Saved by Cock-Crow
His nerves in shreds, Rimsky did not stay for the completion of the
police report on the incident but took refuge in his own office. He sat down
at the desk and with bloodshot eyes stared at the magic rouble notes spread
out in front of him. The treasurer felt his reason slipping. A steady
rumbling could be heard from outside as the public streamed out of the
theatre on to the street. Suddenly Rimsky's acute hearing distinctly caught
the screech of a police whistle, always a sound of ill-omen. When it was
repeated and answered by another, more prolonged and authoritative, followed
by a clearly audible bellow of laughter and a kind of ululating noise, the
treasurer realised at once that something scandalous was happening in the
street. However much he might like to disown it, the noise was bound to be
closely connected with the terrible act put on that evening by the black
magician and his assistants.
The treasurer was right. As he glanced out of the window on to Sadovaya
Street he gave a grimace and hissed :
' I knew it! '
In the bright light of the street lamps he saw below him on the
pavement a woman wearing nothing but a pair of violet knickers, a hat and an
umbrella. Round the painfully embarrassed woman, trying desperately to
crouch down and run away, surged the crowd laughing in the way that had sent
shivers down Rimsky's spine. Beside the woman was a man who was ripping off
his coat and getting his arm hopelessly tangled in the sleeve.
Shouts and roars of laughter were also coming from the side entrance,
and as he turned in that direction Grigory Danilovich saw another woman,
this time in pink underwear. She was struggling across the pavement in an
attempt to hide in the doorway, but the people coming out barred her way and
the wretched victim of her own rashness and vanity, cheated by the sinister
Faggot, could do nothing but hope to be swallowed up by the ground. A
policeman ran towards the unfortunate woman, splitting the air with his
whistle. He was closely followed by some cheerful, cloth-capped young men,
the source of the ribald laughter and wolf-whistles.
A thin, moustached horse-cab driver drove up alongside the first
undressed woman and smiling all over his whiskered face, reined in his horse
with a flourish.
Rimsky punched himself on the head, spat with fury and jumped back from
the window. He sat at his desk for a while listening to the noise in the
street. The sound of whistles from various directions rose to a climax and
then began to fade out. To Rimsky's astonishment the uproar subsided
The time had come to act, to drink the bitter cup of responsibility.
The telephones had been repaired during the last act and he now had to ring
up, report the incident, ask for help, blame it all on Likhodeyev and
Twice Rimsky nervously picked up the receiver and twice put it down.
Suddenly the deathly silence of the office was broken by the telephone
itself ringing. He jumped and went cold. ' My nerves are in a terrible
state,' he thought as he lifted the telephone. Immediately he staggered back
and turned whiter than paper. A soft, sensual woman's voice whispered into
the earpiece :
' Don't ring up, Rimsky, or you'll regret it . . .'
The line went dead. Feeling gooseflesh spreading over his skin, the
treasurer replaced the receiver and glanced round to the window behind his
back. Through the sparse leaves of a sycamore tree he saw the moon flying
through a translucent cloud. He seemed to be mesmerised by the branches of
the tree and the longer Rimsky stared at them the more strongly he felt the
grip of fear.
Pulling himself together the treasurer finally turned away from the
moonlit window and stood up. There was now no longer any question of
telephoning and Rimsky could only think of one thing--how to get out of the
theatre as quickly as possible.
He listened : the building was silent. He realised that for some time
now he had been the only person left on the second floor and a childish,
uncontrollable fear overcame him at the thought. He shuddered to think that
he would have to walk alone through the empty passages and down the
staircase. He feverishly grabbed the magic roubles from his desk, stuffed
them into his briefcase and coughed to summon up a little courage. His cough
sounded hoarse and weak.
At this moment he noticed what seemed to be a damp, evil-smelling
substance oozing under the door and into his office. A tremor ran down the
treasurer's spine. Suddenly a clock began to strike midnight and even this
made him shudder. But his heart sank completely when he heard the sound of a
latch-key being softly turned in the lock. Clutching his briefcase with
damp, cold hands Rimsky felt that if that scraping noise in the keyhole were
to last much longer his nerves would snap and he would scream.
At last the door gave way and Varenukha slipped noiselessly into the
office. Rimsky collapsed into an armchair. Gasping for air, he smiled what
was meant to be an ingratiating smile and whispered :
' God, what a fright you gave me. . . .'
Terrifying as this sudden appearance was, it had its hopeful side--it
cleared up at least one little mystery in this whole baffling affair.
' Tell me, tell me, quickly! . . .' croaked Rimsky, clutching at his
one straw of certainty in a world gone mad. ' What does this all mean? "
' I'm sorry,' mumbled Varenukha, closing the door. ' I thought you
would have left by now.' Without taking his cap off he crossed to an
armchair and sat down beside the desk, facing Rimsky. There was a trace of
something odd in Varenukha's reply, immediately detected by Rimsky, whose
sensitivity was now on a par with the world's most delicate seismograph. For
one thing, why had Varenukha come to the treasurer's office if he thought he
wasn't there? He had his own office, after all. For another, no matter which
entrance Varenukha might have used to come into the theatre he must have met
one of the night watchmen, who had all been told that Grigory Danilovich was
working late in his office. Rimsky, however, did not dwell long on these
peculiarities--this was not the moment.
