فصل 13

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فصل 13

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CHAPTER 13

The Hero Enters

And so, the unknown man shook his finger at Ivan and whispered: ‘Shhh! …’

Ivan lowered his legs from the bed and peered. Cautiously looking into the room from the balcony was a clean-shaven, dark-haired man of approximately thirty-eight, with a sharp nose, anxious eyes, and a wisp of hair hanging down on his forehead.

Having listened and made sure that Ivan was alone, the mysterious visitor took heart and stepped into the room. Here Ivan saw that the man was dressed as a patient. He was wearing long underwear, slippers on his bare feet, and a brown dressing-gown thrown over his shoulders.

The visitor winked at Ivan, hid a bunch of keys in his pocket, inquired in a whisper: ‘May I sit down?’ — and receiving an affirmative nod, placed himself in an armchair.

‘How did you get here?’ Ivan asked in a whisper, obeying the dry finger shaken at him. ‘Aren’t the balcony grilles locked?’

The grilles are locked,‘ the guest agreed, ’but Praskovya Fyodorovna, while the dearest person, is also, alas, quite absent-minded. A month ago I stole a bunch of keys from her, and so gained the opportunity of getting out on to the common balcony, which runs around the entire floor, and so of occasionally calling on a neighbour.‘ ‘If you can get out on to the balcony, you can escape. Or is it high up?’ Ivan was interested.

‘No,’ the guest replied firmly, ‘I cannot escape from here, not because it’s high up, but because I have nowhere to escape to.’ And he added, after a pause: ‘So, here we sit.’

‘Here we sit,’ Ivan replied, peering into the man’s brown and very restless eyes.

‘Yes …’ here the guest suddenly became alarmed, ‘but you’re not violent, I hope? Because, you know, I cannot stand noise, turmoil, force, or other things like that. Especially hateful to me are people’s cries, whether cries of rage, suffering, or anything else. Set me at ease, tell me, you’re not violent?’ ‘Yesterday in a restaurant I socked one type in the mug,’ the transformed poet courageously confessed.

‘Your grounds?’ the guest asked sternly.

‘No grounds, I must confess,’ Ivan answered, embarrassed.

‘Outrageous,’ the guest denounced Ivan and added: ‘And besides, what a way to express yourself: “socked in the mug” … It is not known precisely whether a man has a mug or a face. And, after all, it may well be a face. So, you know, using fists … No, you should give that up, and for good.’ Having thus reprimanded Ivan, the guest inquired:

‘Your profession?’

‘Poet,’ Ivan confessed, reluctantly for some reason.

The visitor became upset.

‘Ah, just my luck!’ he exclaimed, but at once reconsidered, apologized, and asked: ‘And what is your name?’

‘Homeless.’

‘Oh-oh …’ the guest said, wincing.

‘What, you mean you dislike my poetry?’ Ivan asked with curiosity.

‘I dislike it terribly.’

‘And what have you read.’

‘I’ve never read any of your poetry!’ the visitor exclaimed nervously.

Then how can you say that?‘

‘Well, what of it?’ the guest replied. ‘As if I haven’t read others. Or else … maybe there’s some miracle? Very well, I’m ready to take it on faith. Is your poetry good? You tell me yourself.’ ‘Monstrous!’ Ivan suddenly spoke boldly and frankly.

‘Don’t write any more!’ the visitor asked beseechingly.

‘I promise and I swear!’ Ivan said solemnly.

The oath was sealed with a handshake, and here soft footsteps and voices were heard in the corridor.

‘Shh!’ the guest whispered and, jumping out to the balcony, closed the grille behind him.

Praskovya Fyodorovna peeked in, asked Ivan how he was feeling and whether he wished to sleep in the dark or with a light. Ivan asked her to leave the light on, and Praskovya Fyodorovna withdrew, wishing the patient a good night. And when everything was quiet, the guest came back again.

He informed Ivan in a whisper that there was a new arrival in room 119 — some fat man with a purple physiognomy, who kept muttering something about currency in the ventilation and swearing that unclean powers were living in their place on Sadovaya.

‘He curses Pushkin up and down and keeps shouting: “Kurolesov, encore, encore!”’ the guest said, twitching nervously. Having calmed himself, he sat down, said: ‘Anyway, God help him,’ and continued his conversation with Ivan: ‘So, how did you wind up here?’ ‘On account of Pontius Pilate,’ Ivan replied, casting a glum look at the floor.

