Chapter 19. Margarita
Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no such thing as real, true, eternal love? Cut out his lying tongue!
Follow me, reader, and only me and I will show you that love!
The master was wrong when he told Ivan with such bitterness, in the hospital that hour before midnight, that she had forgotten him. It was impossible. Of course she had not forgotten him.
First let us reveal the secret that the master refused to tell Ivan. His beloved mistress was called Margarita Nikolayevna. Everything the master said about her to the wretched poet was the strict truth. She was beautiful and clever. It is also true that many women would have given anything to change places with Margarita Nikolayevna. Thirty years old and childless, Margarita was married to a brilliant scientist, whose work was of national importance. Her husband was young, handsome, kind, honest and he adored his wife. Margarita Nikolayevna and her husband lived alone in the whole of the top floor of a delightful house in a garden in one of the side streets near the Arbat. It was a charming place. You can see for yourself whenever you feel like having a look. Just ask me and I'll tell you the address and how to get there ; the house is standing to this day.
Margarita Nikolayevna was never short of money. She could buy whatever she liked. Her husband had plenty of interesting friends. Margarita never had to cook. Margarita knew nothing of the horrors of living in a shared flat. In short . . . was she happy? Not for a moment. Since the age of nineteen when she had married and moved into her house she had never been happy. Ye gods! What more did the woman need? Why did her eyes always glow with a strange fire? What else did she want, that witch with a very slight squint in one eye, who always decked herself with mimosa every spring? I don't know. Obviously she was right when she said she needed him, the master, instead of a Gothic house, instead of a private garden, instead of money. She was right--she loved him.
Even I, the truthful narrator, yet a mere onlooker, feel a pain when I think what Margarita went through when she came back to the master's basement the next day (fortunately she had not been able to talk to her husband, who failed to come home at the time arranged) and found that the master was not there. She did everything she could to discover where he might be, but in vain. T'hen she returned home and took up her old life.
But when the dirty snow disappeared from the roads and pavements, as soon as the raw, liv.e wind of spring blew in through the upper casement, Margarita Nikolayevna felt even more wa-etched than in winter. She often wept in secret, long and bitterly. She had no idea whether her lover was dead or alive. The longer the hopeless days marched on, the oftener, especially at twilight, she began to suspect that her man was dead. Slie must either forget him o:r die herself. Her present existence was intolerable. She had to forget him at all costs. But unfortunately he was not a man one could forget.
'Yes, I made exactly the same mistake,' said Margarita, sitting by the stove and watching the fire, lit in memory of the fire that used to burn while he was writing about Pontius Pilate. ' Why did I leave him that night? Why? I imust have been mad. I came back the' next day just as I had promised, but it was too late. Yes, I ca-me too late like poor Matthew the Levite!'
All this, of course, was nonsense, because what would have been changed if she had stayed with the master that night? Would she have saved him? The idea's absurd . . . but she was a woman- and she was desperate.
On the same day that witnessed the ridiculous scandal caused by the black magician's appearance in Moscow, that Friday when Berlioz's uncle was sent packing back to Kiev, when the accountant was arrested and a host of other weird and improbable events took place, Margarita woke up around midday in her bedroom, that looked out of an attic window of their top-floor flat.
Waking, Margarita did not burst into tears, as she frequently did, because she had woken up with a presentiment that today, at last, something was going to happen. She kept the feeling warm and encouraged it, afraid that it might leave her.
'I believe it! ' whispered Margarita solemnly. ' I believe something is going to happen, must happen, because what have I done to be made to suffer all my life? I admit I've lied and been unfaithful and lived a secret life, but even that doesn't deserve such a cruel punishment . . . something will happen, because a situation like this can't drag on for ever. Besides, my dream was prophetic, that I'll swear. . . .'
With a sense of unease Margarita Nikolayevna dressed and brushed her short curly hair in front of her triple dressing-table mirror.
The dream that Margarita had dreamed that night had been most unusual. Throughout her agony of the past winter she had never dreamed of the master. At night he left her and it was only during the day that her memory tormented her. And now she had dreamed of him.
Margarita had dreamed of a place, mournful, desolate under a dull sky of early spring. The sky was leaden, with tufts of low, scudding grey cloud and filled with a numberless flock of rooks. There was a little hump-backed bridge over a muddy, swollen stream ; joyless, beggarly, half-naked trees. A lone aspen, and in the distance, past a vegetable garden stood a log cabin that looked like a kind of outhouse. The surroundings looked so lifeless and miserable that one might easily have been tempted to hang oneself on that aspen by the little bridge. Not a breath of wind, not a cloud, not a living soul. In short--hell. Suddenly the door of this hut was flung open and he appeared in it, at a fair distance but clearly visible. He was dressed in some vague, slightly tattered garment, hair in untidy tufts, unshaven. His eyes looked anxious and sick. He waved and called. Panting in the lifeless air, Margarita started running towards him over the uneven, tussocky ground. At that moment she woke up.