' Why didn't you ring me? And what the hell was all that pantomime
about Yalta? '
' It was what I thought,' replied the house manager, making a sucking
noise as though troubled by an aching tooth. ' They found him in a bar out
' Pushkino? But that's just outside Moscow! What about those telegrams
from Yalta? '
' Yalta--hell! He got the Pushkino telegraphist drunk and they started
playing the fool, which included sending us those telegrams marked " Yalta
' Aha, aha ... I see now . . .' crooned Rimsky, his yellowish eyes
flashing. In his mind's eye he saw Stepa being solemnly dismissed from his
job. Freedom! At last Rimsky would be rid of that idiot Likhodeyev! Perhaps
something even worse than the sack was in store for Stepan Bogdanovich . . .
' Tell me all the details! ' cried Rimsky, banging his desk with a
Varenukha began telling the story. As soon as he had arrived at the
place where the treasurer had sent him, he was immediately shown in and
listened to with great attention. No one, of course, believed for a moment
that Stepa was in Yalta. Everybody at once agreed with Varenukha's
suggestion that Likhodeyev was obviously at the ' Yalta ' restaurant in
Pushkino. ' Where is he now? ' Rimsky interrupted excitedly. ' Where do you
think? ' replied the house manager with a twisted smile. ' In the police
cells, of course, being sobered up! '
' Ah! Thank God for that! '
Varenukha went on with his story and the more he said the clearer
Rimsky saw the long chain of Likhodeyev's misdeeds, each succeeding link in
it worse than the last. What a price he was going to pay for one drunken
afternoon at Pushkino! Dancing with the telegraphist. Chasing terrified
women. Picking a fight with the barman at the ' Yalta'. Throwing onions on
to the floor. Breaking eight bottles of white wine. Smashing a cab-driver's
taximeter for refusing to take him. Threatening to arrest people who tried
to stop him. . . .
Stepa was well known in the Moscow theatre world and everybody knew
that the man was a menace, but this story was just a shade too much, even
for Stepa. . . . Rimsky's sharp eyes bored into Varenukha's face across the
desk and the longer the story went on the grimmer those eyes became. The
more Varenukha embroidered his account with picturesque and revolting
details, the less Rimsky believed him. When Varenukha described how Stepa
was so far gone that he tried to resist the men who had been sent to bring
him back to Moscow, Rimsky was quite certain that everything the house
manager was telling him was a lie--a lie from beginning to end.
Varenukha had never gone to Pushkino, and Stepa had never been there
either. There was no drunken telegraphist, no broken glass in the bar and
Stepa had not been hauled away with ropes-- none of it had ever happened.
As soon as Rimsky felt sure that his colleague was lying to him, a
feeling of terror crawled over his body, beginning with his feet and for the
second time he had the weird feeling that a kind of malarial damp was oozing
across the floor. The house manager was sitting in a curious hunched
attitude in the armchair, trying constantly to stay in the shadow of the
blue-shaded table lamp and ostensibly shading his eyes from the light with a
folded newspaper. Without taking his eyes off Varenukha for a moment,
Rimsky's mind was working furiously to unravel this new mystery. Why should
the man be lying to him at this late hour in the totally empty and silent
building? Slowly a consciousness of danger, of an unknown but terrible
danger took hold of Rimsky. Pretending not to notice Varenukha's fidgeting
and tricks with the newspaper, the treasurer concentrated on his face,
scarcely listening to what he was saying. There was something else that
Rimsky found even more sinister than this slanderous and completely bogus
yarn about the goings-on in Pushkino, and that something was a change in the
house manager's appearance and manner.
However hard Varenukha tried to pull down the peak of his cap to shade
his face and however much he waved the newspaper, Rimsky managed to discern
an enormous bruise that covered most of the right side of his face, starting
at his nose. What was more, this normally ruddy-cheeked man now had an
unhealthy chalky pallor and although the night was hot, he was wearing an
old-fashioned striped cravat tied round his neck. If one added to this his
newly acquired and repulsive habit of sucking his teeth, a distinct lowering
and coarsening of his tone of voice and the furtive, shifty look in his
eyes, it was safe to say that Ivan Savye-lich Varenukha was unrecognisable.
Something even more insistent was worrying Rimsky, but he could not put
his finger on it however much he racked his brain or stared at Varenukha. He
was only sure of one thing--that there was something peculiar and unnatural
in the man's posture in that familiar chair.
