Chapter 13. Enter the Hero
Ivan swung his legs off the bed and stared. A man was standing on the balcony, peering cautiously into the room. He was aged about thirty-eight, clean-shaven and dark, with a sharp nose, restless eyes and a lock of hair that tumbled over his forehead.
The mysterious visitor listened awhile then, satisfied that Ivan was alone, entered the room. As he came in Ivan noticed that the man was wearing hospital clothes--pyjamas, slippers and a reddish-brown dressing gown thrown over his shoulders.
The visitor winked at Ivan, put a bunch of keys into his pocket and asked in a whisper : ' May I sit down? ' Receiving an affirmative reply he settled in the armchair.
'How did you get in here? ' Ivan whispered in obedience to a warning finger. ' The grilles on the windows are locked, aren't they? '
'The grilles are locked,' agreed the visitor. ' Praskovya Fyodorovna is a dear person but alas, terribly absent-minded. A month ago I removed this bunch of keys from her, which has given me the freedom of the balcony. It stretches along the whole floor, so that I can call on my neighbours whenever I feel like it.'
'If you can get out on to the balcony you can run away. Or is it too high to jump? ' enquired Ivan with interest.
'No,' answered the visitor firmly, ' I can't escape from here. Not because it's too high but because I've nowhere to go.' After a pause he added : ' So here we are.'
'Here we are,' echoed Ivan, gazing into the man's restless brown eyes.
'Yes . . .' The visitor grew suddenly anxious. ' You're not violent, I hope? You see, I can't bear noise, disturbance, violence or anything of that sort. I particularly hate the sound of people screaming, whether it's a scream of pain, anger or any other kind of scream. Just reassure me--you're not violent, are you? '
'Yesterday in a restaurant I clouted a fellow across the snout,' the poet confessed manfully.
'What for? ' asked the visitor disapprovingly.
'For no reason at all, I must admit,' replied Ivan, embarrassed.
'Disgraceful,' said the visitor reproachfully and added:
'And I don't care for that expression of yours--clouted him across the snout. . . . People have faces, not snouts. So I suppose you mean you punched him in the face. . . . No, you must give up doing that sort of thing.'
After this reprimand the visitor enquired :
'What's your job? '
'I'm a poet,' admitted Ivan with slight unwillingness.
This annoyed the man.
'Just my bad luck! ' he exclaimed, but immediately regretted it, apologised and asked : ' What's your name? '
'Oh . . .' said the man frowning.
'What, don't you like my poetry? ' asked Ivan with curiosity.
'No, I don't.'
'Have you read any of it? '
'I've never read any of your poetry! ' said the visitor tetchily.
'Then how can you say that? '
'Why shouldn't I? ' retorted the visitor. ' I've read plenty of other poetry. I don't suppose by some miracle that yours is any better, but I'm ready to take it on trust. Is your poetry good?'
'Stupendous! ' said Ivan boldly.
'Don't write any more! ' said the visitor imploringly.
'I promise not to! ' said Ivan solemnly.
As they sealed the vow with a handshake, soft footsteps and voices could be heard from the corridor.
'Sshh! ' whispered the man. He bounded out on to the balcony and closed the grille behind him.
Praskovya Fyodorovna looked in, asked Ivan how he felt and whether he wanted to sleep in the dark or the light. Ivan asked her to leave the light on and Praskovya Fyodorovna departed, wishing him good night. When all was quiet again the visitor returned.
He told Ivan in a whisper that a new patient had been put into No. 119--a fat man with a purple face who kept muttering about dollars in the ventilation shaft and swearing that the powers of darkness had taken over their house on Sadovaya. ' He curses Pushkin for all he's worth and keeps shouting " Encore, encore! " ' said the visitor, twitching nervously. When he had grown a little calmer he sat down and said : ' However, let's forget about him,' and resumed his interrupted conversation with Ivan : ' How did you come to be here? '
'Because of Pontius Pilate,' replied Ivan, staring glumly at the floor.