'That dream can only mean one of two things,' Margarita Nikolayevna reasoned with herself, ' if he is dead and beckoned me that means that he came for me and I shall die soon. If so, I'm glad; that means that my agony will soon be over. Or if he's alive, the dream can only mean that he is reminding me of himself. He wants to tell me that we shall meet again . . . yes, we shall meet again--soon.'
Still in a state of excitement, Margarita dressed, telling herself that everything was working out very well, that one should know how to seize such moments and make use of them. Her husband had gone away on business for three whole days. She was left to herself for three days and no one was going to stop her thinking or dreaming of whatever she wished. All five rooms on the top floor of the house, a flat so big that tens of thousands of people in Moscow would have envied her, was entirely at her disposal.
Yet free as she was for three days in such luxurious quarters, Margarita chose the oddest part of it in which to spend her time. After a cup of tea she went into their dark, windowless attic where they kept the trunks, the lumber and two large chests of drawers full of old junk. Squatting down she opened the bottom drawer of the first chest and from beneath a pile of odds and ends of material she drew out the one thing which she valued most of all. It was an old album bound in brown leather, which contained a photograph of the master, a savings bank book with a deposit of ten thousand roubles in his name, a few dried rose petals pressed between some pieces of cigarette paper and several sheets of typescript with singed edges.
Returning to her bedroom with this treasure, Margarita Nikolayevna propped up the photograph against her dressing-table mirror and sat for about an hour, the burnt typescript on her knees, turning the pages and re-reading what the fire had not destroyed: '. . . The mist that came from the Mediterranean
sea blotted out the city that Pilate so detested. The suspension bridges connecting the temple with the grim fortress of Antonia vanished, the murk descended from the sky and drowned the winged gods above the hippodrome, the crenellated Hasmonaean palace, the bazaars, the caravanserai, the alleyways, the pools . . . Jerusalem, the great city, vanished as though it had never been. . ..'
Margarita wanted to read on, but there was nothing more except the charred, uneven edge.
Wiping away her tears, Margarita Nikolayevna put down the script, leaned her elbows on the dressing-table and sat for a long rime in front of her reflection in the mirror staring at the photograph. After a while she stopped crying. Margarita carefully folded away her hoard, a few minutes later it was buried again under the scraps of silk and the lock shut with a click in the dark room.
Margarita put on her overcoat in the hall to go out for a walk. Her pretty maid Natasha enquired what she was to do tomorrow and being told that she could do what she liked, she started talking to her mistress to pass the time and mentioned something vague about a magician who had done such fantastic tricks in the theatre yesterday that everybody had gasped, that he had handed out two bottles of French perfume and two pairs of stockings to everybody for nothing and then, when the show was over and the audience was coming out--bang!--they were all naked! Margarita Nikolayevna collapsed on to the hall chair and burst out laughing.
'Natasha, really! Aren't you ashamed of yourself? ' said Margarita. ' You're a sensible, educated girl . . . and you repeat every bit of rubbishy gossip that you pick up in queues! '
Natasha blushed and objected hotly, saying that she never listened to queue gossip and that she had actually seen a woman that morning come into a delicatessen on the Arbat wearing some new shoes and while she was standing at the cash desk to pay, her shoes had vanished and she was left standing in her stockinged feet. She looked horrified, because she had a hole in the heel of one stocking! The shoes were the magic ones that she had got at the show.
'And she walked out barefoot? '
'Yes, she did! ' cried Natasha, turning even pinker because no one would believe her. ' And yesterday evening, Margarita Nikolayevna, the police arrested a hundred people. Some of the women who'd been at the show were running along the Tver-skaya in nothing but a pair of panties.'
'That sounds to me like one of your friend Darya's stories,' said Margarita Nikolayevna. ' I've always thought she was a frightful liar.'
This hilarious conversation ended with a pleasant surprise for Natasha. Margarita Nikolayevna went into her bedroom and came out with a pair of stockings and a bottle of eau-de-cologne. Saying to Natasha that she wanted to do a magic trick too, Margarita gave her the stockings and the scent; she told her that she could have them on one condition--that she promised not to run along the Tverskaya in nothing but stockings and not to listen to Darya's gossip. With a kiss mistress and maid parted.
