be here?’
The seated man made no reply to this and looked with a certain anguish out the window.
‘Aha !...’ the intelligent Poplavsky said to himself and inquired about the secretary.
The strange man at the table even turned purple with strain and said, again unintelligibly, that the secretary was not there either ... he did not know when he would be back, and ... that the secretary was sick ...
‘Aha! ...’ Poplavsky said to himself. ‘But surely there’s somebody in the management?’
‘Me,’ the man responded in a weak voice.
‘You see,’ Poplavsky began to speak imposingly, ‘I am the sole heir of the late Berlioz, my nephew, who, as you know, died at the Patriarch’s Ponds, and I am obliged, in accordance with the law, to take over the inheritance contained in our apartment no. 50 ...’
‘I’m not informed, comrade ...’ the man interrupted in anguish.
‘But, excuse me,’ Poplavsky said in a sonorous voice, ‘you are a member of the management and are obliged ...’
And here some citizen entered the room. At the sight of the entering man, the man seated at the table turned pale.
‘Management member Pyatnazhko?’ the entering man asked the seated man.
‘Yes,’ the latter said, barely audibly.
The entering one whispered something to the seated one, and he, thoroughly upset, rose from his chair, and a few seconds later Poplavsky found himself alone in the empty management room.
‘Eh, what a complication! As if on purpose, all of them at once ...’ Poplavsky thought in vexation, crossing the asphalt courtyard and hurrying to apartment no. 50.
As soon as the industrial economist rang, the door was opened, and Maximilian Andreevich entered the semi-dark front hall. It was a somewhat surprising circumstance that he could not figure out who had let him in: there was no one in the front hall except an enormous black cat sitting on a chair.
Maximilian Andreevich coughed, stamped his feet, and then the door of the study opened and Koroviev came out to the front hall. Maximilian Andreevich bowed politely, but with dignity, and said:
‘My name is Poplavsky. I am the uncle ...’
But before he could finish, Koroviev snatched a dirty handkerchief from his pocket, buried his nose in it, and began to weep.
‘... of the late Berlioz ...’
‘Of course, of course!’ Koroviev interrupted, taking his handkerchief away from his face. ‘Just one look and I knew it was you!’ Here he was shaken with tears and began to exclaim: ‘Such a calamity, eh? What’s going on here, eh?’
‘Run over by a tram-car?’ Poplavsky asked in a whisper.
‘Clean!’ cried Koroviev, and tears flowed in streams from under his pince-nez. ‘Run clean over! I was a witness. Believe me - bang! and the head’s gone! Crunch — there goes the right leg! Crunch — there goes the left leg! That’s what these trams have brought us to!’ And, obviously unable to control himself, Koroviev pecked the wall beside the mirror with his nose and began to shake with sobs.
Berlioz’s uncle was genuinely struck by the stranger’s behaviour. ‘And they say there are no warm-hearted people in our time!’ he thought, feeling his own eyes beginning to itch. However, at the same time, an unpleasant little cloud came over his soul, and straight away the snake-like thought flashed in him that this warm-hearted man might perchance have registered himself in the deceased man’s apartment, for such examples have been known in this life.
‘Forgive me, were you a friend of my late Misha?’ he asked, wiping his dry left eye with his sleeve, and with his right eye studying the racked-with-grief Koroviev. But the man was sobbing so much that one could understand nothing except the repeated word ‘crunch!’ Having sobbed his fill, Koroviev finally unglued himself from the wall and said:
‘No, I can’t take any more! I’ll go and swallow three hundred drops of tincture of valerian ...’ And turning his completely tear-bathed face to Poplavsky, he added: ‘That’s trams for you!’
‘Pardon me, but did you send me the telegram?’ Maximilian Andreevich asked, painfully puzzling over who this astonishing cry-baby might be.
‘He did!’ replied Koroviev, and he pointed his finger at the cat.
Poplavsky goggled his eyes, assuming he had not heard right.
‘No, it’s too much, I just can’t,‘ Koroviev went on, snuffing his nose, ’when I remember: the wheel over the leg ... the wheel alone weighs three hundred pounds ... Crunch! ... I’ll go to bed, forget myself in sleep.‘ And here he disappeared from the hall.
The cat then stirred, jumped off the chair, stood on his hind legs, front legs akimbo, opened his maw and said:
Well, so I sent the telegram. What of it?‘
Maximilian Andreevich’s head at once began to spin, his arms and legs went numb, he dropped the suitcase and sat down on a chair facing the cat.
