Chapter 9. Koroviev's Tricks
Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoi, chairman of the tenants' association of No. 302A, Sadovaya Street, Moscow, where the late Berlioz had lived, was in trouble. It had all begun on the previous Wednesday night.
At midnight, as we already know, the police had arrived with Zheldybin, had hauled Nikanor Ivanovich out of bed, told him of Berlioz's death and followed him to flat No. 50. There they had sealed the deceased's papers and personal effects. Neither Grunya the maid, who lived out, nor the imprudent Stepan Bogdanovich were in the flat at the time. The police informed Nikanor Ivanovich that they would call later to collect Berlioz's manuscripts for sorting and examination and that his accommodation, consisting of three rooms (the jeweller's study, drawing-room and dining-room) would revert to the tenants' association for disposal. His effects were to be kept under seal until the legatees' claims were proved by the court.
The news of Berlioz's death spread through the building with supernatural speed and from seven o'clock on Thursday morning Bosoi started to get telephone calls. After that people began calling in person with written pleas of their urgent need of vacant housing space. Within the space of two hours Nikanor Ivanovich had collected thirty-two such statements.
They contained entreaties, threats, intrigue, denunciations, promises to redecorate the flat, remarks about overcrowding and the impossibility of sharing a flat with bandits. Among them was a description, shattering in its literary power, of the theft of some meat-balls from someone's jacket pocket in flat No. 31, two threats of suicide and one confession of secret pregnancy.
Nikanor Ivanovich was again and again taken aside with a wink and assured in whispers that he would do well on the deal....
This torture lasted until one o'clock, when Nikanor Ivanovich simply ran out of his flat by the main entrance, only to run away again when he found them lying in wait for him outside. Somehow contriving to throw off the people who chased him across the asphalt courtyard, Nikanor Ivanovich took refuge in staircase 6 and climbed to the fatal apartment.
Panting with exertion, the stout Nikanor Ivanovich rang the bell on the fifth-floor landing. No one opened. He rang again and again and began to swear quietly. Still no answer. Nikanor Ivanovich's patience gave way and pulling a bunch of duplicate keys from his pocket he opened the door with a masterful flourish and walked in.
'Hello, there! ' shouted Nikanor Ivanovich in the dim hallway. ' Are you there, Grunya? '
Nikanor Ivanovich then took a folding ruler out of his pocket, used it to prise the seal from the study door and strode in. At least he began by striding in, but stopped in the doorway with a start of amazement.
Behind Berlioz's desk sat a tall, thin stranger in a check jacket, jockey cap and pince-nez. . . .
'And who might you be, citizen? ' asked Nikanor Ivanovich.
'Nikanor Ivanovich! ' cried the mysterious stranger in a quavering tenor. He leaped up and greeted the chairman with an unexpectedly powerful handshake which Nikanor Ivanovich found extremely painful.
'Pardon me,' he said suspiciously, ' but who are you? Are you somebody official? '
'Ah, Nikanor Ivanovich! ' said the stranger in a man-to-man voice. ' Who is official and who is unofficial these days? It all depends on your point of view. It's all so vague and changeable, Nikanor Ivanovich. Today I'm unofficial, tomorrow, hey presto! I'm official! Or maybe vice-versa--who knows? '
None of this satisfied the chairman. By nature a suspicious man, he decided that this voluble individual was not only unofficial but had no business to be there.
'Who are you? What's your name? ' said the chairman firmly, advancing on the stranger.
'My name,' replied the man, quite unmoved by this hostile reception, ' is . . . er . . . let's say . . . Koroviev. Wouldn't you like a bite to eat, Nikanor Ivanovich? As we're friends? '
'Look here,' said Nikanor Ivanovich disagreeably, ' what the hell do you mean--eat? ' (Sad though it is to admit, Nikanor Ivanovich had no manners.) ' You're not allowed to come into a dead man's flat! What are you doing here? '
'Now just sit down, Nikanor Ivanovich,' said the imperturbable stranger in a wheedling voice, offering Nikanor Ivanovich a chair.
