فصل 14

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فصل 14

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  • زمان مطالعه 13 دقیقه
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CHAPTER 14

Glory to the Cock!

His nerves gave out, as they say, and Rimsky fled to his office before they finished drawing up the report. He sat at his desk and stared with inflamed eyes at the magic banknotes lying before him. The findirector’s wits were addled. A steady hum came from outside. The audience poured in streams from the Variety building into the street. Rimsky’s extremely sharpened hearing suddenly caught the distant trill of a policeman. That in itself never bodes anything pleasant. But when it was repeated and, to assist it, another joined in, more authoritative and prolonged, and to them was added a clearly audible guffawing and even some hooting, the findirector understood at once that something else scandalous and vile had happened in the street. And that, however much he wanted to wave it away, it was closely connected with the repulsive seance presented by the black magician and his assistants.

The keen-eared findirector was not mistaken in the least. As soon as he cast a glance out the window on to Sadovaya, his face twisted, and he did not whisper but hissed:

‘So I thought!’

In the bright glare of the strongest street lights he saw, just below him on the sidewalk, a lady in nothing but a shift and violet bloomers. True, there was a little hat on the lady’s head and an umbrella in her hands. The lady, who was in a state of utter consternation, now crouching down, now making as if to run off somewhere, was surrounded by an agitated crowd, which produced the very guffawing that had sent a shiver down the findirector’s spine. Next to the lady some citizen was flitting about, trying to tear off his summer coat, and in his agitation simply unable to manage the sleeve in which his arm was stuck.

Shouts and roaring guffaws came from yet another place - namely, the left entrance — and turning his head in that direction, Grigory Danilovich saw a second lady, in pink underwear. She leaped from the street to the sidewalk, striving to hide in the hallway, but the audience pouring out blocked the way, and the poor victim of her own flightiness and passion for dressing up, deceived by vile Fagott’s firm, dreamed of only one thing — falling through the earth. A policeman made for the unfortunate woman, drilling the air with his whistle, and after the policeman hastened some merry young men in caps. It was they who produced the guffawing and hooting.

A skinny, moustachioed cabby flew up to the first undressed woman and dashingly reined in his bony, broken-down nag. The moustached face was grinning gleefully.

Rimsky beat himself on the head with his fist, spat, and leaped back from the window. For some time he sat at his desk listening to the street. The whistling at various points reached its highest pitch, then began to subside. The scandal, to Rimsky’s surprise, was somehow liquidated with unexpected swiftness.

It came time to act. He had to drink the bitter cup of responsibility. The telephones had been repaired during the third part. He had to make calls, to tell what had happened, to ask for help, lie his way out of it, heap everything on Likhodeev, cover up for himself, and so on. Pah, the devil!

Twice the upset director put his hand on the receiver, and twice he drew it back. And suddenly, in the dead silence of the office, the telephone burst out ringing by itself right in the findirector’s face, and he gave a start and went cold. ‘My nerves are really upset, though!’ he thought, and picked up the receiver. He recoiled from it instantly and turned whiter than paper. A soft but at the same time insinuating and lewd female voice whispered into the receiver: ‘Don’t call anywhere, Rimsky, it’ll be bad …’

The receiver straight away went empty. With goose-flesh prickling on his back, the findirector hung up the telephone and for some reason turned to look at the window behind him. Through the scant and still barely greening branches of a maple, he saw the moon racing in a transparent cloud. His eyes fixed on the branches for some reason, Rimsky went on gazing at them, and the longer he gazed, the more strongly he was gripped by fear.

With great effort, the findirector finally turned away from the moonlit window and stood up. There could no longer be any question of phone calls, and now the findirector was thinking of only one thing — getting out of the theatre as quickly as possible.

He listened: the theatre building was silent. Rimsky realized that he had long been the only one on the whole second floor, and a childish, irrepressible fear came over him at this thought. He could not think without shuddering of having to walk alone now along the empty corridors and down the stairs. Feverishly he seized the hypnotist’s banknotes from the table, put them in his briefcase, and coughed so as to cheer himself up at least a little. The cough came out slightly hoarse, weak.