‘I believe I asked in good Russian?’ the cat said sternly. ‘What of it?’
But Poplavsky made no reply.
‘Passport!’2 barked the cat, holding out a plump paw.
Understanding nothing and seeing nothing except the two sparks burning in the cat’s eyes, Poplavsky snatched the passport from his pocket like a dagger. The cat picked up a pair of glasses in thick black frames from the pier-glass table, put them on his muzzle, thus acquiring a still more imposing air, and took the passport from Poplavsky’s twitching hand.
‘I wonder, am I going to faint or not? ...’ thought Poplavsky. From far away came Koroviev’s snivelling, the whole front hall filled with the smell of ether, valerian and some other nauseating vileness.
‘What office issued this document?’ the cat asked, peering at the page. No answer came.
The 412th,‘ the cat said to himself, tracing with his paw on the passport, which he was holding upside down. ’Ah, yes, of course! I know that office, they issue passports to anybody. Whereas I, for instance, wouldn’t issue one to the likes of you! Not on your life I wouldn‘t! I’d just take one look at your face and instantly refuse!’ The cat got so angry that he flung the passport on the floor, ‘Your presence at the funeral is cancelled,’ the cat continued in an official voice. ‘Kindly return to your place of residence.’ And he barked through the door: ‘Azazello!’
At his call a small man ran out to the front hall, limping, sheathed in black tights, with a knife tucked into his leather belt, red-haired, with a yellow fang and with albugo in his left eye.
Poplavsky felt he could not get enough air, rose from his seat and backed away, clutching his heart.
‘See him off, Azazello!’ the cat ordered and left the hall.
‘Poplavsky,’ the other twanged softly, ‘I hope everything’s understood now?’
Poplavsky nodded.
‘Return immediately to Kiev,’ Azazello went on. ‘Sit there stiller than water, lower than grass, and don’t dream of any apartments in Moscow. Clear?’
This small man, who drove Poplavsky to mortal terror with his fang, knife and blind eye, only came up to the economist’s shoulder, but his actions were energetic, precise and efficient.
First of all, he picked up the passport and handed it to Maximilian Andreevich, and the latter took the booklet with a dead hand. Then the one named Azazello picked up the suitcase with one hand, with the other flung open the door, and, taking Berlioz’s uncle under the arm, led him out to the landing of the stairway. Poplavsky leaned against the wall. Without any key, Azazello opened the suitcase, took out of it a huge roast chicken with a missing leg wrapped in greasy newspaper, and placed it on the landing. Then he took out two pairs of underwear, a razor-strop, some book and a case, and shoved it all down the stairwell with his foot, except for the chicken. The emptied suitcase went the same way. There came a crash from below and, judging by the sound of it, the lid broke off.
Then the red-haired bandit grabbed the chicken by the leg, and with this whole chicken hit Poplavsky on the neck, flat, hard, and so terribly that the body of the chicken tore off and the leg remained in Azazello’s hand. ‘Everything was confusion in the Oblonskys’ home,’3 as the famous writer Leo Tolstoy correctly put it. Precisely so he might have said on this occasion. Yes, everything was confusion in Poplavsky’s eyes. A long spark flew before his eyes, then gave place to some funereal snake that momentarily extinguished the May day, and Poplavsky went hurtling down the stairs, clutching his passport in his hand.
Reaching the turn, he smashed the window on the landing with his foot and sat on a step. The legless chicken went bouncing past him and fell down the stairwell. Azazello, who stayed upstairs, instantly gnawed the chicken leg clean, stuck the bone into the side pocket of his tights, went back to the apartment, and shut the door behind him with a bang.
At that moment there began to be heard from below the cautious steps of someone coming up.
Having run down one more flight of stairs, Poplavsky sat on a wooden bench on the landing and caught his breath.
Some tiny elderly man with an extraordinarily melancholy face, in an old-fashioned tussore silk suit and a hard straw hat with a green band, on his way upstairs, stopped beside Poplavsky.
‘May I ask you, citizen,’ the man in tussore silk asked sadly, ‘where apartment no. 50 is?’
‘Further up,’ Poplavsky replied curtly.
‘I humbly thank you, citizen,’ the little man said with the same sadness and went on up, while Poplavsky got to his feet and ran down.
