Just as Vassily Stepanovich was taking a taxi-ride to meet the suit that wrote by itself, among the passengers from the Kiev express a respectably dressed man carrying a little fibre suitcase emerged from a first-class sleeper on to the Moscow platform. This passenger was none other than the uncle of the late Misha Berlioz, Maximilian Andreyevich Poplavsky, an economist who worked in the Planning Commission and lived in Kiev. The cause of his arrival in Moscow was a telegram that he had received late in the evening two days earlier:
have been run over BY TRAM AT PATRIARCHS FUNERAL THREE O’CLOCK FRIDAY PLEASE COME BERLIOZ
Maximilian Andreyevich was regarded, and rightly so, as one of the most intelligent men in Kiev, but a telegram like this would be liable to put even the brightest of us in a dilemma. If a man telegraphs that he has been run over, obviously he has not been killed. But then why the funeral? Or is he so desperately ill that he can foresee his own death? It is possible, but extremely odd to be quite so precise–even if he can predict his death, how does he know that he’s going to be buried at three o’clock on Friday? What an astonishing telegram!
Intelligent people, however, become intelligent by solving complicated problems. It was very simple. There had been a mistake and the wire had arrived in garbled form. Obviously the word ‘ have ‘ belonged to some other telegram and had been transmitted in error instead of the word ‘ Berlioz ‘, which had been put by mistake at the end of the telegram. Thus corrected, the meaning was quite clear, though, of course, tragic.
When his wife had recovered from her first grief, Maximilian Andreyevich at once prepared to go to Moscow.
Here I should reveal a secret about Maximilian Andreyevich. He genuinely mourned the death of his wife’s cousin, cut off in the prime of life, but at the same time, being a practical man, he fully realised that there was no special need for his presence at the funeral. Yet Maximilian Andreyevich was in a great hurry to go to Moscow. What for? For one thing–the flat. A flat in Moscow was a serious matter. He did not know why, but Maximilian Andreyevich did not like Kiev and the thought of moving to Moscow had lately begun to nag at him with such insistence that it was affecting his sleep.
He took no delight in the spring floods of the Dnieper when, as it drowned the islands on the lower shore, the water spread until it merged with the horizon. He found no pleasure in the staggeringly beautiful view from the foot of the monument to Prince Vladimir. The patches of sunlight that play in spring over the brick pathways leading to the top of St Vladimir’s hill meant nothing to him. He wanted none of it. He only wanted to go to Moscow.
Advertisements in the newspapers offering to exchange a flat on University Street in Kiev for a smaller flat in Moscow produced no results. Nobody could be found who wanted to move, except a few whose offers turned out to be fraudulent.
The telegram came as a shock to Maximilian Andreyevich. It was a chance that would be sinful to miss. Practical people know that opportunities of that sort never come twice.
In short he had to make sure, at no matter what cost, that he inherited his nephew’s flat in Sadovaya Street. It was going to be complicated, very complicated, but come what might these complications had to be overcome. An experienced man, Maximilian Andreyevich knew that the first and essential step was to arrange a temporary residence permit to stay, for however short a time, in his late nephew’s flat.
So on Friday morning Maximilian Andreyevich walked into the office of the Tenants’ Association of No. 502A, Sadovaya Street, Moscow. In a mean little room, its wall enlivened by a poster showing in several graphic diagrams how to revive a drowned man, behind a wooden desk there sat a lonely, unshaven middle-aged man with a worried look.
‘May I see the chairman, please? ‘ enquired the economist politely, taking off his hat and placing his attache case on a chair by the door. This apparently simple question upset the man behind the desk so much that a complete change came over his expression. Squinting with anxiety he muttered something incoherent about the chairman not being there.
‘Is he in his flat?’ asked Poplavsky. ‘ I have some very urgent business with him.’
The man gave another indistinct mumble, which meant that he wasn’t in his flat either. ‘ When will he be back? ‘
To this the seated man gave no reply except to stare glumly out of the window.
‘Aha! ‘ said the intelligent Poplavsky to himself and enquired after the secretary. At this the strange man behind the desk actually went purple in the face with strain and again muttered vaguely that the secretary wasn’t there either . . . nobody knew when he’d be back again . . . the secretary was ill …
‘Oho! ‘ said Poplavsky to himself. ‘ Is there anybody here from the Association’s management committee? ‘
‘Me,’ said the man in a weak voice.
‘Look,’ said Poplavsky ingratiatingly, ‘ I am the sole heir of my nephew Berlioz who as you know died the other day at Patriarch’s Ponds and according to law I have to claim my inheritance. All his things are in our flat–No. 50 . . .’
‘I don’t know anything about it, comrade,’ the man interrupted gloomily.’ Excuse me,’ said Poplavsky in his most charming voice, ‘ you are a member of the management committee and you must . . .’
