A little man with a crimson pear-shaped nose, in a battered yellow bowler hat, check trousers and patent leather boots pedalled on to the Variety stage on a bicycle. As the band played a foxtrot he rode round in circles a few times, then gave a triumphant yelp at which the bicycle reared up with its front wheel in the air. After a few rounds on the back wheel alone, the man stood on his head, unscrewed the front wheel and threw it into the wings. He then carried on with one wheel, turning the pedals with his hands.
Next a fat blonde girl, wearing a sweater and a very brief skirt strewn with sequins, came in riding a long metal pole with a saddle on the top and a single wheel at the bottom. As they met the man gave a welcoming cry and doffed his bowler hat with his foot.
Finally a little boy of about seven with the face of an old man sneaked in between the two adults on a tiny two-wheeler to which was fixed an enormous motor-car horn.
After a few figures of eight the whole troupe, to an urgent roll of drums from the orchestra, rode at full tilt towards the front of the stage. The spectators in the front rows gasped and ducked, fully expecting all three to crash, cycles and all, into the orchestra pit, but they stopped at the very second that their front wheels threatened to skid into the pit on to the heads of the musicians. With a loud cry of’ Allez-oop! ‘ the three cyclists leaped from their machines and bowed, while the blonde blew kisses to the audience and the little boy played a funny tune on his horn.
The auditorium rocked with applause, the blue curtain fell and the cyclists vanished. The lighted green ‘ Exit’ signs went out and the white globes began to glow brighter and brighter in the web of girders under the dome. The second and last interval had begun.
The only man unaffected by the Giulli family’s marvels of cycling technique was Grigory Danilovich Rimsky. He sat alone in his office, biting his thin lips, his face twitching spasmodically. First Likhodeyev had vanished in the most bizarre circumstances and now Varenukha had suddenly disappeared. Rinsky knew where Varenukha had been going to–but the man had simply gone and had never come back. He shrugged his shoulders and muttered to himself:
Nothing would have been simpler for a sensible, practical man like Rimsky to have telephoned the place where Varenukha had gone and to have found out what had happened to him, yet it was ten o’clock that evening before he could bring himself to do so.
At ten Rimsky finally took a grip on himself and picked up the telephone receiver. The telephone was dead. An usher reported that all the other telephones in the building were out of order. This annoying but hardly supernatural occurrence seemed to shock Rimsky, although secretly he was glad, because it absolved him from the need to telephone.
As the little red light above the treasurer’s head started flashing to show that the interval was beginning, an usher came in and announced that the foreign magician had arrived. Rimsky’s expression changed and he scowled with a mixture of anxiety and irritation. As the only member of the management left in the theatre, it was his duty to go backstage and receive the guest artiste.
As the warning bells rang, inquisitive people were peeping into the star dressing room. Among them were jugglers in bright robes and turbans, a roller-skater in a knitted cardigan, a comedian with a powdered white face and a make-up man. The celebrated guest artiste amazed everyone with his unusually long, superbly cut tail coat and by wearing a black domino. Even more astounding were the black magician’s two companions : a tall man in checks with an unsteady pince-nez and a fat black cat which walked into the dressing room on its hind legs and casually sat down on the divan, blinking in the light of the unshaded lamps round the make-up mirror.
With a forced smile which only made him look acidly disagreeable, Rimsky bowed to the silent magician sitting beside the cat on the divan. There were no handshakes, but the man in checks introduced himself smoothly as ‘ the assistant’. This gave the treasurer an unpleasant shock, as there had not been a word in the contract about an assistant.
Grigory Danilovich enquired stiffly where the professor’s equipment might be.
‘Why, bless you my dear sir,’ replied the magician’s assistant, ‘ we have all the equipment we need with us now–look! Eins, zvei, drei!’
Flourishing his long, knotty fingers in front of Rimsky’s eyes he made a pass beside the cat’s ear and pulled out of it Rimsky’s gold watch and chain, which until that moment had been sitting under the treasurer’s buttoned jacket in his waistcoat pocket with the chain threaded through a buttonhole.