Infuriated, Nikanor Ivanovich kicked the chair away and yelled:
'Who are you? '
'I am employed as interpreter to a foreign gentleman residing in this flat,' said the self-styled Koroviev by way of introduction as he clicked the heels of his dirty brown boots.
Nikanor Ivanovich's mouth fell open. A foreigner in this flat, complete with interpreter, was a total surprise to him and he demanded an explanation.
This the interpreter willingly supplied. Monsieur Woland, an artiste from abroad, had been kindly invited by the manager of the Variety Theatre, Stepan Bogdanovich Likhodeyev, to spend his stay as a guest artiste, about a week, in his flat. Likhodeyev had written to Nikanor Ivanovich about it yesterday, requesting him to register the gentlemen from abroad as a temporary resident while Likhodeyev himself was away in Yalta.
'But he hasn't written to me,' said the bewildered chairman.
'Take a look in your briefcase, Nikanor Ivanovich,' suggested Koroviev amiably.
Shrugging his shoulders Nikanor Ivanovich opened his briefcase and found a letter from Likhodeyev. ' Now how could I have forgotten that? ' mumbled Nikanor Ivanovich, gazing stupidly at the opened envelope.
'It happens to the best of us, Nikanor Ivanovich! ' cackled Koroviev. ' Absent-mindedness, overstrain and high blood-pressure, my dear friend! Why, I'm horribly absent-minded. Some time over a glass or two I'll tell you a few things that have happened to me--you'll die with laughter! '
'When is Likhodeyev going to Yalta? '
'He's already gone,' cried the interpreter. ' He's on his way there. God knows where he is by now.' And the interpreter waved his arms like windmill sails.
Nikanor Ivanovich announced that he had to see the foreign gentleman in person, but this was refused. It was quite out of the question. Monsieur Woland was busy. Training his cat.
'You can see the cat if you like,' suggested Koroviev.
This Nikanor Ivanovich declined and the interpreter then made him an unexpected but most interesting proposal: since Monsieur Woland could not bear staying in hotels and was used to spacious quarters, couldn't the tenants' association lease him the whole flat for his week's stay, including the dead man's rooms?
'After all, what does he care? He's dead,' hissed Koroviev in a whisper. ' You must admit the flat's no use to him now, is it?'
In some perplexity Nikanor Ivanovich objected that foreigners were normally supposed to stay at the Metropole and not in private accommodation . . .
'I tell you he's so fussy, you'd never believe it,' whispered Koroviev. ' He simply refuses! He hates hotels! I can tell you I'm fed up with these foreign tourists,' complained Koroviev confidentially. ' They wear me out. They come here and either they go spying and snooping or they send me mad with their whims and fancies--this isn't right, that isn't just so! And there'd be plenty in it for your association, Nikanor Ivanovich. He's not short of money.' Koroviev glanced round and then whispered in the chairman's ear : ' He's a millionaire!'
The suggestion was obviously a sensible one, but there was something ridiculous about his manner, his clothes and that absurd, useless pince-nez that all combined to make Nikanor Ivanovich vaguely uneasy. However he agreed to the suggestion. The tenants' association, alas, was showing an enormous deficit. In the autumn they would have to buy oil for the steam heating plant and there was not a kopeck in the till, but with this foreigner's money they might just manage it. Nikanor Ivanovich, however, practical and cautious as ever, insisted on clearing the matter with the tourist bureau.
'Of course! ' cried Koroviev. ' It must be done properly. There's the telephone, Nikanor Ivanovich, ring them up right away! And don't worry about money,' he added in a whisper as he led the chairman to the telephone in the hall, ' if anyone can pay handsomely, he can. If you could see his villa in Nice! When you go abroad next summer you must go there specially and have a look at it--you'll be amazed! '
The matter was fixed with the tourist bureau with astonishing ease and speed. The bureau appeared to know all about Monsieur Woland's intention to stay in Likodeyev's flat and raised no objections.
'Excellent! ' cried Koroviev.
