As disaster overtook Nikanor Ivanovich in
, not far from No. 302А two men were sitting in the office of Rimsky the treasurer of the Variety Theatre : Rimsky himself and the house manager, Varenukha.
From this large office on the second floor two windows gave on to Sadovaya and another, just behind the treasurer’s back as he sat at his desk, on to the Variety’s garden; it was used in summer and contained several bars for serving cold drinks, a shooting gallery and an open promenade. The furniture of the room, apart from the desk, consisted of a collection of old posters hanging on the wall, a small table with a carafe of water, four chairs and a stand in one corner supporting a dusty, long-forgotten model of a stage set. Naturally the office also contained a small, battered fireproof safe standing to the left of Rimsky’s desk.
Rimsky had been in a bad mood all morning. Varenukha, by contrast, was extremely cheerful and lively, if somewhat nervous. Today, however, there was no outlet for his energy.
Varenukha had just taken refuge in the treasurer’s office from the complimentary ticket hounds who made his life a misery, especially on the days when there was a change of programme. And today was one of those days. As soon as the telephone started to ring Varenukha picked up the receiver and lied into it:
‘Who? Varenukha? He’s not here. He’s left the theatre.’
‘Please try and ring Likhodeyev once more,’ said Rimsky testily.
‘But he’s not at home. I’ve already sent Karpov; the Hat’s empty.’
‘I wish to God I knew what was going on! ‘ hissed Rimsky, fidgeting with his adding machine.
The door opened and a theatre usher dragged in a thick package of newly-printed fly-posters, which announced in large red letters on a green background :
Tonight and All This Week in the Variety Theatre
A Special Act
Black Magic All Mysteries revealed
As Varenukha stepped back from the poster, which he had propped up on the model, he admired it and ordered the usher to have all the copies posted up.
‘All right–look sharp,’ said Varenukha to the departing usher.
‘I don’t care for this project at all,’ growled Rimsky disagreeably, staring at the poster through his horn-rims. ‘ I’m amazed that he was ever engaged.’
‘No, Grigory Danilovich, don’t say that! It’s a very smart move. All the fun is in showing how it’s done–” the mysteries revealed “.’
‘I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t see any fun in that myself. . . just like him to dream up something of this sort. If only he’d shown us this magician. Did you see him? God knows where he’s dug him up from.’
It transpired that Varenukha, like Rimsky, had not seen the magician either. Yesterday Stepa had rushed (‘ like a madman ‘, in Rimsky’s words) into the treasurer’s office clutching a draft contract, had ordered him to countersign it and pay Woland his money. The magician had vanished and no one except Stepa himself had seen him.
Rimsky pulled out his watch, saw that it was five minutes to three and was seized with fury. Really, this was too much! Likhodeyev had rung at about eleven o’clock, had said that he would come in about half an hour and now he had not only failed to appear but had disappeared from his flat.
‘It’s holding up all my work’ snarled Rimsky, tapping a pile of unsigned papers.
‘I suppose he hasn’t fallen under a tram, like Berlioz? ‘ said Varenukha, holding the receiver to his ear and hearing nothing but a continual, hopeless buzz as Stepa’s telephone rang unanswered.
‘It would be a damned good thing if he has . . .’ said Rimsky softly between his teeth.
At that moment in came a woman in a uniform jacket, peaked cap, black skirt and sneakers. She took a square of white paper and a notebook out of a little pouch on her belt and enquired :
‘Which of you is Variety? Priority telegram for you. Sign here.’
Varenukha scrawled some hieroglyphic in the woman’s notebook and as soon as the door had slammed behind her, opened the envelope. Having read the telegram he blinked and handed it to Rimsky.
The telegram read as follows: ‘yalta то moscow
VARIETY STOP TODAY 1130 PSYCHIATRIC CASE NIGHT-SHIRTED TROUSERED SHOELESS STAGGERED POLICE STATION ALLEGING SELF LIKHODEYEV MANAGER VARIETY WIRE YALTA POLICE WHERE LIKHODEYEV.’
