No one, of course, can say for certain whether those figures were real or merely imagined by the frightened inhabitants of that ill-fated block on Sadovaya Street. If they were real, no one knows exactly where they were going; but we do know that about a quarter of an hour after the outbreak of fire on Sadovaya Street, a tall man in a check suit and a large black cat appeared outside the glass doors of the Torgsin Store in Smolensk Market.
Slipping dexterously between the passers-by, the man opened the outer door of the store only to be met by a small, bony and extremely hostile porter who barred his way and said disagreeably :
‘No cats allowed!’
‘I beg your pardon,’ quavered the tall man, cupping his knotty hand to his ear as though hard of hearing,’ no cats, did you say? What cats?’
The porter’s eyes bulged, and with reason: there was no cat by the man’s side, but instead a large fat man in a tattered cap, with vaguely feline looks and holding a Primus, was pushing his way into the shop.
For some reason the misanthropic porter did not care for the look of this couple.
‘You can only buy with foreign currency here,’ he croaked, glaring at them from beneath ragged, moth-eaten eyebrows.
‘My dear fellow,’ warbled the tall man, one eye glinting through his broken pince-nez,’ how do you know that I haven’t got any? Are you judging by my suit? Never do that, my good man. You may make a terrible mistake. Read the story of the famous caliph Haroun-al-Rashid and you’ll see what I mean. But for the present, leaving history aside for a moment, I warn you I shall complain to the manager and I shall tell him such tales about you that you’ll wish you had never opened your mouth!’
‘This Primus of mine may be full of foreign currency for all you know,’ said the stout cat-like figure. An angry crowd was forming behind them. With a look of hatred and suspicion at the dubious pair, the porter stepped aside and our friends Koroviev and Behemoth found themselves in the store. First they looked around and then Koroviev announced in a penetrating voice, audible everywhere :
‘What a splendid store! A very, very good. store indeed! ‘
The customers turned round from the counters to stare at Koroviev in amazement, although there was every reason to praise the store. Hundreds of different bolts of richly coloured poplins stood in holders on the floor, whilst behind them the shelves were piled with calico, chiffon amd worsted. Racks full of shoes stretched into the distance where several women were sitting on low chairs, a worn old shoe on their right foot, a gleaming new one on their left. From somewhere out of sight came the sound of song and gramophone music.
Spurning all these delights Koroviev and Behemoth went straight to the delicatessen and confectionery departments. These were spaciously laid out and full of women in headscarves and berets. A short, completely square, blue-jowled little man wearing horn-rims, a pristine hat with unstained ribbon, dressed in a fawn overcoat and tan kid gloves, was standing at a counter and booming away in an authoritative voice at: an assistant in a clean white overall and blue cap. With a long sharp knife, very like the knife Matthew the Levite stole, he was easing the snake-like skin away from the fat, juicy flesh of a pink salmon.
‘This department is excellent, too,’ Koroviev solemnly pronounced ‘ and that foreigner looks a nice man.’ He pointed approvingly at the fawn coat.
‘No, Faggot, no’ answered Behemoth thoughtfully. ‘ You’re
wrong. I think there is something missing in that gentleman’s face.’
The fawn back quivered, but it was probably coincidence, because he was after all a foreigner and could not have understood what Koroviev and his companion had been saying in Russian.
‘Is goot? ‘ enquired the fawn customer in a stern voice.
‘First class! ‘ replied the assistant, showing off his blade-work with a flourish that lifted a whole side of skin from the salmon.
‘Is goot–I like, is bad–I not like,’ added the foreigner.
‘But of course! ‘ rejoined the salesman.
At this point our friends left the foreigner to his salmon and moved over to the cakes and pastries.
‘Hot today,’ said Koroviev to a pretty, red-cheeked young salesgirl, to which he got no reply.
‘How much are the tangerines? ‘ Koroviev then asked her.
‘Thirty kopeks the kilo,’ replied the salesgirl.
‘They look delicious,’ said Koroviev with a sigh, ‘ Oh, dear ‘ . . . He thought for a while longer, then turned to his friend. ‘ Try one. Behemoth.’
The stout cat-person tucked his Primus under his arm, took the uppermost tangerine off the pyramid, ate it whole, skin and all, and took another.
The salesgirl was appalled.
‘Hey–are you crazy? ‘ she screamed, the colour vanishing from her cheeks. ‘ Where are your travellers’ cheques or foreign currency? ‘ She threw down her pastry-tongs.
