A. Duel between Professor and Poet
At about half past eleven that morning, just as Stepa lost
consciousness in Yalta, Ivan Nikolayich Bezdomny regained it, waking from a
deep and prolonged sleep. For a while he tried to think why he was in this
strange room with its white walls, its odd little bedside table made of
shiny metal and its white shutters, through which the sun appeared to be
Ivan shook his head to convince himself that it was not aching and
remembered that he was in a hospital. This in turn reminded him of Berlioz's
death, but today Ivan no longer found this very disturbing. After his long
sleep Ivan Nikolayich felt calmer and able to think more clearly. After
lying for a while motionless in his spotlessly clean and comfortably sprung
bed, Ivan noticed a bell-push beside him. Out of a habit of fingering
anything in sight, Ivan pressed it. He expected a bell to ring or a person
to appear, but something quite different happened.
At the foot of Ivan's bed a frosted-glass cylinder lit up with the word
'DRINK'. After a short spell in that position, the cylinder began turning
until it stopped at another word:
' NANNY '. Ivan found this clever machine slightly confusing. ' NANNY '
was replaced by ' CALL THE DOCTOR '.
' H'm . . .' said Ivan, at a loss to know what the machine expected him
to do. Luck came to his rescue. Ivan pressed the button at the word ' NURSE
'. In reply the machine gave a faint tinkle, stopped and went out. Into the
room came a kind-looking woman in a clean white overall and said to Ivan :
' Good morning!'
Ivan did not reply, as he felt the greeting out of place in the
circumstances. They had, after all, dumped a perfectly healthy man in
hospital and were making it worse by pretending it was necessary! With the
same kind look the woman pressed a button and raised the blind. Sunlight
poured into the room through a light, wide-mesh grille that extended to the
floor. Beyond the grille was a balcony, beyond that the bank of a meandering
river and on the far side a cheerful pine forest.
' Bath time! ' said the woman invitingly and pushed aside a folding
partition to reveal a magnificently equipped bathroom.
Although Ivan had made up his mind not to talk to the woman, when he
saw a broad stream of water thundering into the bath from a glittering tap
he could not help saying sarcastically :
' Look at that! Just like in the Metropole! '
' Oh, no,' replied the woman proudly. ' Much better. There's no
equipment like this anywhere, even abroad. Professors and doctors come here
specially to inspect our clinic. We have foreign tourists here every day.'
At the words ' foreign tourist' Ivan at once remembered the mysterious
professor of the day before. He scowled and said :
' Foreign tourists . . . why do you all think they're so wonderful?
There are some pretty odd specimens among them, I can tell you. I met one
yesterday--he was a charmer! '
He was just going to start telling her about Pontius Pilate, but
changed his mind. The woman would never understand and it was useless to
expect any help from her.
Washed and clean, Ivan Nikolayich was immediately provided with
everything a man needs after a bath--a freshly ironed shirt, underpants and
socks. That was only a beginning : opening the door of a wardrobe, the woman
pointed inside and asked him:
' What would you like to wear--a dressing gown or pyjamas? '
Although he was a prisoner in his new home, Ivan found it hard to
resist the woman's easy, friendly manner and he pointed to a pair of crimson
After that Ivan Nikolayich was led along an empty, soundless corridor
into a room of vast dimensions. He had decided to treat everything in this
wonderfully equipped building with
sarcasm and he at once mentally christened this room ' the factory
And with good reason. There were cupboards and glass-fronted cabinets
full of gleaming nickel-plated instruments. There were armchairs of
strangely complex design, lamps with shiny, bulbous shades, a mass of
phials, bunsen burners, electric cables and various totally mysterious
pieces of apparatus.
