Chapter 17. A Day of Anxiety
On Friday morning, the day after the disastrous show, the permanent staff of the Variety Theatre--Vassily Stepanovich Lastochkin the accountant, two bookkeepers, three typists, the two cashiers, the ushers, the commissionaires and the cleaners-- were not at work but were instead sitting on the window-ledges looking out on to Sadovaya Street and watching what was happening outside the theatre. There beneath the theatre walls wound a double queue of several thousand people whose tail-end had already reached Kudrinskaya Square. At the head of the queue stood a couple of dozen of the leading lights of the Moscow theatrical world.
The queue was in a state of high excitement, attracting the attention of the passers-by and busily swapping hair-raising stories about the previous evening's incredible performance of black magic. Vassily Stepanovich the accountant, who had not been at yesterday's show, was growing more and more uneasy. The commissionaires were saying unbelievable things, such as how after the show a number of ladies had been seen on the street in a highly improper state. The shy and unassuming Vassily Stepanovich could only blink as he listened to the description of all these sensations and felt utterly unable to decide what to do ; meanwhile something had to be done and it was he who had to do it, as he was now the senior remaining member of the Variety's management.
By ten o'clock the ticket queue had swollen to such a size that the police came to hear of it and rapidly sent some detachments of horse and foot to reduce the queue to order. Unfortunately the mere existence of a mile-long queue was enough to cause a minor riot in spite of all the police could do.
Inside the Variety things were as confused as they were outside. The telephone had been ringing since early morning-- ringing in Likhodeyev's office, in Rimsky's office, in the accounts department, in the box-office and in Varenukha's office. At first Vassily Stepanovich had attempted to answer, the cashier had tried to cope, the commissionaires had mumbled something into the telephone when it rang, but soon they stopped answering altogether because there was simply no answer to give the people asking where Likhodeyev, Rimsky and Varenukha were. They had been able to put them off the scent for a while by saying that Likhodeyev was in his flat, but this only produced more angry calls later, declaring that they had rung Likhodeyev's flat and been told that he was at the Variety.
One agitated lady rang up and demanded to speak to Rimsky and was advised to ring his wife at home, at which the earpiece, sobbing, replied that she was Rimsky's wife and he was nowhere to be found. Odd stories began to circulate. One of the charwomen was telling everyone that when she had gone to clean the treasurer's office she had found the door ajar, the lights burning, the window on to the garden smashed, a chair overturned on the floor and no one in the room.
At eleven o'clock Madame Rimsky descended on the Variety, weeping and wringing her hands. Vassily Stepanovich was by now utterly bewildered and unable to offer her any advice. Then at half past eleven the police appeared. Their first and very reasonable question was :
'What's happening here? What is all this? '
The staff" retreated, pushing forward the pale and agitated Vassily Stepanovich. Describing the situation as it really was, he had to admit that the entire management of the Variety, including the general manager, the treasurer and the house manager, had vanished without trace, that last night's compere had been removed to a lunatic asylum and that, in short, yesterday's show had been a catastrophe.
Having done their best to calm her, the police sent the sobbing
Madame Rimsky home, then turned with interest to the charwoman's story about the state of the treasurer's office. The staff were told to go and get on with their jobs and after a short while the detective squad turned up, leading a sharp-eared muscular dog, the colour of cigarette ash and with extremely intelligent eyes. At once a rumour spread among the Variety Theatre staff that the dog was none other than the famous Ace of Diamonds. It was. Its behaviour amazed everybody. No sooner had the animal walked into the treasurer's office than it growled, bared its monstrous yellowish teeth, then crouched on its stomach and crept towards the broken window with a look of mingled terror and hostility. Mastering its fear the dog suddenly leaped on to the window ledge, raised its great muzzle and gave an eerie, savage howl. It refused to leave the window, growled, trembled and crouched as though wanting to jump out of the window.
The dog was led out of the office to the entrance hall, from whence it went out of the main doors into the street and across the road to the taxi-rank. There it lost the scent. After that Ace of Diamonds was taken away.
The detectives settled into Varenukha's office, where one after the other, they called in all the members of the Variety staff who had witnessed the events of the previous evening. At every step the detectives were beset with unforeseen difficulties. The thread kept breaking in their hands.