'What?! ' cried the visitor, forgetting his caution, then clapped his hand over his mouth. ' What an extraordinary coincidence! Do tell me about it, I beg of you! '
For some reason Ivan felt that he could trust this stranger. Shyly at first, then gaining confidence, he began to describe the previous day's events at Patriarch's Ponds. His visitor treated Ivan as completely sane, showed the greatest interest in the story and as it developed he reached a state of near ecstasy. Now and again he interrupted Ivan, exclaiming :
'Yes, yes! Please go on! For heaven's sake don't leave anything out! 'Ivan left out nothing, as it made the story easier to tell and gradually he approached the moment when Pontius Pilate, in his white cloak lined with blood-red, mounted the platform.
Then the visitor folded his hands as though in prayer and whispered to himself:
'Oh, I guessed it! I guessed it all! '
Listening to the terrible description of Berlioz's death, the visitor made an enigmatic comment, his eyes flashing with malice :
'I'm only sorry that it wasn't Latunsky the critic or that hack Mstislav Lavrovich instead of Berlioz! ' And he mouthed silently and ecstatically : ' Go on! '
The visitor was highly amused by the story of how the cat had paid the conductress and he was choking with suppressed laughter as Ivan, stimulated by the success of his story-telling, hopped about on his haunches, imitating the cat stroking his whiskers with a ten-kopeck piece.
'And so,' said Ivan, saddening as he described the scene at Griboyedov, ' here I am.'
The visitor laid a sympathetic hand on the wretched poet's shoulder and said:
'Unhappy poet! But it's your own fault, my dear fellow. You shouldn't have treated him so carelessly and rudely. Now you're paying for it. You should be thankful that you got off comparatively lightly.'
'But who on earth is he? ' asked Ivan, clenching his fists in excitement.
The visitor stared at Ivan and answered with a question :
'You won't get violent, will you? We're all unstable people here . . . There won't be any calls for the doctor, injections or any disturbances of that sort, will there? '
'No, no! ' exclaimed Ivan. ' Tell me, who is he? '
'Very well,' replied the visitor, and said slowly and gravely :
'At Patriarch's Ponds yesterday you met Satan.'
As he had promised, Ivan did not become violent, but he was powerfully shaken.
'It can't be! He doesn't exist!'
'Come, come! Surely you of all people can't say that. You were apparently one of the first to suffer from him. Here you are, shut up in a psychiatric clinic, and you still say he doesn't exist. How strange! '
Ivan was reduced to speechlessness.
'As soon as you started to describe him,' the visitor went on, ' I guessed who it was that you were talking to yesterday. I must say I'm surprised at Berlioz! You, of course, are an innocent,' again the visitor apologised for his expression, ' but he, from what I've heard of him, was at least fairly well read. The first remarks that this professor made to you dispelled all my doubts. He's unmistakeable, my friend! You are ... do forgive me again, but unless I'm wrong, you are an ignorant person, aren't you? '
'I am indeed,' agreed the new Ivan.
'Well, you see, even the face you described, the different-coloured eyes, the eyebrows . . . Forgive me, but have you even seen the opera Faust? '
Ivan mumbled an embarrassed excuse.
'There you are, it's not surprising! But, as I said before, I'm surprised at Berlioz. He's not only well read but extremely cunning. Although in his defence I must say that Woland is quite capable of throwing dust in the eyes of men who are even cleverer than Berlioz.'
'What? ' shouted Ivan.
With a sweeping gesture Ivan smacked his forehead with his palm and croaked:
'I see it now. There was a letter " W " on his visiting card. Well I'm damned! ' He sat for a while in perplexity, staring at the moon floating past the grille and then said: ' So he really might have known Pontius Pilate? He was alive then, I suppose? And they call me mad! ' he added, pointing indignantly towards the door.
The visitor's mouth set in a fold of bitterness.
'We must look the facts in the face.' The visitor turned his face towards the moon as it raced through a cloud. ' Both you and I are mad, there's no point in denying it. He gave you a shock and it sent you mad, because you were temperamentally liable to react in that way. Nevertheless what you have described unquestionably happened in fact. But it is so unusual that even Stravinsky, a psychiatrist of genius, naturally didn't believe you. Has he examined you? (Ivan nodded.) The man you were talking to was with Pontius Pilate, he did have breakfast with Kant and now he has paid a call on Moscow.' ' But God knows what he may do here! Shouldn't we try and catch him somehow! ' The old Ivan raised his head, uncertain but not yet quite extinguished.