‘My dear, sweet girl,’ cooed Koroviev, leaning right across the counter and winking at the assistant,’ I can’t help it but we’re just out of currency today. I promise you I’ll pay you it all cash down next time, definitely not later than Monday! We live nearby on Sadovaya, where the house caught fire . . .’
Having demolished a third tangerine. Behemoth thrust his paw into an ingenious structure built of chocolate bars, pulled out the bottom one, which brought the whole thing down with a crash, and swallowed the chocolate complete with its gold wrapper.
The assistant at the fish counter stood petrified, knife in hand, the fawn-coated foreigner turned round towards the looters, revealing that Behemoth was wrong: far from his face lacking something it was if anything over-endowed–huge pendulous cheeks and bright, shifty eyes.
The salesgirl, now pale yellow, wailed miserably.
The sound brought customers running from the drapery department. Meanwhile Behemoth had wandered away from the temptations of the confectionery counter and thrust his paw into a barrel labelled ‘ Selected Kerch Salted Herrings,’ pulled out a couple of herrings, gulped them both down and spat out the tails.
‘Palosich! ‘ came another despairing shriek from the confectionery counter and the man at the fish counter, his goatee wagging in fury, barked :
‘Hey, you–what d’you think you’re doing!’
Pavel Yosifovich (reduced to ‘ Palosich’ in the excitement) was already hurrying to the scene of action. He was an imposing man in a clean white overall like a surgeon, with a pencil sticking out of his breast pocket. He was clearly a man of great experience. Catching sight of a herring’s tail protruding from Behemoth’s mouth he summed up the situation in a moment and refusing to join in a shouting match with the two villains, waved his arm and gave the order :
‘ Whistle! ‘
The porter shot out into Smolensk Market and relieved his feelings with a furious whistle-blast. As customers began edging up to the rogues and surrounding them, Koroviev went into action.
‘Citizens! ‘ he cried in a vibrant ringing voice,’ What’s going on here? Eh? I appeal to you! This poor man ‘–Koroviev put a tremor into his voice and pointed at Behemoth, who had immediately assumed a pathetic expression–‘ this poor man has been mending a Primus all day. He’s hungry . . . where could he get any foreign currency? ‘
Pavel Yosifovich, usually calm and reserved, shouted grimly:
‘Shut up, you! ‘ and gave another impatient wave of his arm. Just then the automatic bell on the door gave a cheerful tinkle. Koroviev, quite undisturbed by the manager’s remark, went on:
‘I ask you–where? He’s racked with hunger and thirst, he’s hot. So the poor fellow tried a tangerine. It’s only worth three kopecks at the most, but they have to start whistling like nightingales in springtime, bothering the police and stopping them from doing their proper job. But it’s all right for him isn’t it?! ‘
Koroviev pointed at the fat man in the fawn coat, who exhibited violent alarm. ‘ Who is he? Mm? Where’s he from? Why is he here? Were we dying of boredom without him? Did we invite him? Of course not! ‘ roared the ex-choirmaster, his mouth twisted into a sarcastic leer. ‘ Look at him–in his smart fawn coat, bloated with good Russian salmon, pockets bulging with currency, and what about our poor comrade here? What about him, I ask you? ‘ wailed Koroviev, completely overcome by his own oratory.
This ridiculous, tactless and doubtless politically dangerous speech made Pavel Yosifovich shake with rage, but strangely enough it was clear from the looks of the customers that many of them approved of it. And when Behemoth, wiping his eyes with a ragged cuff, cried tragically: ‘ Thank you, friend, for speaking up for a poor man,’ a miracle happened. A quiet, dignified, little old man, shabbily but neatly dressed, who had been buying three macaroons at the pastry counter, was suddenly transformed. His eyes flashed fire, he turned purple, threw his bagfull of macaroons on to the floor and shouted in a thin, childish voice : ‘ He’s right! ‘ Then he picked up a tray, threw away the remains of the chocolate-bar Eiffel Tower that Behemoth had ruined, waved it about, pulled off the foreigner’s hat with his left hand, swung the tray with his right and brought it down with a crash on the fawn man’s balding head. There was a noise of the kind you hear when sheet steel is thrown down from a lorry. Turning pale, the fat man staggered and fell backwards into the barrel of salted herrings, sending up a fountain of brine and fish-scales. This produced a second miracle. As the fawn man fell into the barrel of fish he screamed in perfect Russian without a trace of an accent:
‘Help! Murder! They’re trying to kill me! ‘ The shock had obviously given him sudden command of a hitherto unknown language.
