فصل 05

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فصل 05

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CHAPTER 5

There were Doings at Griboedov’s

The old, two-storeyed, cream-coloured house stood on the ring boulevard, in the depths of a seedy garden, separated from the sidewalk by a fancy cast-iron fence. The small terrace in front of the house was paved with asphalt, and in wintertime was dominated by a snow pile with a shovel stuck in it, but in summertime turned into the most magnificent section of the summer restaurant under a canvas tent.

The house was called ‘The House of Griboedov’ on the grounds that it was alleged to have once belonged to an aunt of the writer Alexander Sergeevich Griboedov.1 Now, whether it did or did not belong to her, we do not exactly know. On recollection, it even seems that Griboedov never had any such house-owning aunt … Nevertheless, that was what the house was called. Moreover, one Moscow liar had it that there, on the second floor, in a round hall with columns, the famous writer had supposedly read passages from Woe From Wit to this very aunt while she reclined on a sofa. However, devil knows, maybe he did, it’s of no importance.

What is important is that at the present time this house was owned by that same Massolit which had been headed by the unfortunate Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz before his appearance at the Patriarch’s Ponds.

In the casual manner of Massolit members, no one called the house ‘The House of Griboedov’, everyone simply said ‘Griboedov’s‘: ’I spent two hours yesterday knocking about Griboedov’s.‘ ’Well, and so?‘ ’Got myself a month in Yalta.‘ ’Bravo!‘ Or: ’Go to Berlioz, he receives today from four to five at Griboedov’s …‘ and so on.

Massolit had settled itself at Griboedov’s in the best and cosiest way imaginable. Anyone entering Griboedov’s first of all became involuntarily acquainted with the announcements of various sports clubs, and with group as well as individual photographs of the members of Massolit, hanging (the photographs) on the walls of the staircase leading to the second floor.

On the door to the very first room of this upper floor one could see a big sign: ‘Fishing and Vacation Section’, along with the picture of a carp caught on a line.

On the door of room no. 2 something not quite comprehensible was written: ‘One-day Creative Trips. Apply to M. V. Spurioznaya.’

The next door bore a brief but now totally incomprehensible inscription: ‘Perelygino’.2 After which the chance visitor to Griboedov’s would not know where to look from the motley inscriptions on the aunt’s walnut doors: ‘Sign up for Paper with Poklevkina’, ‘Cashier’, ‘Personal Accounts of Sketch-Writers’ …

If one cut through the longest line, which already went downstairs and out to the doorman’s lodge, one could see the sign ‘Housing Question’ on a door which people were crashing every second.

Beyond the housing question there opened out a luxurious poster on which a cliff was depicted and, riding on its crest, a horseman in a felt cloak with a rifle on his shoulder. A little lower — palm trees and a balcony; on the balcony — a seated young man with a forelock, gazing somewhere aloft with very lively eyes, holding a fountain pen in his hand. The inscription: ‘Full-scale Creative Vacations from Two Weeks (Story/Novella) to One Year (Novel/Trilogy). Yalta, Suuk-Su, Borovoe, Tsikhidziri, Makhindzhauri, Leningrad (Winter Palace).’3 There was also a line at this door, but not an excessive one - some hundred and fifty people.

Next, obedient to the whimsical curves, ascents and descents of the Griboedov house, came the ‘Massolit Executive Board’, ‘Cashiers nos. 2, 3, 4, 5’, ’Editorial Board‘, ’Chairman of Massolit‘, ’Billiard Room‘, various auxiliary institutions and, finally, that same hall with the colonnade where the aunt had delighted in the comedy of her genius nephew.

Any visitor finding himself in Griboedov‘s, unless of course he was a total dim-wit, would realize at once what a good life those lucky fellows, the Massolit members, were having, and black envy would immediately start gnawing at him. And he would immediately address bitter reproaches to heaven for not having endowed him at birth with literary talent, lacking which there was naturally no dreaming of owning a Massolit membership card, brown, smelling of costly leather, with a wide gold border — a card known to all Moscow.