Leaning back on her comfortable upholstered seat in the trolley-bus, Margarita Nikolayevna rolled along the Arbat, thinking of her own affairs and half-listening to what two men on the seat in front were whispering. Glancing round occasionally for fear of being overheard, they seemed to be talking complete nonsense. One, a plump, hearty man with sharp pig-like eyes, who was sitting by the window, was quietly telling his smaller neighbour how they had been forced to cover the open coffin with a black cloth . . .
'Incredible! ' whispered the little one in amazement. ' It's unheard-of! So what did Zheldybin do? '
Above the steady hum of the trolley-bus came the reply from the window seat:
'Police . . . scandal . . . absolute mystery!'
Somehow Margarita Nikolayevna managed to construct a fairly coherent story from these snatches of talk. The men were whispering that someone had stolen the head of a corpse (they did not mention the dead man's name) from a coffin that morning. This, apparently, was the cause of Zheldybin's anxiety and the two men whispering in the trolley-bus also appeared to have some connection with the victim of this ghoulish burglary.
'Shall we have time to buy some flowers? ' enquired the smaller man anxiously. ' You said the cremation was at two o'clock, didn't you? '
In the end Margarita Nikolayevna grew bored with their mysterious whispering about the stolen head and she was glad when it was time for her to get out.
A few minutes later she was sitting under the Kremlin wall on one of the benches in the Alexander Gardens facing the Manege. Margarita squinted in the bright sunlight, recalling her dream and she remembered that exactly a year ago to the hour she had sat on this same bench beside him. Just as it had then, her black handbag lay on the bench at her side. Although the master was not there this time, Margarita Nikolayevna carried on a mental conversation with him : ' If you've been sent into exile why haven't you at least written to tell me? Don't you love me any more? No, somehow I don't believe that. In that case you have died in exile ...' If you have, please release me, let me go free to lead my life like other people! ' Margarita answered for him : ' You're free . . . I'm not keeping you by force.' Then she replied: ' What sort of an answer is that? I won't be free until I stop thinking of you . . .'
People were walking past. One man gave a sideways glance at this well-dressed woman. Attracted by seeing a pretty girl alone, he coughed and sat down on Margarita Nikolayevna's half of the bench. Plucking up his courage he said :
'What lovely weather it is today . . .'
Margarita turned and gave him such a grim look that he got up and went away.
'That's what I mean,' said Margarita silently to her lover. ' Why did I chase that man away? I'm bored, there was nothing wrong with that Casanova, except perhaps for his highly unoriginal remark . . . Why do I sit here alone like an owl? Why am I cut off from life? '
She had worked herself into a state of complete depression, when suddenly the same wave of urgent expectancy that she had felt that morning overcame her again. ' Yes, something's going to happen! ' The wave struck her again and she then realised that it was a wave of sound. Above the noise of traffic there clearly came the sound of approaching drum-beats and the braying of some off-key trumpets.
First to pass the park railings was a mounted policeman, followed by three more on foot. Next came the band on a lorry, then a slow-moving open hearse carrying a coffin banked with wreaths and a guard of honour of four people--three men and a woman. Even from a distance Margarita could see that the members of the guard of honour looked curiously distraught. This was particularly noticeable in the woman, who was standing at the left-hand rear corner of the hearse. Her fat cheeks seemed to be more than normally puffed out by some secret joke and her protuberant little eyes shone with a curiously ambiguous sparkle. It was as if the woman was liable at any moment to wink at the corpse and say ' Did you ever see such a thing? Stealing a dead man's head . . .! ' The three hundred-odd mourners, who were slowly following the cortege on foot, looked equally mystified.
Margarita watched the cortege go by, listening to the mournful beat of the kettle-drum as its monotonous ' boom, boom, boom' slowly faded away and she thought: ' What a strange funeral . . . and how sad that drum sounds! I'd sell my soul to the devil to know whether he's alive or not ... I wonder who that odd-looking crowd is going to bury? '
'Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz,' said a slightly nasal man's voice beside her, ' the late chairman of MASSOLIT.'
Margarita Nikolayevna turned in astonishment and saw a man on her bench who must have sat down noiselessly while she had been watching the funeral procession. Presumably she had absentmindedly spoken her last question aloud. Meanwhile the procession had stopped, apparently held up by the traffic lights.