‘What?!’ the guest cried, forgetting all caution, and clapped his hand over his own mouth. ‘A staggering coincidence! Tell me about it, I beg you, I beg you!’

Feeling trust in the unknown man for some reason, Ivan began, falteringly and timorously at first, then more boldly, to tell about the previous day’s story at the Patriarch’s Ponds. Yes, it was a grateful listener that Ivan Nikolaevich acquired in the person of the mysterious stealer of keys! The guest did not take Ivan for a madman, he showed great interest in what he was being told, and, as the story developed, finally became ecstatic. Time and again he interrupted Ivan with exclamations: ‘Well, well, go on, go on, I beg you! Only, in the name of all that’s holy, don’t leave anything out!’

Ivan left nothing out in any case, it was easier for him to tell it that way, and he gradually reached the moment when Pontius Pilate, in a white mantle with blood-red lining, came out to the balcony.

Then the visitor put his hands together prayerfully and whispered:

‘Oh, how I guessed! How I guessed it all!’

The listener accompanied the description of Berlioz’s terrible death with an enigmatic remark, while his eyes flashed with spite:

‘I only regret that it wasn’t the critic Latunsky or the writer Mstislav Lavrovich instead of this Berlioz!’, and he cried out frenziedly but soundlessly: ‘Go on!’

The cat handing money to the woman conductor amused the guest exceedingly, and he choked with quiet laughter watching as Ivan, excited by the success of his narration, quietly hopped on bent legs, portraying the cat holding the coin up next to his whiskers.

‘And so,’ Ivan concluded, growing sad and melancholy after telling about the events at Griboedov‘s, ’I wound up here.‘

The guest sympathetically placed a hand on the poor poet’s shoulder and spoke thus:

‘Unlucky poet! But you yourself, dear heart, are to blame for it all. You oughtn’t to have behaved so casually and even impertinently with him. So you’ve paid for it. And you must still say thank you that you got off comparatively cheaply.’ ‘But who is he, finally?’ Ivan asked, shaking his fists in agitation.

The guest peered at Ivan and answered with a question:

‘You’re not going to get upset? We’re all unreliable here … There won’t be any calling for the doctor, injections, or other fuss?’

‘No, no!’ Ivan exclaimed. Tell me, who is he?‘

‘Very well,’ the visitor replied, and he said weightily and distinctly: ‘Yesterday at the Patriarch’s Ponds you met Satan.’

Ivan did not get upset, as he had promised, but even so he was greatly astounded.

‘That can’t be! He doesn’t exist!’

‘Good heavens! Anyone else might say that, but not you. You were apparently one of his first victims. You’re sitting, as you yourself understand, in a psychiatric clinic, yet you keep saying he doesn’t exist. Really, it’s strange!’ Thrown off, Ivan fell silent.

‘As soon as you started describing him,’ the guest went on, ‘I began to realize who it was that you had the pleasure of talking with yesterday. And, really, I’m surprised at Berlioz! Now you, of course, are a virginal person,’ here the guest apologized again, ‘but that one, from what I’ve heard about him, had after all read at least something! The very first things this professor said dispelled all my doubts. One can’t fail to recognize him, my friend! Though you … again I must apologize, but I’m not mistaken, you are an ignorant man?’ ‘Indisputably,’ the unrecognizable Ivan agreed.

‘Well, so … even the face, as you described it, the different eyes, the eyebrows! … Forgive me, however, perhaps you’ve never even heard the opera Faust?’

Ivan became terribly embarrassed for some reason and, his face aflame, began mumbling something about some trip to a sanatorium … to Yalta …

‘Well, so, so … hardly surprising! But Berlioz, I repeat, astounds me … He’s not only a well-read man but also a very shrewd one. Though I must say in his defence that Woland is, of course, capable of pulling the wool over the eyes of an even shrewder man.’ ‘What?!’ Ivan cried out in his turn.

‘Hush!’

Ivan slapped himself roundly on the forehead with his palm and rasped:

‘I see, I see. He had the letter “W” on his visiting card. Ai-yai-yai, what a thing!’ He lapsed into a bewildered silence for some time, peering at the moon floating outside the grille, and then spoke: ‘So that means he might actually have been at Pontius Pilate’s? He was already born then? And they call me a madman!’ Ivan added indignantly, pointing to the door.

A bitter wrinkle appeared on the guest’s lips.

