If next day someone had said to Stepa Likhodeyev ‘Stepa! If vou don’t get up this minute you’re going to be shot,’ he would have replied in a faint, languid voice : ‘ All right, shoot me. Do what you like to me, but I’m not getting up! ‘
The worst of it was that he could not open his eyes, because when he did so there would be a flash of lightning and his head would shiver to fragments. A great bell was tolling in his head, brown spots with livid green edges were swimming around somewhere between his eyeballs and his closed lids. To cap it all he felt sick and the nausea was somehow connected with the sound of a gramophone.
Stepa tried to remember what had happened, but could only recall one thing–yesterday, somewhere. God knows where, he had been holding a table napkin and trying to kiss a woman, promising her that he would come and visit her tomorrow at the stroke of noon. She had refused, saying ‘ No, no, I won’t be at home,’ but Stepa had insisted ‘ I don’t care–I’ll come anyway!’
Stepa had now completely forgotten who that woman had been, what the time was, what day of what month it was, and worst of all he had no idea where he was. In an effort to find out, he unstuck his gummed-up left eyelid. Something glimmered in the semi-darkness. At last Stepa recognised it as a mirror. He was lying cross-wise on the bed in his own bedroom. Then something hit him on the head and he closed his eyes and groaned.
Stepa Likhodeyev, manager of the Variety Theatre, had woken up thait morning in the flat that he shared with Berlioz in a big six-stoirey block of flats on
. This flat–No. 50– had a strange reputation. Two years before, it had been owned by the widow of a jeweller called de Fougere, Anna Frantzevna, a respectable and very business-like lady of fifty, who let three of her five rooms to lodgers. One of them was, it seems, called Belomut; the other’s name has been lost.
Two years ago odd things began happening in that apartment– people started to vanish from it without trace. One Monday afternoon a policeman called, invited the second lodger (the one whose name is no longer known) into the hall and asked him to come along to the police station for a minute or two to sign a document. The lodger told Anfisa, Anna Frantzevna’s devoted servant of many years, to say that if anybody rang him up he would be back in ten minutes. He then went out accompanied by the courteous policeman in white gloves. But he not only failed to come back in ten minutes; he never came back at all. Odder still, the policeman appeared to have vanished with him.
Anfisa, a devout and frankly rather a superstitious woman, informed the distraught Anna Frantsevna that it was witchcraft, that she knew perfectly well who had enticed away the lodger and the policeman, only she dared not pronounce the name at night-time.
Witchcraft once started, as we all know, is virtually unstoppable. The anonymous lodger disappeared, you will remember, on a Monday ; the following Wednesday Belomut, too, vanished from the face of the earth, although admittedly in different circumstances. He was fetched as usual in the morning by the car which took him to work, but it never brought him back and never called again.
Words cannot describe the pain and distress which this caused to madame Belomut, but alas for her, she was not fated to endure even this unhappy state for long. On returning from her dacha that evening, whither she had hastily gone with Anfisa, Anna Frantzevna found no trace of madame Belomut in the flat and what was more, the doors of both rooms occupied by the Belomuts had been sealed. Two days of uncertainty and insomnia passed for Anna Frantzevna ; on the third day she made another hasty visit to her dacha from whence, it need hardly be said, she never returned. Anfisa, left alone, cried her eye s out and finally went to bed at two-o’clock in the morning. Nobody knows what happened to her after that, but tenants of the neighbouring flat described having heard knocking coming from No. 50 and having seen lights burning in the windows all night. By morning Anfisa too was gone. Legends of all kinds about the mysterious flat and its vanishing lodgers circulated in the building for some time. According to one of them the devout and spinsteriy Anfisa used to carry twenty-five large diamonds, belonging to Anna Frantzevna, in a chamois-leather bag between her withered breasts. It was said, too, that among other things a priceless treasure consisting of those same diamonds and a hoard of tsarist gold coins were somehow found in the coal-she’d behind Anna Frantzevna’s dacha. Lacking proof, of course, we shall never know how true these rumours were. However, the flat only remained empty for a week before Berlioz and his wife and Stepa and his wife moved into it. Naturally as soon as they took possession of the haunted flat the oddest things started happening to them too. Within a single month both wives had disappeared, although not without trace. Rumour had it that Berlioz’s wife had been seen in Kharkov with a ballet-master, whilst Stepa’s wife had apparently found her way to an orphanage where, the story went, the manager of the Variety had used his connections to get her a room on condition that she never showed her face in
again. . . .
So Stepa groaned. He wanted to call his maid, Grunya, and ask her for an aspirin but he was conscious enough to realise that it would be useless because Grunya most probably had no aspirin. He tried to call for Berlioz’s help and twice moaned ‘ Misha . . . Misha . . .’, but as you will have guessed, there was no reply. There was complete silence in the flat.
