Chapter 5. The Affair at Griboyedov
It was an old two-storied house, painted cream, that stood on the ring boulevard behind a ragged garden, fenced off from the pavement by wrought-iron railings. In winter the paved front courtyard was usually full of shovelled snow, whilst in summer, shaded by a canvas awning, it became a delightful outdoor extension to the club restaurant.
The house was called ' Griboyedov House ' because it might once have belonged to an aunt of the famous playwright Alexander Sergeyevich Griboyedov. Nobody really knows for sure whether she ever owned it or not. People even say that Griboyedov never had an aunt who owned any such property. . . . Still, that was its name. What is more, a dubious tale used to circulate in Moscow of how in the round, colonnaded salon on the second floor the famous writer had once read extracts from Woe From Wit to that same aunt as she reclined on a sofa. Perhaps he did ; in any case it doesn't matter.
It matters much more that this house now belonged to MASSOLIT, which until his excursion to Patriarch's Ponds was headed by the unfortunate Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz. No one, least of all the members of MASSOLIT, called the place ' Griboyedov House '. Everyone simply called it' Griboyedov ' :
'I spent a couple of hours lobbying at Griboyedov yesterday.'
'Wangled myself a month in Yalta.'
'Good for you! '
Or : ' Go to Berlioz--he's seeing people from four to five this afternoon at Griboyedov . . .'--and so on.
MASSOLIT had installed itself in Griboyedov very comfortably indeed. As you entered you were first confronted with a notice-board full of announcements by the various sports clubs, then with the photographs of every individual member of MASSOLIT, who were strung up (their photographs, of course) along the walls of the staircase leading to the first floor.
On the door of the first room on the upper storey was a large notice : ' Angling and Weekend Cottages ', with a picture of a carp caught on a hook.
On the door of the second room was a slightly confusing notice: ' Writers' day-return rail warrants. Apply to M.V. Podlozhnaya.'
The next door bore a brief and completely incomprehensible legend: ' Perelygino'. From there the chance visitor's eye would be caught by countless more notices pinned to the aunt's walnut doors : ' Waiting List for Paper--Apply to Poklevkina ';
'Cashier's Office '; ' Sketch-Writers : Personal Accounts ' . . .
At the head of the longest queue, which started downstairs at the porter's desk, was a door under constant siege labelled ' Housing Problem'.
Past the housing problem hung a gorgeous poster showing a cliff, along whose summit rode a man on a chestnut horse with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Below were some palm-trees and a balcony. On it sat a shock-haired young man gazing upwards with a bold, urgent look and holding a fountain pen in his hands. The wording read : ' All-in Writing Holidays, from two weeks (short story, novella) to one year (novel, trilogy): Yalta, Suuk-Su, Borovoye, Tsikhidziri, Makhinjauri, Leningrad (Winter Palace).' There was a queue at this door too, but not an excessively long one--only about a hundred and fifty people.
Following the erratic twists, the steps up and steps down of Griboyedov's corridors, one found other notices : 'MASSOLIT-Management', 'Cashiers Nos. 2, 5, 4, 5,' 'Editorial Board', ' MASSOLIT-Chairman', 'Billiard Room', then various subsidiary organisations and finally that colonnaded salon where the aunt had listened with such delight to the readings of his comedy by her brilliant nephew.
Every visitor to Griboyedov, unless of course he were completely insensitive, was made immediately aware of how good life was for the lucky members of MASSOLIT and he would at once be consumed with black envy. At once, too, he would curse heaven for having failed to endow him at birth with literary talent, without which, of course, no one could so much as dream of acquiring a MASSOLIT membership card--that brown card known to all Moscow, smelling of expensive leather and embellished with a wide gold border.
Who is prepared to say a word in defence of envy? It is a despicable emotion, but put yourself in the visitor's place : what he had seen on the upper flоог was by no means all. The entire ground floor of the aunt's house was occupied by a restaurant-- and what a restaurant! It was rightly considered the best in Moscow. Not only because it occupied two large rooms with vaulted ceilings and lilac-painted horses with flowing manes, not only because every table had a lamp shaded with lace, not only because it was barred to the hoi polloi, but above all for the quality of its food. Griboyedov could beat any restaurant in Moscow you cared to name and its prices were extremely moderate.
There is therefore nothing odd in the conversation which the author of these lines actually overheard once outside the iron railings of Griboyedov :
'Where are you dining today, Ambrose? '
'What a question! Here, of course, Vanya! Archibald Archibaldovich whispered to me this morning that there's filets de perche an naturel on the menu tonight. Sheer virtuosity! '
'You do know how to live, Ambrose! ' sighed Vanya, a thin pinched man with a carbuncle on his neck, to Ambrose, a strapping, red-lipped, golden-haired, ruddy-cheeked poet.