‘Let’s look the truth in the eye.’ And the guest turned his face towards the nocturnal luminary racing through a cloud. ‘You and I are both madmen, there’s no denying that! You see, he shocked you - and you came unhinged, since you evidently had the ground prepared for it. But what you describe undoubtedly took place in reality. But it’s so extraordinary that even Stravinsky, a psychiatrist of genius, did not, of course, believe you. Did he examine you?’ (Ivan nodded.) ‘Your interlocutor was at Pilate’s, and had breakfast with Kant, and now he’s visiting Moscow.‘ ‘But he’ll be up to devil knows what here! Oughtn’t we to catch him somehow?’ the former, not yet definitively quashed Ivan still raised his head, though without much confidence, in the new Ivan.

‘You’ve already tried, and that will do for you,’ the guest replied ironically. ‘I don’t advise others to try either. And as for being up to something, rest assured, he will be! Ah, ah! But how annoying that it was you who met him and not I. Though it’s all burned up, and the coals have gone to ashes, still, I swear, for that meeting I’d give Praskovya Fyodorovna’s bunch of keys, for I have nothing else to give. I’m destitute.’ ‘But what do you need him for?’

The guest paused ruefully for a long time and twitched, but finally spoke:

‘You see, it’s such a strange story, I’m sitting here for the same reason you are - namely, on account of Pontius Pilate.’ Here the guest looked around fearfully and said: ‘The thing is that a year ago I wrote a novel about Pilate.’ ‘You’re a writer?’ the poet asked with interest.

The guest’s face darkened and he threatened Ivan with his fist, then said:

‘I am a master.’ He grew stem and took from the pocket of his dressing-gown a completely greasy black cap with the letter ‘M’ embroidered on it in yellow silk. He put this cap on and showed himself to Ivan both in profile and full face, to prove that he was a master. ’She sewed it for me with her own hands,‘ he added mysteriously.

‘And what is your name?’

‘I no longer have a name,’ the strange guest answered with gloomy disdain. ‘I renounced it, as I generally did everything in life. Let’s forget it.’

Then at least tell me about the novel,‘ Ivan asked delicately.

‘If you please, sir. My life, it must be said, has taken a not very ordinary course,’ the guest began.

… A historian by education, he had worked until two years ago at one of the Moscow museums, and, besides that, had also done translations.

‘From what languages?’ Ivan interrupted curiously.

‘I know five languages besides my own,’ replied the guest, ‘English, French, German, Latin and Greek. Well, I can also read Italian a little.’

‘Oh, my!’ Ivan whispered enviously.

… The historian had lived solitarily, had no family anywhere and almost no acquaintances in Moscow. And, just think, one day he won a hundred thousand roubles.

‘Imagine my astonishment,’ the guest in the black cap whispered, ‘when I put my hand in the basket of dirty laundry and, lo and behold, it had the same number as in the newspaper. A state bond,’1 he explained, ‘they gave it to me at the museum.’ … Having won a hundred thousand roubles, Ivan’s mysterious guest acted thus: bought books, gave up his room on Myasnitskaya …

‘Ohh, that accursed hole! …’ he growled.

… and rented from a builder, in a lane near the Arbat, two rooms in the basement of a little house in the garden. He left his work at the museum and began writing a novel about Pontius Pilate.

‘Ah, that was a golden age!’ the narrator whispered, his eyes shining. ‘A completely private little apartment, plus a front hall with a sink in it,’ he underscored for some reason with special pride, ‘little windows just level with the paved walk leading from the gate. Opposite, only four steps away, near the fence, lilacs, a linden and a maple. Ah, ah, ah! In winter it was very seldom that I saw someone’s black feet through my window and heard the snow crunching under them. And in my stove a fire was eternally blazing! But suddenly spring came and through the dim glass I saw lilac bushes, naked at first, then dressing themselves up in green. And it was then, last spring, that something happened far more delightful than getting a hundred thousand roubles. And that, you must agree, is a huge sum of money!’ That’s true,‘ acknowledged the attentively listening Ivan.

‘I opened my little windows and sat in the second, quite minuscule room.’ The guest began measuring with his arms: ‘Here’s the sofa, and another sofa opposite, and a little table between them, with a beautiful night lamp on it, and books nearer the window, and here a small writing table, and in the first room - a huge room, one hundred and fifty square feet! — books, books and the stove. Ah, what furnishings I had! The extraordinary smell of the lilacs! And my head was getting light with fatigue, and Pilate was flying to the end …’ ‘White mantle, red lining! I understand!’ Ivan exclaimed.

