Chapter 22. By Candlelight
The steady hum of the car as it flew high above the earth lulled Margarita to sleep and the moonlight felt pleasantly warm. Closing her eyes she let the wind play on her face and thought wistfully of that strange riverbank which she would probably never see again. After so much magic and sorcery that evening she had already guessed who her host was to be, but she felt quite unafraid. The hope that she might regain her happiness made her fearless. In any case she was not given much time to loll in the car and dream about happiness. The crow was a good driver and the car a fast one. When Margarita opened her eyes she no longer saw dark forests beneath her but the shimmering jewels of the lights of Moscow. The bird-chauffeur unscrewed the right-hand front wheel as they flew along, then landed the car at a deserted cemetery in the Dorogomilov district.
Opening the door to allow Margarita and her broom to alight on a gravestone the crow gave the car a push and sent it rolling towards the ravine beyond the far edge of the cemetery. It crashed over the side and was shattered to pieces. The crow saluted politely, mounted the wheel and flew away on it.
At that moment a black cloak appeared from behind a headstone. A wall eye glistened in the moonlight and Margarita recognised Azazello. He gestured to Margarita to mount her broomstick, leaped astride his own long rapier, and they both took off and landed soon afterwards, unnoticed by a soul, near No. 302A, Sadovaya Street.
As the two companions passed under the gateway into the courtyard, Margarita noticed a man in cap and high boots, apparently waiting for somebody. Light as their footsteps were, the lonely man heard them and shifted uneasily, unable to see who it was.
At the entrance to staircase 6 they encountered a second man, astonishingly similar in appearance to the first, and the same performance was repeated. Footsteps . . . the man turned round uneasily and frowned. When the door opened and closed he hurled himself in pursuit of the invisible intruders and peered up the staircase but failed, of course, to see anything. A third man, an exact copy of the other two, was lurking on the third-floor landing. He was smoking a strong cigarette and Margarita coughed as she walked past him. The smoker leaped up from his bench as though stung, stared anxiously around, walked over to the banisters and glanced down. Meanwhile Margarita and her companion had reached flat No. 50.
They did not ring, but Azazello silently opened the door with his key. Margarita's first surprise on walking in was the darkness. It was as dark as a cellar, so that she involuntarily clutched Azazello's cloak from fear of an accident, but soon from high up and far away a lighted lamp flickered and came closer. As they went Azazello took away Margarita's broom and it vanished soundlessly into the darkness.
They then began to mount a broad staircase, so vast that to Margarita it seemed endless. She was surprised that the hallway of an ordinary Moscow flat could hold such an enormous, invisible but undeniably real and apparently unending staircase. They reached a landing and stopped. The light drew close and Margarita saw the face of the tall man in black holding the lamp. Anybody unlucky enough to have crossed his path in those last few days would have recognised him at once. It was Koroviev, alias Fagot.
His appearance, it is true, had greatly changed. The guttering flame was no longer reflected in a shaky pince-nez long due for the dustbin, but in an equally unsteady monocle. The moustaches on his insolent face were curled and waxed. He appeared black for the simple reason that he was wearing tails and black trousers. Only his shirt front was white.
Magician, choirmaster, wizard, or the devil knows what, Koroviev bowed and with a broad sweep of his lamp invited Margarita to follow him. Azazello vanished.
'How strange everything is this evening! ' thought Margarita. ' I was ready for anything except this. Are they trying to save current, or what? The oddest thing of all is the size of this place . . . how on earth can it fit into a Moscow flat? It's simply impossible! '
Despite the feebleness of the light from Koroviev's lamp, Margarita realised that she was in a vast, colonnaded hall, dark and apparently endless. Stopping beside a small couch, Koroviev put his lamp on a pedestal, gestured to Margarita to sit down and then placed himself beside her in an artistic pose, one elbow leaned elegantly on the pedestal.
'Allow me to introduce myself,' said Koroviev in a grating voice. ' My name is Koroviev. Are you surprised that there's no light? Economy, I suppose you were thinking? Never! May the first murderer to fall at your feet this evening cut my throat if that's the reason. It is simply because messire doesn't care for electric light and we keep it turned off until the last possible moment. Then, believe me, there will be no lack of it. It might even be better if there were not quite so much.'
Margarita liked Koroviev and she found his flow of light-hearted nonsense reassuring.
'No,' replied Margarita, ' what really puzzles me is where you have found the space for all this.' With a wave of her hand Margarita emphasised the vastness of the hall they were in.
Koroviev smiled sweetly, wrinkling his nose.