'It's no special talent,' countered Ambrose. ' Just a perfectly normal desire to live a decent, human existence. Now I suppose you're going to say that you can get perch at the Coliseum. So you can. But a helping of perch at the Coliseum costs thirty roubles fifty kopecks and here it costs five fifty! Apart from that the perch at the Coliseum are three days old and what's more if you go to the Coliseum there's no guarantee you won't get a bunch of grapes thrown in your face by the first young man to burst in from Theatre Street. No, I loathe the Coliseum,' shouted Ambrose the gastronome at the top of his voice. ' Don't try and talk me into liking it, Vanya! '
'I'm not trying to talk you into it, Ambrose,' squeaked Vanya. ' You might have been dining at home.'
'Thank you very much,' trumpeted Ambrose. ' Just imagine your wife trying to cook filets de perche an naturel in a saucepan, in the kitchen you share with half a dozen other people! He, he, he! ... Aurevoir, Vanya! ' And humming to himself Ambrose hurried oft to the verandah under the awning.
Ha, ha, ha! ... Yes, that's how it used to be! ... Some of us old inhabitants of Moscow still remember the famous Griboyedov. But boiled fillets of perch was nothing, my dear Ambrose! What about the sturgeon, sturgeon in a silver-plated pan, sturgeon filleted and served between lobsters' tails and fresh caviar? And oeufs en cocotte with mushroom puree in little bowls? And didn't you like the thrushes' breasts? With truffles? The quails alia Genovese? Nine roubles fifty! And oh, the band, the polite waiters! And in July when the whole family's in the country and pressing literary business is keeping you in town--out on the verandah, in the shade of a climbing vine, a plate of potage printaniere looking like a golden stain on the snow-white table-cloth? Do you remember, Ambrose? But of course you do--I can see from your lips you remember. Not just your salmon or your perch either--what about the snipe, the woodcock in season, the quail, the grouse? And the sparkling wines! But I digress, reader.
At half past ten on the evening that Berlioz died at Patriarch's Ponds, only one upstairs room at Griboyedov was lit. In it sat twelve weary authors, gathered for a meeting and still waiting for Mikhail Alexandrovich. Sitting on chairs, on tables and even on the two window ledges, the management committee of MASSOLIT was suffering badly from the heat and stuffiness. Not a single fresh breeze penetrated the open window. Moscow was The Master and Margarita
exuding the heat of the day accumulated in its asphalt and it was obvious that the night was not going to bring; any relief. There was a smell of onion coming from the restaurant kitchen in the cellar, everybody wanted a drink, everybody was nervous and irritable.
Beskudnikov, a quiet, well-dressed essayist with eyes that were at once attentive yet shifty, took out his watch. The hands were just creeping up to eleven. Beskudnikov tapped the watch face with his finger and showed it to his neighbour, the poet Dvubratsky, who was sitting on the table, bored and swinging his feet shod in yellow rubber-soled slippers.
'Well, really . . .' muttered Dvubratsky.
'I suppose the lad's got stuck out at Klyazma,' said Nastasya Lukinishna Nepremenova, orphaned daughter of a Moscow business man, who had turned writer and wrote naval war stories under the pseudonym of ' Bo'sun George '.
'Look here! ' burst out Zagrivov, a writer of popular short stories. ' I don't know about you, but I'd rather be drinking tea out on the balcony right now instead of stewiing in here. Was this meeting called for ten o'clock or wasn't it? '
'It must be nice out at Klyazma now,' said IBo'sun George in a tone of calculated innocence, knowing that the writers' summer colony out at Perelygino near Klyazma was a sore point. ' I expect the nightingales are singing there now. Somehow I always seem to work better out of town, especially in the spring.'
'I've been paying my contributions for three years now to send my sick wife to that paradise but somehow nothing ever appears on the horizon,' said Hieronymus Poprikhin the novelist, with bitter venom.
'Some people are lucky and others aren't, that's all,' boomed the critic Ababkov from the window-ledge.
Bos'un George's little eyes lit up, and softening her contralto rasp she said:
'We mustn't be jealous, comrades. There are only twenty-two dachas, only seven more are being built, and there are three thousand of us in MASSOLIT.'
'Three thousand one hundred and eleven,' put in someone from a corner.
'Well, there you are,' the Bo'sun went on. ' What can one do? Naturally the dachas are allocated to those with the most talent. . .'
'They're allocated to the people at the top! ' barked Gluk-haryov, a script writer.