And here it seemed to him that a whiff of some putrid dankness was coming in under the office door. Shivers ran down the findirector’s spine. And then the clock also rang out unexpectedly and began to strike midnight. And even its striking provoked shivers in the findirector. But his heart definitively sank when he heard the English key turning quietly in the lock. Clutching his briefcase with damp, cold hands, the findirector felt that if this scraping in the keyhole were to go on any longer, he would break down and give a piercing scream.

Finally the door yielded to someone’s efforts, opened, and Varenukha noiselessly entered the office. Rimsky simply sank down into the armchair where he stood, because his legs gave way. Drawing a deep breath, he smiled an ingratiating smile, as it were, and said quietly: ‘God, you frightened me …’

Yes, this sudden appearance might have frightened anyone you like, and yet at the same time it was a great joy: at least one little end peeped out in this tangled affair.

‘Well, tell me quickly! Well? Well?’ Rimsky wheezed, grasping at this little end. ‘What does it all mean?!’

‘Excuse me, please,’ the entering man replied in a hollow voice, closing the door, ‘I thought you had already left.’

And Varenukha, without taking his cap off, walked to the armchair and sat on the other side of the desk.

It must be said that Varenukha’s response was marked by a slight oddity which at once needled the findirector, who could compete in sensitivity with the seismograph of any of the world’s best stations. How could it be? Why did Varenukha come to the findirector’s office if he thought he was not there? He had his own office, first of all. And second, whichever entrance to the building Varenukha had used, he would inevitably have met one of the night-watchmen, to all of whom it had been announced that Grigory Danilovich was staying late in his office. But the findirector did not spend long pondering this oddity - he had other problems.

‘Why didn’t you call? What are all these shenanigans about Yalta?’

‘Well, it’s as I was saying,’ the administrator replied, sucking as if he were troubled by a bad tooth. ‘He was found in the tavern in Pushkino.’

‘In Pushkino?! You mean just outside Moscow?! What about the telegrams from Yalta?!’

‘The devil they’re from Yalta! He got a telegrapher drunk in Pushkino, and the two of them started acting up, sending telegrams marked “Yalta”, among other things.’

‘Aha … aha … Well, all right, all right…’ Rimsky did not say but sang out. His eyes lit up with a yellow light. In his head there formed the festive picture of Styopa’s shameful dismissal from his job. Deliverance ! The findirector’s long-awaited deliverance from this disaster in the person of Likhodeev! And maybe Stepan Bogdanovich would achieve something worse than dismissal… ‘The details!’ said Rimsky, banging the paperweight on the desk.

And Varenukha began giving the details. As soon as he arrived where the findirector had sent him, he was received at once and given a most attentive hearing. No one, of course, even entertained the thought that Styopa could be in Yalta. Everyone agreed at once with Varenukha’s suggestion that Likhodeev was, of course, at the Yalta in Pushkino.

‘Then where is he now?’ the agitated findirector interrupted the administrator.

‘Well, where else could he be?’ the administrator replied, grinning crookedly. ‘In a sobering-up cell, naturally!’

‘Well, well. How nice!’

Varenukha went on with his story, and the more he told, the more vividly there unfolded before the findirector the long chain of Likhodeev’s boorish and outrageous acts, and every link in this chain was worse than the one before. The drunken dancing in the arms of the telegrapher on the lawn in front of the Pushkino telegraph office to the sounds of some itinerant barrel-organ was worth something! The chase after some female citizens shrieking with terror! The attempt at a fight with the barman in the Yalta itself! Scattering green onions all over the floor of the same Yalta. Smashing eight bottles of dry white Ai-Danil. Breaking the meter when the taxi-driver refused to take Styopa in his cab. Threatening to arrest the citizens who attempted to stop Styopa’s obnoxiousness … In short, black horror!