Rimsky involuntarily clutched his stomach, the spectators gasped and the make-up man, glancing in from the corridor, clucked with approval.
‘Your watch, sir? There you are,’ said the man in checks. Smiling nonchalantly, he proffered the watch to its owner on his dirty palm.
‘I wouldn’t sit next to him in a tram,’ whispered the comedian cheerfully to the make-up man.
But the cat put the watch trick in the shade. Suddenly getting up from the divan it walked on its hind legs to the dressing table, pulled the stopper out of a carafe with its forepaw, poured out a glass of water, drank it, replaced the stopper and wiped its whiskers with a make-up cloth.
Nobody even gasped. Their mouths fell open and the make-up man whispered admiringly: ‘ Bravo . ..’
The last warning bell rang and everybody, excited by the prospect of a good act, tumbled out of the dressing room.
A minute later the house-lights went out, the footlights lit up the fringe of the curtain with a red glow and in the lighted gap between the tabs the audience saw a fat, jolly, clean-shaven man in stained tails and a grubby white dicky. It was Moscow’s best known compere, George Bengalsky.
‘And now, ladies and gentlemen,’ said Bengalsky, smiling his boyish smile, ‘ you are about to see . . .’ Here Bengalsky broke off and started again in a completely different tone of voice : ‘ I see that our audience has increased in numbers since the interval. Half Moscow seems to be here tonight! D’you know, I met a friend of mine the other day and I said to him : ” Why didn’t you come and see our show? Half the town was there last night.” And he said : ” I live in the other half! ” ‘ Bengalsky paused for the laugh, but none came so he went on : ‘ Well, as I was saying, you are about to see a very famous artiste from abroad, M’sieur Woland, with a session of black magic. Of course we know, don’t we . . .’ Bengalsky smiled confidentially, ‘ that there’s no such thing really. It’s all superstition–or rather Maestro Woland is a past master of the art of conjuring, as you will see from the most interesting part of his act in which he reveals the mysteries of his technique. And now, ladies and gentlemen, since none of us can bear the suspense any longer, I give you . . . Monsieur Woland! . . .’
Having said his feeble piece, Bengalsky put his hands palm to palm and raised them in a gesture of welcome towards the gap in the curtain, which then rose with a soft rustle.
The entry of the magician with his tall assistant and his cat, who trotted on stage on his hind legs, pleased the audience greatly. ‘ Armchair, please,’ said Woland quietly and instantly an armchair appeared on stage from nowhere. The magician sat down. ‘ Tell me, my dear Faggot,’ Woland enquired of the check-clad buffoon, who apparently had another name besides ‘ Koroviev,’:
‘do you find the people of Moscow much changed? ‘ The magician nodded towards the audience, still silent with astonishment at seeing an armchair materialise from nowhere.
‘I do, messire,’ replied Faggot-Koroviev in a low voice.
‘You are right. The Muscovites have changed considerably . . . outwardly, I mean … as, too, has the city itself. . . Not just the clothes, but now they have all these . . . what d’you call ’em . . . tramways, cars . . .’
‘Buses,’ prompted Faggot respectfully.
The audience listened intently to this conversation, assuming it to be the prelude to some magic tricks. The wings were full of actors and stage hands and among their faces could be seen the pale, strained features of Rimsky.
Bengalsky’s face, lurking in a corner of the stage, began to show consternation. With an imperceptible raise of one eyebrow he seized the opportunity of a pause in the dialogue to interject:
‘Our guest artiste from abroad is obviously delighted with Moscow’s technological progress.’ This was accompanied by a smile for the stalls and a smile for the gallery.
Woland, Faggot and the cat turned their heads towards the compere.
‘Did I say I was delighted? ‘ the magician asked Faggot.
‘You said nothing of the kind, messire,’ replied the latter.