Just then a stranger came into the room. The man behind the desk went pale.
‘Are you Pyatnazhko of the management committee? ‘ said the stranger.
‘Yes, I am,’ said the seated man in a tiny voice.
The stranger whispered something to him and the man behind the desk, now completely bewildered, got up and left Poplavsky entirely alone in the empty committee room.
‘What a nuisance! I should have seen the whole committee at once . . .’ thought Poplavsky with annoyance as he crossed the courtyard and hurried towards flat No. 50.
He rang the bell, the door was opened and Maximilian Andrey-evich walked into the semi-darkness of the hall. He was slightly surprised not to be able to see who had opened the door to him ;
there was no one in the hall except an enormous black cat sitting on a chair. Maximilian Andreyevich coughed and tapped his foot, at which the study door opened and Koroviev came into the hall. Maximilian Andreyevich gave him a polite but dignified bow and said:
‘My name is Poplavsky. I am the uncle . . .’
But before he could finish Koroviev pulled a dirty handkerchief out of his pocket, blew his nose and burst into tears.
‘Of course, of course! ‘ said Koroviev, removing the handkerchief from his face. ‘ I only had to see you to know who you were! ‘ He shook with tears and began sobbing : ‘ Oh, what a tragedy! How could such a thing happen? ‘
‘Was he run over by a tram? ‘ asked Poplavsky in a whisper.
‘Completely!’ cried Koroviev, tears streaming past his pince-nez, ‘ Completely! I saw it happen. Can you believe it? Bang–his head was off, scrunch–away went his right leg, scrunch–off came his left leg! What these trams can do.’ In his grief, Koroviev leaned his nose against the wall beside the mirror and shook with sobs.
Berlioz’s uncle was genuinely moved by the stranger’s behaviour. ‘ There–and they say people have no feelings nowadays! ‘ he thought, feeling his own eyes beginning to prick. At the same time, however, an uneasy thought snaked across his mind that perhaps this man had already registered himself in the flat; such things had been known to happen.
‘Excuse me, but were you a friend of Misha’s? ‘ he enquired, wiping his dry left eye with his sleeve and studying the grief-stricken Koroviev with his right eye. But Koroviev was sobbing so hard that he was inaudible except for ‘ Scrunch and off it came! ‘ His weeping-fit over, Koroviev finally unstuck himself from the wall and said :
‘No, I can’t bear it! I shall go and take three hundred drops of valerian in ether…’ Turning his tear-stained face to Poplavsky he added : ‘ Ah, these trams! ‘
‘I beg your pardon, but did you send me a telegram? ‘ asked Maximilian Andreyevich, racking his brains to think who this extraordinary weeping creature might be.
‘He sent it,’ replied Koroviev, pointing to the cat. Poplavsky, his eyes bulging, assumed that he had misheard. ‘ No, I can’t face it any longer,’ went on Koroviev, sniffing. ‘ When I think of that wheel going over his leg . . . each wheel weighs 360 pounds . . . scrunch! . . . I must go and lie down, sleep is the only cure.’ And he vanished from the hall.
The cat jumped down from the chair, stood up on its hind legs, put its forelegs akimbo, opened its mouth and said :
‘I sent the telegram. So what? ‘
Maximilian Andreyevich’s head began to spin, his arms and legs gave way so that he dropped his case and sat down in a chair facing the cat.
‘Don’t you understand Russian?’ said the cat severely. ‘ What do you want to know? ‘ Poplavsky was speechless.
‘Passport! ‘ barked the cat and stretched out a fat paw. Completely dumbfounded and blind to everything except the twin sparks in the cat’s eyes, Poplavsky pulled his passport out of his pocket like a dagger. The cat picked up a pair of spectacles in thick black rims from the table under the mirror, put them on its snout, which made it look even more imposing, and took the passport from Poplavsky’s shaking hand.
‘I wonder–have I fainted or what? ‘ thought Poplavsky. From the distance came the sound of Koroviev’s blubbering, the hall was filled with the smell of ether, valerian and some other nauseating abomination.
‘Which department issued this passport?’ asked the cat. There was no answer.
‘Department four hundred and twenty,’ said the cat to itself, drawing its paw across the passport which it was holding upside-down. ‘ Well, of course! I know that department, they issue passports to anybody who comes along. I wouldn’t have given one to someone like you. Not on any account. One look at your face and I’d have refused! ‘ The cat had worked itself up into such a temper that it threw the passport to the ground. ‘ You may not attend the funeral,’ went on the cat in an official voice. ‘ Kindly go home at once.’ And it shouted towards the door : ‘ Azazello! ‘
At this a small, red-haired man limped into the hall. He had one yellow fang, a wall eye and was wearing a black sweater with a knife stuck into a leather belt. Feeling himself suffocating, Poplavsky stood up and staggered back, clutching his heart.