Beskudnikov, yawning artificially, left the room.
'One of them has five rooms to himself at Perelygino,' Glukharyov shouted after him.
'Lavrovich has six rooms to himself,' shouted Deniskin, ' and the dining-room's panelled in oak! '
'Well, at the moment that's not the point,' boomed Ababkov. ' The point is that it's half past eleven.'
A noise began, heralding mutiny. Somebody rang up the hated Perelygino but got through to the wrong dacha, which turned out to belong to Lavrovich, where they were told that Lavrovich was out on the river. This produced utter confusion. Somebody made a wild telephone call to the Fine Arts and Literature Commission, where of course there was no reply.
'He might have rung up! ' shouted Deniskin, Glukharyov and Quant.
Alas, they shouted in vain. Mikhail Alexandrovich was in no state to telephone anyone. Far, far from Griboyedov, in a vast hall lit by thousand-candle-power lamps, what had recently been Mikhail Alexandrovich was lying on three zinc-topped tables. On the first was the naked, blood-caked body with. a fractured arm and smashed rib-cage, on the second the head, it;s front teeth knocked in, its vacant open eyes undisturbed by the blinding light, and on the third--a heap of mangled rags. Round the decapitated corpse stood the professor of forensic medicine, the pathological anatomist and his dissector, a few detectives and Mikhail Alexandrovich's deputy as chairman of MASSOLIT, the writer Zheldybin, summoned by telephone from the bedside of his sick wife.
A car had been sent for Zheldybin and had first taken him and the detectives (it was about midnight) to the dead man's flat where his papers were placed under seal, after which they all drove to the morgue.
The group round the remains of the deceased were conferring on the best course to take--should they sew the severed head back on to the neck or allow the body to lie in state in the main hall of Griboyedov covered by a black cloth as far as the chin?
Yes, Mikhail Alexandrovich was quite incapable of telephoning and Deniskin, Glukharyov, Quant and Beskudnikov were exciting themselves for nothing. On the stroke of midnight all twelve writers left the upper storey and went down to the restaurant. There they said more unkind things about Mikhail Alexandrovich : all the tables on the verandah were full and they were obliged to dine in the beautiful but stifling indoor rooms.
On the stroke of midnight the first of these rooms suddenly woke up and leaped into life with a crash and a roar. A thin male voice gave a desperate shriek of ' Alleluia!! ' Music. It was the famous Griboyedov jazz band striking up. Sweat-covered faces lit up, the painted horses on the ceiling came to life, the lamps seemed to shine brighter. Suddenly, as though bursting their chains, everybody in the two rooms started dancing, followed by everybody on the verandah.
Glukharyov danced away with the poetess Tamara Polumesy-atz. Quant danced, Zhukopov the novelist seized a film actress in a yellow dress and danced. They all danced--Dragunsky and Cherdakchi danced, little Deniskin danced with the gigantic Bo'sun George and the beautiful girl architect Semeikin-Hall was grabbed by a stranger in white straw-cloth trousers. Members and guests, from Moscow and from out of town, they all danced--the writer Johann from Kronstadt, a producer called Vitya Kuftik from Rostov with lilac-coloured eczema all over his face, the leading lights of the poetry section of MASSOLIT-- Pavianov, Bogokhulsky, Sladky, Shpichkin and Adelfina Buzdyak, young men of unknown occupation with cropped hair and shoulders padded with cotton wool, an old, old man with a chive sticking out of his beard danced with a thin, anaemic girl in an orange silk dress.
Pouring sweat, the waiters carried dripping mugs of beer over the dancers' heads, yelling hoarsely and venomously ' Sorry, sir! ' Somewhere a man bellowed through a megaphone:
'Chops once! Kebab twice! Chicken a la King! ' The vocalist was no longer singing--he was howling. Now and again the crash of cymbals in the band drowned the noise of dirty crockery flung down a sloping chute to the scullery. In short--hell.
At midnight there appeared a vision in this hell. On to the verandah strode a handsome, black-eyed man with a pointed beard and wearing a tail coat. With regal gaze he surveyed his domain. According to some romantics there had once been a time when this noble figure had worn not tails but a broad leather belt round his waist, stuck with pistol-butts, that his raven-black hair had been tied up in a scarlet kerchief and that his brig had sailed the Caribbean under the Jolly Roger.
But that, of course, is pure fantasy--the Caribbean doesn't exist, no desperate buccaneers sail it, no corvette ever chases them, no puffs of cannon-smoke ever roll across the waves. Pure invention. Look at that scraggy tree, look at the iron railings, the boulevard. . . . And the ice is floating in the wine-bucket and at the next table there's a man with ox-like, bloodshot eyes and it's pandemonium. . . . Oh gods--poison, I need poison! . . .