‘Then what is the man talking about? ‘
‘He was simply telling lies! ‘ announced the chequered clown in a loud voice for the whole theatre to hear and turning to Bengalsky he added : ‘ D’you hear–you’re a liar! ‘
There was a burst of laughter from the gallery as Bengalsky spluttered, his eyes popping with indignation.
‘But naturally I am not so much interested in the buses and telephones and such like . . .’
‘Apparatus,’ prompted Faggot.
‘Precisely, thank you,’ drawled the magician in a deep bass, ‘ as in the much more important question : have the Muscovites changed inwardly? ‘
‘A vital question indeed, sir.’
In the wings, glances were exchanged, shoulders shrugged; banker’s tape and marked ‘ One Thousand Roubles’. His neighbours crowded round as he picked at the wrapping with his fingernail to find out whether it was real money or a stage prop.
‘My God–it’s real money!’ came a joyful shout from the gallery.
‘I wish you’d play cards with me if vou’ve any more packs like that one,’ begged a fat man in the middle of the stalls.
‘Avec plaisir!’ replied Faggot. ‘ But why should you be the only one? You shall all take part! Everybody look up, please! One! ‘ A pistol appeared in his hand. ‘ Two! ‘ the pistol was pointed upwards. ‘ Three! ‘ There was a flash, a bang, and immediately a cascade of white pieces of paper began to float down from the dome above the auditorium.
Turning over and over, some were blown aside and landed in the gallery, some fell towards the orchestra pit or the stage. A few seconds later the shower of money reached the stalls and the audience began catching it.
Hundreds of hands were raised as the audience held the notes up to the light from the stage and found that the watermarks were absolutely genuine. Their smell left no doubt: it was the uniquely delicious smell of newly-printed money. First amusement then wonder seized the entire theatre. From all over the house, amid gasps and delighted laughter, came the words ‘ money, money! ‘ One man was already crawling in the aisle and fumbling under the seats. Several more were standing up on their seats to catch the drifting, twisting banknotes as they fell.
Gradually a look of perplexity came over the expressions of the police, and the artistes backstage openly pressed forward from the wings. From the dress circle a voice was heard shouting:
‘Let go! It’s mine–I caught it first! ‘, followed by another voice : ‘ Stop pushing and grabbing or I’ll punch your face in! ‘ There was a muffled crash. A policeman’s helmet appeared in the dress circle and a member of the audience was led away. The excitement rose and might have got out of hand if Faggot had not stopped the rain of money by suddenly blowing into the air.
Two young men, grinning purposefully, left their seats and made straight for the bar. A loud buzz filled the theatre : the audience was galvanised with excitement and in an effort to control the situation Bengalsky stirred himself and appeared on stage. With a tremendous effort of self-mastery he went through his habitual motion of washing his hands and in his most powerful voice began:
‘We have just seen, ladies and gentlemen, a case of so-called mass hypnosis. A purely scientific experiment, demonstrating better than anything else that there is nothing supernatural about magic. We shall ask Maestro Woland to show us how he did that experiment. You will now see, ladies and gentlemen, how those apparent banknotes will vanish as suddenly as they appeared.’
He began to clap, but he was alone. A confident smile appeared on his face, but the look in his eyes was one of entreaty.
The audience did not care for Bengalsky’s speech. Faggot broke the silence :
‘And that was a case of so-called fiddlesticks,’ he declared in a loud goatish bray. ‘ The banknotes, ladies and gentlemen, are real.’
‘Bravo! ‘ abruptly roared a bass from high up in the gallery.
‘This man,’ Faggot pointed at Bengalsky, ‘ is starting to bore me. He sticks his nose in everywhere without being asked and ruins the whole act. What shall we do with him? ‘
‘Cut off his head! ‘ said a stern voice.