'You've already tried and look where it's got you,' said the visitor ironically. ' I don't advise others to try. But he will cause more trouble, you may be sure of that. How infuriating, though, that you met him and not I. Although I'm a burnt-out man and the embers have died away to ash, I swear that I would have given up Praskovya Fyodorovna's bunch of keys in exchange for that meeting. Those keys are all I have. I am destitute.' ' Why do you want to see him so badly? ' After a long, gloomy silence the visitor said at last:
'You see, it's most extraordinary, but I am in here for exactly the same reason that you are, I mean because of Pontius Pilate.' The visitor glanced uneasily round and said : ' The fact is that a year ago I wrote a novel about Pilate.'
'Are you a writer? ' asked the poet with interest. The visitor frowned, threatened Ivan with his fist and said:
'I am a master.' His expression hardened and he pulled out of his dressing gown pocket a greasy black cap with the letter ' M ' embroidered on it in yellow silk. He put the cap on and showed himself to Ivan in profile and full face to prove that he was a master. ' She sewed it for me with her own hands,' he added mysteriously. ' What is your name? '
'I no longer have a name,' replied the curious visitor with grim contempt. ' I have renounced it, as I have renounced life itself. Let us forget it.'
'At least tell me about your novel,' asked Ivan tactfully. ' If you wish. I should say that my life has been a somewhat unusual one,' began the visitor.
A historian by training, two years ago he had, it seemed, been employed in one of the Moscow museums. He was also a translator.
'From which language? ' asked Ivan.
'I know five languages beside my own,' replied the visitor. ' English, French, German, Latin and Greek. And I read Italian a little.'
'Phew! ' Ivan whistled with envy.
This historian lived alone, had no relatives and knew almost no one in Moscow. One day he won a hundred thousand roubles.
'Imagine my astonishment,' whispered the visitor in his black cap, ' when I fished my lottery ticket out of the laundry basket and saw that it had the same number as the winning draw printed in the paper! The museum,' he explained, ' had given me the ticket.'
Having won his hundred thousand, Ivan's mysterious guest bought some books, gave up his room on Myasnitskaya Street...
'Ugh, it was a filthy hole! ' he snarled.
. . . and rented two rooms in the basement of a small house with a garden near the Arbat. He gave up his job in the museum and began writing his novel about Pontius Pilate.
'Ah, that was a golden age! ' whispered the narrator, his eyes shining. ' A completely self-contained little flat and a hall with a sink and running water,' he emphasised proudly, ' little windows just above the level of the path leading from the garden gate. Only a few steps away, by the garden fence, was a lilac, a lime tree and a maple. Ah, me! In winter I rarely saw anyone walking up the garden path or heard the crunch of snow. And there was always a blaze in my little stove! But suddenly it was spring and through the muddied panes of my windows I saw first the bare branches then the green of the first leaves. And then, last spring, something happened which was far more delightful than winning a hundred thousand roubles. And that, you must agree, is an enormous sum of money! '
'It is,' Ivan agreed, listening intently.
'I had opened the windows and was sitting in the second room, which was quite tiny.' The visitor made measuring gestures. ' Like this--the divan here, another divan along the other wall, a beautiful lamp on a little table between them, a bookcase by the window and over here a little bureau. The main room was huge--fourteen square metres!--books, more books and a stove. It was a marvellous little place. How deliciously the lilac used to smell! I was growing light-headed with fatigue and Pilate was coming to an end . . .'
'White cloak, red lining! How I know the feeling! ' exclaimed Ivan.
'Precisely! Pilate was rushing to a conclusion and I already knew what the last words of the novel would be--" the fifth Procurator of Judaea, the knight Pontius Pilate ". Naturally I used to go out for walks. A hundred thousand is a huge sum and I had a handsome suit. Or I would go out for lunch to a restaurant. There used to be a wonderful restaurant in the Arbat, I don't know whether it's still there.'