Slightly stupefied by this man's incessant cackling, the chairman announced that the tenants' association was prepared to lease flat No. 50 to Monsieur Woland the artiste at a rent of ... Nikanor Ivanovich stammered a little and said :
'Five hundred roubles a day.'
At this Koroviev surpassed himself. Winking conspiratorially towards the bedroom door, through which they could hear a series of soft thumps as the cat practised its leaps, he said :
'So for a week that would amount to three and a half thousand, wouldn't it? '
Nikanor Ivanovich quite expected the man to add ' Greedy, aren't you, Nikanor Ivanovich? ' but instead he said:
'That's not much. Ask him for five thousand, he'll pay.'
Grinning with embarrassment, Nikanor Ivanovich did not even notice how he suddenly came to be standing beside Berlioz's desk and how Koroviev had managed with such incredible speed and dexterity to draft a contract in duplicate. This done, he flew into the bedroom and returned with the two copies signed in the stranger's florid hand. The chairman signed in turn and Koroviev asked him to make out a receipt for five . . .
'Write it out in words, Nikanor Ivanovich. " Five thousand roubles ".' Then with a flourish which seemed vaguely out of place in such a serious matter--' Eins! 'yvei! drei! '--he laid five bundles of brand-new banknotes on the table.
Nikanor Ivanovich checked them, to an accompaniment of witticisms from Koroviev of the ' better safe than sorry ' variety. Having counted the money the chairman took the stranger's passport to be stamped with his temporary residence permit, put contract, passport and money into his briefcase and asked shyly for a free ticket to the show . . .
'But of course! ' exclaimed Koroviev. ' How many do you want, Nikanor Ivanovich--twelve, fifteen? '
Overwhelmed, the chairman explained that he only wanted two, one for his wife Pelagea Antonovna and one for himself.
Koroviev seized a note-pad and dashed off an order to the box office for two complimentary tickets in the front row. As the interpreter handed it to Nikanor Ivanovich with his left hand, with his right he gave him a thick, crackling package. Glancing at it Nikanor Ivanovich blushed hard and started to push it away.
'It's not proper . . .'
'I won't hear any objection,' Koroviev whispered right in his ear. ' We don't do this sort of thing but foreigners do. You'll offend him, Nikanor Ivanovich, and that might be awkward. You've earned it . . .'
'It's strictly forbidden . . .' whispered the chairman in a tiny voice, with a furtive glance around.
'Where are the witnesses? ' hissed Koroviev into his other ear. ' I ask you--where are they? Come, now . . .'
There then happened what the chairman later described as a miracle--the package jumped into his briefcase of its own accord, after which he found himself, feeling weak and battered, on the staircase. A storm of thoughts was whirling round inside his head. Among them were the villa in Nice, the trained cat, relief that there had been no witnesses and his wife's pleasure at the complimentary tickets. Yet despite these mostly comforting thoughts, in the depths of his soul the chairman still felt the pricking of a little needle. It was the needle of unease. Suddenly, halfway down the staircase, something else occurred to him-- how had that interpreter found his way into the study past a sealed door? And why on earth had he, Nikanor Ivanovich, forgotten to ask him about it? For a while the chairman stared at the steps like a sheep, then decided to forget it and not to bother himself with imaginary problems . . .
As soon as the chairman had left the flat a low voice came from the bedroom:
'I don't care for that Nikanor Ivanovich. He's a sly rogue. Why not fix it so that he doesn't come here again? '
'Messire, you only have to give the order . . .' answered Koroviev in a firm, clear voice that no longer quavered.
At once the diabolical interpreter was in the hall, had dialled a number and started to speak in a whining voice :
'Hullo! I consider it my duty to report that the chairman of our tenants' association at No. 302А Sadovaya Street, Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoi, is dealing in black-market foreign currency. He has just stuffed four hundred dollars wrapped in newspaper into the ventilation shaft of the lavatory in his flat. No. 3 5. My name is Timothy Kvastsov and I live in the same block, flat No. 11. But please keep my name a secret. I'm afraid of what that man may do if he finds out . . .'
And with that the scoundrel hung up.