‘Precisely so! Pilate was flying to the end, to the end, and I already knew that the last words of the novel would be: “… the fifth procurator of Judea, the equestrian Pontius Pilate”. Well, naturally, I used to go out for a walk. A hundred thousand is a huge sum, and I had an excellent suit. Or I’d go and have dinner in some cheap restaurant. There was a wonderful restaurant on the Arbat, I don’t know whether it exists now.’ Here the guest’s eyes opened wide, and he went on whispering, gazing at the moon: ‘She was carrying repulsive, alarming yellow flowers in her hand. Devil knows what they’re called, but for some reason they’re the first to appear in Moscow. And these flowers stood out clearly against her black spring coat. She was carrying yellow flowers! Not a nice colour. She turned down a lane from Tverskaya and then looked back. Well, you know Tverskaya! Thousands of people were walking along Tverskaya, but I can assure you that she saw me alone, and looked not really alarmed, but even as if in pain. And I was struck not so much by her beauty as by an extraordinary loneliness in her eyes, such as no one had ever seen before! Obeying this yellow sign, I also turned down the lane and followed her. We walked along the crooked, boring lane silently, I on one side, she on the other. And, imagine, there was not a soul in the lane. I was suffering, because it seemed to me that it was necessary to speak to her, and I worried that I wouldn’t utter a single word, and she would leave, and I’d never see her again. And, imagine, suddenly she began to speak: ‘ “Do you like my flowers?”

‘I remember clearly the sound of her voice; rather low, slightly husky, and, stupid as it is, it seemed that the echo resounded in the lane and bounced off the dirty yellow wall. I quickly crossed to her side and, coming up to her, answered: ‘“No!”

‘She looked at me in surprise, and I suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, understood that all my life I had loved precisely this woman! Quite a thing, eh? Of course, you’ll say I’m mad?’ ‘I won’t say anything,’ Ivan exclaimed, and added: ‘I beg you, go on!’

And the guest continued.

‘Yes, she looked at me in surprise, and then, having looked, asked thus:

‘ “You generally don’t like flowers?”

‘It seemed to me there was hostility in her voice. I was walking beside her, trying to keep in step, and, to my surprise, did not feel the least constraint.

‘ “No, I like flowers, but not this kind,” I said.

‘“Which, then?”

‘“I like roses.”

‘Then I regretted having said it, because she smiled guiltily and threw the flowers into the gutter. Slightly at a loss, I nevertheless picked them up and gave them to her, but she, with a smile, pushed the flowers away, and I carried them in my hand.

‘So we walked silently for some time, until she took the flowers from my hand and threw them to the pavement, then put her own hand in a black glove with a bell-shaped cuff under my arm, and we walked on side by side.’ ‘Go on,’ said Ivan, ‘and please don’t leave anything out!’

‘Go on?’ repeated the visitor. ‘Why, you can guess for yourself how it went on.’ He suddenly wiped an unexpected tear with his right sleeve and continued: ‘Love leaped out in front of us like a murderer in an alley leaping out of nowhere, and struck us both at once. As lightning strikes, as a Finnish knife strikes! She, by the way, insisted afterwards that it wasn’t so, that we had, of course, loved each other for a long, long time, without knowing each other, never having seen each other, and that she was living with a different man … as I was, too, then … with that, what’s her…’ ‘With whom?’ asked Homeless.

‘With that … well … with …’replied the guest, snapping his fingers.

‘You were married?’

‘Why, yes, that’s why I’m snapping … With that … Varenka … Manechka … no, Varenka … striped dress, the museum … Anyhow, I don’t remember.

‘Well, so she said she went out that day with yellow flowers in her hand so that I would find her at last, and that if it hadn’t happened, she would have poisoned herself, because her life was empty.

‘Yes, love struck us instantly. I knew it that same day, an hour later, when, without having noticed the city, we found ourselves by the Kremlin wall on the embankment.

‘We talked as if we had parted only the day before, as if we had known each other for many years. We arranged to meet the next day at the same place on the Moscow River, and we did. The May sun shone down on us. And soon, very soon, this woman became my secret wife.

‘She used to come to me every afternoon, but I would begin waiting for her in the morning. This waiting expressed itself in the moving around of objects on the table. Ten minutes before, I would sit down by the little window and begin to listen for the banging of the decrepit gate. And how curious: before my meeting with her, few people came to our yard — more simply, no one came — but now it seemed to me that the whole city came flocking there.

