Chapter 21. The Flight
Invisible and free! Reaching the end of her street, Margarita turned sharp right and flew on down a long, crooked street with its plane trees and its patched roadway, its oil-shop with a warped door where they sold kerosene by the jugful and the bottled juice of parasites. Here Margarita discovered that although she was invisible, free as air and thoroughly enjoying herself, she still had to take care. Stopping herself by a miracle she just avoided a lethal collison with an old, crooked lamp-post. As she swerved away from it, Margarita gripped her broomstick harder and flew on more slowly, glancing at the passing signboards and electric cables.
The next street led straight to the Arbat. By now she had thoroughly mastered the business of steering her broom, having found that it answered to the slightest touch of her hands or legs and that when flying around the town she had to be very careful to avoid collisions. It was now quite obvious that the people in the street could not see her. Nobody turned their head, nobody shouted' Look, look! ', nobody stepped aside, nobody screamed, fell in a faint or burst into laughter.
Margarita flew silently and very slowly at about second-storey height. Slow as her progress was, however, she made slightly too wide a sweep as she flew into the blindingly-lit Arbat and hit her shoulder against an illuminated glass traffic sign. This annoyed her. She stopped the obedient broomstick, flew back, aimed for the sign and with a sudden flick of the end of her broom, smashed it to fragments. The pieces crashed to the ground, passers-by jumped aside, a whistle blew and Margarita burst into laughter at her little act of wanton destruction.
'I shall have to be even more careful on the Arbat,' she thought to herself. ' There are so many obstructions, it's like a maze.' She began weaving between the cables. Beneath her flowed the roofs of trolley-buses, buses and cars, and rivers of hats surged along the pavements. Little streams diverged from these rivers and trickled into the lighted caves of all-night stores.
'What a maze,' thought Margarita crossly. ' There's no room to manoeuvre here! '
She crossed the Arbat, climbed to fourth-floor height, past the brilliant neon tubes of a corner theatre and turned into a narrow side-street flanked with tall houses. All their windows were open and radio music poured out from all sides. Out of curiosity Margarita glanced into one of them. She saw a kitchen. Two Primuses were roaring away on a marble ledge, attended by two women standing with spoons in their hands and swearing at each other.
'You should put the light out when you come out of the lavatory, I've told you before, Pelagea Petrovna,' said the woman with a saucepan of some steaming decoction, ' otherwise we'll have you chucked out of here.'
'You can't talk,' replied the other.
'You're both as bad as each other,' said Margarita clearly, leaning over the windowsill into the kitchen.
The two quarrelling women stopped at the sound of her voice and stood petrified, clutching their dirty spoons. Margarita carefully stretched out her arm between them and turned off both primuses. The women gasped. But Margarita was already bored with this prank and had flown out again into the street.
Her attention was caught by a massive and obviously newly-built eight-storey block of flats at the far end of the street. Margarita flew towards it and as she landed she saw that the building was faced with black marble, that its doors were wide, that a porter in gold-laced peaked cap and buttons stood in the hall. Over the doorway was a gold inscription reading ' Dramlit House'.
Margarita frowned at the inscription, wondering what the word ' Dramlit' could mean. Tucking her broomstick under her arm, Margarita pushed open the front door, to the amazement of the porter, walked in and saw a huge black notice-board that listed the names and flat numbers of all the residents. The inscription over the name-board, reading ' Drama and Literature House,' made Margarita give a suppressed yelp of predatory anticipation. Rising a little in the air, she began eagerly to read the names: Khustov, Dvubratsky, Quant, Beskudnikov, Latunsky . . .
'Latunsky!' yelped Margarita. ' Latunsky! He's the man . . . who ruined the master!'
The porter jumped up in astonishment and stared at the name-board, wondering why it had suddenly given a shriek.
Margarita was already flying upstairs, excitedly repeating :
'Latunsky, eighty-four . . . Latunsky, eighty-four . . . Here we are, left--eighty-two, right--eighty-three, another floor up, left--eighty-four! Here it is and there's his name--" 0. Latunsky ".'