‘See him out, Azazello! ‘ ordered the cat and went out.
‘Poplavsky,’ said the fanged horror in a nasal whine, ‘ I hope you understand?’
‘Go back to Kiev at once,’ Azazello went on, ‘ stay at home as quiet as a mouse and forget that you ever thought of getting a flat in Moscow. Got it? ‘
The little man only came up to Poplavsky’s shoulder, but he reduced him to mortal terror with his fang, his knife and his wall-eyed squint and he had an air of cool, calculating energy.
First he picked up the passport and handed it to Maximilian Andreyevich, who took it with a limp hand. Then Azazello took the suitcase in his left hand, flung open the front door with his right and taking Berlioz’s uncle by the arm led him out on to the landing. Poplavsky leaned against the wall. Without a key Azazello opened the little suitcase, took out of it an enormous roast chicken minus one leg wrapped in greaseproof paper and put it on the floor. Then he pulled out two sets of clean under-wear, a razor-strop, a book and a leather case and kicked them all downstairs except the chicken. The empty suitcase followed it. It could be heard crashing downstairs and to judge by the sound, the lid broke off as it went.
Then the carrot-haired ruffian picked up the chicken by its leg and hit Poplavsky a terrible blow across the neck with it, so violently that the carcase flew apart leaving Azazello with the leg in his hand. ‘ Everything was in a mess in the Oblonskys’ house ‘ as Leo Tolstoy so truly put it, a remark which applied exactly to the present situation. Everything was in a mess for Poplavsky. A long spark of light flashed in front of him, then he had a vision of a funeral procession on a May afternoon and Poplavsky fell downstairs.
When he reached the landing he knocked a pane out of the window with his foot and sat down on the step. A legless chicken rolled past him, disintegrating as it went. On the upper landing Azazello devoured the chicken-leg in a flash, stuffed the bone into his pocket, turned back into the flat and slammed the door behind him.
From below there came the sound of a man’s cautious steps coming upstairs. Poplavsky ran down another flight and sat down on a little wooden bench on the landing to draw breath.
A tiny little old man with a painfully sad face, wearing an old-fashioned tussore suit and a straw boater with a green ribbon, came up the stairs and stopped beside Poplavsky.
‘Would you mind telling me, sir,’ enquired the man in tussore sadly, ‘ where No. 50 might be? ‘
‘Upstairs,’ gasped Poplavsky.
‘Thank you very much, sir,’ said the little man as gloomily as before and plodded upward, whilst Poplavsky stood up and walked on downstairs.
You may ask whether Maximilian Andreyevich hurried to the police to complain about the ruffians who had handled him with such violence in broad daylight. He most certainly did not. How could he walk into a police station and say that a cat had been reading his passport and that a man in a sweater armed with a knife . . .? No, Maximilian Andreyevich was altogether too intelligent for that.
He had by now reached the ground floor and noticed just beside the main door another little door, with a broken glass pane, leading into a storage cupboard. Poplavsky put his passport into his pocket and hunted round for the scattered contents of his suitcase. There was no trace of them. He was amazed to notice how little this worried him. Another and rather intriguing idea now occupied him–to stay and see what happened when the little old man went into the sinister flat. Since he had asked the way to No. 50, he must be going there for the first time and was heading straight for the clutches of the gang that had moved into the flat. Something told Poplavsky that the little man was going to come out of that flat again in quick time. Naturally he had given up any idea of going to his nephew’s funeral and there was plenty of time before the train left for Kiev. The economist glanced round and slipped into the cupboard.
Just then came the sound of a door closing upstairs. ‘ He’s gone in . . .’ thought Poplavsky anxiously. It was damp and cold in the cupboard and it smelled of mice and boots. Maximilian Andreyevich sat down on a log of wood and decided to wait. He was in a good position to watch the staircase and the doorway leading on to the courtyard.
However he had to wait longer than he had expected. The staircase remained empty. At last the door on the fifth floor was heard shutting. Poplavsky froze. Yes, those were his footsteps. ‘ He’s coming down . . .’ A door opened one floor lower. The footsteps stopped. A woman’s voice. A sad man’s voice–yes, that was him . . . saying something like ‘ Stop it, for heaven’s sake . . .’ Poplavsky stuck his ear out through the broken pane and caught the sound of a woman’s laughter. Quick, bold steps coming downstairs and a woman flashed past. She was carrying a green oilcloth bag and hurried out into the courtyard. Then came the little man’s footsteps again. ‘ That’s odd! He’s going back into the flat again! Surely he’s not one of the gang? Yes, he’s going back. They’ve opened the door upstairs again. Well, let’s wait a little longer and see . . .’