Had there been any posters advertising the performance? Yes, there had. But since last night new ones had been pasted over them and now there was not a single one to be found anywhere. Where did this magician come from? Nobody knew. Had a contract been signed?
'I suppose so,' replied Vassily Stepanovich miserably.
'And if so it will have gone through the books, won't it? '
'Certainly,' replied Vassily Stepanovich in growing agitation.
'Then where is it? '
'It's not here,' replied the accountant, turning paler and spreading his hands. It was true : there was no trace of a contract in the accounts department files, the treasurer's office, Likhodeyev's office or Varenukha's office.
What was the magician's surname? Vassily Stepanovich did not know, he had not been at yesterday's show. The commissionaires did not know, the box-office cashier frowned and frowned, thought and thought, and finally said :
'Wo ... I think it was Woland. . . .'
Perhaps it wasn't Woland? Perhaps it wasn't. Perhaps it was Poland.
The Aliens' Bureau, it appeared, had never heard of anyone called Woland or Poland or any other black magician. Karpov, an usher, said that as far as he knew the magician was staying at Likhodeyev's flat. Naturally they immediately went to the flat, but there was no sign of a magician living there. Likhodeyev himself was also missing. The maid Grunya was not there and nobody knew where she was. Both the house committee chairman, Nikanor Ivanovich, and the secretary, Prolezhnev, had also vanished.
The investigation so far appeared to amount to a total absurdity : the entire management had vanished, there had been a scandalous show the previous evening--but who had arranged it? Nobody knew.
Meanwhile it was nearly noon, time for the box office to open. This, of course, was out of the question. A large piece of cardboard was hung on the Variety's doors with the announcement:
This caused a stir in the queue, beginning at its head, but the excitement subsided and the queue began to disperse. After an hour there was scarcely a trace of it on Sadovaya Street. The detectives left to pursue their inquiries elsewhere, the staff, except for the watchmen, were dismissed and the doors of the Variety were closed.
Vassily Stepanovich the accountant had two urgent tasks to perform. Firstly to go to the Commission for Theatrical Spectacles and Light Entertainment with a report on the previous day's events and then to deposit yesterday's takings of 21,711 roubles at the Commission's finance department.
The meticulous and efficient Vassily Stepanovich wrapped the money in newspaper, tied it up with string, put it into his briefcase and following his standing instructions avoided taking a bus or tram but went instead to the nearby taxi-rank.
As soon as the three cab-drivers on the rank saw a fare approaching with a chock-full briefcase under his arm, all three of them instantly drove off empty, scowling back as they went. Amazed, the accountant stood for a while wondering what this odd behaviour could mean. After about three minutes an empty cab drove up the the rank, the driver grimacing with hostility when he saw his fare.
'Are you free? ' asked Vassily Stepanovich with an anxious cough.
'Show me your money,' snarled the driver.
Even more amazed, the accountant clutched his precious briefcase under one arm, pulled a ten-rouble note out of his wallet and showed it to the driver.
'I'm not taking you,' he said curtly.
'Excuse me, but . . .' The accountant began, but the driver interrupted him:
'Got a three-rouble note? '
The bewildered accountant took out two three-rouble notes from his wallet and showed them to the driver.
'O.K., get in,' he shouted, slamming down the flag of his meter so hard that he almost broke it. ' Let's go.'
'Are you short of change? ' enquired the accountant timidly.
'Plenty of change! ' roared the driver and his eyes, reddened with fury, glared at Vassily Stepanovich from the mirror. ' Third time it's happened to me today. Just the same with the others. Some son of a bitch gives me a tenner and I give him four-fifty change. Out he gets, the bastard! Five minutes later I look--instead of a tenner there's a label off a soda-water bottle! ' Here the driver said several unprintable words. ' Picked up another fare on Zaborskaya. Gives me a tenner--I give him three roubles change. Gets out. I look in my bag and out flies a bee! Stings me on the finger! I'll . . .' The driver spat out more unprintable words. ' And there was no tenner. There was a show on at that (unprintable) Variety yesterday evening and some (unprintable) conjurer did a turn with a lot of (unprintable) ten-rouble notes . . .'
The accountant was dumbstruck. He hunched himself up and tried to look as if he was hearing the very word ' Variety ' for the first time in his life as he thought to himself: ' Well I'm damned! '
Arrived at his destination and paying in proper money, the accountant went into one building and hurried along the corridor to the chief cashier's office, but even before he reached it he realised that he had come at a bad moment. A rumpus was going on in the offices of the Theatrical Commission. A cleaner ran past him with her headscarf awry and bulging eyes.