Who will speak in defence of envy? This feeling belongs to the nasty category, but all the same one must put oneself in the visitor’s position. For what he had seen on the upper floor was not all, and was far from all. The entire ground floor of the aunt’s house was occupied by a restaurant, and what a restaurant! It was justly considered the best in Moscow. And not only because it took up two vast halls with arched ceilings, painted with violet, Assyrian-maned horses, not only because on each table there stood a lamp shaded with a shawl, not only because it was not accessible to just anybody coming in off the street, but because in the quality of its fare Griboedov’s beat any restaurant in Moscow up and down, and this fare was available at the most reasonable, by no means onerous, price.

Hence there was nothing surprising, for instance, in the following conversation, which the author of these most truthful lines once heard near the cast-iron fence of Griboedov’s:

‘Where are you dining today, Amvrosy?’

‘What a question! Why, here, of course, my dear Foka! Archibald Archibaldovich whispered to me today that there will be perch au naturel done to order. A virtuoso little treat!’

‘You sure know how to live, Amvrosy!’ skinny, run-down Foka, with a carbuncle on his neck, replied with a sigh to the ruddy-lipped giant, golden-haired, plump-cheeked Amvrosy-the-poet.

‘I have no special knowledge,’ Amvrosy protested, ‘just the ordinary wish to live like a human being. You mean to say, Foka, that perch can be met with at the Coliseum as well. But at the Coliseum a portion of perch costs thirteen roubles fifteen kopecks, and here — five-fifty! Besides, at the Coliseum they serve three-day-old perch, and, besides, there’s no guarantee you won’t get slapped in the mug with a bunch of grapes at the Coliseum by the first young man who bursts in from Theatre Alley. No, I’m categorically opposed to the Coliseum,’ the gastronome Amvrosy boomed for the whole boulevard to hear. ‘Don’t try to convince me, Foka!’

‘I’m not trying to convince you, Amvrosy,’ Foka squeaked. ‘One can also dine at home.’

‘I humbly thank you,’ trumpeted Amvrosy, ‘but I can imagine your wife, in the communal kitchen at home, trying to do perch au naturel to order in a saucepan! Hee, hee, hee! … Aurevwar, Foka!’ And, humming, Amvrosy directed his steps to the veranda under the tent.

Ahh, yes! … Yes, there was a time! … Old Muscovites will remember the renowned Griboedov‘s! What is poached perch done to order! Cheap stuff, my dear Amvrosy! But sterlet, sterlet in a silvery chafing dish, sterlet slices interlaid with crayfish tails and fresh caviar? And eggs en cocotte with mushroom purée in little dishes? And how did you like the fillets of thrush? With truffles? Quail à la génoise? Nine-fifty! And the jazz, and the courteous service! And in July, when the whole family is in the country, and you are kept in the city by urgent literary business - on the veranda, in the shade of the creeping vines, in a golden spot on the cleanest of tablecloths, a bowl of soup printanier? Remember, Amvrosy? But why ask! I can see by your lips that you do. What is your whitefish, your perch! But the snipe, the great snipe, the jack snipe, the woodcock in their season, the quail, the curlew? Cool seltzer fizzing in your throat?! But enough, you are getting distracted, reader! Follow me! …

At half past ten on the evening when Berlioz died at the Patriarch’s Ponds, only one room was lit upstairs at Griboedov‘s, and in it languished twelve writers who had gathered for a meeting and were waiting for Mikhail Alexandrovich.

Sitting on chairs, and on tables, and even on the two window-sills in the office of the Massolit executive board, they suffered seriously from the heat. Not a single breath of fresh air came through the open windows. Moscow was releasing the heat accumulated in the asphalt all day, and it was clear that night would bring no relief. The smell of onions came from the basement of the aunt’s house, where the restaurant kitchen was at work, they were all thirsty, they were all nervous and angry.

The belletrist Beskudnikov - a quiet, decently dressed man with attentive and at the same time elusive eyes — took out his watch. The hand was crawling towards eleven. Beskudnikov tapped his finger on the face and showed it to the poet Dvubratsky, who was sitting next to him on the table and in boredom dangling his feet shod in yellow shoes with rubber treads.