‘What did you say, sir? ‘ was Faggot’s instant response to this savage proposal. ‘ Cut off his head? That’s an idea! Behemoth! ‘ he shouted to the cat. ‘ Do your stuff! Eins, zvei, drei!! ‘
Then the most incredible thing happened. The cat’s fur stood on end and it uttered a harrowing ‘ miaaow! ‘ It crouched, then leaped like a panther straight for Bengalsky’s chest and from there to his head. Growling, the cat dug its claws into the compere’s glossy hair and with a wild screech it twisted the head clean off the neck in two turns. Two and a half thousand people screamed as one. Fountains of blood from the severed arteries in the neck spurted up and drenched the man’s shirtfront and tails. The headless body waved its legs stupidly and sat on the ground. Hysterical shrieks rang out through the auditorium. The cat handed the head to Faggot who picked it up by the hair and showed it to the audience. The head moaned desperately :
‘Fetch a doctor!’
‘Will you go on talking so much rubbish?’ said Faggot threateningly to the weeping head.
‘No, I promise I won’t! ‘ croaked the head. ‘ For God’s sake stop torturing him! ‘ a woman’s voice from a box suddenly rang out above the turmoil and the magician turned towards the sound.
‘Well, ladies and gentlemen, shall we forgive him? ‘ asked Faggot, turning to the audience.
‘Yes, forgive him, forgive him! ‘ The cries came at first from a few individual voices, mostly women, then merged into a chorus with the men.
‘What is your command, messire? ‘ Faggot asked the masked professor.
‘Well, now,’ replied the magician reflectively. ‘ They’re people like any others. They’re over-fond of money, but then they always were . . . Humankind loves money, no matter if it’s made of leather, paper, bronze or gold. They’re thoughtless, of course . . . but then they sometimes feel compassion too …. they’re ordinary people, in fact they remind me very much of their predecessors, except that the housing shortage has soured them . . .’ And he shouted the order : ‘ Put back his head.’
Taking careful aim the cat popped the head back on its neck, where it sat as neatly as if head and body had never been parted. Most amazing of all–there was not even a scar on the neck. The cat wiped the tailcoat and shirtfront with its paw and every trace of blood vanished. Faggot lifted the seated Bengalsky to his feet, shoved a bundle of money into his coat pocket and led him off stage, saying :
‘Go on–off you go, it’s more fun without you!’
Gazing round in a daze and staggering, the compere got no further than the fire-brigade post and collapsed. He cried miserably:
‘My head, my head . . .’
Among those who rushed to help him was Rimsky. The compere was weeping, snatching at something in the air and mumbling :
‘Give me back my head, my head . . . You can have my flat, you can have all my pictures, only give me back my head . . .! ‘
An usher ran for the doctor. They tried to lay Bengalsky on a divan in his dressing-room, but he resisted and became violent. An ambulance was called. When the unfortunate compere had been removed Rimsky ran back to the stage, where new miracles were in progress. It was then, or perhaps a little earlier, that the magician and his faded armchair vanished from the stage. The audience did not notice this at all, as they were absorbed by Faggot’s wonderful tricks.
Having seen the compere off the stage. Faggot announced to the audience:
‘Now that we have disposed of that old bore, we shall open a shop for the ladies! ‘
In a moment half the stage was covered with Persian carpets, some huge mirrors and a row of showcases, in which the audience was astounded to see a collection of Parisian dresses that were the last word in chic. In other showcases were hundreds of ladies’ hats, some with feathers and some without, hundreds of pairs of shoes–black shoes, white shoes, yellow shoes, leather shoes, satin shoes, suede shoes, buckled shoes and shoes studded with costume jewellery. Beside the shoes there were flacons of scent, piles of handbags made of buckskin, satin and silk, and next to them piles of gilt lipstick-holders.
A red-haired girl in a black evening dress who had suddenly appeared from nowhere, her beauty only marred by a curious scar on her neck, smiled from the showcases with a proprietorial smile. With an engaging leer Faggot announced that the firm would exchange, absolutely free of charge, any lady’s old dress and shoes for model dresses and shoes from Paris, adding that the offer included handbags and the odds and ends that go in them.