Here his eyes opened wide and as he whispered he gazed at the moon.
'She was carrying some of those repulsive yellow flowers. God knows what they're called, but they are somehow always the first to come out in spring. They stood out very sharply against her black dress. She was carrying yellow flowers! It's an ugly colour. She turned off Tverskaya into a side-street and turned round. You know the Tverskaya, don't you? There must have been a thousand people on it but I swear to you that she saw no one but me. She had a look of suffering and I was struck less by her beauty than by the extraordinary loneliness in her eyes. Obeying that yellow signal I too turned into the side-street and followed her. We walked in silence down that dreary, winding little street without saying a word, she on one side, I on the other. There was not another soul in the street. I was in agony because I felt I had to speak to her and was worried that I might not be able to utter a word, she would disappear and I should never see her again. Then, if you can believe it, she said :
" Do you like my flowers? "
'I remember exactly how her voice sounded. It was pitched fairly low but with a catch in it and stupid as it may sound I had the impression that it echoed across the street and reverberated from the dirty yellow wall. I quickly crossed to her side and going up to her replied : " No ' She looked at me in surprise and suddenly, completely unexpectedly, I realised that I had been in love with this woman all my life. Extraordinary, isn't it? You'll say I was mad, I expect.'
'I say nothing of the sort,' exclaimed Ivan, adding : ' Please, please go on.'
The visitor continued:
'Yes, she looked at me in surprise and then she said : " Don't you like flowers at all? "
'There was, I felt, hostility in her voice. I walked on alongside her, trying to walk in step with her and to my amazement I felt completely free of shyness.
'" No, I like flowers, only not these," I said.
'" Which flowers do you like? "
'" I love roses."
'I immediately regretted having said it, because she smiled guiltily and threw her flowers into the gutter. Slightly embarrassed, I picked them up and gave them to her but she pushed them away with a smile and I had to carry them.
'We walked on in silence for a while until she pulled the flowers out of my hand and threw them in the roadway, then slipped her black-gloved hand into mine and we went on.'
'Go on,' said Ivan, ' and please don't leave anything out! '
'Well,' said the visitor, ' you can guess what happened after that.' He wiped away a sudden tear with his right sleeve and went on. ' Love leaped up out at us like a murderer jumping out of a dark alley. It shocked us both--the shock of a stroke of lightning, the shock of a flick-knife. Later she said that this wasn't so, that we had of course been in love for years without knowing each other and never meeting, that she had merely been living with another man and I had been living with . . . that girl, what was her name . . .? '
'With whom? ' asked Bezdomny.
'With . . . er, that girl . . . she was called . . .' said the visitor, snapping his fingers in a vain effort to remember.
'Were you married to her? ' ' Yes, of course I was, that's why it's so embarrassing to forget ... I think it was Varya ... or was it Manya? . . . no, Varya, that's it ... she wore a striped dress, worked at the museum. . . . No good, can't remember. So, she used to say, she had gone out that morning carrying those yellow flowers for me to find her at last and that if it hadn't happened she would have committed suicide because her life was empty.
'Yes, the shock of love struck us both at once. I knew it within the hour when we found ourselves, quite unawares, on the embankment below the Kremlin wall. We talked as though we had only parted the day before, as though we had known each other for years. We agreed to meet the next day at the same place by the Moscow River and we did. The May sun shone on us and soon that woman became my mistress.
'She came to me every day at noon. I began waiting for her from early morning. The strain of waiting gave me hallucinations of seeing things on the table. After ten minutes I would sit at my little window and start to listen for the creak of that ancient garden gate. It was curious : until I met her no one ever came into our little yard. Now it seemed to me that the whole town was crowding in. The gate would creak, my heart would bound and outside the window a pair of muddy boots would appear level with my head. A knife-grinder. Who in our house could possibly need a knife-grinder? What was there for him to sharpen? Whose knives?
'She only came through that gate once a day, but my heart would beat faster from at least ten false alarms every morning. Then when her time came and the hands were pointing to noon, my heart went on thumping until her shoes with their black patent-leather straps and steel buckles drew level, almost soundlessly, with my basement window.
