It is not hard to guess that the fat man with the purple face who was put into room No. 119 at the clinic was Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoi.
He had not, however, been put into Professor Stravinsky’s care at once, but had first spent some time in another place, of which he could remember little except a desk, a cupboard and a sofa.
There some men had questioned Nikanor Ivanovich, but since his eyes were clouded by a flux of blood and extreme mental anguish, the interview was muddled and inconclusive.
‘Are you Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoi,’ they began, ‘ chairman of the house committee of No. 302a, Sadovaya Street? ‘
Nikanor Ivanovich gave a wild peal of laughter and replied:
‘Of course I’m Nikanor! But why call me chairman? ‘
‘What do you mean? ‘ they asked, frowning.
‘Well,’ he replied,’ if I’m a chairman I would have seen at once that he was an evil spirit, wouldn’t I? I should have realised, what with his shaky pince-nez, his tattered clothes–how could he have been an interpreter? ‘
‘Who are you talking about? ‘
‘Koroviev! ‘ cried Nikanor Ivanovich. ‘ The man who’s moved into No. 50. Write it down–Koroviev! You must find him and arrest him at once. Staircase 6–write it down–that’s where you’ll find him.’
‘Where did you get the foreign currency from? ‘ they asked insinuatingly.
‘As almighty God’s my witness,’ said Nikanor Ivanovich, ‘ I never touched any and I never even suspected that it was foreign money. God will punish me for my sin,’ Nikanor Ivanovich went on feelingly, unbuttoning his shirt, buttoning it up again and crossing himself. ‘ I took the money–I admit that–but it was Soviet money. I even signed a receipt for it. Our secretary Prolezhnov is just as bad–frankly we’re all thieves in our house committee. . . . But I never took any foreign money.’
On being told to stop playing the fool and to tell them how the dollars found their way into his ventilation shaft, Nikanor Ivanovich fell on his knees and rocked backwards and forwards with his mouth wide open as though he were trying to swallow the wooden parquet blocks.
‘I’ll do anything you like,’ he groaned, ‘ that’ll make you believe I didn’t take the stuff. That Koroviev’s nothing less than a devil!’
Everyone’s patience has its limit; voices were raised behind the desk and Nikanor Ivanovich was told that it was time he stopped talking gibberish.
Suddenly the room was filled with a savage roar from Nikanor Ivanovich as he jumped up from his knees:
‘There he is! There–behind the cupboard! There–look at him grinning! And his pince-nez . . . Stop him! Arrest him! Surround the building! ‘
The blood drained from Nikanor Ivanovich’s face. Trembling, he made the sign of the cross in the air, fled for the door, then back again, intoned a prayer and then relapsed into complete delirium.
It was plain that Nikanor Ivanovich was incapable of talking rationally. He was removed and put in a room by himself, where he calmed down slightly and only prayed and sobbed.
Men were sent to the house on Sadovaya Street and inspected flat No. 50, but they found no Koroviev and no one in the building who had seen him or heard of him. The flat belonging to Berlioz and Likhodeyev was empty and the wax seals, quite intact, hung on all the cupboards and drawers in the study. The men left the building, taking with them the bewildered and crushed Prolezhnev, secretary of the house committee.
That evening Nikanor Ivanovich was delivered to Stravinsky’s clinic. There he behaved so violently that he had to be given one of Stravinsky’s special injections and it was midnight before Nikanor Ivanovich tell asleep in room No. 119, uttering an occasional deep, tormented groan.
But the longer he slept the calmer he grew. He stopped tossing and moaning, his breathing grew light and even, until finally the doctors left him alone.
Nikanor Ivanovich then had a dream, which was undoubtedly influenced by his recent experiences. It began with some men carrying golden trumpets leading him, with great solemnity, to a pair of huge painted doors, where his companions blew a fanfare in Nikanor Ivanovich’s honour. Then a bass voice boomed at him from the sky :
‘Welcome, Nikanor Ivanovich! Hand over your foreign currency! ‘ Amazed beyond words, Nikanor Ivanovich saw in front of him a black loudspeaker. Soon he found himself in an auditorium lit by crystal candelabra beneath a gilded ceiling and by sconces on the walls. Everything resembled a small but luxurious theatre. There was a stage, closed by a velvet curtain whose dark cerise background was strewn with enlargements of gold ten-rouble pieces; there was a prompter’s box and even an audience.
Nikanor Ivanovich was surprised to notice that the audience was an all-male one and that its members all wore beards. An odd feature of the auditorium was that it had no seats and the entire assembly was sitting on the beautifully polished and extremely slippery floor.