1 Yes,' the stranger went on, ' it's an odd sort of funeral. They're carrying the man off to the cemetery in the usual way but all they can think about is--what's happened to his head? '
'Whose head? ' asked Margarita, glancing at her unexpected neighbour. He was short, with fiery red hair and one protruding fang, wearing a starched shirt, a good striped suit, patent-leather shoes and a bowler hat. His tie was bright. One strange feature was his breast pocket: instead of the usual handkerchief or fountain pen, it contained a gnawed chicken bone.
'This morning,' explained the red-haired man, ' the head was pulled off the dead man's body during the lying-in-state at Griboyedov.'
'How ever could that have happened? ' asked Margarita, suddenly remembering the two whispering men in the trolley-bus.
'Devil knows how,' said the man vaguely. ' I suspect Behemoth might be able to tell you. It must have been a neat job, but why bother to steal a head? After all, who on earth would want it?
Preoccupied though she was, Margarita Nikolayevna could not help being intrigued by this stranger's extraordinary conversation.
'Just a minute! ' she suddenly exclaimed. ' Who is Berlioz? Is he the one in the newspapers today who . . .'
'So those were writers in the guard of honour round the coffin? ' enquired Margarita, suddenly baring her teeth.
'Yes, of course . . .'
'Do you know them by sight? '
'Every one,' the man replied.
'Tell me,' said Margarita, her voice dropping, ' is one of them a critic by the name of Latunsky? '
'How could he fail to be there? ' answered the man with red hair. ' That's him, on the far side of the fourth rank.'
'The one with fair hair? ' asked Margarita, frowning.
'Ash-blond. Look, he's staring up at the sky.'
'Looking rather like a Catholic priest? '
Margarita asked no more questions but stared hard at Latunsky.
'You, I see,' said the stranger with a smile, ' hate that man Latunsky. ' Yes, and someone else too,' said Margarita between clenched teeth, ' but I'd rather not talk about it.'
Meanwhile the procession had moved on again, the mourners being followed by a number of mostly empty cars.
'Then we won't discuss it, Margarita Nikolayevna!'
Astounded, Margarita said:
'Do you know me? '
Instead of replying the man took off his bowler hat and held it in his outstretched hand.
'A face like a crook,' thought Margarita, as she stared at him.
'But I don't know you,' she said frigidly.
'Why should you? However, I have been sent on a little matter that concerns you.'
Margarita paled and edged away. ' Why didn't you say so at once,' she said, ' instead of making up that fairy tale about a stolen head? Have you come to arrest me? '
'Nothing of the sort! ' exclaimed the man with red hair. ' Why does one only have to speak to a person for them to imagine they're going to be arrested? I simply have a little matter to discuss with you.'
'I don't understand--what matter? '
The stranger glanced round and said mysteriously :
'I have been sent to give you an invitation for this evening.'
'What are you talking about? What invitation? '
'You are invited by a very distinguished foreign gentleman,' said the red-haired man portentously, with a frown.
Margarita blazed with anger.
'I see that pimps work in the streets now! ' she said as she got up to go.
'Is that all the thanks I get? ' exclaimed the man, offended. And he growled at Margarita's retreating back :
'Stupid bitch! '
'Swine! ' she flung back at him over her shoulder.
Immediately she heard the stranger's voice behind her:
'The mist that came from the Mediterranean sea blotted out the city that Pilate so detested. The suspension bridges connecting the temple with the grim fortress of Antonia vanished, the murk descended from the sky and drowned the winged gods above the hippodrome, the crenellated Hasmonaean palace, the bazaars, the caravansera.1, the alleyways, the pools. . . . Jerusalem, the great city, vanished as though it had never been. ... So much for your charred manuscript and your dried rose petals! Yet you sit here alone on a bench and beg him to let you go, to allow you to be free and to forget him! '
White in the face, Margarita turned back to the bench. The man sat frowning at her.
'I don't understand, it,' said Margarita Nikolayevna in a hushed voice. ' You might have found out about the manuscript . . . you might have broken in, stolen it, looked at it ... I suppose you bribed Natasha. But how could you know what I was thinking? ' She -wrinkled her brow painfully and added ' Tell me, who are you? What organisation do you belong to? '
'Oh, lord, not that. . .' muttered the stranger in exasperation. In a louder voice he said : 'I'm sorry. As I said, I have not come to arrest you and I don't belong to any " organisation." Please sit down.'
Margarita obediently did as she was told, but once seated could not help asking again :
'Who are you? '
'Well if you must know my name is Azazello, although it won't mean anything to you.'
'And won't you tell me how you knew about the manuscript and how you read my thoughts? '
'I will not,' said Azazello curtly.
'Do you know anything about him? ' whispered Margarita imploringly.
'Well, let's say I do.'