The question arises whether it might have been the police that Maximilian Andreevich was hastening to, to complain about the bandits who had perpetrated savage violence upon him in broad daylight? No, by no means, that can be said with certainty. To go into a police station and tell them, look here, just now a cat in eyeglasses read my passport, and then a man in tights, with a knife ... no, citizens, Maximilian Andreevich was indeed an intelligent man.
He was already downstairs and saw just by the exit a door leading to some closet. The glass in the door was broken. Poplavsky hid his passport in his pocket and looked around, hoping to see his thrown-down belongings. But there was no trace of them. Poplavsky was even surprised himself at how little this upset him. He was occupied with another interesting and tempting thought: of testing the accursed apartment one more time on this little man. In fact, since he had inquired after its whereabouts, it meant he was going there for the first time. Therefore he was presently heading straight into the clutches of the company that had ensconced itself in apartment no. 50. Something told Poplavsky that the little man would be leaving this apartment very soon. Maximilian Andreevich was, of course, no longer going to any funeral of any nephew, and there was plenty of time before the train to Kiev. The economist looked around and ducked into the closet.
At that moment way upstairs a door banged. “That’s him going in ...‘ Poplavsky thought, his heart skipping a beat. The closet was cool, it smelled of mice and boots. Maximilian Andreevich settled on some stump of wood and decided to wait. The position was convenient, from the closet one looked directly on to the exit from the sixth stairway.
However, the man from Kiev had to wait longer than he supposed. The stairway was for some reason deserted all the while. One could hear well, and finally a door banged on the fifth floor. Poplavsky froze. Yes, those were his little steps. ‘He’s coming down ...’ A door one flight lower opened. The little steps ceased. A woman’s voice. The voice of the sad man — yes, it’s his voice ... Saying something like ‘leave me alone, for Christ’s sake ...’ Poplavsky’s ear stuck through the broken glass. This ear caught a woman’s laughter. Quick and brisk steps coming down. And now a woman’s back flashed by. This woman, carrying a green oilcloth bag, went out through the front hall to the courtyard. And the little man’s steps came anew. ‘Strange! He’s going back up to the apartment! Does it mean he’s part of the gang himself? Yes, he’s going back. They’ve opened the door again upstairs. Well, then, let’s wait a little longer ...’
This time he did not have to wait long. The sound of the door. The little steps. The little steps cease. A desperate cry. A cat’s miaowing. The little steps, quick, rapid, down, down, down!
Poplavsky had not waited in vain. Crossing himself and muttering something, the melancholy little man rushed past him, hatless, with a completely crazed face, his bald head all scratched and his trousers completely wet. He began tearing at the handle of the front door, unable in his fear to determine whether it opened out or in, managed at last, and flew out into the sun in the courtyard.
The testing of the apartment had been performed. Thinking no more either of the deceased nephew or of the apartment, shuddering at the thought of the risk he had been running, Maximilian Andreevich, whispering only the three words ‘It’s all clear, it’s all clear!’, ran out to the courtyard. A few minutes later the bus was carrying the industrial economist in the direction of the Kiev station.
As for the tiny little man, a most unpleasant story had gone on with him while the economist was sitting in the closet downstairs. The little man was barman at the Variety, and was called Andrei Fokich Sokov. While the investigation was going on in the Variety, Andrei Fokich kept himself apart from all that was happening, and only one thing could be noticed, that he became still sadder than he generally was, and, besides, that he inquired of the messenger Karpov where the visiting magician was staying.
And so, after parting with the economist on the landing, the barman went up to the fifth floor and rang at apartment no. 50.
The door was opened for him immediately, but the barman gave a start, backed away, and did not enter at once. This was understandable. The door had been opened by a girl who was wearing nothing but a coquettish little lacy apron and a white fichu on her head. On her feet, however, she had golden slippers. The girl was distinguished by an irreproachable figure, and the only thing that might have been considered a defect in her appearance was the purple scar on her neck.
‘Well, come in then, since you rang,’ said the girl, fixing her lewd green eyes on the barman.
Andrei Fokich gasped, blinked his eyes, and stepped into the front hall, taking off his hat. Just then the telephone in the front hall rang. The shameless maid put one foot on a chair, picked up the receiver, and into it said:
‘Hello!’
The barman, not knowing where to look, stood shifting from one foot to the other, thinking: ‘Some maid this foreigner’s got! Pah, nasty thing!’ And to save himself from the nasty thing, he began casting sidelong glances around him.