‘Thanks–and I’m a Dutchman! ‘ exclaimed Rimsky and added : ‘ Another little surprise package! ‘
‘The False Dimitry! ‘ said Varenukha and spoke into the telephone : ‘ Telegrams, please. On account. Variety Theatre. Priority. Ready? ” Yalta Police stop Likhodeyev Moscow Rimsky Treasurer.”‘
Disregarding the Pretender of Yalta, Varenukha tried again to locate Stepa by telephone and could not, of course, find him anywhere. While he was still holding the receiver in his hand and wondering where to ring next, the same woman came in again and handed Varenukha a new envelope. Hastily opening it Varenukha read the text and whistled. ‘ What is it now? ‘ asked Rimsky, twitching nervously. Varenukha silently passed him the telegram and the treasurer read the words :
‘ BEG BELIEVE TRANSPORTED YALTA WOLANDS HYPNOSIS WIRE POLICE CONFIRMATION MY IDENTITY LIKHODEYEV.’
Rimsky and Varenukha put their heads together, read the telegram again and stared at one another in silence.
‘Come on, come on! ‘ said the woman irritably. ‘ Sign here. Then you can sit and stare at it as long as you like. I’ve got urgent telegrams to deliver!’
Without taking his eyes off the telegram Varenukha scribbled in her book and the woman disappeared.
‘You say you spoke to him on the telephone just after eleven? ‘ said the house manager in complete bewilderment.
‘Yes, extraordinary as it may seem! ‘ shouted Rimsky. ‘ But whether I did or not, he can’t be in Yalta now. It’s funny.’
‘He’s drunk . . .’ said Varenukha.
‘Who’s drunk? ‘ asked Rimsky and they stared at each other again.
There was no doubt that some lunatic or practical joker was telegraphing from Yalta. But the strange thing was–how did this wit in Yalta know about Woland, who had only arrived in Moscow the evening before? How did he know of the connection between Likhodeyev and Woland?
‘” Hypnosis “,’ muttered Varenukha, repeating one of the words in the telegram. ‘ How does he know about Woland? ‘ He blinked and suddenly shouted firmly : ‘ No, of course not. It can’t be! Rubbish! ‘
‘Where the hell has this man Woland got to, damn him? ‘ asked Rimsky.
Varenukha at once got in touch with the tourist bureau and announced to Rimsky’s utter astonishment that Woland was staying in Likhodeyev’s flat. Having then dialled Likhodeyev’s flat yet again, Varenukha listened for a long time as the ringing tone buzzed thickly in the earpiece. In between the buzzes a distant baritone voice could be heard singing and Varenukha decided that somewhere the telephone system had got its wires crossed with the radio station.
‘No reply from his flat,’ said Varenukha, replacing the receiver on its rest. ‘ I’ll try once more . . .’
Before he could finish in came the same woman and both men rose to greet her as this time she took out of her pouch not a white, but a black sheet of paper.
‘This is getting interesting,’ said Varenukha through gritted teeth, watching the woman as she hurried out. Rimsky was the first to look at the message.
On a dark sheet of photographic paper the following lines were clearly visible :
‘As proof herewith specimen my handwriting and signature wire confirmation my identity. Have Woland secretly followed. Likhodeyev.’
In twenty years of experience in the theatre Varenukha had seen plenty, but now he felt his mind becoming paralysed and he could find nothing to say beyond the commonplace and absurd remark:
‘ It can’t be!’
Rimsky reacted differently. He got up, opened the door and bellowed through it to the usher sitting outside on a stool:
‘Don’t let anybody in except the telegraph girl,’ and locked the door.
He then pulled a sheaf of papers out of his desk drawer and began a careful comparison of the thick, backward-sloping letters in the photogram with the writing in Stepa’s memoranda and his signatures, with their typically curly-tailed script. Varenukha, sprawling on the desk, breathed hotly on Rimsky’s cheek.
‘It’s his handwriting,’ the treasurer finally said and Varenukha echoed him:
‘It’s his all right.’
Looking at Rimsky’s face the house manager noticed a change in it. A thin man, the treasurer seemed to have grown even thinner and to have aged. Behind their hornrims his eyes had lost their usual aggressiveness. Now they showed only anxiety, even alarm.
Varenukha did everything that people are supposed to do in moments of great stress. He paced up and down the office, twice spread his arms as though he were being crucified, drank a whole glass of brackish water from the carafe and exclaimed :
‘I don’t understand it! I don’t understand it! I don’t under-stand it!’
Rimsky stared out of the window, thinking hard. The treasurer was in an extremely perplexing situation. He had to find an immediate, on-the-spot, natural solution for a number of very unusual phenomena.