‘Anyhow,’ grumbled Dvubratsky.

‘The laddie must’ve got stuck on the Klyazma,’ came the thick-voiced response of Nastasya Lukinishna Nepremenova, orphan of a Moscow merchant, who had become a writer and wrote stories about sea battles under the pen-name of Bos’n George.

‘Excuse me!’ boldly exclaimed Zagrivov, an author of popular sketches, ‘but I personally would prefer a spot of tea on the balcony to stewing in here. The meeting was set for ten o’clock, wasn’t it?‘

‘It’s nice now on the Klyazma,’ Bos’n George needled those present, knowing that Perelygino on the Klyazma, the country colony for writers, was everybody’s sore spot. ‘There’s nightingales singing already. I always work better in the country, especially in spring.’

‘It’s the third year I’ve paid in so as to send my wife with goitre to this paradise, but there’s nothing to be spied amidst the waves,’ the novelist Ieronym Poprikhin said venomously and bitterly.

‘Some are lucky and some aren’t,‘ the critic Ababkov droned from the window-sill.

Bos’n George’s little eyes lit up with glee, and she said, softening her contralto:

‘We mustn’t be envious, comrades. There’s twenty-two dachas4 in all, and only seven more being built, and there’s three thousand of us in Massolit.’

‘Three thousand one hundred and eleven,’ someone put in from the corner.

‘So you see,’ the Bos’n went on, ‘what can be done? Naturally, it’s the most talented of us that got the dachas …’

‘The generals!’ Glukharev the scenarist cut right into the squabble.

Beskudnikov, with an artificial yawn, walked out of the room.

‘Five rooms to himself in Perelygino,’ Glukharev said behind him.

‘Lavrovich has six to himself,’ Deniskin cried out, ‘and the dining room’s panelled in oak!’

‘Eh, that’s not the point right now,’ Ababkov droned, ‘it’s that it’s half past eleven.’

A clamour arose, something like rebellion was brewing. They started telephoning hated Perelygino, got the wrong dacha, Lavrovich‘s, found out that Lavrovich had gone to the river, which made them totally upset. They called at random to the commission on fine literature, extension 930, and of course found no one there.

‘He might have called!’ shouted Deniskin, Glukharev and Quant.

Ah, they were shouting in vain: Mikhail Alexandrovich could not call anywhere. Far, far from Griboedov‘s, in an enormous room lit by thousand-watt bulbs, on three zinc tables, lay what had still recently been Mikhail Alexandrovich.

On the first lay the naked body, covered with dried blood, one arm broken, the chest caved in; on the second, the head with the front teeth knocked out, with dull, open eyes unafraid of the brightest light; and on the third, a pile of stiffened rags.

Near the beheaded body stood a professor of forensic medicine, a pathological anatomist and his dissector, representatives of the investigation, and Mikhail Alexandrovich’s assistant in Massolit, the writer Zheldybin, summoned by telephone from his sick wife’s side.

A car had come for Zheldybin and first of all taken him together with the investigators (this was around midnight) to the dead man’s apartment, where the sealing of his papers had been carried out, after which they all went to the morgue.

And now those standing by the remains of the deceased were debating what was the better thing to do: to sew the severed head to the neck, or to lay out the body in the hall at Griboedov’s after simply covering the dead man snugly to the chin with a black cloth?

No, Mikhail Alexandrovich could not call anywhere, and Deniskin, Glukharev and Quant, along with Beskudnikov, were being indignant and shouting quite in vain. Exactly at midnight, all twelve writers left the upper floor and descended to the restaurant. Here again they silently berated Mikhail Alexandrovich: all the tables on the veranda, naturally, were occupied, and they had to stay for supper in those beautiful but airless halls.

And exactly at midnight, in the first of these halls, something crashed, jangled, spilled, leaped. And all at once a high male voice desperately cried out ‘Hallelujah!’ to the music. The famous Griboedov jazz band struck up. Sweat-covered faces seemed to brighten, it was as if the horses painted on the ceiling came alive, the lamps seemed to shine with added light, and suddenly, as if tearing loose, both halls broke into dance, and following them the veranda broke into dance.