The cat began bowing and scraping, its forepaw gesturing like a commissionaire opening a door.
In a sweet though slightly hoarse voice the girl made an announcement which sounded rather cryptic but which, judging from the faces of the women in the stalls, was very enticing :
‘Guerlain, Chanel, Mitsouko, Narcisse Noir, Chanel Number Five, evening dresses, cocktail dresses . . .’
Faggot bent double, the cat bowed and the girl opened the glass-fronted showcases.
‘Step up, please! ‘ cried Faggot. ‘ Don’t be shy! ‘
The audience began to fidget, but no one dared mount the stage. At last a brunette emerged from the tenth row of the stalls and smiling nonchalantly walked up the side stairs on to the stage.
‘Bravo! ‘ cried Faggot. ‘ Our first customer! Behemoth, a chair for the lady! Shall we start with the shoes, madam? ‘
The brunette sat down and Faggot at once spread out a whole heap of shoes on the carpet in front of her. She took off her right shoe, tried on a lilac one, tested it with a walk on the carpet and inspected the heel.
‘Won’t they pinch? ‘ she enquired thoughtfully.
Offended, Faggot cried:
‘Oh, come, now!’ and the cat gave an insulted miaow.
‘I’ll take them, monsieur,’ said the brunette with dignity as she put on the other shoe of the pair. Her old shoes were thrown behind a curtain, followed by the girl herself, the redhead, and Faggot carrying several model dresses on coathangers. The cat busied itself with helping and hung a tape measure round its neck for greater effect.
A minute later the brunette emerged from behind the curtain in a dress that sent a gasp through the entire auditorium. The bold girl, now very much prettier, stopped in front of a mirror, wriggled her bare shoulders, patted her hair and twisted round to try and see her back view.
‘The firm begs you to accept this as a souvenir,’ said Faggot, handing the girl an open case containing a flacon of scent.
‘Merci,’ replied the girl haughtily and walked down the steps to the stalls. As she went back to her seat people jumped up to touch her scent-bottle.
The ice was broken. Women from all sides poured on to the stage. In the general hubbub of talk, laughter and cries a man’s voice was heard, ‘ I won’t let you! ‘ followed by a woman’s saying : ‘ Let go of my arm, you narrow-minded little tyrant! ‘ Women were disappearing behind the curtain, leaving their old dresses there and emerging in new ones. A row of women was sitting on gilt-legged stools trying on new shoes. Faggot was on his knees, busy with a shoe-horn, while the cat, weighed down by handbags and shoes, staggered from the showcases to the stools and back again, the girl with the scarred neck bustled to and fro, entering so much into the spirit of it all that she was soon chattering away in nothing but French. Strangely enough all the women understood her at once, even those who knew not a word of French.
To everybody’s astonishment, a lone man climbed on to the stage. He announced that his wife had a cold and asked to be given something to take home to her. To prove that he was really married he offered to show his passport. This conscientious husband was greeted with a roar of laughter. Faggot declared that he believed him even without his passport and handed the man two pairs of silk stockings. The cat spontaneously added a pot of cold cream.
Latecomers still mounted the steps as a stream of happy women in ball dresses, pyjama suits embroidered with dragons, severe tailor-mades and hats pranced back into the auditorium.
Then Faggot announced that because it was so late, in exactly a minute’s time the shop would close until to-morrow evening. This produced an incredible scuffle on stage. Without trying them on, women grabbed any shoes within reach. One woman hurtled behind the screen, threw off her clothes and sei2ed the first thing to hand–a silk dress patterned with enormous bunches of flowers–grabbed a dressing gown and for good measure scooped up two flacons of scent. Exactly a minute later a pistol shot rang out, the mirrors disappeared, the showcases and stools melted away, carpet and curtain vanished into thin air. Last to disappear was the mountain of old dresses and shoes. The stage was bare and empty again.