'Easy!' he replied. ' For anyone who knows how to handle the fifth dimension it's no problem to expand any place to whatever size you please. No, dear lady, I will say more--to the devil knows what size. However, I have known people,' Koroviev burbled on, ' who though quite ignorant have done wonders in enlarging their accommodation. One man in this town, so I was told, was given a three-roomed flat on the Zemlya-noi Rampart and in a flash, without using the fifth dimension or anything like that, he had turned it into four rooms by dividing one of the rooms in half with a partition. Then he exchanged it for two separate flats in different parts of Moscow, one with three rooms and the other with two. That, you will agree, adds up to five rooms. He exchanged the three-roomed one for two separate frwo-roomers and thus became the owner, as you will have noticed, of six rooms altogether, though admittedly scattered all over Moscow. He was just about to pull off his last and most brilliant coup by putting an advertisement in the newspaper offering six rooms in various districts of Moscow in exchange for one five-roomed flat on the Zemlyanoi Rampart, when his activities were suddenly and inexplicably curtailed. He may have a room somewhere now, but not, I can assure you, in Moscow. There's a sharp operator for you--and you talk of the fifth dimension! '
Although it was Koroviev and not Margarita who had been talking about the fifth dimension, she could not help laughing at the way he told his story of the ingenious property tycoon. Koroviev went on:
'But to come to the point, Margarita Nikolayevna. You are a very intelligent woman and have naturally guessed who our host is.'
Margarita's heart beat faster and she nodded.
'Very well, then,' said Koroviev. ' I will tell you more. We dislike all mystery and ambiguity. Every year messire gives a ball. It is known as the springtime ball of the full moon, or the ball of the hundred kings. Ah, the people who come! . . .' Here Koroviev clutched his cheek as if he had a toothache. ' However, you will shortly be able to see for yourself. Messire is a bachelor as you will realise, but there has to be a hostess.' Koroviev spread his hands : ' You must agree that without a hostess . . .'
Margarita listened to Koroviev, trying not to miss a word. Her heart felt cold with expectancy, the thought of happiness made her dizzy. ' Firstly, it has become a tradition,' Koroviev went on, ' that the hostess of the ball must be called Margarita and secondly, she must be a native of the place where the ball is held. We, as you know, are always on the move and happen to be in Moscow at present. We have found a hundred and twenty-one Margaritas in Moscow and would you believe it . . .'-- Koroviev slapped his thigh in exasperation--'. . . not one of them was suitable! Then at last, by a lucky chance . . .'
Koroviev grinned expressively, bowing from the waist, and again Margarita's heart contracted.
'Now to the point!' exclaimed Koroviev. ' To be brief--you won't decline this responsibility, will you? '
'I will not,' replied Margarita firmly.
'Of course,' said Koroviev, raising his lamp, and added:
'Please follow me.'
They passed a row of columns and finally emerged into another hall which for some reason smelled strongly of lemons. A rustling noise was heard and something landed on Margarita's head. She gave a start.
'Don't be afraid,' Koroviev reassured her, taking her arm. ' Just some stunt that Behemoth has dreamed up to amuse the guests tonight, that's all. Incidentally, if I may be so bold, Margarita Nikolayevna, my advice to you is to be afraid of nothing you may see. There's no cause for fear. The ball will be extravagantly luxurious, I warn you. We shall see people who in their time wielded enormous power. But when one recalls how microscopic their influence really was in comparison with the powers of the one in whose retinue I have the honour to serve they become quite laughable, even pathetic . . . You too, of course, are of royal blood.'
'How can I be of royal blood? ' whispered Margarita, terrified, pressing herself against Koroviev.
'Ah, your majesty,' Koroviev teased her, ' the question of blood is the most complicated problem in the world! If you were to ask certain of your great-great-great-grandmothers, especially those who had a reputation for shyness, they might tell you some remarkable secrets, my dear Margarita Nikolayevna! To draw a parallel--the most amazing combinations can result if you shuffle the pack enough. There are some matters in which even class barriers and frontiers are powerless. I rather think that a certain king of France of the sixteenth century would be most astonished if somebody told him that after all these years I should have the pleasure of walking arm in arm round a ballroom in Moscow with his great-great-great-great-great-grandaughter. Ah--here we are! '
Koroviev blew out his lamp, it vanished from his hand and Margarita noticed a patch of light on the floor in front of a black doorway. Koroviev knocked gently. Margarita grew so excited that her teeth started chattering and a shiver ran up her spine.