Glukharev danced with the poetess Tamara Polumesyats, Quant danced, Zhukopov the novelist danced with some movie actress in a yellow dress. Dragunsky danced, Cherdakchi danced, little Deniskin danced with the enormous Bos’n George, the beautiful Semeikina-Gall, an architect, danced in the tight embrace of a stranger in white canvas trousers. Locals and invited guests danced, Muscovites and out-of-towners, the writer Johann from Kronstadt, a certain Vitya Kuftik from Rostov, apparently a stage director, with a purple spot all over his cheek, the most eminent representatives of the poetry section of Massolit danced — that is, Baboonov, Blasphemsky, Sweetkin, Smatchstik and Adelphina Buzdyak - young men of unknown profession, in crew cuts, with cotton-padded shoulders, danced, someone very elderly danced, a shred of green onion stuck in his beard, and with him danced a sickly, anaemia-consumed girl in a wrinkled orange silk dress.

Streaming with sweat, waiters carried sweating mugs of beer over their heads, shouting hoarsely and with hatred: ‘Excuse me, citizen!’ Somewhere through a megaphone a voice commanded: ‘One Karsky shashlik! Two Zubrovkas! Home-style tripe!’ The high voice no longer sang, but howled ‘Hallelujah!’ The clashing of golden cymbals in the band sometimes even drowned out the clashing of dishes which the dishwashers sent down a sloping chute to the kitchen. In short - hell.

And at midnight there came an apparition in hell. A handsome dark-eyed man with a dagger-like beard, in a tailcoat, stepped on to the veranda and cast a regal glance over his domain. They used to say, the mystics used to say, that there was a time when the handsome man wore not a tailcoat but a wide leather belt with pistol butts sticking from it, and his raven hair was tied with scarlet silk, and under his command a brig sailed the Caribbean under a black death flag with a skull and crossbones.

But no, no! The seductive mystics are lying, there are no Caribbean Seas in the world, no desperate freebooters sail them, no corvette chases after them, no cannon smoke drifts across the waves. There is nothing, and there was nothing! There is that sickly linden over there, there is the cast-iron fence, and the boulevard beyond it … And the ice is melting in the bowl, and at the next table you see someone’s bloodshot, bovine eyes, and you’re afraid, afraid … Oh, gods, my gods, poison, bring me poison! …

And suddenly a word fluttered up from some table: Berlioz!!‘ The jazz broke up and fell silent, as if someone had hit it with a fist. ’What, what, what, what?!!‘ ’Berlioz!!!‘ And they began jumping up, exclaiming …

Yes, a wave of grief billowed up at the terrible news about Mikhail Alexandrovich. Someone fussed about, crying that it was necessary at once, straight away, without leaving the spot, to compose some collective telegram and send it off immediately.

But what telegram, may we ask, and where? And why send it? And where, indeed? And what possible need for any telegram does someone have whose flattened pate is now clutched in the dissector’s rubber hands, whose neck the professor is now piercing with curved needles? He’s dead, and has no need of any telegrams. It’s all over, let’s not burden the telegraph wires any more.

Yes, he’s dead, dead … But, as for us, we’re alive!

Yes, a wave of grief billowed up, held out for a while, but then began to subside, and somebody went back to his table and — sneakily at first, then openly — drank a little vodka and ate a bite. And, really, can one let chicken cutlets de volaille perish? How can we help Mikhail Alexandrovich? By going hungry? But, after all, we’re alive!

Naturally, the grand piano was locked, the jazz band dispersed, several journalists left for their offices to write obituaries. It became known that Zheldybin had come from the morgue. He had installed himself in the deceased’s office upstairs, and the rumour spread at once that it was he who would replace Berlioz. Zheldybin summoned from the restaurant all twelve members of the board, and at the urgently convened meeting in Berlioz’s office they started a discussion of the pressing questions of decorating the hall with columns at Griboedov‘s, of transporting the body from the morgue to that hall, of opening it to the public, and all else connected with the sad event.

