“The Master and Margarita”, Chapter IV – Weekly Reads

Ivan Bezdomny is shocked by what he sees. People gather around the deceased Berlioz and discuss the tragedy. It turns out that Annushka from Sadovaya street spilled the oil. Ivan, who has just heard a prediction from a foreigner, rushes to him for an explanation.

But the professor of black magic pretends that he does not understand Russian and leaves, accompanied by a strange man in a checkered jacket and a huge black cat. Bezdomny tries to catch up with them, but in vain.


Chapter IV – The Pursuit

The women’s hysterical shrieks and the sound, of police whistles died away. Two ambulances drove on, one bearing the body and the decapitated head to the morgue, the other carrying the beautiful tram-driver who had been wounded by slivers of glass. Street sweepers in white overalls swept up the broken glass and poare’d sand on the pools of blood. Ivan Nikolayich, who had failed to reach the turnstile in time, collapsed on a bench and remained there. Several times he tried to get up, but his legs refused to obey him, stricken by a kind of paralysis.
The moment he had heard the first cry the poet had rushed towards the turnstile and seen the head bouncing on the pavement. The sight unnerved him so much that he bit his hand until it drew blood. He had naturally forgotten all about the mad German and could do nothing but wonder how one minute he coald have been talking to Berlioz and the next… his head …
Excited people were running along the avenue past the poet shouting something, but Ivan Nikolayich did not hear them. Suddenly two women collided alongside him and one of them, with a pointed nose and straight hair, shouted to the other woman just above his ear :
‘.. . Anna, it was our Anna! She was coming from Sadovaya! It’s her job, you see . . . she was carrying a litre of sunflower-seed oil to the grocery and she broke her jug on. the turnstile! It went all over her skirt amd ruined it and she swore and swore….! And that poor man must have slipped on the oil and fallen under the tram….’
One word stuck in Ivan Nikolayich’s brain–‘ Anna’ . . . ‘ Anna? . . . Anna? ‘ muttered the poet, looking round in alarm. ‘ Hey, what was that you said . . .?
‘ The name ‘ Anna ‘ evoked the words ‘ sunflower-seed oil’ and ‘ Pontius Pilate ‘. Bezdomny rejected ‘Pilate’ and began linking together a chain of associations starting with ‘ Anna’. Very soon the chain was complete and it led straight back to the mad professor.
‘Of course! He said the meeting wouldn’t take place because Anna had spilled the oil. And, by God, it won’t take place now! And what’s more he said Berlioz would have his head cut off by a woman!! Yes–and the tram-driver was a woman!!! Who the hell is he? ‘
There was no longer a grain of doubt that the mysterious professor had foreseen every detail of Berlioz’s death before it had occurred. Two thoughts struck the poet: firstly–‘ he’s no madman ‘ and secondly–‘ did he arrange the whole thing himself?’
‘But how on earth could he? We’ve got to look into this! ‘
With a tremendous effort Ivan Nikolayich got up from the bench and ran back to where he had been talking to the professor, who was fortunately still there.
The lamps were already lit on Bronnaya Street and a golden moon was shining over Patriarch’s Ponds. By the light of the moon, deceptive as it always is, it seemed to Ivan Nikolayich that the thing under the professor’s arm was not a stick but a sword.
The ex-choirmaster was sitting on the seat occupied a short while before by Ivan Nikolayich himself. The choirmaster had now clipped on to his nose an obviously useless pince-nez. One lens was missing and the other rattled in its frame. It made the check-suited man look even more repulsive than when he had shown Berlioz the way to the tramlines. With a chill of fear Ivan walked up to the professor. A glance at his face convinced him that there was not a trace of insanity in it.
‘Confess–who are you? ‘ asked Ivan grimly.
The stranger frowned, looked at the poet as if seeing him for the first time, and answered disagreeably :
‘No understand … no speak Russian . . . ‘
‘He doesn’t understand,’ put in the choirmaster from his bench, although no one had asked him.
‘Stop pretending! ‘ said Ivan threateningly, a cold feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. ‘ Just now you spoke Russian perfectly well. You’re no German and you’re not a professor! You’re a spy and a murderer! Show me your papers! ‘ cried Ivan angrily.
The enigmatic professor gave his already crooked mouth a further twist and shrugged his shoulders.
‘Look here, citizen,’ put in the horrible choirmaster again. ‘ What do you mean by upsetting this foreign tourist? You’ll have the police after you! ‘
The dubious professor put on a haughty look, turned and walked away from Ivan, who felt himself beginning to lose his head. Gasping, he turned to the choirmaster :
‘Hey, you, help me arrest this criminal! It’s your duty! ‘
The choirmaster leaped eagerly to his feet and bawled :