Styopa was well known in Moscow theatre circles, and everyone knew that the man was no gift. But all the same, what the administrator was telling about him was too much even for Styopa. Yes, too much. Even much too much …

Rimsky’s needle-sharp glance pierced the administrator’s face from across the desk, and the longer the man spoke, the grimmer those eyes became. The more lifelike and colourful the vile details with which the administrator furnished his story, the less the findirector believed the storyteller. And when Varenukha told how Styopa had let himself go so far as to try to resist those who came to bring him back to Moscow, the findirector already knew firmly that everything the administrator who had returned at midnight was telling him, everything, was a lie! A lie from first word to last!

Varenukha never went to Pushkino, and there was no Styopa in Pushkino. There was no drunken telegrapher, there was no broken glass in the tavern, Styopa did not get tied up with ropes … none of it happened.

As soon as the findirector became firmly convinced that the administrator was lying to him, fear crept over his body, starting from the legs, and twice again the findirector fancied that a putrid malarial dankness was wafting across the floor. Never for a moment taking his eyes off the administrator — who squirmed somehow strangely in his armchair, trying not to get out of the blue shade of the desk lamp, and screening himself with a newspaper in some remarkable fashion from the bothersome light - the findirector was thinking of only one thing: what did it all mean? Why was he being lied to so brazenly, in the silent and deserted building, by the administrator who was so late in coming back to him? And the awareness of danger, an unknown but menacing danger, began to gnaw at Rimsky’s soul. Pretending to ignore Varenukha’s dodges and tricks with the newspaper, the findirector studied his face, now almost without listening to the yarn Varenukha was spinning. There was something that seemed still more inexplicable than the calumny invented, God knows why, about adventures in Pushkino, and that something was the change in the administrator’s appearance and manners.

No matter how the man pulled the duck-like visor of his cap over his eyes, so as to throw a shadow on his face, no matter how he fidgeted with the newspaper, the findirector managed to make out an enormous bruise on the right side of his face just by the nose. Besides that, the normally full-blooded administrator was now pale with a chalk-like, unhealthy pallor, and on this stifling night his neck was for some reason wrapped in an old striped scarf. Add to that the repulsive manner the administrator had acquired during the time of his absence of sucking and smacking, the sharp change in his voice, which had become hollow and coarse, and the furtiveness and cowardliness in his eyes, and one could boldly say that Ivan Savelyevich Varenukha had become unrecognizable.

Something else burningly troubled the findirector, but he was unable to grasp precisely what it was, however much he strained his feverish mind, however hard he peered at Varenukha. One thing he could affirm, that there was something unprecedented, unnatural in this combination of the administrator and the familiar armchair.

‘Well, we finally overpowered him, loaded him into the car,’ Varenukha boomed, peeking from behind the paper and covering the bruise with his hand.

Rimsky suddenly reached out and, as if mechanically, tapping his fingers on the table at the same time, pushed the electric-bell button with his palm and went numb. The sharp signal ought to have been heard without fail in the empty building. But no signal came, and the button sank lifelessly into the wood of the desk. The button was dead, the bell broken.

The findirector’s stratagem did not escape the notice of Varenukha, who asked, twitching, with a clearly malicious fire flickering in his eyes:

‘What are you ringing for?’

‘Mechanically,’ the findirector replied hollowly, jerking his hand back, and asked in turn, in an unsteady voice: ‘What’s that on your face?’

‘The car skidded, I bumped against the door-handle,’ Varenukha said, looking away.

‘He’s lying!’ the findirector exclaimed mentally. And here his eyes suddenly grew round and utterly insane, and he stared at the back of the armchair.

Behind the chair on the floor two shadows lay criss-cross, one more dense and black, the other faint and grey. The shadow of the back of the chair and of its tapering legs could be seen distinctly on the floor, but there was no shadow of Varenukha’s head above the back of the chair, or of the administrator’s legs under its legs.

‘He casts no shadow!’ Rimsky cried out desperately in his mind. He broke into shivers.

Varenukha, following Rimsky’s insane gaze, looked furtively behind him at the back of the chair, and realized that he had been found out. He got up from the chair (the findirector did likewise) and made one step back from the desk, clutching his briefcase in his hands.

