CHAPTER 12. Black Magic and Its Exposure

A small man in a yellow bowler-hat full of holes and with a pear-shaped, raspberry-coloured nose, in checkered trousers and patent-leather shoes, rolled out on to the stage of the Variety on an ordinary two-wheeled bicycle. To the sounds of a foxtrot he made a circle, and then gave a triumphant shout, which caused his bicycle to rear up. After riding around on the back wheel, the little man turned upside down, contrived while in motion to unscrew the front wheel and send it backstage, and then proceeded on his way with one wheel, turning the pedals with his hands.

On a tall metal pole with a seat at the top and a single wheel, a plump blonde rolled out in tights and a little skirt strewn with silver stars, and began riding in a circle. As he met her, the little man uttered cries of greeting, doffing his bowler-hat with his foot.

Finally, a little eight-year-old with an elderly face came rolling out and began scooting about among the adults on a tiny two-wheeler furnished with an enormous automobile horn.

After making several loops, the whole company, to the alarming drum-beats of the orchestra, rolled to the very edge of the stage, and the spectators in the front rows gasped and drew back, because it seemed to the public that the whole trio with its vehicles was about to crash down into the orchestra pit.

But the bicycles stopped just at the moment when the front wheels threatened to slide into the abyss on the heads of the musicians. With a loud shout of ‘Hup!’ the cyclists jumped off their vehicles and bowed, the blonde woman blowing kisses to the public, and the little one tooting a funny signal on his horn.

Applause shook the building, the light-blue curtain came from both sides and covered the cyclists, the green ‘Exit’ lights by the doors went out, and in the web of trapezes under the cupola white spheres lit up like the sun. It was the intermission before the last part.

The only man who was not the least bit interested in the wonders of the Giulli family’s cycling technique was Grigory Danilovich Rimsky. In complete solitude he sat in his office, biting his thin lips, a spasm passing over his face from time to time. To the extraordinary disappearance of Likhodeev had now been added the wholly unforeseen disappearance of Varenukha.

Rimsky knew where he had gone, but he had gone and … not come back! Rimsky shrugged his shoulders and whispered to himself:

‘But what for?’

And it was strange: for such a practical man as the findirector, the simplest thing would, of course, have been to call the place where Varenukha had gone and find out what had befallen him, yet until ten o’clock at night he had been unable to force himself to do it.

At ten, doing outright violence to himself, Rimsky picked up the receiver and here discovered that his telephone was dead. The messenger reported that the other telephones in the building were also out of order. This certainly unpleasant, though hardly supernatural, occurrence for some reason thoroughly shocked the findirector, but at the same time he was glad: the need to call fell away.

Just as the red light over the findirector’s head lit up and blinked, announcing the beginning of the intermission, a messenger came in and informed him of the foreign artiste’s arrival. The findirector cringed for some reason, and, blacker than a storm cloud, went backstage to receive the visitor, since there was no one else to receive him.

Under various pretexts, curious people kept peeking into the big dressing room from the corridor, where the signal bell was already ringing. Among them were conjurers in bright robes and turbans, a skater in a white knitted jacket, a storyteller pale with powder and the make-up man.

The newly arrived celebrity struck everyone by his marvellously cut tailcoat, of a length never seen before, and by his having come in a black half-mask. But most remarkable of all were the black magician’s two companions: a long checkered one with a cracked pince-nez, and a fat black cat who came into the dressing room on his hind legs and quite nonchalantly sat on the sofa squinting at the bare make-up lights.

Rimsky attempted to produce a smile on his face, which made it look sour and spiteful, and bowed to the silent black magician, who was seated on the sofa beside the cat. There was no handshake. Instead, the easygoing checkered one made his own introductions to the findirector, calling himself ‘the gent’s assistant’. This circumstance surprised the findirector, and unpleasantly so: there was decidedly no mention of any assistant in the contract.