'He's not there! He's not there, dear,' she screamed, turning to another man hurrying along the passage. ' His jacket and trousers are there but there's nobody in 'em! '
She disappeared through a door, from which there at once came the sound of smashing crockery. Vassily Stepanovich then saw the familiar figure of the chief cashier come running out of the secretaries' office and vanish, but the man was in such a state that he failed to recognise Vasilly Stepanovich.
Slightly shaken, the accountant reached the door of the secretaries' office, which was the ante-room to the chairman's office, where he had the greatest shock of all.
Through the far door came a terrible voice, unmistakably belonging to Prokhor Petrovich, the chairman of the Commission. ' I suppose he's telling somebody off,' thought the puzzled accountant. Looking round, he saw something else--there, in a leather armchair, her head resting on the back, sobbing uncontrollably and clutching a wet handkerchief, her legs stretched out to the middle of the floor, lay Prokhor Petrovich's secretary, the beautiful Anna Richardovna. Her chin was smeared with lipstick and streaks of dissolved mascara were running down her peach-skin cheeks.
Seeing him come in, Anna Richardovna jumped up, ran to Vassily Stepanovich, clutched his lapels and began to shake him, howling:
'Thank God! At least there's one of you brave enough! They've all run away, they've all let us down! Come and see him, I don't know what to do! ' Still sobbing she dragged him into the chairman's office.
Once inside Vassily Stepanovich dropped his briefcase in horror.
Behind the huge desk with its massive inkwell sat an empty suit. A dry pen was hurrying, unheld, across a sheet of paper. The suit had a shirt and tie, a fountain pen was clipped in its breast-pocket, but above the collar there was no neck and no head and there were no wrists protruding from the cuffs. The suit was hard at work and oblivious of the uproar round about. Hearing someone come in, the suit leaned back in its chair and from somewhere just above the collar came the familiar voice of Prokhor Petrovich:
'What is it? There's a notice on the door saying that I'm not seeing visitors.'
The beautiful secretary moaned and cried, wringing her hands :
'Don't you see? He's not there! Bring him back, oh bring him back!'
Someone peeped round the door, groaned and flew out again. Vassily Stepanovich felt his legs shaking and he sat down on the edge of a chair--not forgetting, though, to hold on to his briefcase. Anna Richardovna pranced round Vassily Stepanovich, pulling at his coat and shrieking :
'I've always, always stopped him whenever he began swearing! Now he's sworn once too often!' The girl ran to the desk and exclaimed in a tender, musical voice, slightly nasal from so much weeping: ' Prosha dear, where are you? '
'Who are you addressing as " Prosha "? ' enquired the suit haughtily, drawing further back into the chair.
'He doesn't recognise me! He doesn't recognise me! Don't you see? ' sobbed the girl.
'Kindly stop crying in my office!' said the striped suit irritably, stretching out its sleeve for a fresh pile of paper.
'No, I can't look, I can't look! ' cried Anna Richardovna and ran back into her office, followed, like a bullet, by the accountant.
'Just imagine--I was sitting here,' began Anna Richardovna trembling with horror and clutching Vassily Stepanovich's sleeve, ' when in came a cat. A great black animal as big as Behemoth. Naturally I shooed it out and it went, but then a fat man came in who also had a face like a cat, said " Do you always say ' shoo ' to visitors?" and went straight in to Prokhor Petrovich. So I shouted " What d'you mean by going in there --have you gone crazy? " But the cheeky brute marched straight in to Prokhor Petrovich and sat down in the chair facing him. Well, Prokhor is the nicest man alive, but he's nervous. He lost his temper. He works like a trojan, but he's apt to be nervy and he just flared up. " Why have you come in here without being announced? " he said. And then, if you please, that impudent creature stretched out in his chair and said with a smile : " I've come to have a chat with you on a little matter of business." Prokhor Petrovich snapped at him again :
" I'm busy," to which the beast said: " You're not busy at all ..." How d'you like that? Well, of course, Prokhor Petrovich lost all patience then and shouted: " What is all this? Damn me if I don't have you thrown out of here! " The beast just smiled and said: " Damn you, I think you said? Very well! " And--bang! Before I could even scream, I looked and cat-face had gone and there was this . . . suit . . . sitting . . . Oooooh! ' Stretching her mouth into a shapeless cavity Anna Richardovna gave a howl. Choking back her sobs she took a deep breath but could only gulp nonsensically:
'And it goes on writing and writing and writing! I must be going off my head! It talks on the telephone! The suit! They've all run away like rabbits! '
Vassily Stepanovich could only stand there, trembling. Fate rescued him. Into the secretaries' office with a firm, regular tread marched two policemen. Catching sight of them the lovely girl began sobbing even harder and pointed towards the office door.