Frowning, the treasurer tried to imagine Stepa in a nightshirt and without his shoes, climbing that morning at about half past eleven into some incredibly super-rapid aeroplane and then the same Stepa, also at half past eleven, standing on Yalta airport in his socks. …
Perhaps it wasn’t Stepa who had telephoned him from his flat? No, that was Stepa all right! As if he didn’t know Stepa’s voice. Even if it hadn’t been Stepa talking to him that morning, he had actually seen the man no earlier than the evening before, when Stepa had rushed in from his own office waving that idiotic contract and had so annoyed Rimsky by his irresponsible behaviour. How could he have flown out of Moscow without saying a word to the theatre? And if he had flown away yesterday evening he couldn’t have reached Yalta before noon today. Or could he?
‘How far is it to Yalta? ‘ asked Rimsky.
Varenukha stopped pacing and cried :
‘I’ve already thought of that! To Sebastopol by rail it’s about fifteen hundred kilometres and it’s about another eighty kilometres to Yalta. It’s less by air, of course.’ Ню . . . Yes . . . No question of his having gone by train. What then? An Air Force fighter plane? Who’d let Stepa on board a fighter in his stockinged feet? And why? Perhaps he’d taken his shoes off when he got to Yalta? Same problem– why? Anyhow, the Air Force wouldn’t let him board a fighter even with his shoes on! No, a fighter was out of the question too. But the telegram said that he’d appeared at the police station at half past eleven in the morning and he’d been in Moscow, talking on the telephone, at … Just a moment (his watch-face appeared before Rimsky’s eyes) … He remembered where the hands had been pointing . . . Horrors! It had been twenty past eleven!
So what was the answer? Supposing that the moment after his telephone call Stepa had rushed to the airport and got there in, say, five minutes (which was impossible anyway), then if the aeroplane had taken off at once it must have covered over a thousand kilometres in five minutes. Consequently it had been flying at a speed of more than twelve thousand kilometres per hour! Impossible, ergo–he wasn’t in Yalta!
What other explanation could there be? Hypnosis? There Д was no such hypnosis which could hurl a man a thousand kilometres. Could he be imagining that he was in Yalta? He might, but would the Yalta police imagine it? No, no, really, it was absurd! … But they had telegraphed from Yalta, hadn’t they?
The treasurer’s face was dreadful to see. By now someone outside was twisting and rattling the door handle and the usher could be heard shouting desperately :
‘No, you can’t! I wouldn’t let you in even if you were to kill me! They’re in conference! ‘
Rimsky pulled himself together as well as he could, picked up the telephone receiver and said into it:
‘I want to put through a priority call to Yalta.’
‘Clever! ‘ thought Varenukha.
But the call to Yalta never went through. Rimsky put back the receiver and said :
‘The line’s out of order–as if on purpose.’
For some reason the faulty line disturbed him a great deal and made him reflect. After some thought he picked up the receiver again with one hand and with the other started writing down what he was dictating into the telephone :
‘Priority telegram. From Variety. Yes. To Yalta police. Yes. “Today approximately 1130 Likhodeyev telephoned me Moscow. Stop. Thereafter failed appear theatre and unreach-able telephone. Stop. Confirm handwriting. Stop. Will take suggested measures observe Woland Rimsky Treasurer.” ‘
‘Very clever! ‘ thought Varenukha, but the instant afterwards he changed his mind : ‘ No, it’s absurd! He can’t be in Yalta! ‘
Rimsky was meanwhile otherwise engaged. He carefully laid all the telegrams into a pile and together with a copy of his own telegram, put them into an envelope, sealed it up, wrote a few words on it and handed it to Varenukha, saying :
‘Take this and deliver it at once, Ivan Savyelich. Let them puzzle it out.’
‘Now that really is smart! ‘ thought Varenukha as he put the envelope into his briefcase. Then just to be absolutely sure he dialled the number of Stepa’s flat, listened, then winked mysteriously and made a joyful face. Rimsky craned his neck to listen.
‘May I speak to Monsieur Woland, please? ‘ asked Varenukha sweetly.
‘He’s busy,’ answered the receiver in a quavering voice. ‘ Who wants him? ‘
‘Varenukha, house manager of the Variety Theatre.’