' Well, finally they overpowered him and shoved him into a car,' boomed
Varenukha, peeping from under the newspaper and covering his bruise with his
Rimsky suddenly stretched out his arm and with an apparently unthinking
gesture of his palm pressed the button of an electric bell, drumming his
fingers as he did so. His heart sank. A loud ringing should have been heard
instantly throughout the building --but nothing happened, and the bell-push
merely sank lifelessly into the desktop. The warning system was out of
Rimsky's cunning move did not escape Varenukha, who scowled and said
with a clear flicker of hostility in his look :
' Why did you ring? '
' Oh, I just pressed it by mistake, without thinking,' mumbled Rimsky,
pulling back his hand and asked in a shaky voice :
' What's that on your face? '
' The car braked suddenly and I hit myself on the door-handle,' replied
Varenukha, averting his eyes.
' He's lying!' said Rimsky to himself. Suddenly his eyes gaped with
utter horror and he pressed himself against the back of his chair.
On the floor behind Varenukha's chair lay two intersecting shadows, one
thicker and blacker than the other. The shadows cast by the back of the
chair and its tapering legs were clearly visible, but above the shadow of
the chairback there was no shadow or' Varenukha's head, just as there was no
shadow of his feet to be seen under the chairlegs.
' He throws no shadow! ' cried Rimsky in a silent shriek of despair. He
Following Rimsky's horrified stare Varenukha glanced furtively round
behind the chairback and realised that he had been found out. He got up
(Rimsky did the same) and took a pace away from the desk, clutching his
' You've guessed, damn you! You always were clever,' said Varenukha
smiling evilly right into Rimsky's face. Then he suddenly leaped for the
door and quickly pushed down the latch-button on the lock. The treasurer
looked round in desperation, retreated towards the window that gave on to
the garden and in that moon-flooded window he saw the face of a naked girl
pressed to the glass, her bare arm reaching through the open top pane and
trying to open the lower casement.
It seemed to Rimsky that the light of the desk-lamp was going out and
that the desk itself was tilting. A wave of icy cold washed over him, but
luckily for him he fought it off and did not fall. The remnants of his
strength were only enough for him to whisper:
' Help . . .'
Varenukha, guarding the door, was jumping up and down beside it. He
hissed and sucked, signalling to the girl in the window and pointing his
crooked fingers towards Rimsky.
The girl increased her efforts, pushed her auburn head through the
little upper pane, stretched out her arm as far as she could and began to
pluck at the lower catch with her fingernails and shake the frame. Her arm,
coloured deathly green, started to stretch as if it were made of rubber.
Finally her green cadaverous fingers caught the knob of the window-catch,
turned it and the casement opened. Rimsky gave a weak cry, pressed himself
to the wall and held his briefcase in front of himself like a shield. His
last hour, he knew, had come.
The window swung wide open, but instead of the freshness of the night
and the scent of lime-blossom the room was flooded with the stench of the
grave. The walking corpse stepped on to the window-sill. Rimsky clearly saw
patches of decay on her breast.
At that moment the sudden, joyful sound of a cock crowing rang out in
the garden from the low building behind the shooting gallery where they kept
the cage birds used on the Variety stage. With his full-throated cry the
tame cock was announcing the approach of dawn over Moscow from the east.
Wild fury distorted the girl's face as she swore hoarsely and Varenukha
by the door whimpered and collapsed to the floor.
The cock crowed again, the girl gnashed her teeth and her auburn hair
stood on end. At the third crow she turned and flew out. Behind her, flying
horizontally through the air like an oversized cupid, Varenukha floated
slowly across the desk and out of the window.
As white as snow, without a black hair left on his head, the old man
who a short while before had been Rimsky ran to the door, freed the latch
and rushed down the dark corridor. At the top of the staircase, groaning
with terror he fumbled for the switch and lit the lights on the staircase.
The shattered, trembling old man fell down on the stairs, imagining that
Varenukha was gently bearing down on him from above.
At the bottom Rimsky saw die night-watchman, who had fallen asleep on a
chair in the foyer beside the box office. Rimsky tiptoed past him and
slipped out of the main door. Once in the street he felt slightly better. He
came to his senses enough to realise, as he clutched his head, that he had
left his hat in his office.
Nothing -would have induced him to go back for it and he ran panting
across the wide street to the cinema on the opposite corner, where a
solitary cab stood on the rank. In a minute he had reached it before anyone
else could snatch it from him.
' To the Leningrad Station--hurry and I'll make it worth your while/
said the old man, breathing heavily and clutching his heart.
' I'm only going to the garage,' replied the driver turning away with a
Rimsky unfastened his briefcase, pulled out fifty roubles and thrust
them at the driver through the open window.
A few moments later the taxi, shaking like a leaf in a storm, was
flying along the ring boulevard. Bouncing up and down in his seat, Rimsky
caught occasional glimpses of the driver's delighted expression and his own
wild look in the mirror.
Jumping out of the car at the station, Rimsky shouted to the first man
he saw, who was wearing a white apron and a numbered metal disc :
' First class single--here's thirty roubles,' he said as he fumbled for
the money in his briefcase. ' If there aren't any seats left in the first
I'll take second ... if there aren't any in the second, get me Hard "
Glancing round at the illuminated clock the man with the apron snatched
the money from Rimsky's hand.
Five minutes later the express pulled out of the glass-roofed station
and steamed into the dark. With it vanished Rimsky.
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