This time there was not long to wait. The sound of the door. Footsteps. The footsteps stopped. A despairing cry. A cat miaowing. A patter of quick footsteps coming down, down, down!
Poplavsky waited. Crossing himself and muttering the sad little man rushed past, hatless, an insane look on his face, his bald head covered in scratches, his trousers soaking wet. He began struggling with the door handle, so terrified that he failed to see whether it opened inwards or outwards, finally mastered it and flew out into the sunlit courtyard.
The experiment over and without a further thought for his dead nephew or for his flat, trembling to think of the danger he had been through and muttering, ‘ I see it all, I see it all!’ Maximilian Andreyevich ran outside. A few minutes later a trolley-bus was carrying the economist towards the Kiev station.
While the economist had been lurking in the downstairs cupboard, the little old man had been through a distressing experience. He was a barman at the Variety Theatre and his name was Andrei Fokich Sokov. During the police investigation at the theatre, Andrei Fokich had kept apart from it all and the only thing noticeable about him was that he grew even sadder-looking than usual. He also found out from Karpov, the usher, where the magician was staying.
So, leaving the economist on the landing, the barman climbed up to the fifth floor and rang the bell at No. 50.
The door was opened immediately, but the barman shuddered and staggered back without going in. The door had been opened by a girl, completely naked except for an indecent little lace apron, a white cap and a pair of little gold slippers. She had a perfect figure and the only flaw in her looks was a livid scar on her neck.
‘Well, come on in, since you rang,’ said the girl, giving the barman an enticing look.
Andrei Fokich groaned, blinked and stepped into the hall, taking off his hat. At that moment the telephone rang. The shameless maid put one foot on a chair, lifted the receiver and said into it:
The barman did not know where to look and shifted from foot to foot, thinking : ‘ These foreigners and their maids! Really, it’s disgusting! ‘ To save himself from being disgusted he stared the other way.
The large, dim hallway was full of strange objects and pieces of clothing. A black cloak lined with fiery red was thrown over the back of a chair, while a long sword with a shiny gold hilt lay on the console under the mirror. Three swords with silver hilts stood in one corner as naturally as if they had been umbrellas or walking sticks, and berets adorned with eagles’ plumes hung on the antlers of a stag’s head.
‘Yes,’ said the girl into the telephone. ‘ I beg your pardon? Baron Maigel? Very good, sir. Yes. The professor is in today. Yes, he’ll be delighted to see you. Yes, it’s formal . . . Tails or dinner jacket. When? At midnight.’ The conversation over, she put back the receiver and turned to the barman.
‘What do you want? ‘
‘I have to see the magician.’
‘What, the professor himself? ‘
‘Yes,’ replied the barman miserably.
‘I’ll see,’ said the maid, hesitating, then she opened the door into Berlioz’s study and announced: ‘ Sir, there’s a little man here. He says he has to see messire in person.’
‘Show him in,’ said Koroviev’s cracked voice from the study.
‘Go in, please,’ said the girl as naturally as if she had been normally dressed, then opened the door and left the hall.
As he walked in the barman was so amazed at the furnishing of the room that he forgot why he had come. Through the stained-glass windows (a fantasy of the jeweller’s widow) poured a strange ecclesiastical light. Although the day was hot there was a log fire in the vast old-fashioned fireplace, yet it gave no heat and instead the visitor felt a wave of damp and cold as though he had walked into a tomb. In front of the fireplace sat a great black tomcat on a tiger-skin rug blinking pleasurably at the fire. There was a table, the sight of which made the God-fearing barman shudder–it was covered with an altar-cloth and on top of it was an army of bottles–bulbous, covered in mould and dust. Among the bottles glittered a plate, obviously of solid gold. By the fireplace a little red-haired man with a knife in his belt was roasting a piece of meat on the end of a long steel blade. The fat dripped into the flames and the smoke curled up the chimney. There was a smell of roasting meat, another powerful scent and the odour of incense, which made the barman wonder, as he had read of Berlioz’s death and knew that this had been his flat, whether they were performing some kind of requiem for the dead man, but as soon as it came to him he abandoned the idea as clearly ridiculous.
Suddenly the stupefied barman heard a deep bass voice :
‘Well sir, and what can I do for you? ‘
Andrei Fokich turned round and saw the man he was looking for.
The black magician was lolling on a vast, low, cushion-strewn divan. As far as the barman could see the professor was wearing nothing but black underwear and black slippers with pointed toes.
‘I am,’ said the little man bitterly, ‘ the head barman at the Variety Theatre.’