Margarita jumped off her broomstick and the cold stone floor of the landing felt pleasantly cool to her hot bare feet. She rang once, twice. No answer. Margarita pressed the button harder and heard the bell ringing far inside Latunsky's flat. Latunsky should have been grateful to his dying day that the chairman of massolit had fallen under a tramcar and that the memorial gathering was being held that very evening. Latunsky must have been born under a lucky star, because the coincidence saved him from an encounter with Margarita, newly turned witch that Friday.
No one came to open the door. At full speed Margarita flew down, counting the floors as she went, reached the bottom, flew out into the street and looked up. She counted the floors and tried to guess which of the windows belonged to Latunsky's flat. Without a doubt they were the five unlighted windows on the eighth floor at the corner of the building. Feeling sure that she was right, Margarita flew up and a few seconds later found her way through an open window into a dark room lit only by a silver patch of moonlight. Margarita walked across and fumbled for the switch. Soon all the lights in the flat were burning. Parking her broom in a corner and making sure that nobody was at home, Margarita opened the front door and looked at the nameplate. This was it.
People say that Latunsky still turns pale when he remembers that evening and that he always pronounces Berlioz's name with gratitude. If he had been at home God knows what violence might have been done that night.
Margarita went into the kitchen and came out with a massive hammer.
Naked and invisible, unable to restrain herself, her hands shook with impatience. Margarita took careful aim and hit the keys of the grand piano, sending a crashing discord echoing through the flat. The innocent piano, a Backer baby grand, howled and sobbed. With the sound of a revolver shot, the polished sounding-board split under a hammer-blow. Breathing hard, Margarita smashed and battered the strings until she collapsed into an armchair to rest.
An ominous sound of water came from the kitchen and the bathroom. ' It must be overflowing by now . . .' thought Margarita and added aloud :
'But there's no time to sit and gloat.'
A flood was already pouring from the kitchen into the passage. Wading barefoot, Margarita carried buckets of water into the critic's study, and emptied them into the drawers of his desk. Then having smashed the glass-fronted bookcase with a few hammer-blows, she ran into the bedroom. There she shattered the mirror in the wardrobe door, pulled out all Latunsky's suits and flung them into the bathtub. She found a large bottle of ink in the study and poured its contents all over the huge, luxurious double bed.
Although all this destruction was giving her the deepest pleasure, she somehow felt that its total effect was inadequate and too easily repaired. She grew wilder and more indiscriminate. In the room with the piano, she smashed the flower vases and the pots holding rubber plants. With savage delight she rushed into the bedroom with a cook's knife, slashed all the sheets and broke the glass in the photograph frames. Far from feeling tired, she wielded her weapon with such ferocity that the sweat poured in streams down her naked body.
Meanwhile in No. 82, immediately beneath Latunsky's flat, Quant's maid was drinking a cup of tea in the kitchen and wondering vaguely why there was so much noise and running about upstairs. Looking up at the ceiling she suddenly saw it change colour from white to a deathly grey-blue. The patch spread visibly and it began to spout drops of water. The maid sat there for a few minutes, bewildered at this phenomenon, until a regular shower began raining down from the ceiling and pattering on the floor. She jumped up and put a bowl under the stream, but it was useless as the shower was spreading and was already pouring over the gas stove and the dresser. With a shriek Quant's maid ran out of the flat on to the staircase and started ringing Latunsky's front-door bell.
'Ah, somebody's ringing . . . time to go,' said Margarita. She mounted the broom, listening to a woman's voice shouting through the keyhole.
'Open up, open up! Open the door, Dusya! Your water's overflowing! We're being flooded! '
Margarita flew up a few feet and took a swing at the chandelier. Two lamps broke and glass fragments flew everywhere. The shouts at the keyhole had stopped and there was a tramp of boots on the staircase. Margarita floated out of the window, where she turned and hit the glass a gentle blow with her hammer. It shattered and cascaded in smithereens down the marble facade on to the street below. Margarita flew on to the next window. Far below people were running about on the pavement, and one of the cars standing outside the entrance started up and drove away.