The porter had by now stopped whistling and through the crowd of excited customers could be seen the approach of two police helmets. But the cunning Behemoth poured paraffin from the Primus on to the counter and it burst spontaneously into flame. It flared up and ran along the counter, devouring the beautiful paper ribbons decorating the baskets of fruit. The salesgirls leaped over the counter and ran away screaming as the flames caught the blinds on the windows and more paraffin caught alight on the floor.
With a shriek of horror the customers shuffled out of the confectionery, sweeping aside the helpless Pavel Yosifovich, while the fish salesmen galloped away towards the staff door, clutching their razor-sharp knives.
Heaving himself out of the barrel the fawn man, covered in salt-herring juice, staggered past the salmon counter and followed the crowd. There was a tinkling and crashing of glass at the doorway as the public fought to get out, whilst the two villains, Koroviev and the gluttonous Behemoth, disappeared, no one knew where. Later, witnesses described having seen them float up to the ceiling and then burst like a couple of balloons. This story sounds too dubious for belief and we shall probably never know what really happened.
We do know however that exactly a minute later Behemoth and Koroviev were seen on the boulevard pavement just outside Griboyedov House. Koroviev stopped by the railings and said:
‘Look, there’s the writers’ club. You know. Behemoth, that house has a great reputation. Look at it, my friend. How lovely to think of so much talent ripening under that roof.’
‘Like pineapples in a hothouse,’ said Behemoth, climbing up on to the concrete plinth of the railings for a better look at the yellow, colonnaded house.
‘Quite so,’ agreed his inseparable companion Koroviev, ‘ and what a delicious thrill one gets, doesn’t one, to think that at this moment in that house there may be the future author of a Don Quixote, or a Faust or who knows–Dead Souls? ‘
‘It could easily happen,’ said Behemoth.
‘Yes,’ Koroviev went on, wagging a warning finger, ‘ but– but, I say, and I repeat–but! . . provided that those hothouse growths are not attacked by some microorganism, provided they’re not nipped in the bud, provided they don’t rot! And it can happen with pineapples, you know! Ah, yes, it can happen!’
‘Frightening thought,’ said Behemoth.
‘Yes,’ Koroviev went on, ‘ think what astonishing growths may sprout from the seedbeds of that house and its thousands of devotees of Melpomene, Polyhymnia and Thalia. Just imagine the furore if one of them were to present the reading public with a Government Inspector or at least a Eugene Onegm!’
‘By the way,’ enquired the cat poking its round head through a gap in the railings. ‘ what are they doing on the verandah? ‘
‘Eating,’ explained Koroviev. ‘ I should add that this place has a very decent, cheap restaurant. And now that I think of it, like any tourist starting on a long journey I wouldn’t mind a snack and large mug of iced beer.’
‘Nor would I,’ said Behemoth and the two rogues set off under the lime trees and up the asphalt path towards the unsuspecting restaurant.
A pale, bored woman in white ankle-socks and a white tasselled beret was sitting on a bentwood chair at the corner entrance to the verandah, where there was an opening in the creeper-grown trellis. In front of her on a plain kitchen table lay a large book like a ledger, in which for no known reason the woman wrote the names of the people entering the restaurant. She stopped Koroviev and Behemoth.
‘Your membership cards?’ she said, staring in surprise at Koroviev’s pince-nez, at Behemoth’s Primus and grazed elbow.
‘A thousand apologies, madam, but what membership cards? ‘ asked Koroviev in astonishment.
‘Are you writers? ‘ asked the woman in return.
‘Indubitably,’ replied Koroviev with dignity.
‘Where are your membership cards? ‘ the woman repeated.
‘Dear lady . . .’ Koroviev began tenderly.
‘I’m not a dear lady,’ interrupted the woman.
‘Oh, what a shame,’ said Koroviev in a disappointed voice and went on : ‘ Well, if you don’t want to be a dear lady, which would have been delightful, you have every right not to be. But look here–if you wanted to make sure that Dostoyevsky was a writer, would you really ask him for his membership card? Why, you only have to take any five pages of one of his novels and you won’t need a membership card to convince you that the man’s a writer. I don’t suppose he ever had a membership card, anyway I What do you think?’ said Koroviev, turning to Behemoth.
‘I’ll bet he never had one,’ replied the cat, putting the Primus on the table and wiping the sweat from its brow with its paw.
‘ You’re not Dostoyevsky,’ said the woman to Koroviev.