Embarrassed at finding himself in this large and unexpected company, after some hesitation Nikanor Ivanovich followed the general example and sat down Turkish-fashion on the parquet, wedging himself between a stout redbeard and a pale and extremely hirsute citizen. None of the audience paid any attention to the newcomer.
There came the gentle sound of a bell, the house-lights went out, the curtains parted and revealed a lighted stage set with an armchair, a small table on which was a little golden bell, and a heavy black velvet backdrop.
On to the stage came an actor, dinner-jacketed, clean-shaven, his hair parted in the middle above a young, charming face. The audience grew lively and everybody turned to look at the stage. The actor advanced to the footlights and rubbed his hands.
‘Are you sitting down? ‘ he enquired in a soft baritone and smiled at the audience.
‘We are, we are,’ chorused the tenors and basses.
‘H’mm . . .’ said the actor thoughtfully, ‘ I realise, of course, how bored you must be. Everybody else is out of doors now, enjoying the warm spring sunshine, while you have to squat on the floor in this stuffy auditorium. Is the programme really worth while? Ah well, chacun a son gout,’ said the actor philosophically.
At this he changed the tone of his voice and announced gaily :
‘And the next number on our programme is–Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoi, tenants’ committee chairman and manager of a diabetic restaurant. This way please, Nikanor Ivanovich! ‘
At the sound of the friendly applause which greeted his name, Nikanor Ivanovich’s eyes bulged with astonishment and the compere, shading his eyes against the glare of the footlights, located him among the audience and beckoned him to the stage. Without knowing how, Nikanor Ivanovich found himself on stage. His eyes were dazzled from above and below by the glare of coloured lighting which blotted out the audience from his sight.
‘Now Nikanor Ivanovich, set us an example,’ said the young actor gently and confidingly, ‘ and hand over your foreign currency.’
Silence. Nikanor Ivanovich took a deep breath and said in a low voice : ‘ I swear to God, I . . .’
Before he could finish, the whole audience had burst into shouts of disapproval. Nikanor Ivanovich relapsed into uncomfortable silence. ‘ Am I right,’ said the compere, ‘ in thinking that you were about to swear by God that you had no foreign currency?’ He gave Nikanov Ivanovich a sympathetic look.
‘That’s right. I haven’t any.’
‘I see,’ said the actor. ‘ But … if you’ll forgive the indelicacy . . . where did those four hundred dollars come from that were found in the lavatory of your flat, of which you and your wife are the sole occupants? ‘
‘They were magic ones! ‘ said a sarcastic voice somewhere in the dark auditorium.
‘That’s right, they were magic ones,’ said Nikanor Ivanovich timidly, addressing no one in particular but adding : ‘ an evil spirit, that interpreter in a check suit planted them on me.’
Again the audience roared in protest. When calm was restored, the actor said:
‘This is better than Lafontaine’s fables! Planted four hundred dollars! Listen, you’re all in the currency racket–I ask you now, as experts : is that possible? ‘
‘We’re not currency racketeers,’ cried a number of offended voices from the audience, ‘ but it’s impossible! ‘
‘I entirely agree,’ said the actor firmly, ‘ and now I’d like to ask you : what sort of things do people plant on other people? ‘
‘Babies! ‘ cried someone at the back.
‘Quite right,’ agreed the compere. ‘ Babies, anonymous letters, manifestos, time bombs and God knows what else, but no one would ever plant four hundred dollars on a person because there just isn’t anyone idiotic enough to try.’ Turning to Nikanor Ivanovich the artist added sadly and reproachfully: ‘ You’ve disappointed me, Nikanor Ivanovich. I was relying on you. Well, that number was a flop, I’m afraid.’
The audience began to boo Nikanor Ivanovich.
‘He’s in the currency black market all right,’ came a shout from the crowd, ‘ and innocent people like us have to suffer because of the likes of him.’
‘Don’t shout at him,’ said the compere gently. ‘ He’ll repent.’ Turning his blue eyes, brimming with tears, towards Nikanor Ivanovich, he said : ‘ Go back to your place Nikanor Ivanovich.’
After this the actor rang the bell and loudly announced:
Shattered by his involuntary debut in the theatre, Nikanor Ivanovich found himself back at his place on the floor. Then he began dreaming that the auditorium was plunged into total darkness and fiery red words leaped out from the walls ‘ Hand over all foreign cirrency! ‘
After a while the curtains opened again and the compere announced:
‘Sergei Gerardovich Dunchill on stage, please! ‘
Dunchill was a good-looking though very stout man of about fifty.