‘Bang goes the gate, bang goes my heart, and, imagine, it’s inevitably somebody’s dirty boots level with my face behind the window. A knife-grinder. Now, who needs a knife-grinder in our house? To sharpen what? What knives?

‘She would come through the gate once, but my heart would pound no less than ten times before that, I’m not lying. And then, when her hour came and the hands showed noon, it even wouldn’t stop pounding until, almost without tapping, almost noiselessly, her shoes would come even with my window, their black suede bows held tightly by steel buckles.

‘Sometimes she would get mischievous, pausing at the second window and tapping the glass with her toe. That same instant I would be at the window, but the shoe would be gone, the black silk blocking the light would be gone — I’d go and open the door for her.

‘No one knew of our liaison, I assure you of that, though it never happens. Her husband didn’t know, her acquaintances didn’t know. In the old house where I had that basement, people knew, of course, they saw that some woman visited me, but they didn’t know her name.’ ‘But who is she?’ asked Ivan, intrigued in the highest degree by this love story.

The guest made a gesture signifying that he would never tell that to anyone, and went on with his story.

Ivan learned that the master and the unknown woman loved each other so deeply that they became completely inseparable. Ivan could clearly picture to himself the two rooms in the basement of the house, where it was always twilight because of the lilacs and the fence. The worn red furniture, the bureau, the clock on it which struck every half hour, and books, books, from the painted floor to the sooty ceiling, and the stove.

Ivan learned that his guest and his secret wife, from the very first days of their liaison, had come to the conclusion that fate itself had thrown them together at the corner of Tverskaya and that lane, and that they had been created for each other for all time.

Ivan learned from the guest’s story how the lovers would spend the day. She would come, and put on an apron first thing, and in the narrow front hall where stood that same sink of which the poor patient was for some reason so proud, would light the kerosene stove on the wooden table, prepare lunch, and set it out on the oval table in the first room. When the May storms came and water rushed noisily through the gateway past the near-sighted windows, threatening to flood their last refuge, the lovers would light the stove and bake potatoes in it. Steam rose from the potatoes, the black potato skins dirtied their fingers. Laughter came from the basement, the trees in the garden after rain shed broken twigs, white clusters.

When the storms ended and sultry summer came, there appeared in the vase the long-awaited roses they both loved. The man who called himself a master worked feverishly on his novel, and this novel also absorbed the unknown woman.

‘Really, there were times when I’d begin to be jealous of it on account of her,’ the night visitor come from the moonlit balcony whispered to Ivan.

Her slender fingers with sharply filed nails buried in her hair, she endlessly reread what he had written, and after rereading it would sit sewing that very same cap. Sometimes she crouched down by the lower shelves or stood by the upper ones and wiped the hundreds of dusty spines with a cloth. She foretold fame, she urged him on, and it was then that she began to call him a master. She waited impatiently for the already promised last words about the fifth procurator of Judea, repeated aloud in a sing-song voice certain phrases she liked, and said that her life was in this novel.

It was finished in the month of August, was given to some unknown typist, and she typed it in five copies. And finally the hour came when he had to leave his secret refuge and go out into life.

‘And I went out into life holding it in my hands, and then my life ended,’ the master whispered and drooped his head, and for a long time nodded the woeful black cap with the yellow letter ‘M’ on it. He continued his story, but it became somewhat incoherent, one could only understand that some catastrophe had then befallen Ivan’s guest.

‘For the first time I found myself in the world of literature, but now, when it’s all over and my ruin is clear, I recall it with horror!’ the master whispered solemnly and raised his hand. ‘Yes, he astounded me greatly, ah, how he astounded me!’ ‘Who?’ Ivan whispered barely audibly, fearing to interrupt the agitated narrator.

‘Why, the editor, I tell you, the editor! Yes, he read it all right. He looked at me as if I had a swollen cheek, looked sidelong into the corner, and even tittered in embarrassment. He crumpled the manuscript needlessly and grunted. The questions he asked seemed crazy to me. Saying nothing about the essence of the novel, he asked me who I was, where I came from, and how long I had been writing, and why no one had heard of me before, and even asked what in my opinion was a totally idiotic question: who had given me the idea of writing a novel on such a strange theme? Finally I got sick of him and asked directly whether he would publish the novel or not. Here he started squirming, mumbled something, and declared that he could not decide the question on his own, that other members of the editorial board had to acquaint themselves with my work — namely, the critics Latunsky and Ariman, and the writer Mstislav Lavrovich.2 He asked me to come in two weeks. I came in two weeks and was received by some girl whose eyes were crossed towards her nose from constant lying.’ ‘That’s Lapshennikova, the editorial secretary,’ Ivan said with a smirk. He knew very well the world described so wrathfully by his guest.