The whole big and semi-dark hall was cluttered with unusual objects and clothing. Thus, thrown over the back of a chair was a funereal cloak lined with fiery cloth, on the pier-glass table lay a long sword with a gleaming gold hilt. Three swords with silver hilts stood in the corner like mere umbrellas or canes. And on the stag-horns hung berets with eagle feathers.
‘Yes,’ the maid was saying into the telephone. ‘How’s that? Baron Meigel? I’m listening. Yes. Mister artiste is at home today. Yes, he’ll be glad to see you. Yes, guests ... A tailcoat or a black suit. What? By twelve midnight.’ Having finished the conversation, the maid hung up the receiver and turned to the barman: ‘What would you like?’
‘I must see the citizen artiste.’
‘What? You mean him himself?’
‘Himself,’ the barman replied sorrowfully.
‘I’ll ask,’ the maid said with visible hesitation and, opening the door to the late Berlioz’s study, announced: ‘Knight, there’s a little man here who says he must see Messire.’
‘Let him come in,’ Koroviev’s cracked voice came from the study.
‘Go into the living room,’ the girl said as simply as if she were dressed like anyone else, opened the door to the living room, and herself left the hall.
Going in where he was invited, the barman even forgot his business, so greatly was he struck by the decor of the room. Through the stained glass of the big windows (a fantasy of the jeweller’s utterly vanished wife) poured an unusual, church-like light. Logs were blazing in the huge antique fireplace, despite the hot spring day. And yet it was not the least bit hot in the room, and even quite the contrary, on entering one was enveloped in some sort of dankness as in a cellar. On a tiger skin in front of the fireplace sat a huge black tom-cat, squinting good-naturedly at the fire. There was a table at the sight of which the God-fearing barman gave a start: the table was covered with church brocade. On the brocade tablecloth stood a host of bottles - round-bellied, mouldy and dusty. Among the bottles gleamed a dish, and it was obvious at once that it was of pure gold. At the fireplace a small red-haired fellow with a knife in his belt was roasting pieces of meat on a long steel sword, and the juice dripped into the fire, and the smoke went up the flue. There was a smell not only of roasting meat, but also of some very strong perfume and incense, and it flashed in the barman’s mind, for he already knew of Berlioz’s death and his place of residence from the newspapers, that this might, for all he knew, be a church panikhida4 that was being served for Berlioz, which thought, however, he drove away at once as a priori absurd.
The astounded barman unexpectedly heard a heavy bass:
‘Well, sir, what can I do for you?’
And here the barman discovered in the shadows the one he wanted.
The black magician was sprawled on some boundless sofa, low, with pillows scattered over it. As it seemed to the barman, the artiste was wearing only black underwear and black pointed shoes.
‘I,’ the barman began bitterly, ‘am the manager of the buffet at the Variety Theatre ...’
The artiste stretched out his hand, stones flashing on its fingers, as if stopping the barman’s mouth, and spoke with great ardour:
‘No, no, no! Not a word more! Never and by no means! Nothing from your buffet will ever pass my lips! I, my esteemed sir, walked past your stand yesterday, and even now I am unable to forget either the sturgeon or the feta cheese! My precious man! Feta cheese is never green in colour, someone has tricked you. It ought to be white. Yes, and the tea? It’s simply swill! I saw with my own eyes some slovenly girl add tap water from a bucket to your huge samovar, while the tea went on being served. No, my dear, it’s impossible!’
‘I beg your pardon,’ said Andrei Fokich, astounded by this sudden attack, ‘but I’ve come about something else, and sturgeon has nothing to do with it ...’
‘How do you mean, nothing to do with it, when it’s spoiled!’
‘They supplied sturgeon of the second freshness,’ the barman said.
‘My dear heart, that is nonsense!’
‘What is nonsense?’
‘Second freshness — that’s what is nonsense! There is only one freshness — the first — and it is also the last. And if sturgeon is of the second freshness, that means it is simply rotten.’
‘I beg your pardon ...’ the barman again tried to begin, not knowing how to shake off the cavilling artiste.
‘I cannot pardon you,’ the other said firmly.
‘I have come about something else,’ the barman said, getting quite upset.
‘About something else?’ the foreign magician was surprised. ‘And what else could have brought you to me? Unless memory deceives me, among people of a profession similar to yours, I have had dealings with only one sutler-woman, but that was long ago, when you were not yet in this world. However, I’m glad. Azazello! A tabouret for mister buffet-manager!’
The one who was roasting meat turned, horrifying the barman with his fangs, and deftly offered him one of the dark oaken tabourets. There were no other seats in the room.