The door opened into a small room. Margarita saw a wide oak bed covered in dirty, rumpled bedclothes and pillows. In front of the bed was a table with carved oaken legs bearing a candelabra whose sockets were made in the shape of birds' claws. Seven fat wax candles burned in their grasp. On the table there was also a large chessboard set with elaborately carved pieces. A low bench stood on the small, worn carpet. There was one more table laden with golden beakers and another candelabra with arms fashioned like snakes. The room smelled of damp and tar. Shadows thrown by the candlelight criss-crossed on the floor.
Among the people in the room Margarita at once recognised Azazello, now also wearing tails and standing near the bed-head. Now that Azazello was smartly dressed he no longer looked like the ruffian who had appeared to Margarita in the Alexander Gardens and he gave her a most gallant bow.
The naked witch, Hella, who had so upset the respectable barman from the Variety Theatre and who luckily for Rimsky had been driven away at cock-crow, was sitting on the floor by the bed and stirring some concoction in a saucepan which gave off a sulphurous vapour. Besides these, there was an enormous black cat sitting on a stool in front of the chessboard and holding a knight in its right paw.
Hella stood up and bowed to Margarita. The cat jumped down from its stool and did likewise, but making a flourish it dropped the knight and had to crawl under the bed after it.
Faint with terror, Margarita blinked at this candlelit pantomime. Her glance was drawn to the bed, on which sat the man whom the wretched Ivan had recently assured at Patriarch's Ponds that he did not exist.
Two eyes bored into Margarita's face. In the depths of the right eye was a golden spark that could pierce any soul to its core; the left eye was as empty and black as a small black diamond, as the mouth of a bottomless well of dark and shadow. Woland's face was tilted to one side, the right-hand corner of his mouth pulled downward and deep furrows marked his forehead parallel to his eyebrows. The skin of his face seemed burned by timeless sunshine.
Woland was lying sprawled on the bed, dressed only in a long, dirty black nightshirt, patched on the left shoulder. One bare leg was tucked up beneath him, the other stretched out on the bench. Hella was massaging his knees with a steaming ointment.
On Woland's bare, hairless chest Margarita noticed a scarab on a gold chain, intricately carved out of black stone and marked on its back with an arcane script. Near Woland was a strange globe, lit from one side, which seemed almost alive.
The silence lasted for several seconds. ' He is studying me,' thought Margarita and by an effort of will tried to stop her legs from trembling.
At last Woland spoke. He smiled, causing his one sparkling eye to flash.
'Greetings, my queen. Please excuse my homely garb.'
Woland's voice was so low-pitched that on certain syllables it faded off into' a mere growl.
Woland picked up a long sword from the bed, bent over, poked it under the bed and said :
'Come out: now. The game's over. Our guest has arrived.'
'Please ...' Koroviev whispered anxiously into Margarita's ear like a prompter.
'Please . . "' began Margarita.
'Messire . . .' breathed Koroviev.
'Please, messire,' Margarita went on quietly but firmly: ' I beg you not to interrupt your game. I am sure the chess journals would pay a fortune to be allowed to print it.'
Azazello gave a slight croak of approval and Woland, staring intently at Margarita, murmured to himself:
'Yes, Koroviev was right. The result can be amazing when you shuffle the pack. Blood will tell.'
He stretched out his arm and beckoned Margarita.
She walked up to him, feeling no ground under her bare feet. Woland placed his hand--as heavy as stone and as hot as fire--on Margarita's shoulder, pulled her towards him and sat her down on the bed by his side.
'Since you are so charming and kind,' he said, ' which was no more than I expected, we shan't stand on ceremony.' He leaned over the edge of the bed again and shouted : ' How much longer is this performance under the bed going to last? Come on out! '
'I can't find the knight,' replied the cat in a mumed falsetto from beneath the bed. ' It's galloped off somewhere and there's a frog here instead.'
'Where do you think you are--on a fairground? ' asked Woland, pretending to be angry. ' There's no frog under the bed! Save those cheap tricks for the Variety! If you don't come out at once we'll begin to think you've gone over to the enemy, you deserter! '
'Never, messire! ' howled the cat, crawling out with the knight in its paw.
'Allow me to introduce to you . . .' Woland began, then interrupted himself. ' No, really, he looks too ridiculous! Just look what he's done to himself while he was under the bed!'
The cat, covered in dust and standing on its hind legs, bowed to Margarita. Round its neck it was now wearing a made-up white bow tie on an elastic band, with a pair of ladies' mother-of-pearl binoculars hanging on a cord. It had also gilded its whiskers.
'What have you done? ' exclaimed Woland. ' Why have you gilded your whiskers? And what on earth do you want with a white tie when you haven't even got any trousers? '
'Trousers don't suit cats, messire,' replied the cat with great dignity. ' Why don't you tell me to wear boots? Cats always wear boots in fairy tales. But have you ever seen a cat going to a ball without a tie? I don't want to make myself look ridiculous. One likes to look as smart as one can. And that also applies to my opera-glasses, messire i'
'But your whiskers? . . .'