'Now, now, miss, let's not cry,' said the first man calmly. Vassily Stepanovich, deciding that he was superfluous, skipped away and a minute later was out in the fresh air. His head felt hollow, something inside it was booming like a trumpet and the noise reminded him of the story told by one of the commissionaires about a cat which had taken part in yesterday's show. ' Aha! Perhaps it's our little pussy up to his tricks again? '
Having failed to hand in the money at the Commission's head office, the conscientious Vassily Stepanovich decided to go to the branch office, which was in Vagankovsky Street and to calm himself a little he made his way there on foot.
The branch office of the Theatrical Commission was quartered in a peeling old house at the far end of a courtyard, which was famous for the porphyry columns in its hallway. That day, however, the visitors to the house were not paying much attention to the porphyry columns.
Several visitors were standing numbly in the hall and staring at a weeping girl seated behind a desk full of theatrical brochures which it was her job to sell. The girl seemed to have lost interest in her literature and only waved sympathetic enquirers away, whilst from above, below and all sides of the building came the pealing of at least twenty desperate telephones.
Weeping, the girl suddenly gave a start and screamed hysterically :
'There it is again! ' and began singing in a wobbly soprano :
'Yo-o, heave-ho! Yo-o heave-ho! '
A messenger, who had appeared on the staircase, shook his fist at somebody and joined the girl, singing in a rough, tuneless baritone:
'One more heave, lads, one more heave . . .'
Distant voices chimed in, the choir began to swell until finally the song was booming out all over the building. In nearby room No. 6, the auditor's department, a powerful hoarse bass voice boomed out an octave below the rest. The chorus was accompanied crescendo by a peal of telephone bells.
'All day lo-ong we must trudge the sbore,' roared the messenger on the staircase.
Tears poured down the girl's face as she tried to clench her teeth, but her mouth opened of its own accord and she sang an octave above the messenger :
'Work all da-ay and then work more . . .'
What surprised the dumbfounded visitors was the fact that the singers, spread all through the building, were keeping excellent time, as though the whole choir were standing together and watching an invisible conductor.
Passers-by in Vagankovsky Street stopped outside the courtyard gates, amazed to hear such sounds of harmony coming from the Commission.
As soon as the first verse was over, the singing stopped at once, as though in obedience to a conductor's baton. The messenger swore under his breath and ran off.
The front door opened and in walked a man wearing a light coat on top of a white overall, followed by a policeman.
'Do something, doctor, please! ' screamed the hysterical girl.
The secretary of the branch office ran out on to the staircase and obviously burning with embarrassment and shame said between hiccups:
'Look doctor, we have a case of some kind of mass hypnosis, so you must. . .' He could not finish his sentence, stuttered and began singing 'Shilka and Nerchinsk . . .'
'Fool! ' the girl managed to shout, but never managed to say who she meant and instead found herself forced into a trill and joined in the song about Shilka and Nerchinsk.
'Pull yourselves together! Stop singing!' said the doctor to the secretary.
It was obvious that the secretary would have given anything to stop singing but could not.
When the verse was finished the girl at the desk received a dose of valerian from the doctor, who hurried off to give the secretary and the rest the same treatment.
'Excuse me, miss,' Vassily Stepanovich suddenly asked the girl, ' has a black cat been in here? '
'What cat? ' cried the girl angrily. ' There's a donkey in this office--a donkey! ' And she went on : 'If you want to hear about it I'll tell you exactly what's happened.'
Apparently the director of the branch office had a mania for organising clubs.
'He does it all without permission from head office! ' said the girl indignantly.