The barman managed to say:
‘I humbly thank you,’ and lowered himself on to the stool. Its back leg broke at once with a crack, and the barman, gasping, struck his backside most painfully on the floor. As he fell, he kicked another stool in front of him with his foot, and from it spilled a full cup of red wine on his trousers.
The artiste exclaimed:
‘Oh! Are you hurt?’
Azazello helped the barman up and gave him another seat. In a voice filled with grief, the barman declined his host’s suggestion that he take off his trousers and dry them before the fire, and, feeling unbearably uncomfortable in his wet underwear and clothing, cautiously sat down on the other stool.
‘I like sitting low down,’ the artiste said, ‘it’s less dangerous falling from a low height. Ah, yes, so we left off at the sturgeon. Freshness, dear heart, freshness, freshness! That should be the motto of every barman. Here, wouldn’t you like to try ...’
In the crimson light of the fireplace a sword flashed in front of the barman, and Azazello laid a sizzling piece of meat on the golden dish, squeezed lemon juice over it, and handed the barman a golden two-pronged fork.
‘My humble ... I ...’
‘No, no, try it!’
The barman put a piece into his mouth out of politeness, and understood at once that he was chewing something very fresh indeed, and, above all, extraordinarily delicious. But as he was chewing the fragrant, juicy meat, the barman nearly choked and fell a second time. From the neighbouring room a big, dark bird flew in and gently brushed the barman’s bald head with its wing. Alighting on the mantelpiece beside the clock, the bird turned out to be an owl. ‘Oh, Lord God! ...’ thought Andrei Fokich, nervous like all barmen. ‘A nice little apartment! ...’
‘A cup of wine? White, red? What country’s wine do you prefer at this time of day?’
‘My humble ... I don’t drink ...’
‘A shame! What about a game of dice, then? Or do you have some other favourite game? Dominoes? Cards?’
‘I don’t play games,’ the already weary barman responded.
‘Altogether bad,’ the host concluded. ‘As you will, but there’s something not nice hidden in men who avoid wine, games, the society of charming women, table talk. Such people are either gravely ill or secretly hate everybody around them. True, there may be exceptions. Among persons sitting down with me at the banqueting table, there have been on occasion some extraordinary scoundrels! ... And so, let me hear your business.’
‘Yesterday you were so good as to do some conjuring tricks ...’
‘I?’ the magician exclaimed in amazement. ‘Good gracious, it’s somehow even unbecoming to me!’
‘I’m sorry,’ said the barman, taken aback. ‘I mean the seance of black magic ...’
‘Ah, yes, yes, yes! My dear, I’ll reveal a secret to you. I’m not an artiste at all, I simply wanted to see the Muscovites en masse, and that could be done most conveniently in a theatre. And so my retinue,’ he nodded in the direction of the cat, ‘arranged for this seance, and I merely sat and looked at the Muscovites. Now, don’t go changing countenance, but tell me, what is it in connection with this seance that has brought you to me?’
‘If you please, you see, among other things there were banknotes flying down from the ceiling ...’ The barman lowered his voice and looked around abashedly. ‘So they snatched them all up. And then a young man comes to my bar and gives me a ten-rouble bill, I give him eight-fifty in change ... Then another one...’
‘Also a young man?’
‘No, an older one. Then a third, and a fourth ... I keep giving them change. And today I went to check the cash box, and there, instead of money — cut-up paper. They hit the buffet for a hundred and nine roubles.’
‘Ai-yai-yai!’ the artiste exclaimed. ‘But can they have thought those were real bills? I can’t admit the idea that they did it knowingly.’
The barman took a somehow hunched and anguished look around him, but said nothing.
‘Can they be crooks?’ the magician asked worriedly of his visitor. ‘Can there be crooks among the Muscovites?’
The barman smiled so bitterly in response that all doubts fell away: yes, there were crooks among the Muscovites.
‘That is mean!’ Woland was indignant. ‘You’re a poor man ... You are a poor man?’
The barman drew his head down between his shoulders, making it evident that he was a poor man.
‘How much have you got in savings?’
The question was asked in a sympathetic tone, but even so such a question could not but be acknowledged as indelicate. The barman faltered.
‘Two hundred and forty-nine thousand roubles in five savings banks,’ a cracked voice responded from the neighbouring room, ‘and two hundred ten-rouble gold pieces at home under the floor.’
The barman became as if welded to his tabouret.