Wriggling his toes, Stepa deduced that he was lying in his socks. He ran a trembling hand down his hip to test whether he had his trousers on or not and found that he had not. At last, realising that he was alone and abandoned, that there was nobody to help him, he decided to get up, whatever superhuman effort it might cost him.
Stepa prised open his eyelids and saw himself reflected in the long mirror in the shape of a man whose hair stuck out in all directions, with a puffy, stubble-grown face, with watery eyes and wearing a dirty shirt, a collar, tie, underpants and socks.
As he looked at himself in the mirror, he also noticed standing beside it a strange man dressed in a black suit and a black beret.
Stepa sat up on the bed and did his best to focus his bloodshot eyes on the stranger. The silence was broken by the unknown visitor, who said gravely, in a low voice with a foreign accent:
‘Good morning, my dear Stepan Bogdanovich! ‘
There was a pause. Pulling himself together with fearful effort Stepa said:
‘What do you want?’ He did not recognise his own voice. He had spoken the word ‘ what’ in a treble, ‘ do you ‘ in a bass and ‘ want’ had simply not emerged at all.
The stranger gave an amiable smile, pulled out a large gold watch with a diamond triangle on the cover, listened to it strike eleven times and said :
‘Eleven. I have been waiting exactly an hour for you to wake up. You gave me an appointment to see you at your flat at ten so here I am!’
Stepa fumbled for his trousers on the chair beside his bed and whispered:
‘Excuse me. . . .’ He put on his trousers and asked hoarsely :
‘Please tell me–who are you? ‘
He found talking difficult, as with every word someone stuck a needle into his brain, causing him infernal agony.
‘What! Have you forgotten my name too? ‘ The stranger smiled.
‘Sorry . . .’ said Stepa huskily. He could feel his hangover developing a new symptom : the floor beside his bed seemed to be on the move and any moment now he was liable to take a dive head first down into hell.
‘My dear Stepan Bogdanovich,’ said the visitor with a shrewd smile. ‘ Aspirin will do you no good. Follow a wise old rule– the hair of the dog. The only thing that will bring you back to life is two measures of vodka with something sharp and peppery to eat.’
Ill though Stepa was he had enough sense to realise that since he had been found in this state he had better tell all.
‘Frankly . . .’ he began, scarcely able to move his tongue, ‘ I did have a bit too . . .’
‘Say no more! ‘ interrupted the visitor and pushed the armchair to one side.
Stepa’s eyes bulged. There on a little table was a tray, laid with slices of white bread and butter, pressed caviare in a glass bowl, pickled mushrooms on a saucer, something in a little saucepan and finally vodka in one of the jeweller’s ornate decanters. The decanter was so chilled that it was wet with condensation from standing in a finger-bowl full of cracked ice.
The stranger cut Stepa’s astonishment short by deftly pouring him out half a glass of vodka.
‘What about you? ‘ croaked Stepa.
‘With pleasure! ‘
With a shaking hand Stepa raised the glass to his lips and the mysterious guest swallowed his at one gulp. As he munched his caviare Stepa was able to squeeze out the words :
‘Won’t you have a bite to eat too? ‘
‘Thank you, but I never eat when I’m drinking,’ replied the stranger, pouring out a second round. He lifted the lid of the saucepan. It contained little frankfurters in tomato sauce.
Slowly the awful green blobs in front of his eyes dissolved, words started to form and most important of all Stepa’s memory began to come back. That was it–he had been at Khustov’s dacha at Skhodna and Khustov had driven Stepa out there by taxi. He even remembered hailing the taxi outside the Metropole. There had been another man with them–an actor … or was he an actor? . . . anyhow he had a portable gramophone. Yes, yes, they had all gone to the dacha! And the dogs, he remembered, had started howling when they played the gramophone. Only the woman Stepa had tried to kiss remained a complete blank . . . who the hell was she? . . . Didn’t she work for the radio? Or perhaps she didn’t. . . .
Gradually the previous day came back into focus, but Stepa was much more interested in today and in particular in this odd stranger who had materialised in his bedroom complete with snacks and vodka. If only someone would explain it all!
‘Well, now, I hope, you’ve remembered my name? ‘
Stepa could only grin sheepishly and spread his hands.
‘Well, really! I suspect you drank port on top of vodka last night. What a way to behave!’
‘Please keep this to yourself,’ said Stepa imploringly.
‘Oh, of course, of course! But naturally I can’t vouch for Khustov.’
‘Do you know Khustov? ‘
‘I saw that individual for a moment or two in your office yesterday, but one cursory glance at his face was enough to convince me that he was a scheming, quarrelsome, sycophantic swine.’
‘He’s absolutely right! ‘ thought Stepa, amazed at such a truthful, precise and succinct description of Khustov.