The professor stretched out a hand glittering with precious stones as though to stop the barman’s mouth and interrupted heatedly:
‘No, no, no! Not another word! Never, on any account! I shall never eat or drink a single mouthful at that buffet of yours! I went past your counter the other day, my dear sir, and I shall never forget the sight of that smoked sturgeon and that cheese! My dear fellow, cheese isn’t supposed to be green, you know– someone must have given you the wrong idea. It’s meant to be white. And the tea! It’s more like washing-up water. With my own eyes I saw a slut of a girl pouring grey water into your enormous samovar while you went on serving tea from it. No, my dear fellow, that’s not the way to do it! ‘
‘I’m sorry,’ said Andrei Fokich, appalled by this sudden attack, ‘ but I came about something else, I don’t want to talk about the smoked sturgeon . . .’
‘But I insist on talking about it–it was stale!’
‘The sturgeon they sent was second-grade-fresh,’ said the barman.
‘Really, what nonsense!’
‘Why nonsense? ‘
‘” Second-grade-fresh “–that’s what I call nonsense! There’s only one degree of freshness–the first, and it’s the last. If your sturgeon is ” second-grade-fresh ” that means it’s stale.’
‘I’m sorry . . .’ began the barman, at a loss to parry this insistent critic.
‘No, it’s unforgivable,’ said the professor.
‘I didn’t come to see you about that,’ said the barman again, now utterly confused.
‘Didn’t you? ‘ said the magician, astonished. ‘ What did you come for then? As far as I remember I’ve never known anybody connected with your profession, except for a vivandiere, but that was long before your time. However, I’m delighted to make your acquaintance. A2a2ello! A stool for the head barman! ‘
The man who was roasting meat turned round, terrifying the barman at the sight of his wall eye, and neatly offered him one of the dark oaken stools. There were no other seats in the room.
The barman said : ‘ Thank you very much,’ and sat down on the stool. One of its back legs immediately broke with a crash and the barman, with a groan, fell painfully backward onto the :floor. As he fell he kicked the leg of another stool and upset a full glass of red wine all over his trousers.
The professor exclaimed:
Azazello helped the barman to get up and gave him another stool. In a miserable voice the barman declined his host’s offer to take off his trousers and dry them in front of the fire. Feeling unbearably awkward in his wet trousers and underpants, he took a cautious seat on the other stool.
‘I love a low seat,’ began the professor. ‘ One’s not so likely to fall. Ah, yes, we were talking about sturgeon. First and last, my dear fellow, it must be fresh, fresh, fresh! That should be the motto of every man in your trade. Oh yes, would you like to taste . . .’
In the red glow of the fire a sword glittered in front of the barman, and Azazello laid a sizzling piece of meat on a gold plate, sprinkled it with lemon juice and handed the barman a golden two-pronged fork.
‘Thank you, but I . . .’
‘No, do taste it! ‘
Out of politeness the barman put a little piece into his mouth and found that he was chewing something really fresh and unusually delicious. As he ate the succulent meat, however, he almost fell off his stool again. A huge dark bird flew in from the next room and softly brushed the top of the barman’s bald head with its wing. As it perched on the mantelpiece beside a clock, he saw that the bird was an owl. ‘ Oh my God! ‘ thought Andrei Fokich, nervous as all barmen are, ‘ what a place!’
‘Glass of wine? White or red? What sort of wine do you like at this time of day? ‘
‘Thanks but… I don’t drink . . .’
‘You poor fellow! What about a game of dice then? Or do you prefer some other game? Dominoes? Cards? ‘
‘I don’t play,’ replied the barman, feeling weak and thoroughly muddled.
‘How dreadful for you,’ said the host. ‘ I always think, present company excepted of course, that there’s something unpleasant lurking in people who avoid drinking, gambling, table-talk and pretty women. People like that are either sick or secretly hate their fellow-men. Of course there may be exceptions. I have had some outright scoundrels sitting at my table before now! Now tell me what I can do for you.’
‘Yesterday you did some tricks . . .’
‘I did? Tricks? ‘ exclaimed the magician indignantly. ‘ I beg your pardon! What a rude suggestion! ‘
‘I’m sorry,’ said the barman in consternation. ‘ I mean . . . black magic … at the theatre.’
‘Oh, that! Yes, of course. I’ll tell you a secret, my dear fellow. I’m not really a magician at all. I simply wanted to see some Muscovites en masse and the easiest way to do so was in a theatre. So my staff’–he nodded towards the cat–‘arranged this little act and I just sat on stage and watched the audience. Now, if that doesn’t shock you too much, tell me what brings you here in connection with my performance? ‘
‘During your act you made bank-notes float down from the ceiling. . . .’ The barman lowered his voice and looked round in embarrassment. ‘ Well, all the audience picked them up and a young man came to my bar and handed me a ten-rouble note, so I gave him eight roubles fifty change . . . Then another one came . . .’