Quite stiffly and drily, Grigory Danilovich inquired of this fallen-from-the-sky checkered one where the artiste’s paraphernalia was.

‘Our heavenly diamond, most precious mister director,’ the magician’s assistant replied in a rattling voice, ‘the paraphernalia is always with us. Here it is! Ein, zwei, drei!’ And, waving his knotty fingers before Rimsky’s eyes, he suddenly took from behind the cat’s ear Rimsky’s own gold watch and chain, hitherto worn by the findirector in his waistcoat pocket, under his buttoned coat, with the chain through a buttonhole.

Rimsky inadvertently clutched his stomach, those present gasped, and the make-up man, peeking in the doorway, grunted approvingly.

‘Your little watchie? Kindly take it,’ the checkered one said, smiling casually and offering the bewildered Rimsky his own property on a dirty palm.

‘No getting on a tram with that one,’ the storyteller whispered quietly and merrily to the make-up man.

But the cat pulled a neater trick than the number with the stolen watch. Getting up from the sofa unexpectedly, he walked on his hind legs to the dressing table, pulled the stopper out of the carafe with his front paw, poured water into a glass, drank it, installed the stopper in its place, and wiped his whiskers with a make-up cloth.

Here no one even gasped, their mouths simply fell open, and the make-up man whispered admiringly:

‘That’s class!’

Just then the bells rang alarmingly for the third time, and everyone, agitated and anticipating an interesting number, thronged out of the dressing room.

A moment later the spheres went out in the theatre, the footlights blazed up, lending a reddish glow to the base of the curtain, and in the lighted gap of the curtain there appeared before the public a plump man, merry as a baby, with a clean-shaven face, in a rumpled tailcoat and none-too-fresh shirt. This was the master of ceremonies, well known to all Moscow – Georges Bengalsky.

‘And now, citizens,’ Bengalsky began, smiling his baby smile, ‘there is about to come before you …’ Here Bengalsky interrupted himself and spoke in a different tone: ‘I see the audience has grown for the third part. We’ve got half the city here! I met a friend the other day and said to him: “Why don’t you come to our show? Yesterday we had half the city.” And he says to me: “I live in the other half!” ’ Bengalsky paused, waiting for a burst of laughter, but as no one laughed, he went on: ‘… And so, now comes the famous foreign artiste, Monsieur Woland, with a seance of black magic. Well, both you and I know,’ here Bengalsky smiled a wise smile, ‘that there’s no such thing in the world, and that it’s all just superstition, and Maestro Woland is simply a perfect master of the technique of conjuring, as we shall see from the most interesting part, that is, the exposure of this technique, and since we’re all of us to a man both for technique and for its exposure, let’s bring on Mr Woland! …’

After uttering all this claptrap, Bengalsky pressed his palms together and waved them in greeting through the slit of the curtain, which caused it to part with a soft rustle.

The entrance of the magician with his long assistant and the cat, who came on stage on his hind legs, pleased the audience greatly.

‘An armchair for me,’ Woland ordered in a low voice, and that same second an armchair appeared on stage, no one knew how or from where, in which the magician sat down. ‘Tell me, my gentle Fagott,’ Woland inquired of the checkered clown, who evidently had another appellation than Koroviev, ‘what do you think, the Moscow populace has changed significantly, hasn’t it?’

The magician looked out at the hushed audience, struck by the appearance of the armchair out of nowhere.

‘That it has, Messire,’ Fagott-Koroviev replied in a low voice.

‘You’re right. The city folk have changed greatly … externally, that is … as has the city itself, incidentally … Not to mention their clothing, these … what do you call them … trams, automobiles … have appeared …’

‘Buses…’ Fagott prompted deferentially.

The audience listened attentively to this conversation, thinking it constituted a prelude to the magic tricks. The wings were packed with performers and stage-hands, and among their faces could be seen the tense, pale face of Rimsky.