'Sometimes for fun she would stop at the second window and tap the pane with her foot. In a second I would appear at that window but always her shoe and her black silk dress that blocked the light had vanished and I would turn instead to the hall to let her in.
'Nobody knew about our liaison, I can swear to that, although as a rule no one can keep such affairs a complete secret. Her husband didn't know, our friends didn't know. The other tenants in that forgotten old house knew, of course, because they could see that a woman called on me every day, but they never knew her name.'
'Who was she?' asked Ivan, deeply fascinated by this love story.
The visitor made a sign which meant that he would never reveal this to anyone and went on with his narrative.
The master and his unknown mistress loved one another so strongly that they became utterly inseparable. Ivan could clearly see for himself the two basement rooms, where it was always twilight from the shade of the lilac bush and the fence : the shabby red furniture, the bureau, the clock on top of it which struck the half-hours and books, books from the painted floor to the smoke-blackened ceiling, and the stove.
Ivan learned that from the very first days of their affair the man and his mistress decided that fate had brought them together on the corner of the Tverskaya and that side-street and that they were made for each other to eternity.
Ivan heard his visitor describe how the lovers spent their day. Her first action on arrival was to put on an apron and light an oil stove on a wooden table in the cramped hall, with its tap and sink that the wretched patient had recalled with such pride. There she cooked lunch and served it on an oval table in the living-room. When the May storms blew and the water slashed noisily past the dim little windows, threatening to flood their home, the lovers stoked up the stove and baked potatoes in it. Steam poured out of the potatoes as they cut them open, the charred skins blackened their fingers. There was laughter in the basement, after the rain the trees in the garden scattered broken branches and white blossom.
When the storms were past and the heat of summer came, the vase was filled with the long-awaited roses that they both loved so much. The man who called himself the master worked feverishly at his novel and the book cast its spell over the unknown woman.
'At times I actually felt jealous of it,' the moonlight visitor whispered to Ivan.
Running her sharp, pointed fingernails through her hair, she ceaselessly read and re-read the manuscript, sewing that same black cap as she did so. Sometimes she would squat down by the lower bookshelves or stand by the topmost ones and wipe the hundreds of dusty spines. Sensing fame, she drove him on and started to call him ' the master '. She waited impatiently for the promised final words about the fifth Procurator of Judaea, reading out in a loud sing-song random sentences that pleased her and saying that the novel was her life.
It was finished in August and handed to a typist who transcribed it in five copies. At last came the moment to leave the secret refuge and enter the outside world.
'When I emerged into the world clutching my novel, my life came to an end,' whispered the master. He hung his head and for a long while wagged the black cap with its embroidered yellow ' M '. He went on with his story but it grew more disjointed and Ivan could only gather that his visitor had suffered some disaster.
'It was my first sortie into the literary world, but now that it's all over and I am ruined for everyone to see, it fills me with horror to think of it! ' whispered the master solemnly, raising his hand. ' God, what a shock he gave me! '
'Who? ' murmured Ivan, scarcely audibly, afraid to disturb the master's inspiration.
'The editor, of course, the editor! Oh yes, he read it. He looked at me as if I had a swollen face, avoided my eyes and even giggled with embarrassment. He had smudged and creased the typescript quite unnecessarily. He asked me questions which I thought were insane. He said nothing about the substance of the novel but asked me who I was and where I came from, had I been writing for long, why had nothing been heard of me before and finally asked what struck me as the most idiotic question of all--who had given me the idea of writing a novel on such a curious subject? Eventually I lost patience with him and asked him straight out whether he was going to print my novel or not. This embarrassed him. He began mumbling something, then announced that he personally was not competent to decide and that the other members of the editorial board would have to study the book, in particular the critics Latunsky and Ariman and the author Mstislav Lavrovich. He asked me to come back a fortnight later. I did so and was received by a girl who had developed a permanent squint from having to tell so many lies.'
'That's Lapshennikova, the editor's secretary,' said Ivan with a smile, knowing the world that his visitor was describing with such rancour.