‘Well, of course, that’s not a great sum,’ Woland said condescendingly to his visitor, ‘though, as a matter of fact, you have no need of it anyway. When are you going to die?’
Here the barman became indignant.
‘Nobody knows that and it’s nobody’s concern,’ he replied.
‘Sure nobody knows,’ the same trashy voice came from the study. The binomial theorem, you might think! He’s going to die in nine months, next February, of liver cancer, in the clinic of the First Moscow State University, in ward number four.‘
The barman’s face turned yellow.
‘Nine months ...’ Woland calculated pensively. ‘Two hundred and forty-nine thousand ... rounding it off that comes to twenty-seven thousand a month ... Not a lot, but enough for a modest life ... Plus those gold pieces ...’
‘He won’t get to realize the gold pieces,’ the same voice mixed in, turning the barman’s heart to ice. ‘On Andrei Fokich’s demise, the house will immediately be torn down, and the gold will be sent to the State Bank.’
‘And I wouldn’t advise you to go to the clinic,’ the artiste went on. ‘What’s the sense of dying in a ward to the groans and wheezes of the hopelessly ill? Isn’t it better to give a banquet on the twenty-seven thousand, then take poison and move on to the other world to the sounds of strings, surrounded by drunken beauties and dashing friends?’
The barman sat motionless and grew very old. Dark rings surrounded his eyes, his cheeks sagged, and his lower jaw hung down.
‘However, we’ve started day-dreaming,’ exclaimed the host. To business! Show me your cut-up paper.‘
The barman, agitated, pulled a package from his pocket, unwrapped ‘it, and was dumbfounded: the piece of paper contained ten-rouble bills.
‘My dear, you really are unwell,’ Woland said, shrugging his shoulders.
The barman, grinning wildly, got up from the tabouret.
‘A-and ...’ he said, stammering, ‘and if they ... again ... that is ...’
‘Hm ...’ the artiste pondered, ‘well, then come to us again. You’re always welcome. I’m glad of our acquaintance ...’
Straight away Koroviev came bounding from the study, clutched the barman’s hand, and began shaking it, begging Andrei Fokich to give his regards to everybody, everybody. Not thinking very well, the barman started for the front hall.
‘Hella, see him out!’ Koroviev shouted.
Again that naked redhead in the front hall! The barman squeezed through the door, squeaked ‘Goodbye!’, and went off like a drunk man. Having gone down a little way, he stopped, sat on a step, took out the packet and checked — the ten-rouble bills were in place.
Here a woman with a green bag came out of the apartment on that landing. Seeing a man sitting on a step and staring dully at some money, she smiled and said pensively:
‘What a house we’ve got ... Here’s this one drunk in the morning ... And the window on the stairway is broken again!’
Peering more attentively at the barman, she added:
‘And you, citizen, are simply rolling in money! ... Give some to me, eh?’
‘Let me alone, for Christ’s sake!’ the barman got frightened and quickly hid the money.
The woman laughed.
‘To the hairy devil with you, skinflint! I was joking...’ And she went downstairs.
The barman slowly got up, raised his hand to straighten his hat, and realized that it was not on his head. He was terribly reluctant to go back, but he was sorry about the hat. After some hesitation, he nevertheless went back and rang.
‘What else do you want?’ the accursed Hella asked him.
‘I forgot my hat ...’ the barman whispered, pointing to his bald head. Hella turned around. The barman spat mentally and closed his eyes. When he opened them, Hella was holding out his hat to him and a sword with a dark hilt.
‘Not mine ...’ the barman whispered, pushing the sword away and quickly putting on his hat.
‘You came without a sword?’ Hella was surprised.
The barman growled something and quickly went downstairs. His head for some reason felt uncomfortable and too warm in the hat. He took it off and, jumping from fear, cried out softly: in his hands was a velvet beret with a dishevelled cock’s feather. The barman crossed himself. At the same moment, the beret miaowed, turned into a black kitten and, springing back on to Andrei Fokich’s head, sank all its claws into his bald spot. Letting out a cry of despair, the barman dashed downstairs, and the kitten fell off and spurted back up the stairway.
Bursting outside, the barman trotted to the gates and left the devilish no. 302-bis for ever.
What happened to him afterwards is known perfectly well. Running out the gateway, the barman looked around wildly, as if searching for something. A minute later he was on the other side of the street in a pharmacy. He had no sooner uttered the words:
‘Tell me, please ...’ when the woman behind the counter exclaimed:
‘Citizen, your head is cut all over!’