The physiognomy of Bengalsky, who had retreated to the side of the stage, began to show some perplexity. He raised one eyebrow slightly and, taking advantage of a pause, spoke:

‘The foreign artiste is expressing his admiration for Moscow and its technological development, as well as for the Muscovites.’ Here Bengalsky smiled twice, first to the stalls, then to the gallery.

Woland, Fagott and the cat turned their heads in the direction of the master of ceremonies.

‘Did I express admiration?’ the magician asked the checkered Fagott.

‘By no means, Messire, you never expressed any admiration,’ came the reply.

‘Then what is the man saying?’

‘He quite simply lied!’ the checkered assistant declared sonorously, for the whole theatre to hear, and turning to Bengalsky, he added: ‘Congrats, citizen, you done lied!’

Tittering spattered from the gallery, but Bengalsky gave a start and goggled his eyes.

‘Of course, I’m not so much interested in buses, telephones and other…’

‘Apparatuses,’ the checkered one prompted.

‘Quite right, thank you,’ the magician spoke slowly in a heavy bass, ‘as in a question of much greater importance: have the city folk changed inwardly?’

‘Yes, that is the most important question, sir.’

There was shrugging and an exchanging of glances in the wings, Bengalsky stood all red, and Rimsky was pale. But here, as if sensing the nascent alarm, the magician said:

‘However, we’re talking away, my dear Fagott, and the audience is beginning to get bored. My gentle Fagott, show us some simple little thing to start with.’

The audience stirred. Fagott and the cat walked along the footlights to opposite sides of the stage. Fagott snapped his fingers, and with a rollicking ‘Three, four!’ snatched a deck of cards from the air, shuffled it, and sent it in a long ribbon to the cat. The cat intercepted it and sent it back. The satiny snake whiffled, Fagott opened his mouth like a nestling and swallowed it all card by card. After which the cat bowed, scraping his right hind paw, winning himself unbelievable applause.

‘Class! Real class!’ rapturous shouts came from the wings.

And Fagott jabbed his finger at the stalls and announced:

‘You’ll find that same deck, esteemed citizens, on citizen Parchevsky in the seventh row, just between a three-rouble bill and a summons to court in connection with the payment of alimony to citizen Zelkova.’

There was a stirring in the stalls, people began to get up, and finally some citizen whose name was indeed Parchevsky, all crimson with amazement, extracted the deck from his wallet and began sticking it up in the air, not knowing what to do with it.

‘You may keep it as a souvenir!’ cried Fagott. ‘Not for nothing did you say at dinner yesterday that if it weren’t for poker your life in Moscow would be utterly unbearable.’

‘An old trick!’ came from the gallery. ‘The one in the stalls is from the same company.’

‘You think so?’ shouted Fagott, squinting at the gallery. ‘In that case you’re also one of us, because the deck is now in your pocket!’

There was movement in the balcony, and a joyful voice said:

‘Right! He’s got it! Here, here! … Wait! It’s ten-rouble bills!’ Those sitting in the stalls turned their heads. In the gallery a bewildered citizen found in his pocket a bank-wrapped packet with ‘One thousand roubles’ written on it. His neighbours hovered over him, and he, in amazement, picked at the wrapper with his fingernail, trying to find out if the bills were real or some sort of magic ones.

‘By God, they’re real! Ten-rouble bills!’ joyful cries came from the gallery.

‘I want to play with the same kind of deck,’ a fat man in the middle of the stalls requested merrily.

‘Avec playzeer!’ Fagott responded. ‘But why just you? Everyone will warmly participate!’ And he commanded: ‘Look up, please! … One!’ There was a pistol in his hand. He shouted: ‘Two!’ The pistol was pointed up. He shouted: ‘Three!’ There was a flash, a bang, and all at once, from under the cupola, bobbing between the trapezes, white strips of paper began falling into the theatre.

They twirled, got blown aside, were drawn towards the gallery, bounced into the orchestra and on to the stage. In a few seconds, the rain of money, ever thickening, reached the seats, and the spectators began snatching at it.