‘ How do you know? ‘
‘Dostoyevsky’s dead,’ said the woman, though not very confidently.
‘I protest! ‘ exclaimed Behemoth warmly. ‘ Dostoyevsky is immortal!’
‘Your membership cards, please,’ said the woman.
‘This is really all rather funny! ‘ said Koroviev, refusing to give up. ‘A writer isn’t a writer because he has a membership card but because he writes. How do you know what bright ideas may not be swarming in my head? Or in his head? ‘ And he pointed at Behemoth’s head. The cat removed its cap to give the woman a better look at its head. ‘ Stand back, please,’ she said, irritated.
Koroviev and Behemoth stood aside and made way for a writer in a grey suit and a white summer shirt with the collar turned out over his jacket collar, no tie and a newspaper under his arm. The writer nodded to the woman and scribbled a flourish in the book as he passed through to the verandah.
‘We can’t,’ said Koroviev sadly,’ but he can have that mug of cold beer which you and I, poor wanderers, were so longing for. We are in an unhappy position and I see no way out.’
Behemoth only spread his paws bitterly and put his cap back on his thick head of hair that much resembled cat’s fur.
At that moment a quiet but authoritative voice said to the woman :
‘Let them in, Sofia Pavlovna.’
The woman with the ledger looked up in astonishment. From behind the trellis foliage loomed the pirate’s white shirt-front and wedge-shaped beard. He greeted the two ruffians with a welcoming look and even went so far as to beckon them on. Archibald Archibaldovich made his authority felt in this restaurant and Sofia Pavlovna obediently asked Koroviev :
‘What is your name? ‘
‘Panayev,’ was the polite reply. The woman wrote down the name and raised her questioning glance to Behemoth.
‘Skabichevsky,’ squeaked the cat, for some reason pointing to his Primus. Sofia Pavlovna inscribed this name too and pushed the ledger forward for the two visitors to sign. Koroviev wrote ‘ Skabichevsky’ opposite the name ‘ Panayev’ and Behemoth wrote ‘ Panayev ‘ opposite ‘ Skabichevsky ‘.
To Sofia Pavlovna’s utter surprise Archibald Archibaldovich gave her a seductive smile, led his guests to the best table on the far side of the verandah where there was the most shade, where the sunlight danced round the table through one of the gaps in the trellis. Blinking with perplexity, Sofia Pavlovna stared for a long time at the two curious signatures.
The waiters were no less surprised. Archibald Archibaldovich personally moved the chairs back from the table, invited Koroviev to be seated, winked at one, whispered to the other, while two waiters fussed around the new arrivals, one of whom put his Primus on the floor beside his reddish-brown boot.
The old stained tabledoth vanished instantly from the table and another, whiter than a bedouin’s burnous, flashed through the air in a crackle of starch as Archibald Archibaldovich whispered, softly, but most expressively, into Koroviev’s ear :
‘What can I offer you? I’ve a rather special fillet of smoked sturgeon … I managed to save it from the architectural congress banquet…’
‘Er . . . just bring us some hors d’oeuvres . . .’ boomed Koroviev patronisingly, sprawling in his chair.
‘Of course,’ replied Archibald Archibaldovich, closing his eyes in exquisite comprehension.
Seeing how the maitre d’hotel was treating these two dubious guests, the waiters abandoned their suspicions and set about their work seriously. One offered a match to Behemoth, who had taken a butt-end out of his pocket and stuck it in his mouth, another advanced in a tinkle of green glass and laid out tumblers, claret-glasses and those tall-stemmed white wine glasses which are so perfect for drinking a sparkling wine under the awning– or rather, moving on in time, which used to be so perfect for drinking sparkling wine under the verandah awning at Griboyedov.
‘A little breast of grouse, perhaps? ‘ said Archibald Archibaldovich in a musical purr. The guest in the shaky pince-nez thoroughly approved the pirate captain’s suggestion and beamed at him through his one useless lens.
Petrakov-Sukhovei, the essayist, was dining at the next table with his wife and had just finished eating a pork chop. With typical writer’s curiosity he had noticed the fuss that Archibald Archibaldovich was making and was extremely surprised. His wife, a most dignified lady, felt jealous of the pirate’s attention to Koroviev and tapped her glass with a spoon as a sign of impatience . . . where’s my ice-cream? What’s happened to the service? With a flattering smile at Madame Petrakov, Archibald Archibaldovich sent a waiter to her and stayed with his two special customers. Archibald Archibaldovich was not only intelligent;
he was at least as observant as any writer. He knew all about the show at the Variety and much else besides ; he had heard, and unlike most people he had not forgotten, the words’ checks ‘ and ‘ cat’. Archibald Archibaldovich had immediately guessed who his clients were and realising this, he was not going to risk having an argument with them. And Sofia Pavlovna had tried to stop them coming on to the verandah! Still, what else could you expect from her. . . .