‘Another young man? ‘
‘No, he was older. Then there was a third and a fourth … I gave them all change. And today when I came to check the till there was nothing in it but a lot of strips of paper. The bar was a hundred and nine roubles short.’
‘Oh dear, dear, dear! ‘ exclaimed the professor. ‘ Don’t tell me people thought those notes were real? I can’t believe they did it on purpose.’
The barman merely stared miserably round him and said nothing.
‘They weren’t swindlers, were they? ‘ the magician asked in a worried voice. ‘ Surely there aren’t any swindlers here in Moscow?’
The barman replied with such a bitter smile that there could be no doubt about it: there were plenty of swindlers in Moscow.
‘That’s mean! ‘ said Woland indignantly. ‘ You’re a poor man . . . you are a poor man, aren’t you? ‘
Andrei Fokich hunched his head into his shoulders to show that he was a poor man.
‘How much have you managed to save? ‘
Although the question was put in a sympathetic voice, it was tactless. The barman squirmed.
‘Two hundred and forty nine thousand roubles in five different savings banks,’ said a quavering voice from the next room, ‘ and under the floor at home he’s got two hundred gold ten-rouble pieces.’
Andrei Fokich seemed to sink into his stool.
‘Well, of course, that’s no great sum of money,’ said Woland patronisingly. ‘ All the same, you don’t need it. When are you going to die? ‘
Now it was the barman’s turn to be indignant.
‘Nobody knows and it’s nobody’s business,’ he replied.
‘Yes, nobody knows,’ said the same horrible voice from the next room. ‘ But by Newton’s binomial theorem I predict that he will die in nine months’ time in February of next year of cancer of the liver, in Ward No. 4 of the First Moscow City Hospital.’
The barman’s face turned yellow.
‘Nine months . . .’ Woland calculated thoughtfully. ‘ Two hundred and forty-nine thousand . . . that works out at twenty-seven thousand a month in round figures . . . not much, but enough for a man of modest habits . . . then there are the gold coins . . .’
‘The coins will not be cashed,’ said the same voice, turning Andrei Fokich’s heart to ice. ‘ When he dies the house will be demolished and the coins will be impounded by the State Bank.’
‘If I were you I shouldn’t bother to go into hospital,’ went on the professor. ‘ What’s the use of dying in a ward surrounded by a lot of groaning and croaking incurables? Wouldn’t it be much better to throw a party with that twenty-seven thousand and take poison and depart for the other world to the sound of violins, surrounded by lovely drunken girls and happy friends? ‘
The barman sat motionless. He had aged. Black rings encircled his eyes, his cheeks were sunken, his lower jaw sagged.
‘But we’re daydreaming,’ exclaimed the host. ‘ To business! Show me those strips of paper.’
Fumbling, Andrei Fokich took a package out of his pocket, untied it and sat petrified–the sheet of newspaper was full of ten-rouble notes.
‘My dear chap, you really are sick,’ said Woland, shrugging his shoulders.
Grinning stupidly, the barman got up from his stool. ‘ B-b-but . . .’ he stammered, hiccupping, ‘ if they vanish again . . . what then? ‘
‘H’m,’ said the professor thoughtfully. ‘ In that case come back and see us. Delighted to have met you. . . .’
At this Koroviev leaped out of the study, clasped the barman’s hand and shook it violently as he begged Andrei Fokich to give his kindest regards to everybody at the theatre. Bewildered, Andrei Fokich stumbled out into the hall. ‘ Hella, see him out! ‘ shouted Koroviev. The same naked girl appeared in the hall. The barman staggered out, just able to squeak ‘ Goodbye ‘, and left the flat as though he were drunk. Having gone a little way down, he stopped, sat down on a step, took out the package and checked– the money was still there.
Just then a woman with a green bag came out of one of the flats on that landing. Seeing a man sitting on the step and staring dumbly at a packet of bank-notes, she smiled and said wistfully:
‘What a dump this is … drunks on the staircase at this hour of the morning . . . and they’ve smashed a window on the staircase again! ‘
After a closer look at Andrei Fokich she added :
‘Mind the rats don’t get all that money of yours. . . . Wouldn’t you like to share some of it with me? ‘
‘Leave me alone, for Christ’s sake! ‘ said the barman and promptly hid the money.
The woman laughed.
‘Oh, go to hell, you old miser! I was only joking. . . .’ And she went on downstairs.
Andrei Fokich slowly got up, raised his hand to straighten his hat and discovered that it was not on his head. He desperately wanted not to go back, but he missed his hat. After some hesitation he made up his mind, went back and rang the bell.
‘What do you want now? ‘ asked Hella.
‘I forgot my hat,’ whispered the barman, tapping his bald head. Hella turned round and the little man shut his eyes in horror. When he opened them, Hella was offering him his hat and a sword with a black hilt.