Hundreds of arms were raised, the spectators held the bills up to the lighted stage and saw the most true and honest-to-God watermarks. The smell also left no doubts: it was the incomparably delightful smell of freshly printed money. The whole theatre was seized first with merriment and then with amazement. The word ‘money, money!’ hummed everywhere, there were gasps of ‘ah, ah!’ and merry laughter. One or two were already crawling in the aisles, feeling under the chairs. Many stood on the seats, trying to catch the flighty, capricious notes.

Bewilderment was gradually coming to the faces of the policemen, and performers unceremoniously began sticking their heads out from the wings.

In the dress circle a voice was heard: ‘What’re you grabbing at? It’s mine, it flew to me!’ and another voice: ‘Don’t shove me, or you’ll get shoved back!’ And suddenly there came the sound of a whack. At once a policeman’s helmet appeared in the dress circle, and someone from the dress circle was led away.

The general agitation was increasing, and no one knows where it all would have ended if Fagott had not stopped the rain of money by suddenly blowing into the air.

Two young men, exchanging significant and merry glances, took off from their seats and made straight for the buffet. There was a hum in the theatre, all the spectators’ eyes glittered excitedly. Yes, yes, no one knows where it all would have ended if Bengalsky had not summoned his strength and acted. Trying to gain better control of himself, he rubbed his hands, as was his custom, and in his most resounding voice spoke thus:

‘Here, citizens, you and I have just beheld a case of so-called mass hypnosis. A purely scientific experiment, proving in the best way possible that there are no miracles in magic. Let us ask Maestro Woland to expose this experiment for us. Presently, citizens, you will see these supposed banknotes disappear as suddenly as they appeared.’

Here he applauded, but quite alone, while a confident smile played on his face, yet in his eyes there was no such confidence, but rather an expression of entreaty.

The audience did not like Bengalsky’s speech. Total silence fell, which was broken by the checkered Fagott.

‘And this is a case of so-called lying,’ he announced in a loud, goatish tenor. ‘The notes, citizens, are genuine.’

‘Bravo!’ a bass barked from somewhere on high.

‘This one, incidentally,’ here Fagott pointed to Bengalsky, ‘annoys me. Keeps poking his nose where nobody’s asked him, spoils the seance with false observations! What’re we going to do with him?’

‘Tear his head off!’ someone up in the gallery said severely.

‘What’s that you said? Eh?’ Fagott responded at once to this outrageous suggestion. ‘Tear his head off? There’s an idea! Behemoth!’ he shouted to the cat. ‘Go to it! Ein, zwei, drei!!’

And an unheard-of thing occurred. The fur bristled on the cat’s back, and he gave a rending miaow. Then he compressed himself into a ball and shot like a panther straight at Bengalsky’s chest, and from there on to his head. Growling, the cat sank his plump paws into the skimpy chevelure of the master of ceremonies and in two twists tore the head from the thick neck with a savage howl.

The two and a half thousand people in the theatre cried out as one. Blood spurted in fountains from the torn neck arteries and poured over the shirt-front and tailcoat. The headless body paddled its feet somehow absurdly and sat down on the floor. Hysterical women’s cries came from the audience. The cat handed the head to Fagott, who lifted it up by the hair and showed it to the audience, and the head cried desperately for all the theatre to hear:

‘A doctor!’

‘Will you pour out such drivel in the future?’ Fagott asked the weeping head menacingly.

‘Never again!’ croaked the head.

‘For God’s sake, don’t torture him!’ a woman’s voice from a box seat suddenly rose above the clamour, and the magician turned in the direction of that voice.

‘So, what then, citizens, shall we forgive him?’ Fagott asked, addressing the audience.

‘Forgive him, forgive him!’ separate voices, mostly women’s, spoke first, then merged into one chorus with the men’s.