'Maybe,' he cut in. ' Anyway, she gave me back my novel thoroughly tattered and covered in grease-marks. Trying not to look at me, the girl informed me that the editors had enough material for two years ahead and therefore the question of printing my novel became, as she put it, " redundant". What ^Ise do I remember?' murmured the visitor, wiping his forehead. ' Oh yes, the red blobs spattered all over the title page and the eyes of my mistress. Yes, I remember those eyes.'
The story grew more and more confused, full of more and more disjointed remarks that trailed off unfinished. He said something about slanting rain and despair in their basement home, about going somewhere else. He whispered urgently that he would never, never blame her, the woman who had urged him on into the struggle.
After that, as far as Ivan could tell, something strange and sudden happened. One day he opened a newspaper and saw an article by Ariman, entitled ' The Enemy Makes a Sortie,' where the critic warned all and sundry that he, that is to say our hero had tried to drag into print an apologia for Jesus Christ.
'I remember that! ' cried Ivan. ' But I've forgotten what your name was.' ' I repeat, let's leave my name out of it, it no longer exists,' replied the visitor. ' It's not important. A day or two later another article appeared in a different paper signed by Mstislav Lavrovich, in which the writer suggested striking and striking hard at all this pilatism and religiosity which I was trying to drag (that damned word again!) into print. Stunned by that unheard-of word " pilatism " I opened the third newspaper. In it were two articles, one by Latunsky, the other signed with the initials " N.E." Believe me, Ariman's and Lavrovich's stuff was a mere joke by comparison with Latunsky's article. Suffice it to say that it was entitled " A Militant Old Believer ". I was so absorbed in reading the article about myself that I did not notice her standing in front of me with a wet umbrella and a sodden copy of the same newspaper. Her eyes were flashing fire, her hands cold and trembling. First she rushed to kiss me then she said in a strangled voice, thumping the table, that she was going to murder Latunsky.'
Embarrassed, Ivan gave a groan but said nothing. ' The joyless autumn days came,' the visitor went on, ' the appalling failure of my novel seemed to have withered part of my soul. In fact I no longer had anything to do and I only lived for my meetings with her. Then something began to happen to me. God knows what it was; I expect Stravinsky has unravelled it long ago. I began to suffer from depression and strange forebodings. The articles, incidentally, did not stop. At first I simply laughed at them, then came the second stage : amazement. In literally every line of those articles one could detect a sense of falsity, of unease, in spite of their confident and threatening tone. I couldn't help feeling--and the conviction grew stronger the more I read--that the people writing those articles were not saying what they had really wanted to say and that this was the cause of their fury. And then came the third stage--fear. Don't misunderstand me, I was not afraid of the articles ; I was afraid of something else which had nothing to do with them or with my novel. I started, for instance, to be afraid of the dark. I was reaching the stage of mental derangement. I felt, especially just before going to sleep, that some very cold, supple octopus was fastening its tentacles round my heart. I had to sleep with the light on.
'My beloved had changed too. I told her nothing about the octopus, of course, but she saw that something was wrong with me. She lost weight, grew paler, stopped laughing and kept begging me to have that excerpt from the novel printed. She said I should forget everything and go south to the Black Sea, paying for the journey with what was left of the hundred thousand roubles.
'She was very insistent, so to avoid arguing with her (something told me that I never would go to the Black Sea) I promised to arrange the trip soon. However, she announced that she would buy me the ticket herself. I took out all my money, which was about ten thousand roubles, and gave it to her.
'" Why so much? " she said in surprise.
'I said something about being afraid of burglars and asked her to keep the money until my departure. She took it, put it in her handbag, began to kiss me and said that she would rather die than leave me alone in this condition, but people were expecting her, she had to go but would come back the next day. She begged me not to be afraid.