‘Maybe,’ the other snapped, ‘and so from her I got my novel back, already quite greasy and dishevelled. Trying to avoid looking me in the eye, Lapshennikova told me that the publisher was provided with material for two years ahead, and therefore the question of printing my novel, as she put it, “did not arise”.

‘What do I remember after that?’ the master muttered, rubbing his temple. ‘Yes, red petals strewn across the title page, and also the eyes of my friend. Yes, those eyes I remember.’

The story of Ivan’s guest was becoming more confused, more filled with all sorts of reticences. He said something about slanting rain and despair in the basement refuge, about having gone elsewhere. He exclaimed in a whisper that he did not blame her in the least for pushing him to fight — oh, no, he did not blame her!

Further on, as Ivan heard, something sudden and strange happened. One day our hero opened a newspaper and saw in it an article by the critic Ariman,3 in which Ariman warned all and sundry that he, that is, our hero, had attempted to foist into print an apology for Jesus Christ.

‘Ah, I remember, I remember!’ Ivan cried out. ‘But I’ve forgotten your name!’

‘Let’s leave my name out of it, I repeat, it no longer exists,’ replied the guest. ‘That’s not the point. Two days later in another newspaper, over the signature of Mstislav Lavrovich, appeared another article, in which its author recommended striking, and striking hard, at Pilatism and at the icon-dauber who had ventured to foist it (again that accursed word!) into print.

‘Dumbfounded by this unheard-of word “Pilatism”, I opened a third newspaper. There were two articles in it, one by Latunsky, the other signed with the initials “N.E.” I assure you, the works of Ariman and Lavrovich could be counted as jokes compared with what Latunsky wrote. Suffice it to say that Latunsky’s article was entitled “A Militant Old Believer”.4 I got so carried away reading the article about myself that I didn’t notice (I had forgotten to lock the door) how she came in and stood before me with a wet umbrella in her hand and wet newspapers as well. Her eyes flashed fire, her trembling hands were cold. First she rushed to kiss me, then, in a hoarse voice, and pounding the table with her fist, she said she would poison Latunsky.’ Ivan grunted somewhat embarrassedly, but said nothing.

‘Joyless autumn days set in,’ the guest went on. The monstrous failure with this novel seemed to have taken out a part of my soul. Essentially speaking, I had nothing more to do, and I lived from one meeting with her to the next. And it was at that time that something happened to me. Devil knows what, Stravinsky probably figured it out long ago. Namely, anguish came over me and certain forebodings appeared.

‘The articles, please note, did not cease. I laughed at the first of them. But the more of them that appeared, the more my attitude towards them changed. The second stage was one of astonishment. Some rare falsity and insecurity could be sensed literally in every line of these articles, despite their threatening and confident tone. I had the feeling, and I couldn’t get rid of it, that the authors of these articles were not saying what they wanted to say, and that their rage sprang precisely from that. And then, imagine, a third stage came - of fear. No, not fear of these articles, you understand, but fear of other things totally unrelated to them or to the novel. Thus, for instance, I began to be afraid of the dark. In short, the stage of mental illness came. It seemed to me, especially as I was falling asleep, that some very cold and pliant octopus was stealing with its tentacles immediately and directly towards my heart. And I had to sleep with the light on.

‘My beloved changed very much (of course, I never told her about the octopus, but she could see that something was going wrong with me), she became thinner and paler, stopped laughing, and kept asking me to forgive her for having advised me to publish an excerpt She said I should drop everything and go to the south, to the Black Sea, and spend all that was left of the hundred thousand on the trip.

‘She was very insistent, and to avoid an argument (something told me I was not to go to the Black Sea), I promised her that I’d do it one of those days. But she said she would buy me the ticket herself. Then I took out all my money - that is, about ten thousand roubles - and gave it to her.

‘“Why so much?” she was surprised.

‘I said something or other about being afraid of thieves and asked her to keep the money until my departure. She took it, put it in her purse, began kissing me and saying that it would be easier for her to die than to leave me alone in such a state, but that she was expected, that she must bow to necessity, that she would come the next day. She begged me not to be afraid of anything.