Haughtily spooning up her melting ice-cream, Madame Petrakov watched disagreeably as the table, occupied by what appeared to be a couple of scarecrows, was loaded with food as if by magic. A bowl of fresh caviar, garnished with sparkling lettuce leaves . . . another moment, and a silver ice-bucket appeared on a special little side-table . . .
Only when he had made sure that all was properly in hand and when the waiters had brought a simmering chafing-dish, did Archibald Archibaldovich allow himself to leave his two mysterious guests, and then only after whispering to them:
‘Please excuse me–I must go and attend to the grouse!’
He fled from the table and disappeared inside the restaurant. If anyone had observed what Archibald Archibaldovich did next, they might have thought it rather strange.
The maitre d’hotel did not make for the kitchen to attend to the grouse, but instead went straight to the larder. Opening it with his key, he locked himself in, lifted two heavy fillets of smoked sturgeon out of the ice box, taking care not to dirty his shirt-cuffs, wrapped them in newspaper, carefully tied them up with string and put them to one side. Then he went next door to check whether his silk-lined overcoat and hat were there, and only then did he pass on to the kitchen, where the chef was carefully slicing the breast of grouse.
Odd though Archibald Archibaldovich’s movements may have seemed, they were not, and would only have seemed so to a superficial observer. His actions were really quite logical. His knowledge of recent events and above all his phenomenal sixth sense told the Griboyedov maitre d’hotel that although his two guests’ meal would be plentiful and delicious, it would be extremely short. And this ex-buccaneer’s sixth sense, which had never yet played him false, did not let him down this time, either.
Just as Koroviev and Behemoth were clinking their second glass of delicious, chilled, double-filtered Moscow vodka, a journalist called Boba Kaudalupsky, famous in Moscow for knowing everything that was going on, arrived on the verandah sweating with excitement and immediately sat down at the Petrakovs’ table. Dropping his bulging briefcase on the table, Boba put his lips to Petrakov’s ear and whispered some obviously fascinating piece of news. Dying with curiosity, madame Petra-kov leaned her ear towards Boba’s thick, fleshy lips. With furtive glances the journalist whispered on and on, just loud enough for occasional words to be heard :
‘I promise you! . . . Here, on Sadovaya Street. . .! ‘ Boba lowered his voice again. ‘ . . . the bullets couldn’t hit it … bullets . . . paraffin . . . fire . . . bullets . . .’
‘Well, as for liars who spread rumours like that,’ came madame Petrakov’s contralto boom, a shade too loud for Boba’s liking, ‘ they’re the ones who should be shot! And they would be if I had my way. What a lot of dangerous rubbish! ‘
‘It’s not rubbish Antonia Porfiryevna,’ exclaimed Boba, piqued at her disbelief. He began hissing again: ‘ I tell you, bullets couldn’t touch it! … And now the building’s on fire . . . they floated out through the air … through the air!’ whispered Boba, never suspecting that the people he was talking about were sitting alongside him and thoroughly enjoying the situation.
However, their enjoyment was soon cut short. Three men, tightly belted, booted and armed with revolvers, dashed out of the indoor restaurant and on to the verandah. The man in front roared:
‘ Don’t move!’ and instantly all three opened fire at the heads of Koroviev and Behemoth. The two victims melted into the air and a sheet of flame leaped up from the Primus to the awning. A gaping mouth with burning edges appeared in the awning and began spreading in all directions. The fire raced across it and reached the roof of Griboyedov House. Some bundles of paper lying on the second-floor windowsill of the editor’s office burst into flame, which spread to a blind and then, as though someone had blown on it, the fire was sucked, roaring, into the house.
A few seconds later the writers, their suppers abandoned, were streaming along the asphalted paths leading to the iron railings along the boulevard, where on Wednesday evening Ivan had climbed over to bring the first incomprehensible news of disaster.
Having left in good time by a side door, without running and in no hurry, like a captain forced to be the last to leave his flaming brig, Archibald Archibaldovich calmly stood and watched it all. He wore his silk-lined overcoat and two fillets of smoked sturgeon were tucked under his arm.