‘Ivan Savyelich? ‘ squeaked the earpiece delightedly. ‘ How very nice to hear your voice! How are you? ‘
‘Merci,’ replied Varenukha in some consternation. ‘ Who’s speaking? ‘
‘This is Koroviev, his assistant and interpreter,’ trilled the receiver. ‘ At your service, my dear Ivan Savyelich! Just tell me what I can do for you. What is it? ‘
‘I’m sorry … is Stepan Bogdanovich Likhodeyev at home? ‘
‘Alas, no, he isn’t,’ cried the telephone. ‘ He’s gone out.’
‘Where to? ‘
‘He went out of town for a car-ride.’
‘Wha-at? Car-ride? When is he coming back? ‘
‘He said he just wanted a breath of fresh air and then he’d be back.’
‘I see . . .’ said Varenukha, perplexed. ‘ Merci. . . please tell Monsieur Woland that his act this evening starts after the second interval.’
‘Very good. Of course. At once. Immediately. Certainly. I’ll tell him,’ came the staccato reply from the earpiece.
‘Goodbye,’ said Varenukha, in amazement.
‘Please accept,’ said the telephone, ‘ my warmest and most sincere good wishes for a brilliant success! It will be a great show–great! ‘
‘There you are–I told you so! ‘ said the house manager excitedly. ‘ He hasn’t gone to Yalta, he’s just gone out of town for a drive.’
‘Well, if that’s the case,’ said the treasurer, turning pale with anger, ‘ he has behaved like an absolute swine!’
Here the manager leaped into the air and gave such a shout that Rimsky shuddered.
‘I remember! I remember now! There’s a new Turkish restaurant out at Pushkino–it’s just opened–and it’s called the ” Yalta “! Don’t you see? He went there, got drunk and he’s been sending us telegrams from there!’
‘Well, he really has overdone it this time,’ replied Rimsky, his cheek twitching and real anger flashing in his eyes. ‘ This little jaunt is going to cost him dear.’ He suddenly stopped and added uncertainly : ‘ But what about those telegrams from the police?’
‘A lot of rubbish! More of his practical jokes,’ said Varenukha confidently and asked : ‘ Shall I take this envelope all the same? ‘
‘You must,’ replied Rimsky.
Again the door opened to admit the same woman. ‘ Oh, not her! ‘ sighed Rimsky to himself. Both men got up and walked towards her.
This time the telegram said :
‘THANKS CONFIRMATION IDENTITY WIRE ME FIVE HUNDRED ROUBLES POLICE STATION FLYING MOSCOW TOMORROW LIKHODEYEV.’
‘He’s gone mad,’ said Varenukha weakly. Rimsky rattled his key-chain, took some money out of the safe, counted out five hundred roubles, rang the bell, gave the money to the usher and sent her off to the post office.
‘But Grigory Danilovich,’ said Varenukha, unable to believe his eyes, ‘ if you ask me you’re throwing that money away.’
‘It’ll come back,’ replied Rimsky quietly, ‘ and then he’ll pay dearly for this little picnic.’ And pointing at Varenukha’s briefcase he said :
‘Go on, Ivan Savyelich, don’t waste any time.’ Varenukha picked up his briefcase and trotted off. He went down to the ground floor, saw a very long queue outside the box office and heard from the cashier that she was expecting to have to put up the ‘ House Full’ notices that evening because they were being positively overwhelmed since the special bill had been posted up. Varenukha told her to be sure not to sell the thirty best seats in the boxes and stalls, then rushed out of the box office, fought off the people begging for free tickets and slipped into his own office to pick up his cap. At that moment the telephone rang. ‘ Yes? ‘ he shouted.
‘Ivan Savyelich? ‘ enquired the receiver in an odious nasal voice.
‘He’s not in the theatre! ‘ Varenukha was just about to shout, but the telephone cut him short:
‘Don’t play the fool, Ivan Savyelich, and listen. You are not to take those telegrams anywhere or show them to anybody.’
‘Who’s that? ‘ roared Varenukha. ‘ Kindly stop playing these tricks! You’re going to be shown up before long. What’s your telephone number? ‘
‘Varenukha,’ insisted the horrible voice. ‘ You understand Russian don’t you? Don’t take those telegrams.’
‘So you refuse to stop this game do you? ‘ shouted the house manager in a rage. ‘ Now listen to me–you’re going to pay for this!’ He went on shouting threats but stopped when he realised that no one was listening to him on the other end.