Three people came into the room to see Ivan, two women and one man, all
in white. They began by taking Ivan to a desk in the corner to interrogate
Ivan considered the situation. He had a choice of three courses. The
first was extremely tempting--to hurl himself at these lamps and other
ingenious gadgets and smash them all to pieces as a way of expressing his
protest at being locked up for nothing. But today's Ivan was significantly
different from the Ivan of yesterday and he found the first course dubious ;
it would only make them more convinced that he was a dangerous lunatic, so
he abandoned it. There was a second--to begin at once telling them the story
about the professor and Pontius Pilate. However yesterday's experience had
shown him that people either refused to believe the story or completely
misunderstood it, so Ivan rejected that course too, deciding to adopt the
third: he would wrap himself in proud silence.
It proved impossible to keep it up, and willy-nilly he found himself
answering, albeit curtly and sulkily, a whole series of questions. They
carefully extracted from Ivan everything about his past life, down to an
attack of scarlet fever fifteen years before. Having filled a whole page on
Ivan they turned it over and one of the women in white started questioning
him about his relatives. It was a lengthy performance--who had died, when
and why, did they drink, had they suffered from venereal disease and so
forth. Finally they asked him to describe what had happened on the previous
day at Patriarch's Ponds, but they did not pay much attention to it and the
story about Pontius Pilate left them cold.
The woman then handed Ivan over to the man, who took a different line
with him, this time in silence. He took Ivan's temperature, felt his pulse
and looked into his eyes while he shone a lamp into them. The other woman
came to the man's assistance and they hit Ivan on the back with some
instrument, though not painfully, traced some signs on the skin of his chest
with the handle of a little hammer, hit him on the knees with more little
hammers, making Ivan's legs jerk, pricked his finger and drew blood from it,
pricked his elbow joint, wrapped rubber bracelets round his arm . . .
Ivan could only smile bitterly to himself and ponder on the absurdity
of it all. He had wanted to warn them all of the danger threatening them
from the mysterious professor, and had tried to catch him, yet all he had
achieved was to land up in this weird laboratory just to talk a lot of
rubbish about his uncle Fyodor who had died of drink in Vologda.
At last they let Ivan go. He was led back to his room where he was
given a cup of coffee, two soft-boiled eggs and a slice of white bread and
butter. When he had eaten his breakfast, Ivan made up his mind to wait for
someone in charge of the clinic to arrive, to make him listen and to plead
The man came soon after Ivan's breakfast. The door into Ivan's room
suddenly opened and in swept a crowd of people in white overalls. In front
strode a man of about forty-five, with a clean-shaven, actorish face, kind
but extremely piercing eyes and a courteous manner. The whole retinue showed
him signs of attention and respect, which gave his entrance a certain
solemnity. ' Like Pontius Pilate! ' thought Ivan.
Yes, he was undoubtedly the man in charge. He sat down on a stool.
Everybody else remained standing.
' How do you do. My name is doctor Stravinsky,' he said as he sat down,
looking amiably at Ivan.
' Here you are, Alexander Nikolayich,' said a neatly bearded man and
handed the chief Ivan's filled-in questionnaire.
' They've got it all sewn up,' thought Ivan. The man in charge ran a
practised eye over the sheet of paper, muttered' Mm'hh' and exchanged a few
words with his colleagues in a strange language. ' And he speaks Latin
too--like Pilate ', mused Ivan sadly. Suddenly a word made him shudder. It
was the word ' schizophrenia ', which the sinister stranger had spoken at
Patriarch's Ponds. Now professor Stravinsky was saying it. ' So he knew
about this, too! ' thought Ivan uneasily.
The chief had adopted the rule of agreeing with everybody and being
pleased with whatever other people might say, expressing it by the word '
Splendid . . .'
' Splendid! ' said Stravinsky, handing back the sheet of paper. He
turned to Ivan.
' Are you a poet? '
' Yes, I am,' replied Ivan glumly and for the first time he suddenly
felt an inexplicable revulsion to poetry. Remembering some of his own poems,
they struck him as vaguely unpleasant.
Frowning, he returned Stravinsky's question by asking:
' Are you a professor? '
To this Stravinsky, with engaging courtesy, inclined his head.
' Are you in charge here? ' Ivan went on.
To this, too, Stravinsky nodded.
' I must talk to you,' said Ivan Nikolayich in a significant tone.