'Tell me, I beg of you, just one thing--is he alive? Don't torture me! '
'Yes, he's alive all rig:ht,' said Azazello reluctantly.
'No scenes, please,' said Azazello with a frown.
'I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' said Margarita humbly. ' I'm sorry I lost my temper with you. But you must admit that if someone comes up to a woman in the street and invites her ... I have no prejudices, I assure you.' Margarita laughed mirthlessly. ' But I never meet foreigners and I have never wanted to ... besides that, my husband ... my tragedy is that I live with a man I don't love . . . but I can't bring myself to ruin his life ... he has never shown me anything but kindness . . .'
Azazello listened to this incoherent confession and said severely:
'Please be quiet for a moment.'
Margarita obediently stopped talking.
'My invitation to this foreigner is quite harmless. And not a soul will know about it. That I swear.'
'And what does he want me for? ' asked Margarita insinuatingly.
'You will discover that later.'
'I see now ... I am to go to bed with him,' said Margarita thoughtfully.
To this Azazello snorted and replied:
'Any woman in the world, I can assure you, would give anything to do so '--his face twisted with a laugh--' but I must disappoint you. He doesn't want you for that.'
'Who is this foreigner? ' exclaimed Margarita in perplexity, so loudly that several passers-by turned to look at her. ' And why should I want to go and see him? '
Azazello leaned towards her and whispered meaningly :
'For the best possible reason ... you can use the opportunity...'
'What? ' cried Margarita, her eyes growing round. ' If I've understood you correctly, you're hinting that I may hear some news of him there? '
Azazello nodded silently.
'I'll go!' Margarita burst out and seized Azazello by the arm. ' I'll go wherever you like i ' With a sigh of relief Azazello leaned against the back of the bench, covering up the name ' Manya ' carved deep into its wood, and said ironically : ' Difficult people, these woman! ' He stuck his hands into his pockets and stretched his feet out far in front of him. ' Why did he have to send me on this job? Behemoth should have done it, he's got such charm . . .'
W^ith a bitter smile Margarita said :
'Stop mystifying me and talking in riddles. I'm happy and you're making use of it ... I may be about to let myself in for some dubious adventure, but I swear it's only because you have enticed me by talking about him! All this mystery is making my head spin . . .'
'Please don't make a drama out of it,' replied Azazello with a grimace. ' Think of what it's like being in my position. Punch a man on the nose, kick an old man downstairs, shoot somebody or any old thing like that, that's my job. But argue with women in love--no thank you! Look, I've been at it with you for half an hour now . . . Are you going or not? '
'I'll go,' replied Margarita Nikolayevna simply.
'In that case allow me to present you with this,' said Azazello, taking a little round gold box out of his pocket and saying as he handed it to Margarita : ' Hide it, or people will see it. It will do you good, Margarita Nikolayevna; unhappiness has aged you a lot in the last six months--' Margarita bridled but said nothing, and Azazello went on : ' This evening, at exactly half past eight, you will kindly strip naked and rub this ointment all over your face and your body. After that you can do what you like, but don't go far from the telephone. At nine I shall ring you up and tell you what you have to do. You won't have to worry about anything, you'll be taken to where you're going and nothing will be done to upset you. Understood? '
Margarita said nothing for a moment, then replied :
'I understand. This thing is solid gold, I can tell by its weight. I quite see that I am being seduced into something shady which I shall bitterly regret. . .'
'What's that? ' Azazello almost hissed. ' You're not having second thoughts are you? '
'No, no, wait!'
'Give me back the cream! '
Margarita gripped the box tighter and went on:
'No, please wait ... I know what I'm letting myself in for. I'm ready to go anywhere and do anything for his sake, only because I have no more hope left. But if you are planning to ruin or destroy me, you will regret it. Because if I die for his sake I shall have died out of love.'
'Give it back!' shouted Azazello in fury. ' Give it back and to hell with the whole business. They can send Behemoth! '
'Oh, no!' cried Margarita to the astonishment of the passers-by. ' I agree to everything, I'll go through the whole pantomime of smearing on the ointment, I'll go to the ends of the earth! I won't give it back! '
'Bah! ' Azazello suddenly roared and staring at the park railings, pointed at something with his finger.
Margarita turned in the direction that he was pointing, but saw nothing in particular. Then she turned to Azazello for some explanation of his absurd cry of ' Bah! ', but there was no one to explain : Margarita Nikolayevna's mysterious companion had vanished.
Margarita felt in her handbag and made sure that the gold box was still where she had put it. Then without stopping to reflect she hurried away from the Alexander Gardens.