‘Sergei Gerardovich,’ the compere addressed him, ‘ you have been sitting here for six weeks now, firmly refusing to give up your remaining foreign currency, at a time when your country has desperate need of it. You are extremely obstinate. You’re an intelligent man, you understand all this perfectly well, yet you refuse to come forward.’
‘I’m sorry, but how can I, when I have no more currency? ‘ was Dunchill’s calm reply.
‘Not even any diamonds, perhaps? ‘ asked the actor.
‘No diamonds either.’
The actor hung his head, reflected for a moment, then clapped his hands. From the wings emerged a fashionably dressed middle-aged woman. The woman looked worried as Dunchill stared at her without the flicker of an eyelid.
‘Who is this lady? ‘ the compere enquired of Dunchill.
‘She is my wife,’ replied Dunchill with dignity, looking at the woman with a faint expression of repugnance.
‘We regret the inconvenience to you, madame Dunchill,’ said the compere, ‘ but we have invited you here to ask you whether your husband has surrendered all his foreign currency? ‘
‘He handed it all in when he was told to,’ replied madame Dunchill anxiously.
‘I see,’ said the actor, ‘ well, if you say so, it must be true. If he really has handed it all in, we must regretfully deprive ourselves of the pleasure of Sergei Gerardovich’s company. You may leave the theatre if you wish, Sergei Gerardovich,’ announced the compere with a regal gesture.
Calmly and with dignity Dunchill turned and walked towards the wings.
‘Just a minute! ‘ The compere stopped him. ‘ Before you go just let me show you one more number from our programme.’ Again he clapped his hands.
The dark backdrop parted and a beautiful young woman in a ball gown stepped on stage. She was holding a golden salver on which lay a thick parcel tied with coloured ribbon, and round her neck she wore a diamond necklace that flashed blue, yellow and red fire.
Dunchill took a step back and his face turned pale. Complete silence gripped the audience.
‘Eighteen thousand dollars and a necklace worth forty thousand gold roubles,’ the compere solemnly announced, ‘ belonging to Sergei Gerardovich and kept for him in Kharkov in the flat of his mistress, Ida Herkulanovna Vors, whom you have the pleasure of seeing before you now and who has kindly consented to help in displaying these treasures which, priceless as they are, are useless in private hands. Thank you very much, Ida Herkulanovna.’
The beauty flashed her teeth and fluttered her long eyelashes. ‘ And as for you,’ the actor said to Dunchill, ‘ we now know that beneath that dignified mask lurks a vicious spider, a liar and a disgrace to our society. For six weeks you have worn us all out with your stupid obstinacy. Go home now and may the hell which your wife is preparing for you be your punishment.’
Dunchill staggered and was about to collapse when a sympathetic pair of arms supported him. The curtain then fell and bid the occupants of the stage from sight.
Furious applause shook the auditorium until Nikanor Ivanovich thought the lamps were going to jump out of the candelabra. When the curtain rose again there was no one on stage except the actor. To another salvo of applause he bowed and said :
‘We have just shown you a typically stubborn case. Only yesterday I was saying how senseless it was to try and conceal a secret hoard of foreign currency. No one who has one can make use of it. Take Dunchill for example. He is well paid and never short of anything. He has a splendid flat, a wife and a beautiful mistress. Yet instead of acting like a law-abiding citizen and handing in his currency and jewellery, all that this incorrigible rogue has achieved is public exposure and a family scandal. So who wants to hand in his currency? Nobody? In that case, the next number on our programme will be that famous actor Savva Potapovich Kurolesov in excerpts from ” The Covetous Knight” by the poet Pushkin.’
Kurolesov entered, a tall, fleshy, clean-shaven man in tails and white tie. Without a word of introduction he scowled, frowned and began, squinting at the golden bell, to recite in an unnatural voice :
‘Hastening to meet Ills courtesan, the young gallant. . .’
Kurolesov’s recital described a tale of evil. He confessed how an unhappy widow had knelt weeping before him in the rain, but the actor’s hard heart had remained untouched.
Until this dream, Nikanor Ivanovich knew nothing of the works of Pushkin, although he knew his name well enough and almost every day he used to make remarks like ‘ Who’s going to pay the rent–Pushkin? ‘, or ‘ I suppose Pushkin stole the light bulb on the staircase’, or ‘ Who’s going to buy the fuel-oil for the boilers–Pushkin, I suppose? ‘ Now as he listened to one of Pushkin’s dramatic poems for the first time Nikanor Ivanovich felt miserable, imagining the woman on her knees in the rain with her orphaned children and he could not help thinking what a beast this fellow Kurolesov must be.