'I don't see why,' the cat objected coldly, ' Azazello and Koroviev are allowed to cover themselves in powder and why powder is better than gilt. I just powdered my whiskers, that's all. It would be a different matter if I'd shaved myself! A cleanshaven cat is something monstrous, that I agree. But I see . . .' --here the cat's voice trembled with pique--'. . . that this is a conspiracy to be rude about my appearance. Clearly I am faced with a problem--shall I go to the ball or not? What do you say, messire?'
Outraged, the cat had so inflated itself that it looked about to explode at any second.
'Ah, the rogue, the sly rogue,' said Woland shaking his head. ' Whenever he's losing a game he starts a spiel like a quack-doctor at a fair. Sit down and stop all this hot air.'
'Very well,' replied the cat, sitting down, ' but I must object. My remarks are by no means all hot air, as you so vulgarly put it, but a series of highly apposite syllogisms which would be appreciated by such connoisseurs as Sextus Empiricus, Martian Capella, even, who knows, Aristotle himself.
'Check,' said Woland.
'Check it is,' rejoined the cat, surveying the chessboard through his lorgnette.
'So,' Woland turned to Margarita, ' let me introduce my retinue. That creature who has been playing the fool is the cat Behemoth. A2a2ello and Koroviev you have already met; this
is my maid, Hella. She's prompt, clever, and there's no service she cannot perform for you.'
The beautiful Hella turned her green eyes on Margarita and smiled, continuing to scoop out the ointment in the palm of her hand and to rub it on Woland's knee.
'Well, there they are,' concluded Woland, wincing as Hella massaged his knee rather too hard. ' A charming and select little band.' He stopped and began turning his globe, so cleverly made that the blue sea shimmered in waves and the polar cap was of real ice and snow. On the chessboard, meanwhile, confusion reigned. Distraught, the white king was stamping about on his square and waving his arms in desperation. Three white pawns, armed with halberds, were staring in bewilderment at a bishop who was waving his crozier and pointing forwards to where Woland's black knights sat mounted on two hot-blooded horses, one pawing the ground of a white square, the other on a black square.
Margarita was fascinated by the game and amazed to see that the chessmen were alive.
Dropping its lorgnette, the cat gently nudged his king in the back, at which the wretched king covered his face in despair.
'You're in trouble, my dear Behemoth,' said Koroviev in a voice of quiet malice.
'The position is serious but far from hopeless,' retorted Behemoth. ' What is more, I am confident of ultimate victory. All it needs is a careful analysis of the situation.'
His method of analysis took the peculiar form of pulling faces and winking at his king.
'That won't do you any good,' said Koroview. ' Oh! ' cried Behemoth, ' all the parrots have flown away, as I said they would.'
From far away came the sound of innumerable wings. Koroviev and Azazello rushed out of the room.
'You're nothing but a pest with all your arrangements for the ball,' grumbled Woland, preoccupied with his globe. As soon as Koroviev and Azazella had gone. Behemoth's •winking increased until at last the white king guessed what was required of him. He suddenly pulled off his cloak, dropped it on his square and walked off the board. The bishop picked up the royal cloak, threw it round his shoulders and took the king's place.
Koroviev and Azazello returned.
'False alarm, as usual,' growled Azazello.
'Well, I thought I heard something,' said the cat.
'Come on, how much longer do you need? ' asked Woland. ' Check.'
'I must have mis-heard you, mon maitre,' replied the cat. ' My king is not in check and cannot be.'
'Messire,' rejoined the cat in a voice of mock anxiety, ' you must be suffering from over-strain. I am not in check! '
'The king is on square Kz,' said Woland, without looking at the board.
'Messire, you amaze me,' wailed the cat, putting on an amazed face, ' there is no king on that square.'
'What? ' asked Woland, with a puzzled look at the board. The bishop, standing in the king's square, turned his head away and covered his face with his hand.
'Aha, you rogue,' said Woland reflectively.
'Messire! I appeal to the laws of logic!' said the cat, clasping its paws to its chest, ' if a player says check and there is no king on the board, then the king is not in check! '
'Do you resign or not? ' shouted Woland in a terrible voice.
'Give me time to consider, please,' said the cat meekly. It put its elbows on the table, covered its ears with its paws and began to think. Finally, having considered, it said. ' I resign.'
'He needs murdering, the obstinate beast,' whispered Azazello.