At that moment his office began to darken. Varenukha ran out, slammed the door behind him and went out into the garden through the side door.
He felt excited and full of energy. After that last insolent telephone call he no longer had any doubt that some gang of hooligans was playing some nasty practical joke and that the joke was connected with Likhodeyev’s disappearance. The house manager felt inspired with the urge to unmask the villains and, strange as it may seem, he had a premonition that he was going to enjoy it. It was a longing to be in the limelight, the bearer of sensational news.
Out in the garden the wind blew in his face and threw sand in his eyes as if it were trying to bar his way or warn him. A window-pane on the second floor slammed shut with such force that it nearly broke the glass, the tops of the maples and poplars rustled alarmingly. It grew darker and colder. Varenukha wiped his eyes and noticed that a yellowish-centred thundercloud was scudding low over Moscow. From the distance came a low rumble.
Although Varenukha was in a hurry, an irresistible urge made him turn aside for a second into the open-air men’s toilet just to check that the electrician had replaced a missing electric lamp.
Running past the shooting gallery, he passed through a thick clump of lilac which screened the blue-painted lavatory. The electrician seemed to have done his job : the lamp in the men’s toilet had been screwed into its socket and the protective wire screen replaced, but the house manager was annoyed to notice that even in the dark before the thunderstorm the pencilled graffiti on the walls were still clearly visible.
‘What a . . .’ he began, then suddenly heard a purring voice behind him:
‘Is that you, Ivan Savyelich? ‘
Varenukha shuddered, turned round and saw before him a shortish, fat creature with what seemed like the face of a cat.
‘Yes . . .’ replied Varenukha coldly.
‘Delighted to meet you,’ answered the stout, cat-like personage. Suddenly it swung round and gave Varenukha such a box on the ear that his cap flew off and vanished without trace into one of the lavatory pans.
For a moment the blow made the toilet shimmer with a flickering light. A clap of thunder came from the sky. Then there was a second flash and another figure materialised, short but athletically built, with fiery red hair . . . one wall eye, a fang protruding from his mouth … He appeared to be left-handed, as he fetched the house manager a shattering clout on his other ear. The sky rumbled again in reply and rain started to drench the wooden roof.
‘Look here, corn . . .’ whispered Varenukha, staggering. It at once occurred to him that the word ‘ comrades ‘ hardly fitted these bandits who went around assaulting people in public conveniences, so he groaned instead ‘. . . citizens . . . ‘, realised that they didn’t even deserve to be called that and got a third fearful punch. This time he could not see who had hit him, as blood was spurting from his nose and down his shirt.
‘What have you got in your briefcase, louse? ‘ shouted the cat-figure. ‘ Telegrams? Weren’t you warned by telephone not to take them anywhere? I’m asking you–weren’t you warned?’
‘Yes … I was . . . warned,’ panted Varenukha.
‘And you still went? Gimme the briefcase, you skunk! ‘ said the other creature in the same nasal voice that had come through the telephone, and wrenched the briefcase out of Varenukha’s trembling hands.
Then they both grabbed the house manager by the arms and frog-marched him out of the garden and along
. The storm was in full spate, water was roaring and gurgling down the drain-holes in great bubbling waves, it poured off the roofs from the overflowing gutters and out of the drain pipes in foaming torrents. Every living person had vanished from the street and there was no one to help Ivan Savyelich. In second, leaping over muddy streams and lit by flashes of lightning the bandits had dragged the half-dead Varenukha to No302-A and fled into the doorway, where two barefoot women stood pressed against the wall, holding their shoes and stockings in their hands. Then they rushed across to staircase 6, carried the nearly insane Varenukha up to the fifth floor and threw him to the ground in the familiar semi-darkness of the hallway of Stepa Likhodeyev’s flat.
The two robbers vanished and in their place appeared a completely naked girl–a redhead with eyes that burned with a phosphorescent glitter.
Varenukha felt that this was the most terrible thing that had ever happened to him. With a groan he turned and leaned on the wall. The girl came right up to him and put her hands on his shoulders. Varenukha’s hair stood on end. Even through the cold, soaking wet material of his coat he could feel that those palms were even colder, that they were as cold as ice.
‘Let me give you a kiss,’ said the girl tenderly, her gleaming eyes close to his. Varenukha lost consciousness before he could feel her kiss.