Chapter 20. Azazello's Cream
Through the branches of the maple tree a full moon hung in the clear evening sky. The limes and acacias traced a complex pattern of shadows on the grass. A triple casement window in the attic, open but with the blind drawn, shone with a glare of electric light. Every lamp was burning in Margarita Nikolayevna's bedroom and lighting up the chaotically untidy room.
On the bedspread lay blouses, stockings and underwear, more crumpled underwear was piled on the floor beside a packet of cigarettes that had been squashed in the excitement. A pair of slippers was on the bedside table alongside a cold, unfinished cup of coffee and an ashtray with a smouldering cigarette end. A black silk dress hung across the chairback. The room smelled of perfume and from somewhere there came the reek of a hot iron.
Margarita Nikolayevna was sitting in front of a full-length mirror in nothing but black velvet slippers, a bath-wrap thrown over her naked body. Her gold wrist-watch lay in front of her alongside the little box given her by Azazello, and Margarita was staring at the watch-face.
At times she felt that the watch had broken and the hands were not moving. They were moving, but so slowly that they seemed to have stuck. At last the minute hand pointed to twenty nine minutes past eight. Margarita's heart was thumping so violently that at first she could hardly pick up the box. With an effort she opened it and saw that it contained a greasy yellowish cream. It seemed to smell of swamp mud. With the tip of her finger Margarita put a little blob of the cream on her palm, which produced an even stronger smell of marsh and forest, and then she began to massage the cream into her forehead and cheeks.
The ointment rubbed in easily and produced an immediate tingling effect. After several rubs Margarita looked into the mirror and dropped the box right on to the watch-glass, which shivered into a web of fine cracks. Margarita shut her eyes, then looked again and burst into hoots of laughter.
Her eyebrows that she had so carefully plucked into a fine line had thickened into two regular arcs above her eyes, which had taken on a deeper green colour. The fine vertical furrow between her eyebrows which had first appeared in October when the master disappeared, had vanished without trace. Gone too were the yellowish shadows at her temples and two barely detectable sets of crowsfeet round the corners of her eyes. The skin of her cheeks was evenly suffused with pink, her brow had become white and smooth and the frizzy, artificial wave in her hair had straightened out.
A dark, naturally curly-haired woman of twenty, teeth bared and laughing uncontrollably, was looking out of the mirror at the thirty-year-old Margarita.
Laughing, Margarita jumped out of her bath-wrap with one leap, scooped out two large handfuls of the slightly fatty cream and began rubbing it vigorously all over her body. She immediately glowed and turned a healthy pink. In a moment her headache stopped, after having pained her all day since the encounter in the Alexander Gardens. The muscles of her arms and legs grew firmer and she even lost weight.
She jumped and stayed suspended in the air just above the carpet, then slowly and gently dropped back to the ground.
'Hurray for the cream! ' cried Margarita, throwing herself into an armchair.
The anointing had not only changed her appearance. Joy surged through every part of her body, she felt as though bubbles were shooting along every limb. Margarita felt free, free of everything, realising with absolute clarity that what was happening was the fulfilment of her presentiment of that morning, that she was going to leave her house and her past life for ever. But one thought from her past life hammered persistently in her mind and she knew that she had one last duty to perform before she took off into the unknown, into the air. Naked as she was she ran out of the bedroom, flying through the air, and into her husband's study, where she turned on the light and flew to his desk. She tore a sheet off his note-pad and in one sweep, erasing nothing and changing nothing, she quickly and firmly pencilled this message :Forgive me and forget me as quickly as you can. I am leaving you for ever. Don't look for me, it will be useless. Misery and unhappiness have turned me into a witch. It is time for me to go. Farewell. Margarita.
With a sense of absolute relief Margarita flew back into the bedroom. Just then Natasha came in, loaded with clothes and shoes. At once the whole pile, dresses on coathangers, lace blouses, blue silk shoes on shoe trees, belts, all fell on to the floor and Natasha clasped her hands.
'Pretty, aren't I?' cried Margarita Nikolayevna in a loud, slightly husky voice.
'What's happened?' whispered Natasha, staggering back. ' What have you done, Margarita Nikolayevna? '
'It's the cream! The cream!' replied Margarita, pointing to the gleaming gold box and twirling round in front of the mirror. Forgetting the heap of crumpled clothes on the floor, Natasha ran to the dressing table and stared, eyes hot with longing, at the remains of the ointment. Her lips whispered a few words in silence. She turned to Margarita and said with something like awe:
'Oh, your skin--look at your skin, Margarita Nikolayevna, it's shining! ' Then she suddenly remembered herself, picked up the dress she had dropped and started to smooth it out.
'Leave it, Natasha! Drop it! ' Margarita shouted at her. ' To hell with it! Throw it all away! No--wait--you can have it all. As a present from me. You can have everything there is in the room!'