Having dealt with all Latunsky's windows, Margarita floated on towards the next flat. The blows became more frequent, the street resounded with bangs and tinkles. The porter ran out of the front door, looked up, hesitated for a moment in amazement, popped a whistle into his mouth and blew like a maniac. The noise inspired Margarita to even more violent action on the eighth-floor windows and then to drop down a storey and to start work on the seventh.
Bored by his idle job of hanging around the entrance hall, the porter put all his pent-up energy into blowing his whistle, playing a woodwind obbligato in time to Margarita's enthusiastic percussion. In the intervals as she moved from window to window, he drew breath and then blew an ear-splitting blast from distended cheeks at each stroke of Margarita's hammer. Their combined efforts produced the most impressive results. Panic broke out in Dramlit House. The remaining unbroken window-panes were flung open, heads were popped out and instantly withdrawn, whilst open windows were hastily shut. At the lighted windows of the building opposite appeared figures, straining forward to try and see why for no reason all the windows of Dramlit House were spontaneously exploding.
All along the street people began running towards Dramlit House and inside it others were pelting senselessly up and down the staircase. The Quants' maid shouted to them that they were being flooded out and she was soon joined by the Khustovs' maid from No. 80 which lay underneath the Quants'. Water was pouring through the Khustovs' ceiling into the bathroom and the kitchen. Finally an enormous chunk of plaster crashed down from Quants' kitchen ceiling, smashing all the dirty crockery on the draining-board and letting loose a deluge as though someone upstairs were pouring out buckets of dirty rubbish and lumps of sodden plaster. Meanwhile a chorus of shouts came from the staircase.
Flying past the last window but one on the fourth floor, Margarita glanced into it and saw a panic-stricken man putting on a gas mask. Terrified at the sound of Margarita's hammer tapping on the window, he vanished from the room. Suddenly the uproar stopped. Floating down to the third floor Margarita looked into the far window, which was shaded by a flimsy blind. The room was lit by a little night-light. In a cot with basketwork sides sat a little boy of about four, listening nervously. There were no grownups in the room and they had obviously all run out of the flat.
'Windows breaking,' said the little boy and cried : ' Mummy!'
Nobody answered and he said :
'Mummy, I'm frightened.'
Margarita pushed aside the blind and flew in at the window.
'I'm frightened,' said the little boy again, shivering.
'Don't be frightened, darling,' said Margarita, trying to soften her now raucous, harsh voice. ' It's only some boys breaking windows.'
'With a catapult? ' asked the boy, as he stopped shivering.
'Yes, with a catapult,' agreed Margarita. ' Go to sleep now.'
'That's Fedya,' said the boy. ' He's got a catapult.'
'Of course, it must be Fedya.'
The boy glanced slyly to one side and asked :
'Where are you, aunty? '
'I'm nowhere,' replied Margarita. ' You're dreaming about me.
'I thought so,' said the little boy.
'Now you lie down,' said Margarita, ' put your hand under your cheek and I'll send you to sleep.'
'All right,' agreed the boy and lay down at once with his cheek on his palm.
'I'll tell you a story,' Margarita began, laying her hot hand on the child's cropped head. ' Once upon a time there was a lady . . . she had no children and she was never happy. At first she just used to cry, then one day she felt very naughty . . .' Margarita stopped and took away her hand. The little boy was asleep.
Margarita gently put the hammer on the windowsill and flew out of the window. Below, disorder reigned. People were shouting and running up and down the glass-strewn pavement, policemen among them. Suddenly a bell started clanging and round the corner from the Arbat drove a red fire-engine with an extending ladder.
Margarita had already lost interest. Steering her way past any cables, she clutched the broom harder and in a moment was flying high above Dramlit House. The street veered sideways and vanished. Beneath her now was only an expanse of roofs, criss-crossed with brilliantly lit roads. Suddenly it all slipped sideways, the strings of light grew blurred and vanished.