The actor himself, his voice constantly rising, poured out his repentance and finally he completely muddled Nikanor Ivanovich by talking to someone who wasn’t on the stage at all, then answered for the invisible man, all the time calling himself first ‘ king ‘, then ‘ baron ‘, then ‘ father ‘, then ‘ son ‘ until the confusion was total. Nikanor Ivanovich only managed to understand that the actor died a horrible death shouting ‘ My keys! My keys! ‘, at which he fell croaking to the ground, having first taken care to pull off his white tie.
Having died, Kurolesov got up, brushed the dust from his trousers, bowed, smiled an insincere smile and walked off to faint applause. The compere then said :
‘In Sawa Potapovich’s masterly interpretation we have just heard the story of ” The Covetous Knight”. That knight saw himself as a Casanova; but as you saw, nothing came of his efforts, no nymphs threw themselves at him, the muses refused him their tribute, he built no palaces and instead he finished miserably after an attack on his hoard of money and jewels. I warn you that something of the kind will happen to you, if not worse, unless you hand over your foreign currency! ‘
It may have been Pushkin’s verse or it may have been the compere’s prosaic remarks which had such an effect; at all events a timid voice was heard from the audience :
‘I’ll hand over my currency.’
‘Please come up on stage,’ was the compere’s welcoming response as he peered into the dark auditorium.
A short blond man, three weeks unshaven, appeared on stage.
‘What is your name, please? ‘ enquired the compere.
‘Nikolai Kanavkin ‘ was the shy answer.
‘Ah! Delighted, citizen Kanavkin. Well? ‘
‘I’ll hand it over.’
‘How much? ‘
‘A thousand dollars and twenty gold ten-rouble pieces.’
‘Bravo! Is that all you have? ‘
The compere stared straight into Kanavkin’s eyes and it seemed to Nikanor Ivanovich that those eyes emitted rays which saw through Kanavkin like X-rays. The audience held its breath.
‘I believe you! ‘ cried the actor at last and extinguished his gaze. ‘ I believe you! Those eyes are not lying! How many
times have I said that your fundamental error is to underestimate the significance of the human eye. The tongue may hide the truth but the eyes–never! If somebody springs a question you may not even flinch ; in a second you are in control of yourself and you know what to say in order to conceal the truth. You can be very convincing and not a wrinkle will flicker in your expression, but alas! The truth will start forth in a flash from the depths of your soul to your eyes and the game’s up! You’re caught!’
Having made this highly persuasive speech, the actor politely asked Kanavkin:
‘Where are they hidden? ‘
‘At my aunt’s, in Prechistenka.’
‘Ah! That will be … wait . . . yes, that’s Claudia Ilyinishna Porokhovnikova, isn’t it? ‘ ‘ Yes.’
‘Yes, yes, of course. A little bungalow, isn’t it? Opposite a high fence? Of course, I know it. And where have you put them? ‘
‘In a box in the cellar.’
The actor clasped his hands.
‘Oh, no! Really! ‘ he cried angrily. ‘ Its so damp there– they’ll grow mouldy! People like that aren’t to be trusted with money! What child-like innocence. What will they do next?’
Kanavkin, realising that he was doubly at fault, hung his curly head.
‘Money,’ the actor went on, ‘ should be kept in the State Bank, in dry and specially guarded strongrooms, but never in your aunt’s cellar where apart from anything else, the rats may get at it. Really, Kanavkin, you should be ashamed : you–a grown man! ‘
Kanavkin did not know which way to look and could only twist the hem of his jacket with his finger.
‘All right,’ the artist relented slightly, ‘ since you have owned up we’ll be lenient. . .’ Suddenly he added unexpectedly : ‘ By the way . . . we might as well kill two birds with one stone and not waste a car journey … I expect your aunt has some of her own hidden away, hasn’t she? ‘
Not expecting the conversation to take this turn, Kanavkin gave a start and silence settled again on the audience.
‘Ah, now, Kanavkin,’ said the compere in a tone of kindly reproach, ‘ I was just going to say what a good boy you were I And now you have to go and upset it all! That wasn’t very clever, Kanavkin! Remember what I said just now about your eyes? Well, I can see from your eyes that your aunt has something hidden. Come on–don’t tantalise us! ‘
‘Yes, she has! ‘ shouted Kanavkin boldly.