And the restaurant began to live its usual nocturnal life and would have gone on living it until closing time, that is, until four o‘clock in the morning, had it not been for an occurrence which was completely out of the ordinary and which struck the restaurant’s clientele much more than the news of Berlioz’s death.

The first to take alarm were the coachmen5 waiting at the gates of the Griboedov house. One of them, rising on his box, was heard to cry out:

‘Hoo-ee! Just look at that!’

After which, from God knows where, a little light flashed by the cast-iron fence and began to approach the veranda. Those sitting at the tables began to get up and peer at it, and saw that along with the little light a white ghost was marching towards the restaurant. When it came right up to the trellis, everybody sat as if frozen at their tables, chunks of sterlet on their forks, eyes popping. The doorman, who at that moment had stepped out of the restaurant coat room to have a smoke in the yard, stamped out his cigarette and made for the ghost with the obvious intention of barring its way into the restaurant, but for some reason did not do so, and stopped, smiling stupidly.

And the ghost, passing through an opening in the trellis, stepped unhindered on to the veranda. Here everyone saw that it was no ghost at all, but Ivan Nikolaevich Homeless, the much-renowned poet.

He was barefoot, in a torn, whitish Tolstoy blouse, with a paper icon bearing the image of an unknown saint pinned to the breast of it with a safety pin, and was wearing striped white drawers. In his hand Ivan Nikolaevich carried a lighted wedding candle. Ivan Nikolaevich’s right cheek was freshly scratched. It would even be difficult to plumb the depths of the silence that reigned on the veranda. Beer could be seen running down on to the floor from a mug tilted in one waiter’s hand.

The poet raised the candle over his head and said loudly:

‘Hail, friends!’ After which he peeked under the nearest table and exclaimed ruefully: ‘No, he’s not there!’

Two voices were heard. A basso said pitilessly:

“That’s it. Delirium tremens.‘

And the second, a woman‘s, frightened, uttered the words:

‘How could the police let him walk the streets like that?’

This Ivan Nikolaevich heard, and replied:

‘They tried to detain me twice, in Skaterny and here on Bronnaya, but I hopped over the fence and, as you can see, cut my cheek!’ Here Ivan Nikolaevich raised the candle and cried out: ‘Brethren in literature!’ (His hoarse voice grew stronger and more fervent.) ‘Listen to me everyone! He has appeared. Catch him immediately, otherwise he’ll do untold harm!’

‘What? What? What did he say? Who has appeared?’ voices came from all sides.

‘The consultant,’ Ivan replied, ‘and this consultant just killed Misha Berlioz at the Patriarch’s Ponds.’

Here people came flocking to the veranda from the inner rooms, a crowd gathered around Ivan’s flame.

‘Excuse me, excuse me, be more precise,’ a soft and polite voice said over Ivan Nikolaevich’s ear, ‘tell me, what do you mean “killed”? Who killed?’

‘A foreign consultant, a professor, and a spy,’ Ivan said, looking around.

‘And what is his name?’ came softly to Ivan’s ear.

‘That’s just it - his name!’ Ivan cried in anguish. ‘If only I knew his name! I didn’t make out his name on his visiting card … I only remember the first letter, “W”, his name begins with “W”! What last name begins with “W”?’ Ivan asked himself, clutching his forehead, and suddenly started muttering: ‘Wi, we, wa … Wu … Wo … Washner? Wagner? Weiner? Wegner? Winter?’ The hair on Ivan’s head began to crawl with the tension.

‘Wolf?’ some woman cried pitifully.

Ivan became angry.

‘Fool!’ he cried, seeking the woman with his eyes. ‘What has Wolf got to do with it? Wolf’s not to blame for anything! Wo, wa … No, I’ll never remember this way! Here’s what, citizens: call the police at once, let them send out five motor cycles with machine-guns to catch the professor. And don’t forget to tell them that there are two others with him: a long checkered one, cracked pince-nez, and a cat, black and fat … And meanwhile I’ll search Griboedov’s, I sense that he’s here!‘

Ivan became anxious, pushed away the people around him, started waving the candle, pouring wax on himself, and looking under the tables. Here someone said: ‘Call a doctor!’ and someone’s benign, fleshy face, clean shaven and well nourished, in horn-rimmed glasses, appeared before Ivan.