‘What are your orders, Messire?’ Fagott asked the masked man.

‘Well, now,’ the latter replied pensively, ‘they’re people like any other people … They love money, but that has always been so … Mankind loves money, whatever it’s made of — leather, paper, bronze, gold. Well, they’re light-minded … well, what of it … mercy sometimes knocks at their hearts … ordinary people … In general, reminiscent of the former ones … only the housing problem has corrupted them…’ And he ordered loudly: ‘Tut the head on.’

The cat, aiming accurately, planted the head on the neck, and it sat exactly in its place, as if it had never gone anywhere. Above all, there was not even any scar left on the neck. The cat brushed Bengalsky’s tailcoat and shirt-front with his paws, and all traces of blood disappeared from them. Fagott got the sitting Bengalsky to his feet, stuck a packet of money into his coat pocket, and sent him from the stage with the words:

‘Buzz off, it’s more fun without you!’

Staggering and looking around senselessly, the master of ceremonies had plodded no farther than the fire post when he felt sick. He cried out pitifully:

‘My head, my head! …’

Among those who rushed to him was Rimsky. The master of ceremonies wept, snatched at something in the air with his hands, and muttered:

‘Give me my head, give me back my head … Take my apartment, take my paintings, only give me back my head! …’

A messenger ran for a doctor. They tried to lie Bengalsky down on a sofa in the dressing room, but he began to struggle, became violent. They had to call an ambulance. When the unfortunate master of ceremonies was taken away, Rimsky ran back to the stage and saw that new wonders were taking place on it. Ah, yes, incidentally, either then or a little earlier, the magician disappeared from the stage together with his faded armchair, and it must be said that the public took absolutely no notice of it, carried away as it was by the extraordinary things Fagott was unfolding on stage.

And Fagott, having packed off the punished master of ceremonies, addressed the public thus:

‘All righty, now that we’ve kicked that nuisance out, let’s open a ladies’ shop!’

And all at once the floor of the stage was covered with Persian carpets, huge mirrors appeared, lit by greenish tubes at the sides, and between the mirrors — display windows, and in them the merrily astonished spectators saw Parisian ladies’ dresses of various colours and cuts. In some of the windows, that is, while in others there appeared hundreds of ladies’ hats, with feathers and without feathers, and — with buckles or without – hundreds of shoes, black, white, yellow, leather, satin, suede, with straps, with stones. Among the shoes there appeared cases of perfume, mountains of handbags of antelope hide, suede, silk, and among these, whole heaps of little elongated cases of gold metal such as usually contain lipstick.

A red-headed girl appeared from devil knows where in a black evening dress — a girl nice in all respects, had she not been marred by a queer scar on her neck — smiling a proprietary smile by the display windows.

Fagott, grinning sweetly, announced that the firm was offering perfectly gratis an exchange of the ladies’ old dresses and shoes for Parisian models and Parisian shoes. The same held, he added, for the handbags and other things.

The cat began scraping with his hind paw, while his front paw performed the gestures appropriate to a doorman opening a door.

The girl sang out sweetly, though with some hoarseness, rolling her r’s, something not quite comprehensible but, judging by the women’s faces in the stalls, very tempting:

‘Gu?rlain, Chanel, Mitsouko, Narcisse Noir, Chanel No. 5, evening gowns, cocktail dresses …’

Fagott wriggled, the cat bowed, the girl opened the glass windows.

‘Welcome!’ yelled Fagott. ‘With no embarrassment or ceremony!’

The audience was excited, but as yet no one ventured on stage. Finally some brunette stood up in the tenth row of the stalls and, smiling as if to say it was all the same to her and she did not give a hoot, went and climbed on stage by the side stairs.

‘Bravo!’ Fagott shouted. ‘Greetings to the first customer! Behemoth, a chair! Let’s start with the shoes, madame.’