' That's why I'm here,' answered Stravinsky.
' Well this is the situation,' Ivan began, sensing that his hour had
come. ' They say I'm mad and nobody wants to listen to me!'
' Oh no, we will listen very carefully to everything you have to say,'
said Stravinsky seriously and reassuringly, ' and on no account shall we
allow anyone to say you're mad.'
' All right, then, listen: yesterday evening at Patriarch's Ponds I met
a mysterious person, who may or may not have been a foreigner, who knew
about Berlioz's death before it happened, and had met Pontius Pilate.'
The retinue listened to Ivan, silent and unmoving.
' Pilate? Is that the Pilate who lived at the time of Jesus Christ?'
enquired Stravinsky, peering at Ivan. ' Yes.'
' Aha,' said Stravinsky. ' And this Berlioz is the one who died falling
under a tram? '
' Yes. I was there yesterday evening when the tram killed him, and this
mysterious character was there too .'
' Pontius Pilate's friend? ' asked Stravinsky, obviously a man of
' Exactly,' said Ivan, studying Stravinsky. ' He told us, before it
happened, that Anna had spilt the sunflower-seed oil ... and that was the
very spot where Berlioz slipped! How d'you like that?!' Ivan concluded,
expecting his story to produce a big effect.
But it produced none. Stravinsky simply asked :
' And who is this Anna? '
Slightly disconcerted by the question, Ivan frowned.
' Anna doesn't matter,' he said irritably. ' God knows who she is.
Simply some stupid girl from Sadovaya Street. What's important, don't you
see, is that he knew about the sunflower-seed oil beforehand. Do you follow
' Perfectly,' replied Stravinsky seriously. Patting the poet's knee he
added : ' Relax and go on.'
' All right,' said Ivan, trying to fall into Stravinsky's tone and
knowing from bitter experience that only calm would help him. ' So obviously
this terrible man (he's lying, by the way--he's no professor) has some
unusual power . . . For instance, if you chase him you can't catch up with
him . . . and there's a couple of others with him, just as peculiar in their
way: a tall fellow with broken spectacles and an enormous cat who rides on
the tram by himself. What's more,' went on Ivan with great heat and
conviction, ' he was on the balcony with Pontius Pilate, there's no doubt of
it. What about that, eh? He must be arrested immediately or he'll do untold
' So you think he should be arrested? Have I understood you correctly?
' asked Stravinsky.
‘ He's clever,' thought Ivan, ' I must admit there are a few bright
ones among the intellectuals,' and he replied :
' Quite correct. It's obvious--he must be arrested! And meanwhile I'm
being kept here by force while they flash lamps at me, bath me and ask me
idiotic questions about uncle Fyodor! He's been dead for years! I demand to
be let out at once! '
' Splendid, splendid! ' cried Stravinsky. ' I see it all now. You're
right--what is the use of keeping a healthy man in hospital? Very well, I'll
discharge you at once if you tell me you're normal. You don't have to prove
it--just say it. Well, are you normal? '
There was complete silence. The fat woman who had examined Ivan that
morning glanced reverently at the professor and once again Ivan thought:
' Extremely clever! '
The professor's offer pleased him a great deal, but before replying he
thought hard, frowning, until at last he announced firmly:
' I am normal.'
' Splendid,' exclaimed Stravinsky with relief. ' In that case let us
reason logically. We'll begin by considering what happened to you
yesterday.' Here he turned and was immediately handed Ivan's questionnaire.
' Yesterday, while in search of an unknown man, who had introduced himself
as a friend of Pontius Pilate, you did the following: ' Here Stravinsky
began ticking off the points on his long fingers, glancing back and forth
from the paper to Ivan. ' You pinned an ikon to your chest. Right? '
' Right,' Ivan agreed sulkily.