Margarita gave another jerk, at which the sea of roofs disappeared, replaced below her by a sea of shimmering electric lights. Suddenly the sea of light swung round to the vertical and appeared over Margarita's head whilst the moon shone under her legs. Realising that she had looped the loop, Margarita righted herself, turned round and saw that the sea had vanished ; behind her there was now only a pink glow on the horizon. In a second that too had disappeared and Margarita saw that she was alone with the moon, sailing along above her and to the left. Margarita's hair streamed out behind her in wisps as the moonlight swished past her body. From the two lines of widely-spaced lights meeting at a point in the distance and from the speed with which they were vanishing behind her Margarita guessed that she was flying at prodigious speed and was surprised to discover that it did not take her breath away.
After a few seconds' travel, far below in the earthbound blackness an electric sunrise flared up and rolled beneath Margarita's feet, then twisted round and vanished. Another few seconds, another burst of light.
'Towns! Towns!' shouted Margarita.
Two or tliree times she saw beneath her what looked like dull glinting bands of steel ribbon that were rivers.
Glancing upward and to the left she stared at the moon as it flew past her, rushing backwards to Moscow, yet strangely appearing to stand still. In the moon she could clearly see a mysterious dark shape--not exactly a dragon, not quite a little hump-backed horse, its sharp muzzle pointed towards the city she was leaving.
The thought then came to Margarita that there was really no reason for her to drive her broom at such a speed. She was missing a unique chance to see the world from a new viewpoint and savour the thrill of flight. Something told her that wherever her destination might be, her hosts would wait for her.
There was no hurry, no reason to make herself dizzy with speed or to fly at such a height, so she tilted the head other broom downwards and floated, at a greatly reduced speed, almost down to ground level. This headlong dive, as though on an aerial toboggan, gave her the utmost pleasure. The earth rose up to her and the moonlit landscape, until then an indistinguishable blur, was revealed in exquisite detail. Margarita flew just above the veil of mist over meadow and pond ; through the wisps of vapour she could hear the croaking of frogs, from the distance came the heart-stopping moan of a train. Soon Margarita caught sight of it. It was moving slowly, like a caterpillar blowing sparks from the top of its head. She overtook it, crossed another lake in which a reflected moon swam beneath her legs, then flew still lower, nearly brushing the tops of the giant pines with her feet.
Suddenly Margarita caught the sound of heavy, snorting breath behind her and it seemed to be slowly catching her up. Gradually another noise like a flying bullet and a woman's raucous laughter could be heard. Margarita looked round and saw that she was being followed by a dark object of curious shape. As it drew nearer it began to look like someone flying astride, until as it slowed down to draw alongside her Margarita saw clearly that it was Natasha.
Completely naked too, her hair streaming behind her, she was flying along mounted on a fat pig, clutching a briefcase in its front legs and furiously pounding the air with its hind trotters. A pince-nez, which occasionally flashed in the moonlight, had fallen off its nose and was dangling on a ribbon, whilst the pig's hat kept falling forward over its eyes. After a careful look Margarita recognised the pig as Nikolai Ivanovich and her laughter rang out, mingled with Natasha's, over the forest below.
'Natasha! ' shrieked Margarita. ' Did you rub the cream on yourself?'
'Darling!' answered Natasha, waking the sleeping pine forests with her screech. ' I smeared it on his bald head I '
'My princess! ' grunted the pig miserably.
'Darling Margarita Nikolayevna! ' shouted Natasha as she galloped alongside. ' I confess--I took the rest of the cream. Why shouldn't I fly away and live, too? Forgive me, but I could never come back to you now--not for anything. This is the life for me! . .. He made me a proposition.'--Natasha poked her finger into the back of the pig's neck--' The old lecher. I didn't think he had it in him, did you? What did you call me? ' she yelled, leaning down towards the pig's ear.