The brunette sat in the chair, and Fagott at once poured a whole heap of shoes on the rug in front of her. The brunette removed her right shoe, tried a lilac one, stamped on the rug, examined the heel.

‘They won’t pinch?’ she asked pensively.

To this Fagott exclaimed with a hurt air:

‘Come, come!’ and the cat miaowed resentfully.

‘I’ll take this pair, m’sieur,’ the brunette said with dignity, putting on the second shoe as well.

The brunette’s old shoes were tossed behind a curtain, and she proceeded there herself, accompanied by the red-headed girl and Fagott, who was carrying several fashionable dresses on hangers. The cat bustled about, helped, and for greater importance hung a measuring tape around his neck.

A minute later the brunette came from behind the curtain in such a dress that the stalls all let out a gasp. The brave woman, who had become astonishingly prettier, stopped at the mirror, moved her bare shoulders, touched the hair on her nape and, twisting, tried to peek at her back.

‘The firm asks you to accept this as a souvenir,’ said Fagott, and he offered the brunette an open case with a flacon in it.

‘Merci,’ the brunette said haughtily and went down the steps to the stalls. As she walked, the spectators jumped up and touched the case.

And here there came a clean breakthrough, and from all sides women marched on to the stage. Amid the general agitation of talk, chuckles and gasps, a man’s voice was heard: ‘I won’t allow it!’ and a woman’s: ‘Despot and philistine! Don’t break my arm!’ Women disappeared behind the curtain, leaving their dresses there and coming out in new ones. A whole row of ladies sat on stools with gilded legs, stamping the carpet energetically with newly shod feet. Fagott was on his knees, working away with a metal shoehorn; the cat, fainting under piles of purses and shoes, plodded back and forth between the display windows and the stools; the girl with the disfigured neck appeared and disappeared, and reached the point where she started rattling away entirely in French, and, surprisingly, the women all understood her from half a word, even those who did not know a single word of French.

General amazement was aroused by a man edging his way on-stage. He announced that his wife had the flu, and he therefore asked that something be sent to her through him. As proof that he was indeed married, the citizen was prepared to show his passport. The solicitous husband’s announcement was met with guffaws. Fagott shouted that he believed him like his own self, even without the passport, and handed the citizen two pairs of silk stockings, and the cat for his part added a little tube of lipstick.

Late-coming women tore on to the stage, and off the stage the lucky ones came pouring down in ball gowns, pyjamas with dragons, sober formal outfits, little hats tipped over one eyebrow.

Then Fagott announced that owing to the lateness of the hour, the shop would close in exactly one minute until the next evening, and an unbelievable scramble arose on-stage. Women hastily grabbed shoes without trying them on. One burst behind the curtain like a storm, got out of her dress there, took possession of the first thing that came to hand – a silk dressing-gown covered with huge bouquets — and managed to pick up two cases of perfume besides.

Exactly a minute later a pistol shot rang out, the mirrors disappeared, the display windows and stools dropped away, the carpet melted into air, as did the curtain. Last to disappear was the high mountain of old dresses and shoes, and the stage was again severe, empty and bare.

And it was here that a new character mixed into the affair. A pleasant, sonorous, and very insistent baritone came from box no. 2:

‘All the same it is desirable, citizen artiste, that you expose the technique of your tricks to the spectators without delay, especially the trick with the paper money. It is also desirable that the master of ceremonies return to the stage. The spectators are concerned about his fate.’

The baritone belonged to none other than that evening’s guest of honour, Arkady Apollonovich Sempleyarov, chairman of the Acoustics Commission of the Moscow theatres.

Arkady Apollonovich was in his box with two ladies: the older one dressed expensively and fashionably, the other one, young and pretty, dressed in a simpler way. The first, as was soon discovered during the drawing up of the report, was Arkady Apollonovich’s wife, and the second was his distant relation, a promising debutante, who had come from Saratov and was living in the apartment of Arkady Apollonovich and his wife.