‘It’s not mine. . . .’ whispered the barman, pushing away the sword and quickly putting on his hat.
‘Surely you didn’t come without a sword?’ asked Hella in surprise.
Andrei Fokich muttered something and hurried off downstairs. His head felt uncomfortable and somehow too hot. He took off his hat and gave a squeak of horror–he was holding a velvet beret with a bedraggled cock’s feather. The barman crossed himself. At that moment the beret gave a miaou and changed into a black kitten. It jumped on to Andrei Fokich’s head and dug its claws into his bald patch. Letting out a shriek of despair, the wretched man hurled himself downstairs as the kitten jumped off his head and flashed back to No. 50.
Bursting out into the courtyard, the barman trotted out of the gate and left the diabolical No.50 for ever.
It was not, however, the end of his adventures. Once in the street he stared wildly round as if looking for something. A minute later he was in a chemist’s shop on the far side of the road. No sooner had he said :
‘Tell me, please . . .’ when the woman behind the counter shrieked:
‘Look! Your head! It’s cut to pieces!’
Within five minutes Andrei’s head was bandaged and he had discovered that the two best specialists in diseases of the liver were Professor Bernadsky and Professor Kuzmin. Enquiring which was the nearest, he was overjoyed to learn that Kuzmin lived literally round the corner in a little white house and two minutes later he was there.
It was an old-fashioned but very comfortable little house. Afterwards the barman remembered first meeting a little old woman who wanted to take his hat, but since he had no hat the old woman hobbled off, chewing her toothless gums. In her place appeared a middle-aged woman, who immediately announced that new patients could only be registered on the 19th of the month and not before. Instinct told Andrei Fokich what to do. Giving an expiring glance at the three people in the waiting-room he whispered:
‘I’m dying. . . .’
The woman glanced uncertainly at his bandaged head, hesitated, then said:
‘Very well. . . .’ and led the barman through the hall.
At that moment a door opened to reveal a bright gold pince-nez. The woman in the white overall said :
‘Citizens, this patient has priority.’
Andrei Fokich had not time to look round before he found himself in Professor Kuzmin’s consulting room. It was a long, well-proportioned room with nothing frightening, solemn or medical about it.
‘What is your trouble?’ enquired Professor Kuzmin in a pleasant voice, glancing slightly anxiously at the bandaged head.’ I have just learned from a reliable source,’ answered the barman, staring wildly at a framed group photograph, ‘ that I am going to die next February from cancer of the liver. You must do something to stop it.’
Professor Kuzmin sat down and leaned against the tall leather back of his Gothic chair.
‘I’m sorry I don’t understand you . . . You mean . . . you saw a doctor? Why is your head bandaged? ‘
‘Him? He’s no doctor . . .’ replied the barman and suddenly his teeth began to chatter. ‘ Don’t bother about my head, that’s got nothing to do with it… I haven’t come about my head . . . I’ve got cancer of the liver–you must do something about it!’
‘But who told you? ‘
‘You must believe him! ‘ Andrei Fokich begged fervently. ‘ He knows! ‘
‘I simply don’t understand,’ said the professor, shrugging his shoulders and pushing his chair back from the desk. ‘ How can he know when you’re going to die? Especially as he’s not a doctor.’
‘In Ward No. 4,’ was all the barman could say. The professor stared at his patient, at his head, at his damp trousers, and thought: ‘ This is the last straw–some madman . . .’ He asked :
‘Do you drink? ‘ ‘ Never touch it,’ answered the barman.
In a minute he was undressed and lying on a chilly striped couch with the professor kneading his stomach. This cheered the barman considerably. The professor declared categorically that at the present moment at least there were no signs of cancer, but since . . . since he was worried about it and some charlatan had given him a fright, he had better have some tests done.
The professor scribbled on some sheets of paper, explaining where Andrei Fokich was to go and what he should take with him. He also gave him a note to a colleague, Professor Burye, the neuropathologist, saying that his nerves, at any rate, were in a shocking condition.
‘How much should I pay you, professor? ‘ asked the barman in a trembling voice, pulling out a fat notecase. ‘ As much as you like,’ replied the professor drily. Andrei Fokich pulled out thirty roubles and put them on the table, then furtively, as though his hands were cat’s paws, put a round, chinking, newspaper-wrapped pile on top of the ten-rouble notes.
‘What’s that?’ asked Kuzmin, twirling one end of his moustache.
‘Don’t be squeamish, professor,’ whispered the barman. ‘ You can have anything you want if you’ll stop my cancer.’
‘Take your gold,’ said the professor, feeling proud of himself as he said it. ‘ You’d be putting it to better use if you spent it on having your nerves treated. Produce a specimen of urine for analysis tomorrow, don’t drink too much tea and don’t eat any salt in your food.’