‘Comrade Homeless,’ the face began in a guest speaker’s voice, ‘calm down! You’re upset at the death of our beloved Mikhail Alexandrovich … no, say just Misha Berlioz. We all understand that perfectly well. You need rest. The comrades will take you home to bed right now, you’ll forget …’

‘You,’ Ivan interrupted, baring his teeth, ‘but don’t you understand that the professor has to be caught? And you come at me with your foolishness! Cretin!’

‘Pardon me, Comrade Homeless!…’ the face replied, blushing, retreating, and already repentant at having got mixed up in this affair.

‘No, anyone else, but you I will not pardon,’ Ivan Nikolaevich said with quiet hatred.

A spasm distorted his face, he quickly shifted the candle from his right hand to his left, swung roundly and hit the compassionate face on the ear.

Here it occurred to them to fall upon Ivan — and so they did. The candle went out, and the glasses that had fallen from the face were instantly trampled. Ivan let out a terrible war cry, heard, to the temptation of all, even on the boulevard, and set about defending himself. Dishes fell clattering from the tables, women screamed.

All the while the waiters were tying up the poet with napkins, a conversation was going on in the coat room between the commander of the brig and the doorman.

‘Didn’t you see he was in his underpants?’ the pirate inquired coldly.

‘But, Archibald Archibaldovich,’ the doorman replied, cowering, ‘how could I not let him in, if he’s a member of Massolit?’

‘Didn’t you see he was in his underpants?’ the pirate repeated.

‘Pardon me, Archibald Archibaldovich,’ the doorman said, turning purple, ‘but what could I do? I understand, there are ladies sitting on the veranda …’

‘Ladies have nothing to do with it, it makes no difference to the ladies,’ the pirate replied, literally burning the doorman up with his eyes, ‘but it does to the police! A man in his underwear can walk the streets of Moscow only in this one case, that he’s accompanied by the police, and only to one place — the police station! And you, if you’re a doorman, ought to know that on seeing such a man, you must, without a moment’s delay, start blowing your whistle. Do you hear? Do you hear what’s going on on the veranda?’

Here the half-crazed doorman heard some sort of hooting coming from the veranda, the smashing of dishes and women’s screams.

‘Now, what’s to be done with you for that?’ the freebooter asked.

The skin on the doorman’s face acquired a typhoid tinge, his eyes went dead. It seemed to him that the black hair, now combed and parted, was covered with flaming silk. The shirt-front and tailcoat disappeared and a pistol butt emerged, tucked into a leather belt. The doorman pictured himself hanging from the fore-topsail yard. His eyes saw his own tongue sticking out and his lifeless head lolling on his shoulder, and even heard the splash of waves against the hull. The doorman’s knees gave way. But here the freebooter took pity on him and extinguished his sharp gaze.

‘Watch out, Nikolai, this is the last time! We have no need of such doormen in the restaurant. Go find yourself a job as a beadle.’ Having said this, the commander commanded precisely, clearly, rapidly: ‘Get Pantelei from the snack bar. Police. Protocol. A car. To the psychiatric clinic.’ And added: ‘Blow your whistle!’

In a quarter of an hour an extremely astounded public, not only in the restaurant but on the boulevard itself and in the windows of houses looking on to the restaurant garden, saw Pantelei, the doorman, a policeman, a waiter and the poet Riukhin carry through the gates of Griboedov’s a young man swaddled like a doll, dissolved in tears, who spat, aiming precisely at Riukhin, and shouted for all the boulevard to hear:

‘You bastard! … You bastard! …’

A truck-driver with a spiteful face was starting his motor. Next to him a coachman, rousing his horse, slapping it on the croup with violet reins, shouted:

‘Have a run for your money! I’ve taken ’em to the psychics before!‘

Around them the crowd buzzed, discussing the unprecedented event. In short, there was a nasty, vile, tempting, swinish scandal, which ended only when the truck carried away from the gates of Griboedov’s the unfortunate Ivan Nikolaevich, the policeman, Pantelei and Riukhin.

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