‘Bravo! ‘ cried the compere.
‘Bravo! ‘ roared the audience.
When the noise had died down the compere congratulated Kanavkin, shook him by the hand, offered him a car to take him home and ordered somebody in the wings to go and see the aunt in the same car and invite her to appear in the ladies’ section of the programme.
‘Oh yes, I nearly forgot to ask you–did your aunt tell you where she has hidden hers? ‘ enquired the compere, offering Kanavkin a cigarette and a lighted match. His cigarette lit, the wretched man gave an apologetic sort of grin.
‘Of course, I believe you. You don’t know,’ said the actor with a sigh. ‘ I suppose the old skinflint wouldn’t tell her nephew. Ah well, we shall just have to try and appeal to her better nature. Perhaps we can still touch a chord in her miserly old heart. Goodbye, Kanavkin–and good luck! ‘
Kanavkin departed relieved and happy. The actor then enquired whether anyone else wished to surrender his foreign currency, but there was no response.
‘Funny, I must say! ‘ said the compere with a shrug of his shoulders and the curtain fell.
The lights went out, there was darkness for a while, broken only by the sound of a quavering tenor voice singing :
‘Heaps of gold–and mine, all mine …’
After a burst of applause, Nikanor Ivanovich’s red-bearded neighbour suddenly announced :
‘There’s bound to be a confession or two in the ladies’ programme.’ Then with a sigh he added: ‘ oh, if only they don’t get my geese! I have a flock of geese at Lianozov, you see. They’re savage birds, but I’m afraid they’ll die if I’m not there. They need a lot of looking after . . . Oh, if only they don’t take my geese! They don’t impress me by quoting Pushkin . . .’ and he sighed again.
The auditorium was suddenly flooded with light and Nikanor Ivanovich began dreaming that a gang of cooks started pouring through all the doors into the auditorium. They wore white chef’s hats, carried ladles and they dragged into the theatre a vat full of soup and a tray of sliced black bread. The audience livened up as the cheerful cooks pushed their way down the aisle pouring the soup into bowls and handing out bread.
‘Eat up, lads,’ shouted the cooks, ‘ and hand over your currency! Why waste your time sitting here? Own up and you can all go home! ‘
‘What are you doing here, old man?’ said a fat, red-necked cook to Nikanor Ivanovich as he handed him a bowl of soup with a lone cabbage leaf floating in it.
‘I haven’t got any! I haven’t, I swear it,’ shouted Nikanor Ivanovich in a terrified voice.
‘Haven’t you? ‘ growled the cook in a fierce bass. ‘ Haven’t you? ‘ he enquired in a feminine soprano. ‘ No, I’m sure you haven’t,’ he muttered gently as he turned into the nurse Praskovya Fyodorovna.
She gently shook Nikanor Ivanovich by the shoulder as he groaned in his sleep. Cooks, theatre, curtain and stage dissolved. Through the tears in his eyes Nikanor Ivanovich stared round at his hospital room and at two men in white overalls. They turned out not to be cooks but doctors, standing beside Praskovya Fyodorovna who instead of a soup-bowl was holding a gauze-covered white enamelled dish containing a hypodermic syringe.
‘What are you doing? ‘ said Nikanor Ivanovich bitterly as they gave him an injection. ‘ I haven’t any I tell you! Why doesn’t Pushkin hand over his foreign currency? I haven’t got any! ‘
‘No, of course you haven’t,’ said kind Praskovya Fyodorovna, ‘ and no one is going to take you to court, so you can forget it and relax.’
After Ms injection Nikanor Ivanovich calmed down and fell into a dreamless sleep.
His unrest, however, had communicated itself to No. 120 where the patient woke up and began looking for his head; No. 118 where the nameless master wrung his hands as he gazed at the moon, remembering that last bitter autumn night, the patch of light under the door in his basement and the girl’s hair blown loose.
The anxiety from No. 118 flew along the balcony to Ivan, who woke up and burst into tears.
The doctor soon calmed all his distraught patients and they went back to sleep. Last of all was Ivan, who only dozed off as dawn began to break over the river. As the sedative spread through his body, tranquillity covered him like a slow wave. His body relaxed and his head was filled with the warm breeze of slumber. As he fell asleep the last thing that he heard was the dawn chorus of birds in the wood. But they were soon silent again and he began dreaming that the sun had already set over Mount Golgotha and that the hill was ringed by a double cordon. …