At this point a new character joined the cast. A pleasant and extremely self-confident baritone was heard from Box No. 2 :
‘It’s high time, sir, that you showed the audience how you do your tricks, especially the bank-note trick. We should also like to see the compere back on stage. The audience is concerned about him.’
The baritone voice belonged to none other than the evening’s guest of honour, Arkady Apollonich Sempleyarov, chairman of the Moscow Theatres’ Acoustics Commission.
Arkady Apollonich was sharing his box with two ladies–one elderly, who was expensively and fashionably dressed, the other young and pretty and more simply dressed. The first, as was later established when the official report was compiled, was Arkady Apollonich’s wife and the other a distant relative of his, an aspiring young actress from Saratov who lodged in the Sempleyarovs’ flat.
‘I beg your pardon,’ replied Faggot. ‘ I’m sorry, but there’s nothing to reveal. It’s all quite plain.’
‘Excuse me, but I don’t agree. An explanation is essential, otherwise your brilliant act will leave a painful impression. The audience demands an explanation . . .’
‘The audience,’ interrupted the insolent mountebank, ‘ has not, to my knowledge, demanded anything of the sort. However, in view of your distinguished position, Arkady Apollonich, I will–since you insist–reveal something of our technique. To do so, will you allow me time for another short number? ‘
‘Of course,’ replied Arkady Apollonich patronisingly. ‘ But you must show how it’s done.’
‘Very well, sir, very well. Now–may I ask where you were yesterday evening, Arkady Apollonich? ‘
At this impertinent question Arkady Apollonich’s expression underwent a complete and violent change.
‘Yesterday evening Arkady Apollonich was at a meeting of the Acoustics Commission,’ said his wife haughtily. ‘ Surely that has nothing to do with magic? ‘
‘Ош, madame,’ replied Faggot, ‘ it has, but you naturally do not know why. As for the meeting, you are quite wrong. When he went to the meeting–which, incidentally, was never scheduled to take place yesterday–Arkady Apollonich dismissed his chauffeur at the Acoustics Commission (a hush came over the whole theatre) and took a bus to Yelokhovskaya Street where he called on an actress called Militsa Andreyevna Pokobatko from the local repertory theatre and spent about four hours in her flat.’
‘Oh!’ The painful cry rang out from complete silence.
Suddenly Arkady Apollonich’s young cousin burst into a low, malicious laugh.
‘Of course!’ she exclaimed. ‘ I’ve suspected him for a long time. Now I see why that tenth-rate ham got the part of Luisa!’ And with a sudden wave of her arm she hit Arkady Apollonich on the head with a short, fat, mauve umbrella.
The vile Faggot, who was none other than Koroviev, shouted :
‘There, ladies and gentlemen, is your revelation for you, as requested so insistently by Arkady Apollonich!’
‘How dare you hit Arkady Apollonich, you little baggage? ‘ said the wife grimly, rising in the box to her full gigantic height.
The young girl was seized with another outburst of Satanic laughter.
‘I’ve as much right,’ she replied laughing, ‘ to hit him as you have! ‘ A second dull crack was heard as another umbrella bounced off Arkady Apollonich’s head.
‘Police! Arrest her! ‘ roared Madame Sempleyarov in a terrifying voice.
Here the cat bounded up to the footlights and announced in a human voice :
‘That concludes the evening! Maestro! Finale, please! ‘ The dazed conductor, scarcely aware of what he was doing, waved his baton and the orchestra struck up, or rather murdered a disorganised excuse for a march, normally sung to obscene but very funny words. However, it was quickly drowned in the ensuing uproar. The police ran to the Sempleyarovs’ box, curious spectators climbed on to the ledge to watch, there were explosions of infernal laughter and wild cries, drowned by the golden crash of cymbals from the orchestra.
Suddenly the stage was empty. The horrible Faggot and the sinister cat Behemoth melted into the air and disappeared, just as the magician had vanished earlier in his shabby armchair.