Some five minutes later the barman was bandaged with gauze, knew that the best specialists in liver diseases were considered to be professors Bernadsky and Kuzmin, asked who was closer, lit up with joy on learning that Kuzmin lived literally across the courtyard in a small white house, and some two minutes later was in that house.
The premises were antiquated but very, very cosy. The barman remembered that the first one he happened to meet was an old nurse who wanted to take his hat, but as he turned out to have no hat, the nurse went off somewhere, munching with an empty mouth.
Instead of her, there turned up near the mirror and under what seemed some sort of arch, a middle-aged woman who said straight away that it was possible to make an appointment only for the nineteenth, not before. The barman at once grasped what would save him. Peering with fading eyes through the arch, where three persons were waiting in what was obviously some sort of anteroom, he whispered:
‘Mortally ill ...’
The woman looked in perplexity at the barman’s bandaged head, hesitated, and said:
‘Well, then ...’ and allowed the barman through the archway.
At that same moment the opposite door opened, there was the flash of a gold pince-nez. The woman in the white coat said:
‘Citizens, this patient will go out of turn.’
And before the barman could look around him, he was in Professor Kuzmin’s office. There was nothing terrible, solemn or medical in this oblong room.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Professor Kuzmin asked in a pleasant voice, and glanced with some alarm at the bandaged head.
‘I’ve just learned from reliable hands,’ the barman replied, casting wild glances at some group photograph under glass, ‘that I’m going to die of liver cancer in February of this coming year. I beg you to stop it.’
Professor Kuzmin, as he sat there, threw himself against the high Gothic leather back of his chair.
‘Excuse me, I don’t understand you ... you’ve, what, been to the doctor? Why is your head bandaged?‘
‘Some doctor! ... You should’ve seen this doctor ...’ the barman replied, and his teeth suddenly began to chatter. ‘And don’t pay any attention to the head, it has no connection ... Spit on the head, it has nothing to do with it ... Liver cancer, I beg you to stop it! ...’
‘Pardon me, but who told you?!’
‘Believe him!’ the barman ardently entreated. ‘He knows!’
‘I don’t understand a thing!’ the professor said, shrugging his shoulders and pushing his chair back from the desk. ‘How can he know when you’re going to die? The more so as he’s not a doctor!’
‘In ward four of the clinic of the First MSU,’ replied the barman.
Here the professor looked at his patient, at his head, at his damp trousers, and thought: Just what I needed, a madman ...‘ He asked:
‘Do you drink vodka?’
‘Never touch it,’ the barman answered.
A moment later he was undressed, lying on the cold oilcloth of the couch, and the professor was kneading his stomach. Here, it must be said, the barman cheered up considerably. The professor categorically maintained that presently, at least for the given moment, the barman had no symptoms of cancer, but since it was so ... since he was afraid and had been frightened by some charlatan, he must perform all the tests ...
The professor was scribbling away on some sheets of paper, explaining where to go, what to bring. Besides that, he gave him a note for Professor Bouret, a neurologist, telling the barman that his nerves were in complete disorder.
‘How much do I owe you, Professor?’ the barman asked in a tender and trembling voice, pulling out a fat wallet.
‘As much as you like,’ the professor said curtly and drily.
The barman took out thirty roubles and placed them on the table, and then, with an unexpected softness, as if operating with a cat’s paw, he placed on top of the bills a clinking stack wrapped in newspaper.
‘And what is this?’ Kuzmin asked, twirling his moustache.
‘Don’t scorn it, citizen Professor,’ the barman whispered. ‘I beg you — stop the cancer!’
‘Take away your gold this minute,’ said the professor, proud of himself. ‘You’d better look after your nerves. Tomorrow have your urine analysed, don’t drink a lot of tea, and don’t put any salt in your food.’
‘Not even in soup?’ the barman asked.
‘Not in anything,’ ordered Kuzmin.
‘Ahh! ...’ the barman exclaimed wistfully, gazing at the professor with tenderness, gathering up his gold pieces and backing towards the door.
That evening the professor had few patients, and as twilight approached the last one left. Taking off his white coat, the professor glanced at the spot where the barman had left his money and saw no banknotes there but only three labels from bottles of Abrau-Durso wine.