‘What criminal? Where is he? A foreign criminal? ‘ His eyes lit up joyfully. ‘ That man? If he’s a criminal the first thing to do is to shout ” Stop thief! ” Otherwise he’ll get away. Come on, let’s shout together! ‘ And the choirmaster opened his mouth wide.
The stupefied Ivan obeyed and shouted ‘ Stop thief! ‘ but the choirmaster fooled him by not making a sound.
Ivan’s lonely, hoarse cry was worse than useless. A couple of girls dodged him and he heard them say ‘ . .. drunk.’
‘So you’re in league with him, are you? ‘ shouted Ivan, helpless with anger. ‘ Make fun of me, would you? Out of my way!’
Ivan set off towards his right and the choirmaster did the opposite, blocking his way. Ivan moved leftward, the other to his right and the same thing happened.
‘Are you trying to get in my way on purpose?’ screamed Ivan, infuriated. ‘ You’re the one I’m going to report to the police!’
Ivan tried to grab the choirmaster by the sleeve, missed and found himself grasping nothing : it was as if the choirmaster had been swallowed up by the ground.
With a groan Ivan looked ahead and saw the hated stranger. He had already reached the exit leading on to Patriarch’s Street and he was no longer alone. The weird choirmaster had managed to join him. But that was not all. The third member of the company was a cat the size of a pig, black as soot and with luxuriant cavalry officers’ whiskers. The threesome was walking towards Patriarch’s Street, the cat trotting along on its hind legs.
As he set off after the villains Ivan realised at once that it was going to be very hard to catch them up. In a flash the three of them were across the street and on the Spiridonovka. Ivan quickened his pace, but the distance between him and his quarry grew no less. Before the poet had realised it they had left the quiet Spiridonovka and were approaching Nikita Gate, where his difficulties increased. There was a crowd and to make matters worse the evil band had decided to use the favourite trick of bandits on the run and split up.
With great agility the choirmaster jumped on board a moving bus bound for Arbat Square and vanished. Having lost one of them, Ivan concentrated his attention on the cat and saw how the strange animal walked up to the platform of an ‘ A ‘ tram waiting at a stop, cheekily pushed off a screaming woman, grasped the handrail and offered the conductress a ten-kopeck piece.
Ivan was so amazed by the cat’s behaviour that he was frozen into immobility beside a street corner grocery. He was struck with even greater amazement as he watched the reaction of the conductress. Seeing the cat board her tram, she yelled, shaking with anger:
‘No cats allowed! I’m not moving with a cat on board! Go on–shoo! Get off, or I’ll call the police! ‘
Both conductress and passengers seemed completely oblivious of the most extraordinary thing of all: not that a cat had boarded a tramcar–that was after all possible–but the fact that the animal was offering to pay its fare!
The cat proved to be not only a fare-paying but a law-abiding animal. At the first shriek from the conductress it retreated, stepped off the platform and sat down at the tram-stop, stroking its whiskers with the ten-kopeck piece. But no sooner had the conductress yanked the bell-rope and the car begun to move off, than the cat acted like anyone else who has been pushed off a tram and is still determined to get to his destination. Letting all three cars draw past it, the cat jumped on to the coupling-hook of the last car, latched its paw round a pipe sticking out of one of the windows and sailed away, having saved itself ten kopecks.
Fascinated by the odious cat, Ivan almost lost sight of the most important of the three–the professor. Luckily he had not managed to slip away. Ivan spotted his grey beret in the crowd at the top of Herzen Street. In a flash Ivan was there too, but in vain. The poet speeded up to a run and began shoving people aside, but it brought him not an inch nearer the professor.
Confused though Ivan was, he was nevertheless astounded by the supernatural speed of the pursuit. Less than twenty seconds after leaving Nikita Gate Ivan Nikolayich was dazzled by the lights of Arbat Square. A few more seconds and he was in a dark alleyway with uneven pavements where he tripped and hurt his knee. Again a well-lit main road–Kropotkin Street– another side-street, then Ostozhenka Street, then another grim, dirty and badly-lit alley. It was here that Ivan Nikolayich finally lost sight of his quarry. The professor had disappeared.
Disconcerted, but not for long, for no apparent reason Ivan Nikolayich had a sudden intuition that the professor must be in house No. 13, flat 47.
Bursting through the front door, Ivan Nikolayich flew up the stairs, found the right flat and impatiently rang the bell. He did not have to wait long. The door was opened by a little girl of about five, who silently disappeared inside again. The hall was a vast, incredibly neglected room feebly lit by a tiny electric light that dangled in one corner from a ceiling black with dirt. On the wall hung a bicycle without any tyres, beneath it a huge iron-banded trunk. On the shelf over the coat-rack was a winter fur cap, its long earflaps untied and hanging down. From behind one of the doors a man’s voice could be heard booming from the radio, angrily declaiming poetry.