‘Can’t I even put salt in my soup? ‘ asked the barman. ‘ Don’t put salt in anything,’ said Kuzmin firmly. ‘ Oh dear . . .’ exclaimed the barman gloomily, as he gazed imploringly at the professor, picked up his parcel of gold coins and shuffled backwards to the door.
The professor did not have many patients that evening and as twilight began to set in, the last one was gone. Taking off his white overall, the professor glanced at the place on the desk where Andrei Fokich had left the three ten-rouble notes and saw that there were no longer any bank-notes there, but three old champagne bottle labels instead.
‘Well, I’m damned! ‘ muttered Kuzmin, trailing the hem of his overall across the floor and fingering the pieces of paper. ‘ Apparently he’s not only a schizophrenic but a crook as well. But what can he have wanted out of me? Surely not a chit for a urine test? Ah! Perhaps he stole my overcoat! ‘ The professor dashed into the hall, dragging his overall by one sleeve. ‘ Xenia Nikitishna! ‘ he screamed in the hall. ‘ Will you look and see if my overcoat’s in the cupboard? ‘
It was. But when the professor returned to his desk having finally taken off his overall, he stopped as though rooted to the parquet, staring at the desk. Where the labels had been there now sat a black kitten with a pathetically unhappy little face, miaowing over a saucer of milk.
‘What is going on here? This is . . .’ And Kuzmin felt a chill run up his spine.
Hearing the professor’s plaintive cry, Xenia Nikitishna came running in and immediately calmed him by saying that the kitten had obviously been abandoned there by one of the patients, a thing they were sometimes prone to do.
‘I expect they’re poor,’ explained Xenia Nikitishna, ‘ whereas we . . .’
They tried to guess who might have left the animal there. Suspicion fell on an old woman with a gastric ulcer.
‘Yes, it must be her,’ said Xenia Nikitishna. ‘ She’ll have thought to herself: I’m going to die anyway, but it’s hard on the poor little kitty.’
‘Just a moment! ‘ cried Kuzmin. ‘ What about the milk? Did she bring the milk? And the saucer too? ‘
‘She must have had a saucer and a bottle of milk in her bag and poured it out here,’ explained Xenia Nikitishna.
‘At any rate remove the kitten and the saucer, please,’ said Kuzmin and accompanied Xenia Nikitishna to the door.
As he hung up his overall the professor heard laughter from the courtyard. He looked round and hurried over to the window. A woman, wearing nothing but a shirt, was running across the courtyard to the house opposite. The professor knew her– she was called Marya Alexandrovna. A boy was laughing at her.
‘Really, what behaviour,’ said Kuzmin contemptuously. Just then the sound of a gramophone playing a foxtrot came from his daughter’s room and at the same moment the professor heard the chirp of a sparrow behind his back. He turned round and saw a large sparrow hopping about on his desk.
‘H’m . . . steady now! ‘ thought the professor. ‘ It must have flown in when I walked over to the window. I’m quite all right! ‘ said the professor to himself severely, feeling that he was all wrong, thanks to this intruding sparrow. As he looked at it closer, the professor at once realised that it was no ordinary sparrow. The revolting bird was leaning over on its left leg, making faces, waving its other leg in syncopation–in short it was dancing a foxtrot in time to the gramophone, cavorting like a drunk round a lamppost and staring cheekily at the professor.
Kuzmin’s hand was on the telephone and he was just about to ring up his old college friend Burye and ask him what it meant to start seeing sparrows at sixty, especially if they made your head spin at the same time.
Meanwhile the sparrow had perched on his presentation inkstand, fouled it, then flew up, hung in the air and dived with shattering force at a photograph showing the whole class of ’94 on graduation day, smashing the glass to smithereens. The bird then wheeled smartly and flew out of the window.
The professor changed his mind and instead of ringing up Burye dialled the number of the Leech Bureau and asked them to send a leech to his house at once. Replacing the receiver on the rest, the professor turned back to his desk and let out a wail. On the far side of the desk sat a woman in nurse’s uniform with a bag marked ‘ Leeches ‘. The sight of her mouth made the professor groan again–it was a wide, crooked, man’s mouth with a fang sticking out of it. The nurse’s eyes seemed completely dead.
‘I’ll take the money,’ said the nurse, ‘ it’s no good to you now.’ She grasped the labels with a bird-like claw and began to melt into the air.
Two hours passed. Professor Kuzmin was sitting up in bed with leeches dangling from his temples, his ears and his neck. At his feet on the buttoned quilt sat the grey-haired Professor Burye, gazing sympathetically at Kuzmin and comforting him by assuring him that it was all nonsense. Outside it was night.
We do not know what other marvels happened in Moscow that night and we shall not, of course, try to find out–especially as the time is approaching to move into the second half of this true story. Follow me, reader!