Chapter 14. Saved by Cock-Crow
His nerves in shreds, Rimsky did not stay for the completion of the police report on the incident but took refuge in his own office. He sat down at the desk and with bloodshot eyes stared at the magic rouble notes spread out in front of him. The treasurer felt his reason slipping. A steady rumbling could be heard from outside as the public streamed out of the theatre on to the street. Suddenly Rimsky's acute hearing distinctly caught the screech of a police whistle, always a sound of ill-omen. When it was repeated and answered by another, more prolonged and authoritative, followed by a clearly audible bellow of laughter and a kind of ululating noise, the treasurer realised at once that something scandalous was happening in the street. However much he might like to disown it, the noise was bound to be closely connected with the terrible act put on that evening by the black magician and his assistants.
The treasurer was right. As he glanced out of the window on to Sadovaya Street he gave a grimace and hissed :
'I knew it! '
In the bright light of the street lamps he saw below him on the pavement a woman wearing nothing but a pair of violet knickers, a hat and an umbrella. Round the painfully embarrassed woman, trying desperately to crouch down and run away, surged the crowd laughing in the way that had sent shivers down Rimsky's spine. Beside the woman was a man who was ripping off his coat and getting his arm hopelessly tangled in the sleeve.
Shouts and roars of laughter were also coming from the side entrance, and as he turned in that direction Grigory Danilovich saw another woman, this time in pink underwear. She was struggling across the pavement in an attempt to hide in the doorway, but the people coming out barred her way and the wretched victim of her own rashness and vanity, cheated by the sinister Fagot, could do nothing but hope to be swallowed up by the ground. A policeman ran towards the unfortunate woman, splitting the air with his whistle. He was closely followed by some cheerful, cloth-capped young men, the source of the ribald laughter and wolf-whistles.
A thin, moustached horse-cab driver drove up alongside the first undressed woman and smiling all over his whiskered face, reined in his horse with a flourish.
Rimsky punched himself on the head, spat with fury and jumped back from the window. He sat at his desk for a while listening to the noise in the street. The sound of whistles from various directions rose to a climax and then began to fade out. To Rimsky's astonishment the uproar subsided unexpectedly soon.
The time had come to act, to drink the bitter cup of responsibility. The telephones had been repaired during the last act and he now had to ring up, report the incident, ask for help, blame it all on Likhodeyev and exculpate himself.
Twice Rimsky nervously picked up the receiver and twice put it down. Suddenly the deathly silence of the office was broken by the telephone itself ringing. He jumped and went cold. ' My nerves are in a terrible state,' he thought as he lifted the telephone. Immediately he staggered back and turned whiter than paper. A soft, sensual woman's voice whispered into the earpiece :
'Don't ring up, Rimsky, or you'll regret it . . .'
The line went dead. Feeling gooseflesh spreading over his skin, the treasurer replaced the receiver and glanced round to the window behind his back. Through the sparse leaves of a sycamore tree he saw the moon flying through a translucent cloud. He seemed to be mesmerised by the branches of the tree and the longer Rimsky stared at them the more strongly he felt the grip of fear.
Pulling himself together the treasurer finally turned away from the moonlit window and stood up. There was now no longer any question of telephoning and Rimsky could only think of one thing--how to get out of the theatre as quickly as possible.
He listened : the building was silent. He realised that for some time now he had been the only person left on the second floor and a childish, uncontrollable fear overcame him at the thought. He shuddered to think that he would have to walk alone through the empty passages and down the staircase. He feverishly grabbed the magic roubles from his desk, stuffed them into his briefcase and coughed to summon up a little courage. His cough sounded hoarse and weak.
At this moment he noticed what seemed to be a damp, evil-smelling substance oozing under the door and into his office. A tremor ran down the treasurer's spine. Suddenly a clock began to strike midnight and even this made him shudder. But his heart sank completely when he heard the sound of a latch-key being softly turned in the lock. Clutching his briefcase with damp, cold hands Rimsky felt that if that scraping noise in the keyhole were to last much longer his nerves would snap and he would scream.
At last the door gave way and Varenukha slipped noiselessly into the office. Rimsky collapsed into an armchair. Gasping for air, he smiled what was meant to be an ingratiating smile and whispered :
'God, what a fright you gave me. . . .'
Terrifying as this sudden appearance was, it had its hopeful side--it cleared up at least one little mystery in this whole baffling affair.
'Tell me, tell me, quickly! . . .' croaked Rimsky, clutching at his one straw of certainty in a world gone mad. ' What does this all mean? "
'I'm sorry,' mumbled Varenukha, closing the door. ' I thought you would have left by now.' Without taking his cap off he crossed to an armchair and sat down beside the desk, facing Rimsky. There was a trace of something odd in Varenukha's reply, immediately detected by Rimsky, whose sensitivity was now on a par with the world's most delicate seismograph. For one thing, why had Varenukha come to the treasurer's office if he thought he wasn't there? He had his own office, after all. For another, no matter which entrance Varenukha might have used to come into the theatre he must have met one of the night watchmen, who had all been told that Grigory Danilovich was working late in his office. Rimsky, however, did not dwell long on these peculiarities--this was not the moment.