Dumbfounded, Natasha gazed at Margarita for a while then clasped her round the neck, kissing her and shouting :
'You're like satin! Shiny satin! And look at your eyebrows!'
'Take all these rags, take all my scent and put it all in your bottom drawer, you can keep it,' shouted Margarita, ' but don't take the jewellery or they'll say you stole it.'
Natasha rummaged in the heap for whatever she could pick up--stockings, shoes, dresses and underwear--and ran out of the bedroom.
At that moment from an open window on the other side of the street came the loud strains of a waltz and the spluttering of a car engine as it drew up at the gate.
'Azazello will ring soon! ' cried Margarita, listening to the sound of the waltz. ' He's going to ring! And this foreigner is harmless, I realise now that he can never harm me!'
The car's engine roared as it accelerated away. The gate slammed and footsteps could be heard on the flagged path.
'It's Nikolai Ivanovich, I recognise his tread,' thought Margarita. ' I must do something funny as a way of saying goodbye to him!'
Margarita flung the shutters open and sat sideways on the windowsill, clasping her knees with her hands. The moonlight caressed her right side. Margarita raised her head towards the moon and put on a reflective and poetic face. Two more footsteps were heard and then they suddenly stopped. With another admiring glance at the moon and a sigh for fun, Margarita turned to look down at the garden, where she saw her neighbour of the floor below, Nikolai Ivanovich. He was clearly visible in the moonlight, sitting on a bench on which he had obviously just sat down with a bump. His pince-nez was lop-sided and he was clutching his briefcase in his arms.
'Hullo, Nikolai Ivanovich! ' said Margarita Nikolayevna in a sad voice. ' Good evening! Have you just come from the office?'
Nikolai Ivanovich said nothing.
'And here am I,' Margarita went on, leaning further out into the garden, ' sitting all alone as you can see, bored, looking at the moon and listening to a waltz . . .'
Margarita Nikolayevna ran her left hand along her temple, arranging a lock of hair, then said crossly :
'It's very impolite of you, Nikolai Ivanovich! I am a woman, after all! It's rude not to answer when someone speaks to you.'
Nikolai Ivanovich, visible in the bright moonlight down to the last button on his grey waistcoat and the last hair on his little pointed beard, suddenly gave an idiotic grin and got up from his bench. Obviously half-crazed with embarrassment, instead of taking off his hat he waved his briefcase and flexed his knees as though just about to break into a Russian dance.
'Oh how you bore me, Nikolai Ivanovich! ' Margarita went on. ' You all bore me inexpressibly and I can't tell you how happy I am to be leaving you! You can all go to hell!'
Just then the telephone rang in Margarita's bedroom. She slipped off the windowsill and forgetting Nikolai Ivanovich completely she snatched up the receiver.
'Azazello speaking,' said a voice.
'Dear, dear Azazello,' cried Margarita.
'It's time for you to fly away,' said Azazello and she could hear from his tone that he was pleased by Margarita's sincere outburst of affection. ' As you fly over the gate shout " I'm invisible "--then fly about over the town a bit to get used to it and then turn south, away from Moscow straight along the river. They're waiting for you! '
Margarita hung up and at once something wooden in the next room started bumping about and tapping on the door. Margarita flung it open and a broom, bristles upward, danced into the bedroom. Its handle beat a tattoo on the floor, tipped itself up horizontally and pointed towards the window. Margarita whimpered with joy and jumped astride the broomstick. Only then did she remember that in the excitement she had forgotten to get dressed. She galloped over to the bed and picked up the first thing to hand, which was a blue slip. Waving it like a banner she flew out of the window. The waltz rose to a crescendo.
Margarita dived down from the window and saw Nikolai Ivanovich sitting on the bench. He seemed to be frozen to it, listening stunned to the shouts and bangs that had been coming from the top-floor bedroom.
'Goodbye, Nikolai Ivanovich! ' cried Margarita, dancing about in front of him.
The wretched man groaned, fidgeted and dropped his briefcase.
'Farewell for ever, Nikolai Ivanovich! I'm flying away! ' shouted Margarita, drowning the music of the waltz. Realising that her slip was useless she gave a malicious laugh and threw it over Nikolai Ivanovich's head. Blinded, Nikolai Ivanovich fell off the bench on to the flagged path with a crash.
Margarita turned round for a last look at the house where she had spent so many years of unhappiness and saw the astonished face of Natasha in the lighted window.
'Goodbye, Natasha! ' Margarita shouted, waving her broom. ' I'm invisible! Invisible! ' she shouted at the top of her voice as she flew off, the maple branches whipping her face, over the gate and out into the street. Behind her flew the strains of the waltz, rising to a mad crescendo.