Suddenly from one of the tables the word ' Berlioz!! ' flew up and exploded in the air. Instantly the band collapsed and stopped, as though someone had punched it. ' What, what, what--what?!! '
Everybody began rushing about and screaming.
A wave of grief surged up at the terrible news about Mikhail Alexandrovich. Someone fussed around shouting that they must all immediately, here and now, without delay compose a collective telegram and send it off.
But what telegram, you may ask? And why send it? Send it where? And what use is a telegram to the man whose battered skull is being mauled by the rubber hands of a dissector, whose neck is being pierced by the professor's crooked needles? He's dead, he doesn't want a telegram. It's all over, let's not overload the post office.
Yes, he's dead . . . but we are still alive!
The wave of grief rose, lasted for a while and then began to recede. Somebody went back to their table and--furtively to begin with, then openly--drank a glass of vodka and took a bite to eat. After all, what's the point of wasting the cotelettes de volatile? What good are we going to do Mikhail Alexandrovich by going hungry? We're still alive, aren't we?
Naturally the piano was shut and locked, the band went home and a few journalists left for their newspaper offices to write obituaries. The news spread that Zheldybin was back from the morgue. He moved into Berlioz's upstairs office and at once a rumour started that he was going to take over from Berlioz. Zheldybin summoned all twelve members of the management committee from the restaurant and in an emergency session they began discussing such urgent questions as the preparation of the colonnaded hall, the transfer of the body from the morgue, the times at which members could attend the lying-in-state and other matters connected with the tragic event.
Downstairs in the restaurant life had returned to normal and would have continued on its usual nocturnal course until closing time at four, had not something quite abnormal occurred which shocked the diners considerably more than the news of Berlioz's death.
The first to be alarmed were the cab drivers waiting outside the gates of Griboyedov. Jerking up with a start one of them shouted:
'Hey! Look at that!' A little glimmer flared up near the iron railings and started to bob towards the verandah. Some of the diners stood up, stared and saw that the nickering light was accompanied by a white apparition. As it approached the verandah trellis every diner froze, eyes bulging, sturgeon-laden forks motionless in mid-air. The club porter, who at that moment had just left the restaurant cloakroom to go outside for a smoke, stubbed out his cigarette and was just going to advance on the apparition with the aim of barring its way into the restaurant when for some reason he changed his mind, stopped and grinned stupidly.
The apparition, passing through an opening in the trellis, mounted the verandah unhindered. As it did so everyone saw that this was no apparition but the distinguished poet Ivan Nikolayich Bezdomny.
He was barefoot and wearing a torn, dirty white Russian blouse. To its front was safety-pinned a paper ikon with a picture of some unknown saint. He was wearing long white underpants with a lighted candle in his hand and his right cheek bore a fresh scratch. It would be hard to fathom the depth of the silence which reigned on the verandah. Beer poured on to the floor from a mug held sideways by one of the waiters.
The poet raised the candle above his head and said in a loud voice :
'Greetings, friends!' He then looked under the nearest table and exclaimed with disappointment:
'No, he's not there.'
Two voices were heard. A bass voice said pitilessly : ' An obvious case of D.Ts.'
The second, a frightened woman's voice enquired nervously :
'How did the police let him on to the streets in that state? '
Ivan Nikolayich heard this and replied :
'They tried to arrest me twice, once in Skatertny Street and once here on Bronnaya, but I climbed over the fence and that's how I scratched my cheek! ' Ivan Nikolayich lifted up his candle and shouted: ' Fellow artists!' (His squeaky voice grew stronger and more urgent.) ' Listen to me, all of you! He's come! Catch him at once or he'll do untold harm! '
'What's that? What? What did he say? Who's come? ' came the questions from all sides.
'A professor,' answered Ivan, ' and it was this professor who killed Misha Berlioz this evening at Patriarch's.'
By now people were streaming on to the verandah from the indoor rooms and a crowd began milling round Ivan.
'I beg your pardon, would you say that again more clearly? ' said a low, courteous voice right beside Ivan Nikolayich's ear. ' Tell me, how was he killed? Who killed him? '
'A foreigner--he's a professor and a spy,' replied Ivan, looking round.
'What's his name? ' said the voice again into his ear.
'That's just the trouble!' cried Ivan in frustration. ' If only I knew his name! I couldn't read it properly on his visiting card ... I only remember the letter ' W '--the name began with a ' W '. What could it have been? ' Ivan asked himself aloud, clutching his forehead with his hand. ' We, wi, wa . . . wo . . . Walter? Wagner? Weiner? Wegner? Winter? ' The hairs on Ivan's head started to stand on end from the effort.