'Yes, I resign,' said the cat, ' but only because I find it impossible to play when I'm distracted by jealous, hostile spectators! ' He stood up and the chessmen ran back into their box.
'It's time for you to go, Hella,' said Woland and Hella left the room. ' My leg has started, hurting again and now there is this ball . . .' he went on.
'Allow me,' Margarita suggested gently.
Woland gave her a searching stare and moved his knee towards her.
The ointment, hot as lava, burned her hands but without flinching Margarita massaged it into Woland's knee, trying not to cause him pain.
'My friends maintain that it's rheumatism,' said Woland, continuing to stare at Margari.ta, ' but I strongly suspect that the pain is a souvenir of an encounter with a most beautiful witch that I had in 1571, on the Brocken in the Harz Mountains.'
'Surely not! ' said Margarita.
'Oh, give it another three hundred years or so and it will go. I've been prescribed all kinds of medicaments, but I prefer to stick to traditional old wives' remedies. I inherited some extraordinary herbal cures from my terrible old grandmother. Tell me, by the way--do you suffer from any complaint? Perhaps you have some sorrow which is weighing on your heart? '
'No messire, I have no such complaint,' replied Margarita astutely. ' In any case, since I have been with you I have never felt better.'
'As I said--blood will tell . . .' said Woland cheerfully to no one in particular, adding: ' I see my globe interests you.'
'I have never seen anything so ingenious.'
'Yes, it is nice. I confess I never like listening to the news on the radio. It's always read out by some silly girl who can't pronounce foreign names properly. Besides, at least one in three of the announcers is tongue-tied, as if they chose them specially. My globe is much more convenient, especially as I need exact information. Do you see that little speck of land, for instance, washed by the sea o"n one side? Look, it's just bursting into flames. War has broken, out there. If you look closer you'll see it in detail.'
Margarita leaned towards the globe and saw that the little square of land was growing bigger, emerging in natural colours and turning into a kind of relief map. Then she saw a river and a village beside it. A house the size of a pea grew until it was as large as a matchbox. Suddenly and noiselessly its roof flew upwards in a puff of black smoke, the walls collapsed leaving nothing of the two-storey matchbox except a few smoking heaps of rubble. Looking even closer Margarita discerned a tiny female figure lying on the ground and beside her in a pool of blood a baby with outstretched arms.
'It's all over now,' said Woland, smiling. ' He was too young to have sinned. Abadonna has done his work impeccably.'
'I wouldn't like to be on the side that is against Abadonna,' said Margarita. ' Whose side is he on? '
'The more I talk to you,' said Woland kindly, ' the more convinced I am that you are very intelligent. Let me reassure you. He is utterly impartial and is equally sympathetic to the people fighting on either side. Consequently the outcome is always the same for both sides. Abadonna!' Woland called softly and from the wall appeared the figure of a man wearing dark glasses. These glasses made such a powerful impression on Margarita that she gave a low cry, turned away and hit her head against Woland's leg. ' Stop it! ' cried Woland. ' How nervous people are nowadays! ' He slapped Margarita on the back so hard that her whole body seemed to ring. ' He's only wearing spectacles, that's all. There never has been and never will be a case when Abadonna comes to anyone too soon. In any case, I'm here--you're my guest. I just wanted to show him to you.'
Abadonna stood motionless.
'Could he take off his glasses for a moment? ' asked Margarita, pressing against Woland and shuddering, though now with curiosity.
'No, that is impossible,' replied Woland in a grave tone. At a wave of his hand, Abadonna vanished. ' What did you want to say, Azazello?'
'Messire,' answered Azazello, ' two strangers have arrived-- a beautiful girl who is whining and begging to be allowed to stay with her mistress, and with her there is, if you'll forgive me, her pig.'
'What odd behaviour for a girl! ' said Woland.
'It's Natasha--my Natasha! ' exclaimed Margarita.
'Very well, she may stay here with her mistress. Send the pig to the cooks.'
'Are you going to kill it? ' cried Margarita in fright. ' Please, messire, that's Nikolai Ivanovich, my neighbour. There was a mistake--she rubbed the cream on him . . .'
'Who said anything about killing him? ' said Woland. ' I merely want him to sit at the cooks' table, that's all. I can't allow a pig into the ballroom, can I? '
'No, of course not,' said Azazello, then announced : ' Midnight approaches, Messire.'
'Ah, good.' Woland turned to Margarita. ' Now let me thank you in advance for your services tonight. Don't lose your head and don't be afraid of anything. Drink nothing except water, otherwise it will sap your energy and you will find yourself flagging. Time to go! '
As Margarita got up from the carpet Koroviev appeared in the doorway.