' You fell off a fence and scratched your face. Right? You appeared in
a restaurant carrying a lighted candle, wearing only underpants, and you hit
somebody in the restaurant. You were tied up and brought here, where you
rang the police and asked them to send some machine-guns. You then attempted
to throw yourself out of the window. Right? The question--is that the way to
set about catching or arresting somebody? If you're normal you're bound to
reply--no, it isn't. You want to leave here? Very well. But where, if you
don't mind my asking, do you propose to go? ' ' To the police, of course,'
replied Ivan, although rather less firmly and slightly disconcerted by the
' Straight from here? '
' Won't you go home first? ' Stravinsky asked quickly.
' Why should I go there? While I'm going home he might get away!'
' I see. And what will you tell the police? '
' I'll tell them about Pontius Pilate,' replied Ivan Nikolayich, his
' Splendid! ' exclaimed Stravinsky, defeated, and turning to the man
with the beard he said: ' Fyodor Vasilievich, please arrange for citizen
Bezdomny to be discharged. But don't put anybody else in this room and don't
change the bedclothes. Citizen Bezdomny will be back here again in two
hours. Well,' he said to the poet, ‘I won't wish you success because I see
no chance whatever of your succeeding. See you soon!' He got up and his
retinue started to go.
' Why will I come back here? ' asked Ivan anxiously.
' Because as soon as you appear at a police station dressed in your
underpants and say yom've met a man who knew Pontius Pilate, you'll
immediately be brought back here and put in this room again.'
' Because of my underpants? ' asked Ivan, staring distractedly about
' Chiefly because of Pontims Pilate. But the underpants will help. We
shall have to take a.way your hospital clothes and give you back your own.
And you came here wearing underpants. Incidentally you said nothing about
going home first, despite my hint. After that you only have to start talking
about Pontius Pilate . . . and you're done for.'
At this point something odd happened to Ivan Nikolayich. His will-power
seemed to crumple. He felt himself weak and in need of advice.
' What should I do, then? ' he asked, timidly this time.
' Splendid! ' said Stravinsky. ' A most reasonable question.
Now I'll tell you what has really happened to you. Yesterday someone
gave you a bad fright and upset you with this story about Pontius Pilate and
other things. So you, worn out and nerve-racked, wandered round the town
talking about Pontius Pilate. Quite naturally people took you for a lunatic.
Your only salvation now is complete rest. And you must stay here.'
' But somebody must arrest him! ' cried Ivan, imploringly.
' Certainly, but why should you have to do it? Put down all your
suspicions and accusations against this man on a piece of paper. Nothing
could be simpler than to send your statement to the proper authorities and
if, as you suspect, the man is a criminal, it will come to light soon
enough. But on one condition--don't over-exert your mind and try to think a
bit less about Pontius Pilate. If you harp on that story I don't think many
people are going to believe you.'
' Right you are! ' announced Ivan firmly. ' Please give me pen and
' Give him some paper and a short pencil,' said Stravinsky to the fat
woman, then turning to Ivan : ' But I don't advise you to start writing
' No, no, today! I must do it today! ' cried Ivan excitedly.
' All right. Only don't overtax your brain. If you don't get it quite
right today, tomorrow will do.'
' But he'll get away! '
' Oh no,' countered Stravinsky. ' I assure you he's not going to get
away. And remember--we are here to help you in every way we can and unless
we do, nothing will come of your plan. D'you hear? ' Stravinsky suddenly
asked, seizing Ivan Nikolay-ich by both hands. As he held them in his own he
stared intently into Ivan's eyes, repeating : ' We shall help you ... do you
hear? . . . We shall help you . . . you will be able to relax . . . it's
quiet here, everything's going to be all right ... all right . . . we shall
help you . . .'
Ivan Nikolayich suddenly yawned and his expression softened.
' Yes, I see,' he said quietly.
' Splendid! ' said Stravinsky, closing the conversation in his no
habitual way and getting up. ' Goodbye!' He shook Ivan by the hand and as he
went out he turned to the man with the beard and said : ' Yes, and try
oxygen . . . and baths.'
A few moments later Stravinsky and his retinue were gone. Through the
window and the grille the gay, springtime wood gleamed brightly on the far
bank and the river sparkled in the noon sunshine.
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