'Wolff? ' shouted a woman, trying to help him.
Ivan lost his temper.
'You fool!' he shouted, looking for the woman in the crowd. ' What's Wolff got to do with it? He didn't do it ... Wo, wa . . . No, I'll never remember it like this. Now look, everybody-- ring up the police at once and tell them to send five motorcycles and sidecars with machine-guns to catch the professor. And don't forget to say that there are two others with him--a tall fellow in checks with a wobbly pince-nez and a great black cat. . . . Meanwhile I'm going to search Griboyedov--I can sense that he's here! '
Ivan was by now in a state of some excitement. Pushing the bystanders aside he began waving his candle about, pouring wax on himself, and started to look under the tables. Then somebody said ' Doctor! ' and a fat, kindly face, clean-shaven, smelling of drink and with horn-rimmed spectacles, appeared in front of Ivan.
'Comrade Bezdomny,' said the face solemnly, ' calm down! You're upset by the death of our beloved Mikhail Alexandrovich . . . no, I mean plain Misha Berlioz. We all realise how you feel. You need rest. You'll be taken home to bed in a moment and then you can relax and forget all about it. . .'
'Don't you realise,' Ivan interrupted, scowling, ' that we've got to catch the professor? And all you can do is come creeping up to me talking all this rubbish! Cretin! '
'Excuse me. Comrade Bezdomny! ' replied the face, blushing, retreating and already wishing it had never let itself get involved in this affair.
'No, I don't care who you are--I won't excuse you,' said Ivan Nikolayich with quiet hatred.
A spasm distorted his face, he rapidly switched the candle from his right to his left hand, swung his arm and punched the sympathetic face on the ear.
Several people reached the same conclusion at once and hurled themselves at Ivan. The candle went out, the horn-rims fell off the face and were instantly smashed underfoot. Ivan let out a dreadful war-whoop audible, to everybody's embarrassment, as far as the boulevard, and began to defend himself. There came a tinkle of breaking crockery, women screamed.
While the waiters tied up the poet with dish-cloths, a conversation was in progress in the cloakroom between the porter and the captain of the brig.
'Didn't you see that he was wearing underpants? ' asked the pirate coldly.
'But Archibald Archibaldovich--I'm a coward,' replied the porter, ' how could I stop him from coming in? He's a member!'
'Didn't you see that he was wearing underpants? ' repeated the pirate.
'Please, Archibald Archibaldovich,--' said the porter, turning purple, ' what could I do? I know there are ladies on the ver-andah, but...'
'The ladies don't matter. They don't mind,' replied the pirate, roasting the porter with his glare. ' But the police mind! There's only one way a man can walk round Moscow in his underwear--when he's being escorted by the police on the way to a police station! And you, if you call yourself a porter, ought to know that if you see a man in that state it's your duty not to waste a moment but to start blowing your whistle I Do you hear? Can't you hear what's happening on the verandah? '
The wretched porter could hear the sounds of smashing crockery, groans and women's screams from the verandah only too well.
'Now what do you propose to do about it? ' enquired the buccaneer.
The skin on the porter's face took on a leprous shade and his eyes went blank. It seemed to him that the other man's black hair, now neatly parted, was covered by a fiery silk kerchief. Starched shirtfront and tail-coat vanished, a pistol was sticking out of his leather belt. The porter saw himself dangling from the foretop yard-arm, his tongue protruding from his lifeless, drooping head. He could even hear the waves lapping against the ship's side. The porter's knees trembled. But the buccaneer took pity on him and switched off his terrifying glare.
'All right, Nikolai--but mind it never happens again! We can't have porters like you in a restaurant--you'd better go and be a verger in a church.' Having said this the captain gave a few rapid, crisp, clear orders: ' Send the barman. Police. Statement. Car. Mental hospital.' And he added : 'Whistle!'
A quarter of an hour later, to the astonishment of the people in the restaurant, on the boulevard and at the windows of the surrounding houses, the barman, the porter, a policeman, a waiter and the poet Ryukhin were to be seen emerging from the gates of Griboyedov dragging a young man trussed up like a mummy, who was weeping, spitting, lashing out at Ryukhin and shouting for the whole street to hear :
'You swine! . . . You swine! . . . '
A buzzing crowd collected, discussing the incredible scene. It was of course an abominable, disgusting, thrilling, revolting scandal which only ended when a lorry drove away from the gates of Griboyedov carrying the unfortunate Ivan Nikolayich, the policeman, the barman and Ryukhin.