In the course of a year the branch director had succeeded in organising a Lermontov Club, a Chess and Draughts Club, a Ping-Pong Club and a Riding Club. In summer he threatened to organise a rowing club and a mountaineering club. And then this morning in came the director at lunch time . . .
'. . . arm in arm with some villain,' said the girl, ' that he'd picked up God knows where, wearing check trousers, with a wobbling pince-nez . . . and an absolutely impossible face! '
There and then, according to the girl, he had introduced him to all the lunchers in the dining-room as a famous specialist in organising choral societies.
The faces of the budding mountaineers darkened, but the director told them to cheer up and the specialist made jokes and assured them on his oath that singing would take up very little time and was a wonderfully useful accomplishment.
Well, of course, the girl went on, the first two to jump up were Fanov and Kosarchuk, both well-known toadies, and announced that they wanted to join. The rest of the staff realised that there was no way out of it, so they all joined the choral society too. It was decided to practise during the lunch break, because all the rest of their spare time was already taken up with Lermontov and draughts. To set an example the director announced that he sang tenor. What happened then was like a bad dream. The check-clad chorus master bellowed: ' Do, mi, sol, do!' He dragged some of the shy members out from behind a cupboard where they had been trying to avoid having to sing, told Kosarchuk that he had perfect pitch, whined, whimpered, begged them to show him some respect as an old choirmaster, struck a tuning fork on his finger and announced that they would begin with ' The Song of the Volga Boatmen '.
They struck up. And they sang very well--the man in the check suit really did know his job. They sang to the end of the first verse. Then the choirmaster excused himself, saying : ' I'll be back in a moment . . .'--and vanished. Everybody expected him back in a minute or two, but ten minutes went by and there was still no sign of him. The staff were delighted--he had run away!
Then suddenly, as if to order, they all began singing the second verse, led by Kosarchuk, who may not have had perfect pitch but who had quite a pleasant high tenor. They finished the verse. Still no conductor. Everybody started to go back to their tables, but they had no time to eat before quite against their will they all started singing again. And they could not stop. There would be three minutes' silence and they would burst out into song again. Silence--then more singing! Soon people began to realise that something terrible was happening. The director locked himself in his office out of shame.
With this the girl's story broke off--even valerian was no use,
A quarter of an hour later three lorries drove up to the gateway on Vagankovsky Street and the entire branch staff, headed by the director, was put into them. Just as the first lorry drove through the gate and out into the street, the staff, standing in the back of the lorry and holding each other round the shoulders, all opened their mouths and deafened the whole street with a song. The second lorry-load joined in and then the third. On they drove, singing. The passers-by hurrying past on their own business gave the lorries no more than a glance and took no notice, thinking that it was some works party going on an excursion out of town. They were certainly heading out of town, but not for an outing: they were bound for Professor Stravinsky's clinic.
Half an hour later the distracted Vassily Stepanovich reached the accounts department hoping at last to be able to get rid of his large sum of money. Having learned from experience, he first gave a cautious glance into the long hall, where the cashiers sat behind frosted-glass windows with gilt markings. He found no sign of disturbance or upheaval. All was as quiet as it should be in such a respectable establishment.
Vassily Stepanovich stuck his head through the window marked ' Paying In ', said good-day to the clerk and politely asked for a paying-in slip.
'What do you want? ' asked the clerk behind the window.
The accountant looked amazed.
'I want to pay in, of course. I'm from the Variety.'
'One minute,' replied the clerk and instantly shut his little window.
'Funny! ' thought Vassily Stepanovich. This was the first time in his life that he had been treated like this. We all know how hard it is to acquire money--the process is strewn with obstacles ; but in his thirty years' experience Vassily Stepanovich had never yet found anyone who had made the least objection to taking money when offered it.
At last the window was pushed open again and the accountant leaned forward again.
'How much have you got? ' asked the clerk.
'Twenty-one thousand, seven hundred and eleven roubles.'
'Oho! ' replied the clerk ironically and handed Vassily Stepanovich a green form. Thoroughly familiar with it, he filled it out in a moment and began untying the string on his package. As he unpacked it a red film came over his eyes and he groaned in agony. In front of him lay heaps of foreign money--Canadian dollars, English pounds, Dutch guilders, Latvian latts, Esthonian crowns . . .
'Here's another of these jokers from the Variety! ' said a grim voice behind the accountant. And Vassily Stepanovich was immediately put under arrest.