‘Pardone!’ Fagott replied. ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing here to expose, it’s all clear.’

‘No, excuse me! The exposure is absolutely necessary. Without it your brilliant numbers will leave a painful impression. The mass of spectators demands an explanation.’

‘The mass of spectators,’ the impudent clown interrupted Sempleyarov, ‘doesn’t seem to be saying anything. But, in consideration of your most esteemed desire, Arkady Apollonovich, so be it – I will perform an exposure. But, to that end, will you allow me one more tiny number?’

‘Why not?’ Arkady Apollonovich replied patronizingly. ‘But there must be an exposure.’

‘Very well, very well, sir. And so, allow me to ask, where were you last evening, Arkady Apollonovich?’

At this inappropriate and perhaps even boorish question, Arkady Apollonovich’s countenance changed, and changed quite drastically.

‘Last evening Arkady Apollonovich was at a meeting of the Acoustics Commission,’ Arkady Apollonovich’s wife declared very haughtily, ‘but I don’t understand what that has got to do with magic.’

‘Ouee, madame!’ Fagott agreed. ‘Naturally you don’t understand. As for the meeting, you are totally deluded. After driving off to the said meeting, which incidentally was not even scheduled for last night, Arkady Apollonovich dismissed his chauffeur at the Acoustics Commission building on Clean Ponds’ (the whole theatre became hushed), ‘and went by bus to Yelokhovskaya Street to visit an actress from the regional itinerant theatre, Militsa Andreevna Pokobatko, with whom he spent some four hours.’

‘Aie!’ someone cried out painfully in the total silence.

Arkady Apollonovich’s young relation suddenly broke into a low and terrible laugh.

‘It’s all clear!’ she exclaimed. ‘And I’ve long suspected it. Now I see why that giftless thing got the role of Louisa!’[85]

And, swinging suddenly, she struck Arkady Apollonovich on the head with her short and fat violet umbrella.

Meanwhile, the scoundrelly Fagott, alias Koroviev, was shouting:

‘Here, honourable citizens, is one case of the exposure Arkady Apollonovich so importunately insisted on!’

‘How dare you touch Arkady Apollonovich, you vile creature!’ Arkady Apollonovich’s wife asked threateningly, rising in the box to all her gigantic height.

A second brief wave of satanic laughter seized the young relation.

‘Who else should dare touch him,’ she answered, guffawing, ‘if not me!’ And for the second time there came the dry, crackling sound of the umbrella bouncing off the head of Arkady Apollonovich.

‘Police! Seize her!!’ Sempleyarov’s wife shouted in such a terrible voice that many hearts went cold.

And here the cat also leaped out to the footlights and suddenly barked in a human voice for all the theatre to hear:

‘The seance is over! Maestro! Hack out a march!’

The half-crazed conductor, unaware of what he was doing, waved his baton, and the orchestra did not play, or even strike up, or even bang away at, but precisely, in the cat’s loathsome expression, hacked out some incredible march of an unheard-of brashness.

For a moment there was an illusion of having heard once upon a time, under southern stars, in a caf?-chantant, some barely intelligible, half-blind, but rollicking words to this march:

His Excellency reached the stage

Of liking barnyard fowl.

He took under his patronage

Three young girls and an owl!!!



Or maybe these were not the words at all, but there were others to the same music, extremely indecent ones. That is not the important thing, the important thing is that, after all this, something like babel broke loose in the Variety. The police went running to Sempleyarov’s box, people were climbing over the barriers, there were bursts of infernal guffawing and furious shouts, drowned in the golden clash of the orchestra’s cymbals.

And one could see that the stage was suddenly empty, and that the hoodwinker Fagott, as well as the brazen tom-cat Behemoth, had melted into air, vanished as the magician had vanished earlier in his armchair with the faded upholstery.

 

[85]Louisa: The character Louisa Miller, from Schiller’s play Intrigue and Love, a fixture in the repertories of Soviet theatres.

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