'Goddess! ' howled the animal. ' Slow down, Natasha, please! There are important papers in my briefcase and I may lose them! '
'To hell with your papers,' shouted Natasha, laughing. ‘ Oh, please don't shout like that, somebody may hear us!' roared the pig imploringly.
As she flew alongside Margarita, Natasha laughingly told her what had happened in the house after Margarita Nikolayevna had flown away over the gate.
Natasha confessed that without touching any more of the things she had been given she had torn her clothes off, rushed to the cream and started to anoint herself. The same transformation took place. Laughing aloud with delight, she was standing in front of the mirror admiring her magical beauty when the door opened and in walked Nikolai Ivanovich. He was highly excited and was holding Margarita Nikolayevna's slip, his briefcase and his hat. At first he was riveted to the spot with horror, then announced, as red as a lobster, that he thought he should bring the garment back. . . .
'The things he said, the beast! ' screamed Natasha, roaring with laughter. ' The things he suggested! The money he offered me! Said his wife would never find out. It's true, isn't it?' Natasha shouted to the pig, which could do nothing but wriggle its snout in embarrassment.
As they had romped about in the bedroom, Natasha smeared some of the cream on Nikolai Ivanovich and then it was her turn to freeze with astonishment. The face of her respectable neighbour shrank and grew a snout, whilst his arms and legs sprouted trotters. Looking at himself in the mirror Nikolai Ivanovich gave a wild, despairing squeal but it was too late. A few seconds later, with Natasha astride him, he was flying through the air away from Moscow, sobbing with chagrin.
'I demand to be turned back to my usual shape! ' the pig suddenly grunted, half angry, half begging. ' I refuse to take part: in an illegal assembly! Margarita Nikolayevna, kindly take your maid off my back.'
'Oh, so I'm a maid now, am I! What d'you mean--maid!' cried Natasha, tweaking the pig's ear. ' I was a goddess just now! What did you call me? '
'Venus! ' replied the pig miserably, brushing a hazel-bush with its feet as they flew low over a chattering, fast-flowing stream.
'Venus! Venus! ' screamed Natasha triumphantly, putting one arm akimbo and waving the other towards the moon.
'Margarita! Queen Margarita! Ask them to let me stay a witch! You have the power to ask for whatever you like and they'll do it for you.'
Margarita replied :
'Very well, I promise.'
'Thanks!' screamed Natasha, raising her voice still higher to shout: ' Hey, go on--faster, faster! Faster than that! '
She dug her heels into the pig's thin flanks, sending it flying forward. In a moment Natasha could only be seen as a dark spot far ahead and as she vanished altogether the swish of her passage through the air died away.
Margarita flew on slowly through the unknown, deserted countryside, over hills strewn with occasional rocks and sparsely grown with giant fir trees. She was no longer flying over their tops, but between their trunks, silvered on one side by the moonlight. Her faint shadow flitted ahead of her, as the moon was now at her back.
Sensing that she was approaching water, Margarita guessed that her goal was near. The fir trees parted and Margarita gently floated through the air towards a chalky hillside. Below it lay a river. A mist was swirling round the bushes growing on the cliff-face, whilst the opposite bank was low and flat. There under a lone clump of trees was the flicker of a camp fire, surrounded by moving figures, and Margarita seemed to hear the insistent beat of music. Beyond, as far as the eye could see, there was not a sign of life.
Margarita bounded down the hillside to the water, which looked tempting after her chase through the air. Throwing aside the broom, she took a run and dived head-first into the water. Her body, as light as air, plunged in and threw up a column of spray almost to the moon. The water was as warm as a bath and as she glided upwards from the bottom Margarita revelled in the freedom of swimming alone in a river at night. There was no one near Margarita in the water, but further away near some bushes by the shore, she could hear splashing and snorting. Someone else was having a bathe.
Margarita swam ashore and ran up the bank. Her body tingled. She felt no fatigue after her long flight and gave a little dance of pure joy on the damp grass. Suddenly she stopped and listened. The snorting was moving closer and from a clump of reeds there emerged a fat man, naked except for a dented top hat perched on the back of his head. He had been plodding his way through sticky mud, which made him seem to be wearing black boots. To judge from his breath and his hiccups he had had a great deal to drink, which was confirmed by a smell of brandy rising from the water around him.