‘He’s guessed, damn him! Always was clever,’ Varenukha said, grinning spitefully right in the findirector’s face, and he sprang unexpectedly from the chair to the door and quickly pushed down the catch on the lock. The findirector looked desperately behind him, as he retreated to the window giving on to the garden, and in this window, flooded with moonlight, saw the face of a naked girl pressed against the glass and her naked arm reaching through the vent-pane and trying to open the lower latch. The upper one was already open.

It seemed to Rimsky that the light of the desk lamp was going out and the desk was tilting. An icy wave engulfed Rimsky, but — fortunately for him - he got control of himself and did not fall. He had enough strength left to whisper, but not cry out: ‘Help …’

Varenukha, guarding the door, hopped up and down by it, staying in air for a long time and swaying there. Waving his hooked fingers in Rimsky’s direction, he hissed and smacked, winking to the girl in the window.

She began to hurry, stuck her red-haired head through the vent, reached her arm down as far as she could, her nails clawing at the lower latch and shaking the frame. Her arm began to lengthen, rubber-like, and became covered with a putrid green. Finally the dead woman’s green fingers got hold of the latch knob, turned it, and the frame began to open. Rimsky cried out weakly, leaned against the wall, and held his briefcase in front of him like a shield. He realized that his end had come.

The frame swung wide open, but instead of the night’s freshness and the fragrance of the lindens, the smell of a cellar burst into the room. The dead woman stepped on to the window-sill. Rimsky clearly saw spots of decay on her breast.

And just then the joyful, unexpected crowing of a cock came from the garden, from that low building beyond the shooting gallery where birds participating in the programme were kept. A loud, trained cock trumpeted, announcing that dawn was rolling towards Moscow from the east.

Savage fury distorted the girl’s face, she emitted a hoarse oath, and at the door Varenukha shrieked and dropped from the air to the floor.

The cock-crow was repeated, the girl clacked her teeth, and her red hair stood on end. With the third crowing of the cock, she turned and flew out. And after her, jumping up and stretching himself horizontally in the air, looking like a flying cupid, Varenukha slowly floated over the desk and out the window.

White as snow, with not a single black hair on his head, the old man who still recently had been Rimsky rushed to the door, undid the catch, opened the door, and ran hurtling down the dark corridor. At the turn to the stairs, moaning with fear, he felt for the switch, and the stairway lighted up. On the stairs the shaking, trembling old man fell because he imagined that Varenukha had softly tumbled on top of him.

Having run downstairs, Rimsky saw a watchman asleep on a chair by the box office in the lobby. Rimsky stole past him on tiptoe and slipped out the main entrance. Outside he felt slightly better. He recovered his senses enough to realize, clutching his head, that his hat had stayed behind in the office.

Needless to say, he did not go back for it, but, breathless, ran across the wide street to the opposite comer by the movie theatre, near which a dull reddish light hovered. In a moment he was there. No one had time to intercept the cab.

‘Make the Leningrad express, I’ll tip you well,’ the old man said, breathing heavily and clutching his heart.

‘I’m going to the garage,’ the driver answered hatefully and turned away.

Then Rimsky unlatched his briefcase, took out fifty roubles, and handed them to the driver through the open front window.

A few moments later, the rattling car was flying like the wind down Sadovoye Ring. The passenger was tossed about on his seat, and in the fragment of mirror hanging in front of the driver, Rimsky saw now the driver’s happy eyes, now his own insane ones.

Jumping out of the car in front of the train station, Rimsky cried to the first man he saw in a white apron with a badge:

‘First class, single, I’ll pay thirty,’ he was pulling the banknotes from his briefcase, crumpling them, ‘no first class, get me second … if not - a hard bench!’

The man with the badge kept glancing up at the lighted clock face as he tore the banknotes from Rimsky’s hand.

Five minutes later the express train disappeared from under the glass vault of the train station and vanished clean away in the darkness. And with it vanished Rimsky.

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