The ruins of yesterday were piecing themselves together now, but the manager of the Variety still felt vaguely anxious. There was still a gaping black void in his memory. He had absolutely no recollection of having seen this stranger in his office the day before.
‘Woland, professor of black magic,’ said the visitor gravely, and seeing Stepa was still in difficulties he described their meeting in detail.
He had arrived in Moscow from abroad yesterday, had immediately called on Stepa and offered himself as a guest artiste at the Variety. Stepa had telephoned the Moscow District Theatrical Commission, had agreed to the proposal (Stepa turned pale and blinked) and had signed a contract with Professor Woland for seven performances (Stepa’s mouth dropped open), inviting Woland to call on him at ten o’clock the next morning to conclude the details. … So Woland had come. When he arrived he had been met by Grunya the maid, who explained that she herself had only just arrived because she lived out, that Berlioz wasn’t at home and that if the gentleman wanted to see Stepan Bogdanovich he should go into the bedroom.. Stepan Bogdanovich had been sleeping so soundly that she had been unable to wake him. Seeing the condition that Stepa was in, the artiste had sent Grunya out to the nearest delicatessen for some vodka and snacks, to the chemist for some ice and . . .
‘You must let me settle up with you,’ moaned Stepa, thoroughly crushed, and began hunting for his wallet.
‘Oh, what nonsense! ‘ exclaimed the artiste and would hear no more of it.
So that explained the vodka and the food; but Stepa was miserably confused: he could remember absolutely nothing about a contract and he would die before admitting to having seen Woland the previous day. Khustov had been there all right, but not Woland.
‘Would you mind showing me the contract?’ asked Stepa gently.
‘Oh, but of course. . . .’
Stepa looked at the sheet of paper and went numb. It was all there : his own bold signature, the backward-sloping signature of Rimsky, the treasurer, sanctioning the payment to Woland of a cash advance of ten thousand roubles against his total fee of thirty-five thousand roubles for seven performances. And what was more–Woland’s receipt for ten thousand roubles!
‘What the hell? ‘ thought the miserable Stepa. His head began to spin. Was this one of his lapses of memory? Well, of course, now that the actual contract had been produced any further signs of disbelief would merely be rude. Stepa excused himself for a moment and ran to the telephone in the hall,. On the way he shouted towards the kitchen :
There was no reply. He glanced at the door of Berlioz’s study, which opened off the hall, and stopped, as they say, dumbfounded. There, tied to the door-handle, hung an enormous wax seal.
‘My God! ‘ said a voice in Stepa’s head. ‘ If that isn’t the last straw! ‘ It would be difficult to describe Stepa’s mental confusion. First this diabolical character with his black beret, the iced vodka and that incredible contract. . . . And then, if you please, a seal on the door! Who could ever imagine Berlioz getting into any sort of trouble? No one. Yet there it was–a seal. H’m.
Stepa was at once assailed by a number of uncomfortable little thoughts about an article which he had recently talked Mikhail Alexandrovich into printing in his magazine. Frankly the article had been awful–stupid, politically dubious and badly paid. Hard on the heels of his recollection of the article came a memory of a slightly equivocal conversation which had taken place, as far as he could remember, on 24th April here in the dining-room when Stepa and Berlioz had been having supper together. Of course their talk had not really been dubious (Stepa would not have joined in any such conversation) but it had been on a rather unnecessary subject. They could easily have avoided having it altogether. Before the appearance of this seal the conversation would undoubtedly have been dismissed as utterly trivial, but since the seal . . .
‘Oh, Berlioz, Berlioz,’ buzzed the voice in Stepa’s head. ‘ Surely he’ll never mention it!’
But there was no time for regrets. Stepa dialled the office of Rimsky, the Variety Theatre’s treasurer. Stepa was in a delicate position: for one thing, the foreigner might be offended at Stepa ringing up to check on him after he had been shown the contract and for another, the treasurer was an extremely difficult man to deal with. After all he couldn’t just say to him : ‘ Look here, did J sign a contract yesterday for thirty-five thousand roubles with a professor of black magic? ‘ It simply wouldn’t do!
‘Yes? ‘ came Rimsky’s harsh, unpleasant voice in the earphone.
‘Hello, Grigory Danilovich,’ said Stepa gently. ‘ Likhodeyev speaking. It’s about this … er … this fellow . . . this artiste, in my flat, called, er, Woland . . . I just wanted to ask you about this evening–is everything O.K.? ‘
‘Oh, the black magician? ‘ replied Rimsky. ‘ The posters will be here any minute now.’
‘Uhuh . . .’ said Stepa weakly. ‘ O.K., so long . . .’
‘Will you be coming over soon? ‘ asked Rimsky.
‘In half an hour,’ answered Stepa and replacing the receiver he clasped his feverish head. God, how embarrassing! What an appalling thing to forget!