'Why didn't you ring me? And what the hell was all that pantomime about Yalta? '
'It was what I thought,' replied the house manager, making a sucking noise as though troubled by an aching tooth. ' They found him in a bar out at Pushkino.'
'Pushkino? But that's just outside Moscow! What about those telegrams from Yalta? '
'Yalta--hell! He got the Pushkino telegraphist drunk and they started playing the fool, which included sending us those telegrams marked " Yalta ".'
'Aha, aha ... I see now . . .' crooned Rimsky, his yellowish eyes flashing. In his mind's eye he saw Stepa being solemnly dismissed from his job. Freedom! At last Rimsky would be rid of that idiot Likhodeyev! Perhaps something even worse than the sack was in store for Stepan Bogdanovich . . . ' Tell me all the details! ' cried Rimsky, banging his desk with a paper-weight.
Varenukha began telling the story. As soon as he had arrived at the place where the treasurer had sent him, he was immediately shown in and listened to with great attention. No one, of course, believed for a moment that Stepa was in Yalta. Everybody at once agreed with Varenukha's suggestion that Likhodeyev was obviously at the ' Yalta ' restaurant in Pushkino. ' Where is he now? ' Rimsky interrupted excitedly. ' Where do you think? ' replied the house manager with a twisted smile. ' In the police cells, of course, being sobered up! '
'Ah! Thank God for that! '
Varenukha went on with his story and the more he said the clearer Rimsky saw the long chain of Likhodeyev's misdeeds, each succeeding link in it worse than the last. What a price he was going to pay for one drunken afternoon at Pushkino! Dancing with the telegraphist. Chasing terrified women. Picking a fight with the barman at the ' Yalta'. Throwing onions on to the floor. Breaking eight bottles of white wine. Smashing a cab-driver's taximeter for refusing to take him. Threatening to arrest people who tried to stop him. . . .
Stepa was well known in the Moscow theatre world and everybody knew that the man was a menace, but this story was just a shade too much, even for Stepa. . . . Rimsky's sharp eyes bored into Varenukha's face across the desk and the longer the story went on the grimmer those eyes became. The more Varenukha embroidered his account with picturesque and revolting details, the less Rimsky believed him. When Varenukha described how Stepa was so far gone that he tried to resist the men who had been sent to bring him back to Moscow, Rimsky was quite certain that everything the house manager was telling him was a lie--a lie from beginning to end.
Varenukha had never gone to Pushkino, and Stepa had never been there either. There was no drunken telegraphist, no broken glass in the bar and Stepa had not been hauled away with ropes-- none of it had ever happened.
As soon as Rimsky felt sure that his colleague was lying to him, a feeling of terror crawled over his body, beginning with his feet and for the second time he had the weird feeling that a kind of malarial damp was oozing across the floor. The house manager was sitting in a curious hunched attitude in the armchair, trying constantly to stay in the shadow of the blue-shaded table lamp and ostensibly shading his eyes from the light with a folded newspaper. Without taking his eyes off Varenukha for a moment, Rimsky's mind was working furiously to unravel this new mystery. Why should the man be lying to him at this late hour in the totally empty and silent building? Slowly a consciousness of danger, of an unknown but terrible danger took hold of Rimsky. Pretending not to notice Varenukha's fidgeting and tricks with the newspaper, the treasurer concentrated on his face, scarcely listening to what he was saying. There was something else that Rimsky found even more sinister than this slanderous and completely bogus yarn about the goings-on in Pushkino, and that something was a change in the house manager's appearance and manner.
However hard Varenukha tried to pull down the peak of his cap to shade his face and however much he waved the newspaper, Rimsky managed to discern an enormous bruise that covered most of the right side of his face, starting at his nose. What was more, this normally ruddy-cheeked man now had an unhealthy chalky pallor and although the night was hot, he was wearing an old-fashioned striped cravat tied round his neck. If one added to this his newly acquired and repulsive habit of sucking his teeth, a distinct lowering and coarsening of his tone of voice and the furtive, shifty look in his eyes, it was safe to say that Ivan Savye-lich Varenukha was unrecognisable.
Something even more insistent was worrying Rimsky, but he could not put his finger on it however much he racked his brain or stared at Varenukha. He was only sure of one thing--that there was something peculiar and unnatural in the man's posture in that familiar chair.
'Well, finally they overpowered him and shoved him into a car,' boomed Varenukha, peeping from under the newspaper and covering his bruise with his hand.
Rimsky suddenly stretched out his arm and with an apparently unthinking gesture of his palm pressed the button of an electric bell, drumming his fingers as he did so. His heart sank. A loud ringing should have been heard instantly throughout the building --but nothing happened, and the bell-push merely sank lifelessly into the desktop. The warning system was out of order.