'It was twilight, in mid-October. She went. I lay down on my divan and fell asleep without putting on the light. I was awakened by the feeling that the octopus was there. Fumbling in the dark I just managed to switch on the lamp. My watch showed two o'clock in the morning. When I had gone to bed I had been sickening; when I woke up I was an ill man. I had a sudden feeling that the autumn murk was about to burst the window-panes, run into the room and I would drown in it as if it were ink. I had lost control of myself. I screamed, I wanted to run somewhere, if only to my landlord upstairs. Wrestling with myself as one struggles with a lunatic, I had just enough strength to crawl to the stove and re-light it. When I heard it begin to crackle and the fire-door started rattling in the draught, I felt slightly better. I rushed into the hall, switched on the light, found a bottle of white wine and began gulping it down from the bottle. This calmed my fright a little, at least enough to stop me from running to my landlord. Instead, I went back to the stove. I opened the fire-door. The heat began to warm my hands and face and I whispered :
'" Something terrible has happened to me . . . Come, come, please come . . .! "
'But nobody came. The fire roared in the stove, rain whipped against the windows. Then I took the heavy typescript copies of the novel and my handwritten drafts out of the desk drawer and started to burn them. It was terribly hard to do because paper that has been written over in ink doesn't burn easily. Breaking my fingernails I tore up the manuscript books, stuffed them down between the logs and stoked the burning pages with the poker. Occasionally there was so much ash that it put the flames out, but I struggled with it until finally the whole novel, resisting fiercely to the end, was destroyed. Familiar words flickered before me, the yellow crept inexorably up the pages yet I could still read the words through it. They only vanished when the paper turned black and I had given it a savage beating with the poker.
'There was a sound of someone scratching gently at the window. My heart leaped and thrusting the last manuscript book into the fire I rushed up the brick steps from the basement to the door that opened on to the yard. Panting, I reached the door and asked softly:
'" Who's there? "
'And a voice, her voice, answered :
'" It's me . . ."
'I don't remember how I managed the chain and the key. As soon as she was indoors she fell into my arms, all wet, cheek wet, hair bedraggled, shivering. I could only say :
'" Is it really you? . . ." then my voice broke off and we ran downstairs into the flat.
'She took off her coat in the hall and we went straight into the living-room. Gasping, she pulled the last bundle of paper out of the stove with her bare hands. The room at once filled with smoke. I stamped out the flames with my foot and she collapsed on the divan and burst into convulsive, uncontrollable tears.
'When she was calm again I said :
'" I suddenly felt I hated the novel and I was afraid. I'm sick. I feel terrible."
'She sat up and said :
'" God how ill you look. Why, why? But I'm going to save you. What's the matter? "
'I could see her eyes swollen from smoke and weeping, felt her cool hands smoothing my brow.
'" I shall make you better," she murmured, burying her head in my shoulder. " You're going to write it again. Why, oh why didn't I keep one copy myself? "
'She ground her teeth with fury and said something indistinct. Then with clamped lips she started to collect and sort the burnt sheets of paper. It was a chapter from somewhere in the middle of the book, I forget which. She carefully piled up the sheets, wrapped them up into a parcel and tied it with string. All her movements showed that she was a determined woman who was in absolute command of herself. She asked for a glass of wine and having drunk it said calmly :
'" This is how one pays for lying," she said, " and I don't want to go on lying any more. I would have stayed with you this evening, but I didn't want to do it like that. I don't want his last memory of me to be that I ran out on him in the middle of the night. He has never done me any harm ... He was suddenly called out, there's a fire at his factory. But he'll be back soon. I'll tell him tomorrow morning, tell him I love someone else and then come back to you for ever. If you don't want me to do that, tell me."
'" My poor, poor girl," I said to her. " I won't allow you to do it. It will be hell living with me and I don't want you to perish here as I shall perish."
'" Is that the only reason? " she asked, putting her eyes close to mine. ' " That's the only reason."
'She grew terribly excited, hugged me, embraced my neck and said:
'" Then I shall die with you. I shall be here tomorrow morning."
'The last that I remember seeing of her was the patch of light from my hall and in that patch of light a loose curl of her hair, her beret and her determined eyes, her dark silhouette in the doorway and a parcel wrapped in white paper.
'" I'd see you out, but I don't trust myself to come back alone, I'm afraid."
'" Don't be afraid. Just wait a few hours. I'll be back tomorrow morning."
'Those were the last words that I heard her say.
'Sshh! ' The patient suddenly interrupted himself and raised Ms finger. ' It's a restless moonlit night.' He disappeared on to the balcony. Ivan heard the sound of wheels along the corridor, there was a faint groan or cry.