“This was at dusk, in mid-October. And she left. I lay down on the sofa and fell asleep without turning on the light. I was awakened by the feeling that the octopus was there. Groping in the dark, I barely managed to turn on the light. My pocket watch showed two o‘clock in the morning. I was falling ill when I went to bed, and I woke up sick. It suddenly seemed to me that the autumn darkness would push through the glass and pour into the room, and I would drown in it as in ink. I got up a man no longer in control of himself. I cried out, the thought came to me of running to someone, even if it was my landlord upstairs. I struggled with myself like a madman. I had strength enough to get to the stove and start a fire in it. When the wood began to crackle and the stove door rattled, I seemed to feel slightly better. I dashed to the front room, turned on the light there, found a bottle of white wine, uncorked it and began drinking from the bottle. This blunted the fear somewhat — at least enough to keep me from running to the landlord — and I went back to the stove. I opened the little door, so that the heat began to burn my face and hands, and whispered: ‘“Guess that trouble has befallen me … Come, come, come! …”

‘But no one came. The fire roared in the stove, rain lashed at the windows. Then the final thing happened. I took the heavy manuscript of the novel and the draft notebooks from the desk drawer and started burning them. This was terribly hard to do, because written-on paper burns reluctantly. Breaking my fingernails, I tore up the notebooks, stuck them vertically between the logs, and ruffled the pages with the poker. At times the ashes got the best of me, choking the flames, but I struggled with them, and the novel, though stubbornly resisting, was nevertheless perishing. Familiar words flashed before me, the yellow climbed steadily up the pages, but the words still showed through it. They would vanish only when the paper turned black, and I finished them off with the poker.

‘Just then someone began scratching quietly at the window. My heart leaped, and having stuffed the last notebook into the fire, I rushed to open the door. Brick steps led up from the basement to the door on the yard. Stumbling, I ran up to it and asked quietly: ‘“Who’s there?”

‘And that voice, her voice, answered:

‘“It’s me …

I don’t remember how I managed with the chain and hook. As soon as she stepped inside, she clung to me, trembling, all wet, her cheeks wet and her hair uncurled. I could only utter the word: ‘“You … you? …”, and my voice broke, and we ran downstairs.

‘She freed herself of her overcoat in the front hall, and we quickly went into the first room. With a soft cry, she pulled out of the stove with her bare hands and threw on to the floor the last of what was there, a sheaf that had caught fire from below. Smoke filled the room at once. I stamped out the fire with my feet, and she collapsed on the sofa and wept irrepressibly and convulsively.

‘When she calmed down, I said:

‘“I came to hate this novel, and I’m afraid. I’m ill. Frightened.”

‘She stood up and said:

‘“God, how sick you are. Why is it, why? But I’ll save you, I’ll save you. What is all this?”

‘I saw her eyes swollen with smoke and weeping, felt her cold hands stroke my forehead.

‘“I’ll cure you, I’ll cure you,” she was murmuring, clutching my shoulders. “You’ll restore it. Why, why didn’t I keep a copy?”

‘She bared her teeth with rage, she said something else inarticulately. Then, compressing her lips, she began to collect and smooth out the burnt-edged pages. It was some chapter from the middle of the novel, I don’t remember which. She neatly stacked the pages, wrapped them in paper, tied them with a ribbon. All her actions showed that she was full of determination, and that she had regained control of herself. She asked for wine and, having drunk it, spoke more calmly: ‘“This is how one pays for lying,” she said, “and I don’t want to lie any more. I’d stay with you right now, but I’d rather not do it that way. I don’t want it to remain for ever in his memory that I ran away from him in the middle of the night. He’s never done me any wrong … He was summoned unexpectedly, there was a fire at the factory. But he’ll be back soon. I’ll talk with him tomorrow morning, I’ll tell him that I love another man and come back to you for ever. Or maybe you don’t want that? Answer me.” ‘“Poor dear, my poor dear,” I said to her. “I won’t allow you to do it. Things won’t go well for me, and I don’t want you to perish with me.”

‘“Is that the only reason?” she asked, and brought her eyes close to mine.

“‘The only one.”

‘She became terribly animated, she clung to me, put her arms around my neck and said:

‘“I’m perishing with you. In the morning I’ll be here.”

‘And so, the last thing I remember from my life is a strip of light from my front hall, and in that strip of light an uncurled strand of hair, her beret and her eyes filled with determination. I also remember the black silhouette in the outside doorway and the white package.

“‘I’d see you home, but it’s beyond my strength to come back alone. I’m afraid.”

‘“Don’t be afraid. Bear with it for a few hours. Tomorrow morning I’ll be here.”