Rimsky's cunning move did not escape Varenukha, who scowled and said with a clear flicker of hostility in his look :
'Why did you ring? '
'Oh, I just pressed it by mistake, without thinking,' mumbled Rimsky, pulling back his hand and asked in a shaky voice :
'What's that on your face? '
'The car braked suddenly and I hit myself on the door-handle,' replied Varenukha, averting his eyes.
'He's lying!' said Rimsky to himself. Suddenly his eyes gaped with utter horror and he pressed himself against the back of his chair.
On the floor behind Varenukha's chair lay two intersecting shadows, one thicker and blacker than the other. The shadows cast by the back of the chair and its tapering legs were clearly visible, but above the shadow of the chairback there was no shadow or' Varenukha's head, just as there was no shadow of his feet to be seen under the chairlegs.
'He throws no shadow! ' cried Rimsky in a silent shriek of despair. He shuddered helplessly.
Following Rimsky's horrified stare Varenukha glanced furtively round behind the chairback and realised that he had been found out. He got up (Rimsky did the same) and took a pace away from the desk, clutching his briefcase.
'You've guessed, damn you! You always were clever,' said Varenukha smiling evilly right into Rimsky's face. Then he suddenly leaped for the door and quickly pushed down the latch-button on the lock. The treasurer looked round in desperation, retreated towards the window that gave on to the garden and in that moon-flooded window he saw the face of a naked girl pressed to the glass, her bare arm reaching through the open top pane and trying to open the lower casement.
It seemed to Rimsky that the light of the desk-lamp was going out and that the desk itself was tilting. A wave of icy cold washed over him, but luckily for him he fought it off and did not fall. The remnants of his strength were only enough for him to whisper:
'Help . . .'
Varenukha, guarding the door, was jumping up and down beside it. He hissed and sucked, signalling to the girl in the window and pointing his crooked fingers towards Rimsky.
The girl increased her efforts, pushed her auburn head through the little upper pane, stretched out her arm as far as she could and began to pluck at the lower catch with her fingernails and shake the frame. Her arm, coloured deathly green, started to stretch as if it were made of rubber. Finally her green cadaverous fingers caught the knob of the window-catch, turned it and the casement opened. Rimsky gave a weak cry, pressed himself to the wall and held his briefcase in front of himself like a shield. His last hour, he knew, had come.
The window swung wide open, but instead of the freshness of the night and the scent of lime-blossom the room was flooded with the stench of the grave. The walking corpse stepped on to the window-sill. Rimsky clearly saw patches of decay on her breast.
At that moment the sudden, joyful sound of a cock crowing rang out in the garden from the low building behind the shooting gallery where they kept the cage birds used on the Variety stage. With his full-throated cry the tame cock was announcing the approach of dawn over Moscow from the east.
Wild fury distorted the girl's face as she swore hoarsely and Varenukha by the door whimpered and collapsed to the floor.
The cock crowed again, the girl gnashed her teeth and her auburn hair stood on end. At the third crow she turned and flew out. Behind her, flying horizontally through the air like an oversized cupid, Varenukha floated slowly across the desk and out of the window.
As white as snow, without a black hair left on his head, the old man who a short while before had been Rimsky ran to the door, freed the latch and rushed down the dark corridor. At the top of the staircase, groaning with terror he fumbled for the switch and lit the lights on the staircase. The shattered, trembling old man fell down on the stairs, imagining that Varenukha was gently bearing down on him from above.
At the bottom Rimsky saw die night-watchman, who had fallen asleep on a chair in the foyer beside the box office. Rimsky tiptoed past him and slipped out of the main door. Once in the street he felt slightly better. He came to his senses enough to realise, as he clutched his head, that he had left his hat in his office.
Nothing -would have induced him to go back for it and he ran panting across the wide street to the cinema on the opposite corner, where a solitary cab stood on the rank. In a minute he had reached it before anyone else could snatch it from him.
'To the Leningrad Station--hurry and I'll make it worth your while/ said the old man, breathing heavily and clutching his heart.
'I'm only going to the garage,' replied the driver turning away with a surly face.
Rimsky unfastened his briefcase, pulled out fifty roubles and thrust them at the driver through the open window.
A few moments later the taxi, shaking like a leaf in a storm, was flying along the ring boulevard. Bouncing up and down in his seat, Rimsky caught occasional glimpses of the driver's delighted expression and his own wild look in the mirror.
Jumping out of the car at the station, Rimsky shouted to the first man he saw, who was wearing a white apron and a numbered metal disc :
'First class single--here's thirty roubles,' he said as he fumbled for the money in his briefcase. ' If there aren't any seats left in the first I'll take second ... if there aren't any in the second, get me " Hard " class! '
Glancing round at the illuminated clock the man with the apron snatched the money from Rimsky's hand.
Five minutes later the express pulled out of the glass-roofed station and steamed into the dark. With it vanished Rimsky.