When all was quiet again, the visitor came back and reported that a patient had been put into room No. 120, a man who kept asking for his head back. Both men relapsed into anxious silence for a while, but soon resumed their interrupted talk. The visitor had just opened his mouth but the night, as he had said, was a restless one : voices were heard in the corridor and the visitor began to whisper into Ivan's ear so softly that only the poet could hear what he was saying, with the exception of the first sentence :
'A quarter of an hour after she had left me there came a knock at my window . . .'
The man was obviously very excited by what he was whispering into Ivan's ear. Now and again a spasm would cross his face. Fear and anger sparkled in his eyes. The narrator pointed in the direction of the moon, which had long ago disappeared from the balcony. Only when all the noises outside had stopped did the visitor move away from Ivan and speak louder :
'Yes, so there I stood, out in my little yard, one night in the middle of January, wearing the same overcoat but without any buttons now and I was freezing with cold. Behind me the lilac bush was buried in snowdrifts, below and in front of me were my feebly lit windows with drawn blinds. I knelt down to the first of them and listened--a gramophone was playing in my room. I could hear it but see nothing. After a slight pause I went out of the gate and into the street. A snowstorm was howling along it. A dog which ran between my legs frightened me, and to get away from it I crossed to the other side. Cold and fear, which had become my inseparable companions, had driven me to desperation. I had nowhere to go and the simplest thing would have been to throw myself under a tram then and there where my side street joined the main road. In the distance I could see the approaching tramcars, looking like ice-encrusted lighted boxes, and hear the fearful scrunch of their wheels along the frostbound tracks. But the joke, my dear friend, was that every cell of my body was in the grip of fear. I was as afraid of the tram as I had been of the dog. I'm the most hopeless case in this building, I assure you! '
'But you could have let her know, couldn't you?' said Ivan sympatherically. ' Besides, she had all your money. I suppose she kept it, did she? '
'Don't worry, of course she kept it. But you obviously don't understand me. Or rather I have lost the powers of description that I once had. I don't feel very sorry for her, as she is of no more use to me. Why should I write to her? She would be faced,' said the visitor gazing pensively at the night sky, ' by a letter from the madhouse. Can one really write to anyone from an address like this? ... I--a mental patient? How could I make her so unhappy? I ... I couldn't do it.'
Ivan could only agree. The poet's silence was eloquent of his sympathy and compassion for his visitor, who bowed his head in pain at his memories and said :
'Poor woman ... I can only hope she has forgotten me . . .'
'But you may recover,' said Ivan timidly.
'I am incurable,' said the visitor calmly. ' Even though Stravinsky says that he will send me back to normal life, I don't believe him. He's a humane man and he only wants to comfort me. I won't deny, though, that I'm a great deal better now than I was. Now, where was I? Oh yes. The frost, the moving tram-cars ... I knew that this clinic had just been opened and I crossed the whole town on foot to come here. It was madness! I would probably have frozen to death but for a lucky chance. A lorry had broken down on the road and I approached the driver. It was four kilometres past the city limits and to my surprise he took pity on me. He was driving here and he took me ... The toes of my left foot were frost-bitten, but they cured them. I've been here four months now. And do you know, I think this is not at all a bad place. I shouldn't bother to make any great plans for the future if I were you. I, for example, wanted to travel all over the world. Well, it seems that I was not fated to have my wish. I shall only see an insignificant little corner of the globe. I don't think it's necessarily the best bit, but I repeat, it's not so bad. Summer's on the way and the balcony will be covered in ivy, so Praskovya Fyodorovna tells me. These keys have enlarged my radius of action. There'll be a moon at night. Oh, it has set! It's freshening. Midnight is on the way. It's time for me to go.'
'Tell me, what happened afterwards with Yeshua and Pilate? ' begged Ivan. ' Please, I want to know.'
'Oh no, I couldn't,' replied the visitor, wincing painfully. ' I can't think about my novel without shuddering. Your friend from Patriarch's Ponds could have done it better than I can. Thanks for the talk. Goodbye.'
Before Ivan had time to notice it, the grille had shut with a gentle click and the visitor was gone.