What happened after that in No. 50 is a mystery, although what happened to Nikanor Ivanovich is common knowledge. Locking himself in the lavatory, he pulled the package out of his briefcase and found that it contained four hundred roubles. He wrapped it up in a sheet of old newspaper and pushed it into the ventilation shaft. Five minutes later he was sitting down at table in his little dining-room. From the kitchen his wife brought in a pickled herring, sliced and thickly sprinkled with raw onion. Nikanor Ivanovich poured himself a wineglassful of vodka, drank it, poured out another, drank that, speared three slices of herring on his fork . . . and then the doorbell rang. Pelagea Antonovna was just bringing in a steaming casserole, one glance at which was enough to tell you that in the midst of all that hot, thick borsch was one of the most delicious things in the world --a marrow bone.
Gulping down his running saliva, Nikanor Ivanovich snarled :
'Who the hell is that--at this hour! They won't even allow a man to eat his supper. . . . Don't let anybody in--I'm not at home.... If it's about the flat tell them to stop worrying. There'll be a committee meeting about it in a week's time.'
His wife ran into the hall and Nikanor Ivanovich ladled the quivering marrow bone out of its steaming lake. At that moment three men came into the dining-room, followed by a very pale Pelagea Antonovna. At the sight of them Nikanor Ivanovich turned white and got up.
'Where's the W.C.? ' enquired the first man urgently. There was a crash as Nikanor Ivanovich dropped the ladle on to the oilcloth table-top.
'Here, in here,' babbled Pelagea Antonovna. The visitors turned and rushed back into the passage.
'What's going on? ' asked Nikanor Ivanovich as he followed them. ' You can't just burst into our flat like that . . . Where's your identity card if you don't mind? '
The first man showed Nikanor Ivanovich his identity card while the second clambered up on to a stool in the lavatory and thrust his arm into the ventilation shaft. Nikanor Ivanovich began to feel faint. They unwrapped the sheet of newspaper to find that the banknotes in the package were not roubles but some unknown foreign money--bluish-green in colour with a picture of an old man. Nikanor Ivanovich, however, saw none of it very clearly because spots were swimming in front of his eyes.
'Dollars in the ventilation shaft. . . .' said the first man thoughtfully and asked Nikanor Ivanovich politely : * Is this your little parcel? '
'No! ' replied Nikanor Ivanovich in a terrified voice. ' It's been planted on me!'
'Could be,' agreed the first man, adding as quietly as before :
'Still, you'd better give up the rest.'
'There isn't any more! I swear to God I've never even seen any! ' screamed the chairman in desperation. He rushed to a chest, pulled out a drawer and out of that his briefcase, shouting distractedly as he did so :
'It's all in here . . . the contract . . . that interpreter must have planted them on me . . . Koroviev, the man in the pince-nez!'
He opened the briefcase, looked inside, thrust his hand in, turned blue in the face and dropped his briefcase into the borsch. There was nothing in it--no letter from Stepan, no contract, no passport, no money and no complimentary tickets. Nothing, in short, except a folding ruler.
* Comrades!' screamed the chairman frantically. ' Arrest them! The forces of evil are in this house!'
Something odd happened to Pelagea Antonovna at this point. Wringing her hands she cried :
'Confess, Nikanor! They'll reduce your sentence if you do! '
Eyes bloodshot, Nikanor Ivanovich raised his clenched fists over his wife's head and screamed :
'Aaah! You stupid bitch! '
Then he crumpled and fell into a chair, having obviously decided to bow to the inevitable. Meanwhile, out on the landing, Timothy Kondratievich Kvastsov was pressing first his ear then his eye to the keyhole of the chairman's front door, burning with curiosity.
Five minutes later the tenants saw the chairman led out into the courtyard by two men. Nikanor Ivanovich, so they said later, had been scarcely recognisable--staggering like a drunkard and muttering to himself.
Another hour after that a stranger appeared at flat No. n just when Timothy Kondratievich, gulping with pleasure, was describing to some other tenants how the chairman had been whisked away; the stranger beckoned Timothy Kondratievich out of his kitchen into the hall, said something and took him away.