Not at all put out by these unfamiliar surroundings, Ivan Nikolayich made straight for the corridor, thinking to himself:
‘He’s obviously hiding in the bathroom.’ The passage was dark. Bumping into the walls, Ivan saw a faint streak of light under a doorway. He groped for the handle and gave it a gentle turn. The door opened and Ivan found himself in luck–it was the bathroom.
However it wasn’t quite the sort of luck he had hoped for. Amid the damp steam and by the light of the coals smouldering in the geyser, he made out a large basin attached to the wall and a bath streaked with black where the enamel had chipped off. There in the bath stood a naked woman, covered in soapsuds and holding a loofah. She peered short-sightedly at Ivan as he came in and obviously mistaking him for someone else in the hellish light she whispered gaily :
‘Kiryushka! Do stop fooling! You must be crazy . . . Fyodor Ivanovich will be back any minute now. Go on–out you go! ‘ And she waved her loofah at Ivan.
The mistake was plain and it was, of course, Ivan Nikolayich’s fault, but rather than admit it he gave a shocked cry of ‘ Brazen hussy! ‘ and suddenly found himself in the kitchen. It was empty. In the gloom a silent row of ten or so Primuses stood on a marble slab. A single ray of moonlight, struggling through a dirty window that had not been cleaned for years, cast a dim light into one corner where there hung a forgotten ikon, the stubs of two candles still stuck in its frame. Beneath the big ikon was another made of paper and fastened to the wall with tin-tacks.
Nobody knows what came over Ivan but before letting himself out by the back staircase he stole one of the candles and the little paper ikon. Clutching these objects he left the strange apartment, muttering, embarrassed by his recent experience in the bathroom. He could not help wondering who the shameless Kiryushka might be and whether he was the owner of the nasty fur cap with dangling ear-flaps.
In the deserted, cheerless alleyway Bezdomny looked round for the fugitive but there was no sign of him. Ivan said firmly to himself:
‘Of course! He’s on the Moscow River! Come on! ‘
Somebody should of course have asked Ivan Nikolayich why he imagined the professor would be on the Moscow River of all places, but unfortunately there was no one to ask him–the nasty little alley was completely empty.
In no time at all Ivan Nikolayich was to be seen on the granite steps of the Moscow lido. Taking off his clothes, Ivan entrusted them to a kindly old man with a beard, dressed in a torn white Russian blouse and patched, unlaced boots. Waving him aside, Ivan took a swallow-dive into the water. The water was so cold that it took his breath away and for a moment he even doubted whether he would reach the surface again. But reach it he did, and puffing and snorting, his eyes round with terror, Ivan Nikolayich began swimming in the black, oily-smelling water towards the shimmering zig-zags of the embankment lights reflected in the water.
When Ivan clambered damply up the steps at the place where he had left his clothes in the care of the bearded man, not only his clothes but their venerable guardian had apparently been spirited away. On the very spot where the heap of clothes had been there was now a pair of check underpants, a torn Russian blouse, a candle, a paper ikon and a box of matches. Shaking his fist into space with impotent rage, Ivan clambered into what was left.
As he did so two thoughts worried him. To begin with he had now lost his MASSOLIT membership card; normally he never went anywhere without it. Secondly it occurred to him that he might be arrested for walking around Moscow in this state. After all, he had practically nothing on but a pair of underpants. . . .
Ivan tore the buttons off the long underpants where they were fastened at the ankles, in the hope that people might think they were a pair of lightweight summer trousers. He then picked up the ikon, the candle and matches and set off, saying to himself:
‘I must go to Griboyedov! He’s bound to be there.’ Ivan Nikolayich’s fears were completely justified–passers-by noticed him and turned round to stare, so he decided to leave the main streets and make Us way through the side-roads where people were not so inquisitive, where there was less chance of them stopping a barefoot man and badgering him with questions about his underpants–which obstinately refused to look like trousers.
Ivan plunged into a maze of sidestreets round the Arbat and began to sidle along the walls, blinking fearfully, glancing round, occasionally hiding in doorways, avoiding crossroads with traffic lights and the elegant porticos of embassy mansions.

Source: The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov. Translated from the russian by Michael Glenny. Published by Collins and Harvill Press, London, 1967