‘Those were her last words in my life … ·Shh!…’ the patient suddenly interrupted himself and raised a finger. ‘It’s a restless moonlit night tonight.’

He disappeared on to the balcony. Ivan heard little wheels roll down the corridor, someone sobbed or cried out weakly.

When everything grew still, the guest came back and announced that room 120 had received an occupant. Someone had been brought, and he kept asking to be given back his head. The two interlocutors fell anxiously silent, but, having calmed down, they returned to the interrupted story. The guest was just opening his mouth, but the night was indeed a restless one. There were still voices in the corridor, and the guest began to speak into Ivan’s ear, so softly that what he told him was known only to the poet, apart from the first phrase: ‘A quarter of an hour after she left me, there came a knock at my window …’

What the patient whispered into Ivan’s ear evidently agitated him very much. Spasms repeatedly passed over his face. Fear and rage swam and flitted in his eyes. The narrator pointed his hand somewhere in the direction of the moon, which had long since left the balcony. Only when all sounds from outside ceased to reach them did the guest move away from Ivan and begin to speak more loudly: ‘Yes, and so in mid-January, at night, in the same coat but with the buttons torn off,5 I was huddled with cold in my little yard. Behind me were snowdrifts that hid the lilac bushes, and before me and below - my little windows, dimly lit, covered with shades. I bent down to the first of them and listened - a gramophone was playing in my rooms. That was all I heard, but I could not see anything. I stood there a while, then went out the gate to the lane. A blizzard was frolicking in it. A dog, dashing under my feet, frightened me, and I ran away from it to the other side. The cold, and the fear that had become my constant companion, were driving me to frenzy. I had nowhere to go, and the simplest thing, of course, would have been to throw myself under a tram-car on the street where my lane came out. From far off I could see those light-filled, ice-covered boxes and hear their loathsome screeching in the frost. But, my dear neighbour, the whole thing was that fear possessed every cell of my body. And, just as I was afraid of the dog, so I was afraid of the tram-car. Yes, there is no illness in this place worse than mine, I assure you!’ ‘But you could have let her know,’ said Ivan, sympathizing with the poor patient. ‘Besides, she has your money. She did keep it, of course?’

‘You needn’t doubt that, of course she kept it. But you evidently don’t understand me. Or, rather, I’ve lost the ability I once had for describing things. However, I’m not very sorry about that, since I no longer have any use for it. Before her,’ the guest reverently looked out at the darkness of the night, ‘there would lie a letter from a madhouse. How can one send letters from such an address … a mental patient? … You’re joking, my friend! Make her unhappy? No, I’m not capable of that.’ Ivan was unable to object to this, but the silent Ivan sympathized with the guest, he commiserated with him. And the other, from the pain of his memories, nodded his head in the black cap and spoke thus: ‘Poor woman … However, I have hopes that she has forgotten me…’

‘But you may recover …’ Ivan said timidly.

‘I am incurable,’ the guest replied calmly. ‘When Stravinsky says he will bring me back to life, I don’t believe him. He is humane and simply wants to comfort me. I don’t deny, however, that I’m much better now. Yes, so where did I leave off? Frost, those flying trams … I knew that this clinic had been opened, and set out for it on foot across the entire city. Madness! Outside the city I probably would have frozen to death, but chance saved me. A truck had broken down, I came up to the driver, it was some three miles beyond the city limits, and to my surprise he took pity on me. The truck was coming here. And he took me along. I got away with having my left toes frostbitten. But they cured that. And now this is the fourth month that I’ve been here. And, you know, I find it not at all bad here. One mustn’t make grandiose plans, dear neighbour, really! I, for instance, wanted to go all around the globe. Well, so it turns out that I’m not going to do it. I see only an insignificant piece of that globe. I suppose it’s not the very best there is on it, but, I repeat, it’s not so bad. Summer is coming, the ivy will twine up on to the balcony. So Praskovya Fyodorovna promises. The keys have broadened my possibilities. There’ll be the moon at night. Ah, it’s gone! Freshness. It’s falling past midnight. Time to go.’ “Tell me, what happened afterwards with Yeshua and Pilate?‘ Ivan asked. ’I beg you, I want to know.‘

‘Ah, no, no,’ the guest replied with a painful twitch. ‘I cannot recall my novel without trembling. And your acquaintance from the Patriarch’s Ponds would do it better than I. Thank you for the conversation. Goodbye.’ And before Ivan could collect his senses, the grille closed with a quiet clang, and the guest vanished.

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