As it would be rude to stay in the hall for much longer, Stepa concocted a plan. He had to use every possible means of concealing his incredible forgetfulness and begin by cunningly persuading the foreigner to tell him exactly what he proposed to do in his act at the Variety.
With this Stepan turned away from the telephone and in the hall mirror, which the lazy Grunya had not dusted for years, he clearly saw a weird-looking man, as thin as a bean-pole and wearing a pince-nez. Then the apparition vanished. Stepa peered anxiously down the hallway and immediately had another shock as a huge black cat appeared in the mirror and also vanished.
Stepa’s heart gave a jump and he staggered back.
‘What in God’s name . . .? ‘ he thought. ‘ Am I going out of my mind? Where are these reflections coming from? ‘ He gave another look round the hall and shouted in alarm :
‘Grunya! What’s this cat doing, sneaking in here? Where does it come from? And who’s this other character? ‘
‘Don’t worry, Stepan Bogdanovich,’ came a voice, though not Grunya’s–it was the visitor speaking from the bedroom. ‘ The cat is mine. Don’t be nervous. And Grunya’s not here–I sent her away to her family in Voronezh. She complained that you had cheated her out of her leave.’
These words were so unexpected and so absurd that Stepa decided he had not heard them. In utter bewilderment he bounded back into the bedroom and froze on the threshold. His hair rose and a mild sweat broke out on his forehead.
The visitor was no longer alone in the bedroom. The second armchair was now occupied by the creature who had materialised in the hall. He was now to be seen quite plainly–feathery moustache, one lens of his pince-nez glittering, the other missing. But worst of all wa:s the third invader : a black cat of revolting proportions sprawled in a nonchalant attitude on the pouffe, a glass of vodka in one paw and a fork, on which he had just speared a pickled mushroom, in the other.
Stepa felt the light in the bedroom, already weak enough, begin to fade. ‘ This must be what it’s like to go mad . . .’ he thought, clutching the doorpost.
‘You seem slightly astonished, my dear Stepan Bogdanovich,’ said Woland. Stepai’s teeth were chattering. ‘ But I assure you there is nothing to be surprised at. These are my assistants.’
Here the cat drank its vodka and Stepa’s hand dropped from the doorpost.
‘And my assistants need a place to stay,’ went on Woland, ‘ so it seems that there is one too many of us in this flat. That one, I rather think, is you.’
‘Yes, that’s them! ‘ said the tall man in a goatish voice, speaking of Stepa in the plural. ‘ They’ve been behaving disgustingly lately. Getting drunk, carrying on with women, trading on their position and not doing a stroke of work–not that they could do anything even if they tried because they’re completely incompetent. Pulling the wool over the boss’s eyes, that’s what they’ve been doing! ‘
‘Drives around in a free car! ‘ said the cat slanderously, chewing a mushroom.
Then occurred the fourth and last phenomenon at which Stepa collapsed entirely, his weakened hand scraping down the doorpost as he slid to the floor.
Straight from the full-length mirror stepped a short but unusually broad-she uldered man with a bowler hat on his head. A fang protruding from his mouth disfigured an already hideous physiognomy that was topped with fiery red hair.
‘I cannot,’ put in the new arrival, ‘ understand how he ever came to be manager’–his voice grew more and more nasal– ‘ he’s as much a manager as I am a bishop.’
‘You don’t look much like a bishop, Azazello,’ remarked the cat, piling sausages on his plate.
‘That’s what I mean,’ snarled the man with red hair and turning to Woland he added in a voice of respect: ‘ Will you permit us, messire, to kick him out of Moscow? ‘
‘Shoo!! ‘ suddenly hissed the cat, its hair standing on end.
The bedroom began to spin round Stepa, he hit his head on the doorpost and as he lost consciousness he thought, ‘ I’m dying . . .’
But he did not die. Opening his eyes slightly he found himself sitting on something made of stone. There was a roaring sound nearby. When he opened his eyes fully he realised that the roaring was the sea; that the waves were breaking at his feet, that he was in fact sitting on the very end of a stone pier, a shining blue sky above him and behind him a white town climbing up the mountainside.
Not knowing quite what to do in a case like this, Stepa raised himself on to his shaking legs and walked down the pier to the shore.
On the pier stood a man, smoking and spitting into the sea. He glared at Stepa and stopped spitting.
Stepa then did an odd thing–he kneeled down in front of the unknown smoker and said :
‘Tell me, please, where am I? ‘
‘Well, I’m damned! ‘ said the unsympathetic smoker.
‘I’m not drunk,’ said Stepa hoarsely. ‘ Something’s happened to me, I’m ill. . . . Where am I? What town is this? ‘
‘Yalta, of course. . . .’
Stepa gave a gentle sigh, collapsed and fainted as he struck his head on the warm stonework of the pier.