Catching sight of Margarita the fat man stared at her, then cried with a roar of joy:
'Surely it can't be! It is--Claudine, the merry widow! What brings you here? ' He waddled forward to greet her. Margarita retreated and replied in a dignified voice :
'Go to hell! What d'you mean--Claudine? Who d'you think you're talking to?' After a moment's reflection she rounded off her retort with a long, satisfying and unprintable obscenity. Its effect on the fat man was instantly sobering.
'Oh dear,' he exclaimed, flinching. ' Forgive me--I didn't see you, your majesty. Queen Margot. It's the fault of the brandy.' The fat man dropped on to one knee, took off his top hat, bowed and in a mixture of Russian and French jabbered some nonsense about having just come from a wedding in Paris, about brandy and about how deeply he apologised for his terrible mistake.
'You might have put your trousers on, you great fool,' said Margarita, relenting though still pretending to be angry.
The fat man grinned with delight as he realised that Margarita had forgiven him and he announced cheerfully that he just happened to be without his trousers at this particular moment because he had absent-mindedly left them on the bank of the river Yenisei where he had been bathing just before flying here, but would go back for them at once. With an effusive volley of farewells he began bowing and walking backwards, until he slipped and fell headlong into the water. Even as he fell, however, his side-whiskered face kept its smile of cheerful devotion. Then Margarita gave a piercing whistle, mounted the obedient broomstick and flew across to the far bank, which lay in the full moonlight beyond the shadow cast by the chalk cliff.
As soon as she touched the wet grass the music from the clump of willows grew louder and the stream of sparks blazed upwards with furious gaiety. Under the willow branches, hung with thick catkins, sat two rows of fat-cheeked frogs, puffed up as if they were made of rubber and playing a march on wooden pipes. Glow-worms hung on the willow twigs in front of the musicians to light their sheets of music whilst a nickering glow from the camp fire played over the frogs' faces.
The march was being played in Margarita's honour as part of a solemn ceremony of welcome. Translucent water-sprites stopped their dance to wave fronds at her as their cries of welcome floated across the broad water-meadow. Naked witches jumped down from the willows and curtsied to her. A goat-legged creature ran up, kissed her hand and, as he spread out a silken sheet on the grass, enquired if she had enjoyed her bathe and whether she would like to lie down and rest.
As Margarita lay down the goat-legged man brought her a goblet of champagne, which at once warmed her heart. Asking where Natasha was, she was told that Natasha had already bathed. She was already flying back to Moscow on her pig to warn them that Margarita would soon be coming and to help in preparing her attire.
Margarita's short stay in the willow-grove was marked by a curious event: a whistle split the air and a dark body, obviously missing its intended target, sailed through the air and landed in the water. A few moments later Margarita was faced by the same fat man with side whiskers who had so clumsily introduced himself earlier. He had obviously managed to fly back to the Yenisei because although soaking wet from head to foot, he now wore full evening dress. He had been at the brandy again, which had caused him to land in the water, but as before his smile was indestructible and in his bedraggled state he was permitted to kiss Margarita's hand.
All prepared to depart. The water-sprites ended their dance and vanished. The goat-man politely asked how she had arrived at the river and on hearing that she had ridden there on a broom he cried:
'Oh, how uncomfortable! ' In a moment he had twisted two branches into the shape of a telephone and ordered someone to send a car at once, which was done in a minute.
A brown open car flew down to the island. Instead of a driver the chauffeur's seat was occupied by a black, long-beaked crow in a check cap and gauntlets. The island emptied as the witches flew away in the moonlight, the fire burned out and the glowing embers turned to grey ash.
The goat-man opened the door for Margarita, who sprawled on the car's wide back seat. The car gave a roar, took off and climbed almost to the moon. The island fell away, the river disappeared and Margarita was on her way to Moscow.