‘Devil knows what’s going on!’ Kuzmin muttered, trailing the flap of his coat on the floor and feeling the labels. ‘It turns out he’s not only a schizophrenic but also a crook! But I can’t understand what he needed me for! Could it be the prescription for the urine analysis? Oh-oh! ... He’s stolen my overcoat!’ And the professor rushed for the front hall, one arm still in the sleeve of his white coat. ‘Xenia Nikitishna!’ he cried shrilly through the door to the front hall. ‘Look and see if all the coats are there!’
The coats all turned out to be there. But instead, when the professor went back to his desk, having peeled off his white coat at last, he stopped as if rooted to the parquet beside his desk, his eyes riveted to it. In the place where the labels had been there sat an orphaned black kitten with a sorry little muzzle, miaowing over a saucer of milk.
‘Wh-what’s this, may I ask?! Now this is ...’ And Kuzmin felt the nape of his neck go cold.
At the professor’s quiet and pitiful cry, Xenia Nikitishna came running and at once reassured him completely, saying that it was, of course, one of the patients who had abandoned the kitten, as happens not infrequently to professors.
‘They probably have a poor life,’ Xenia Nikitishna explained, ‘well, and we, of course ...’
They started thinking and guessing who might have abandoned it. Suspicion fell on a little old lady with a stomach ulcer.
‘It’s she, of course,’ Xenia Nikitishna said. ‘She thinks: “I’ll die anyway, and it’s a pity for the kitten.”’
‘But excuse me!’ cried Kuzmin. ‘What about the milk? ... Did she bring that, too? And the saucer, eh?’
‘She brought it in a little bottle, and poured it into the saucer here,’ Xenia Nikitishna explained.
‘In any case, take both the kitten and the saucer away,’ said Kuzmin, and he accompanied Xenia Nikitishna to the door himself. When he came back, the situation had altered.
As he was hanging his coat on a nail, the professor heard guffawing in the courtyard. He glanced out and, naturally, was struck dumb. A lady was running across the yard to the opposite wing in nothing but a shift. The professor even knew her name — Marya Alexandrovna. The guffawing came from a young boy.
‘What’s this?’ Kuzmin said contemptuously.
Just then, behind the wall, in the professor’s daughter’s room, a gramophone began to play the foxtrot ‘Hallelujah,’ and at the same moment a sparrow’s chirping came from behind the professor’s back. He turned around and saw a large sparrow hopping on his desk.
‘Hm ... keep calm!’ the professor thought. ‘It flew in as I left the window. Everything’s in order!’ the professor told himself, feeling that everything was in complete disorder, and that, of course, owing chiefly to the sparrow. Taking a closer look at him, the professor became convinced at once that this was no ordinary sparrow. The obnoxious little sparrow dipped on its left leg, obviously clowning, dragging it, working it in syncopation — in short, it was dancing the foxtrot to the sounds of the gramophone, like a drunkard in a bar, saucy as could be, casting impudent glances at the professor.
Kuzmin’s hand fell on the telephone, and he decided to call his old schoolmate Bouret, to ask what such little sparrows might mean at the age of sixty, especially when one’s head suddenly starts spinning?
The sparrow meanwhile sat on the presentation inkstand, shat in it (I’m not joking!), then flew up, hung in the air, and, swinging a steely beak, pecked at the glass covering the photograph portraying the entire university graduating class of ‘94, broke the glass to smithereens, and only then flew out the window.
The professor dialled again, and instead of calling Bouret, called a leech bureau,5 said he was Professor Kuzmin, and asked them to send some leeches to his house at once. Hanging up the receiver, the professor turned to his desk again and straight away let out a scream. At this desk sat a woman in a nurse’s headscarf, holding a handbag with the word ‘Leeches’ written on it. The professor screamed as he looked at her mouth: it was a man’s mouth, crooked, stretching from ear to ear, with a single fang. The nurse’s eyes were dead.
‘This bit of cash I’ll just pocket,’ the nurse said in a male basso, ‘no point in letting it lie about here.’ She raked up the labels with a bird’s claw and began melting into air.
Two hours passed. Professor Kuzmin sat in his bedroom on the bed, with leeches hanging from his temples, behind his ears, and on his neck. At Kuzmin’s feet, on a quilted silk blanket, sat the grey-moustached Professor Bouret, looking at Kuzmin with condolence and comforting him, saying it was all nonsense. Outside the window it was already night.
What other prodigies occurred in Moscow that night we do not know and certainly will not try to find out — especially as it has come time for us to go on to the second part of this truthful narrative. Follow me, reader!
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