At half past one in the morning a man with a pointed beard and wearing
a white overall entered the reception hall of a famous psychiatric clinic
recently completed in the suburbs of Moscow. Three orderlies and the poet
Ryukhin stood nervously watching Ivan Nikolayich as he sat on a divan. The
dish-cloths that had been used to pinion Ivan Nikolayich now lay in a heap
on the same divan, leaving his arms and legs free.
As the man came in Ryukhin turned pale, coughed and said timidly:
' Good morning, doctor.'
The doctor bowed to Ryukhin but looked at Ivan Nikolayich, who was
sitting completely immobile and scowling furiously. He did not even move
when the doctor appeared.
' This, doctor,' began Ryukhin in a mysterious whisper, glancing
anxiously at Ivan Nikolayich, ' is the famous poet Ivan Bezdomny. We're
afraid he may have D.Ts.'
' Has he been drinking heavily? ' enquired the doctor through clenched
' No, he's had a few drinks, but not enough . . .'
' Has he been trying to catch spiders, rats, little devils or dogs? '
' No,' replied Ryukhin, shuddering. ' I saw him yesterday and this
morning ... he was perfectly well then.'
' Why is he in his underpants? Did you have to pull him out of bed?'
' He came into a restaurant like this, doctor'
' Aha, aha,' said the doctor in a tone of great satisfaction. ' And why
the scratches? Has he been fighting? '
' He fell off the fence and then he hit someone in the restaurant , . .
and someone else, too . . .' ' I see, I see, I see,' said the doctor and
added, turning to Ivan :
' Good morning! '
' Hello, you quack! ' said Ivan, loudly and viciously.
Ryukhin was so embarrassed that he dared not raise his eyes. The
courteous doctor, however, showed no signs of offence and with a practised
gesture took off his spectacles, lifted the skirt of his overall, put them
in his hip pocket and then asked Ivan:
' How old are you? '
' Go to hell! ' shouted Ivan rudely and turned away.
' Why are you being so disagreeable? Have I said anything to upset
' I'm twenty-three,' said Ivan excitedly, ' and I'm going to lodge a
complaint against all of you--and you in particular, you louse! ' He spat at
' What will your complaint be? '
' That you arrested me, a perfectly healthy man, and forcibly dragged
me off to the madhouse! ' answered Ivan in fury.
At this Ryukhin took a close look at Ivan and felt a chill down his
spine : there was not a trace of insanity in the man's eyes. They had been
slightly clouded at Griboyedov, but now they were as clear as before.
' Godfathers! ' thought Ryukhin in terror. ' He really is perfectly
normal! What a ghastly business! Why have we brought him here? There's
nothing the matter with him except a few scratches on his face . . .'
' You are not,' said the doctor calmly, sitting down on a stool on a
single chromium-plated stalk, ' in a madhouse but in a clinic, where nobody
is going to keep you if it isn't necessary.' Ivan gave him a suspicious
scowl, but muttered :
' Thank God for that! At last I've found one normal person among all
these idiots and the worst idiot of the lot is that incompetent fraud Sasha!
' Who is this incompetent Sasha? ' enquired the doctor. ' That's him,
Ryukhin,' replied Ivan, jabbing a dirty finger in
Ryukhin's direction, who spluttered in protest. ' That's all the thanks
I get,' he thought bitterly, ' for showing him some sympathy! What a
miserable swine he is! '
* A typical kulak mentality,' said Ivan Nikolayich, who obviously felt
a sudden urge to attack Ryukhin. ' And what's more he's a kulak masquerading
as a proletarian. Look at his mean face and compare it with all that pompous
verse he writes for May Day ... all that stuff about "onwards and upwards"
and "banners waving "! If you could look inside him and see what he's
thinking you'd be sickened! ' And Ivan Nikolayich gave a hoot of malicious
Ryukhin, breathing heavily, turned red. There was only one thought in
his mind--that he had nourished a serpent in his bosom, that he had tried to
help someone who when it came to the pinch had treacherously rounded on him.
The worst of it was that he could not answer back--one mustn't swear at a
' Exactly why have they brought you here? ' asked the doctor, who had
listened to Bezdomny's outburst with great attention.
' God knows, the blockheads! They grabbed me, tied me up with some
filthy rags and dumped me in a lorry!'
' May I ask why you came into the restaurant in nothing but your
' There's nothing odd about it,' answered Ivan. ' I went for a swim in
the Moscow River and someone pinched my clothes and left me this junk
instead! I couldn't walk round Moscow naked, could I? I had to put on what
there was, because I was in a hurry to get to the Griboyedov restaurant.'
The doctor glanced questioningly at Ryukhin, who mumbled sulkily:
' Yes, that's the name of the restaurant.'
' Aha,' said the doctor, ' but why were you in such a hurry? Did you
have an appointment there? '
' I had to catch the professor,' replied Ivan Nikolayich, glancing
' What professor? ' ' Do you know Berlioz? ' asked Ivan with a meaning
' You mean . . . the composer? '
Ivan looked puzzled. ' What composer? Oh, yes . . . no, no. The
composer just happens to have the same name as Misha Berlioz.'
Ryukhin was still feeling too offended to speak, but he had to explain:
' Berlioz, the chairman of MASSOLIT, was run over by a tram this
evening at Patriarch's.'
' Don't lie, you--you don't know anything about it,' Ivan burst out at
Ryukhin. ' I was there, not you! He made him fall under that tram on
' Did he push him? '
' What are you talking about?' exclaimed Ivan, irritated by his
listener's failure to grasp the situation. ' He didn't have to push him! He
can do things you'd never believe! He knew in advance that Berlioz was going
to fall under a tram! '
' Did anybody see this professor apart from you? '
' No, that's the trouble. Only Berlioz and myself.'
' I see. What steps did you take to arrest this murderer?' At this
point the doctor turned and threw a glance at a woman in a white overall
sitting behind a desk.
' This is what I did : I took this candle from the kitchen . . .'
' This one? ' asked the doctor, pointing to a broken candle lying on
the desk beside the ikon.
' Yes, that's the one, and . . .'
' Why the ikon? '
' Well, er, the ikon. . . .' Ivan blushed. ' You see an ikon frightens
them more than anything else.' He again pointed at Ryukhin. ' But the fact
is that the professor is ... well, let's be frank . . . he's in league with
the powers of evil . . . and it's not so easy to catch someone like him.'
The orderlies stretched their hands down their trouser-seams and stared
even harder at Ivan.
' Yes,' went on Ivan. ' He's in league with them. There's no arguing
about it. He once talked to Pontius Pilate. It's no good looking at me like
that, I'm telling you the truth! He saw it all --the balcony, the palm
trees. He was actually with Pontius Pilate, I'll swear it.'
' Well, now . . .'
' So, as I was saying, I pinned the ikon to my chest and ran .,.'
Here the clock struck twice.
' Oh, my God! ' exclaimed Ivan and rose from the divan. ' It's two
o'clock and here am I wasting time talking to you! Would you mind--where's
the telephone? '
' Show him the telephone,' the doctor said to the orderlies.
As Ivan grasped the receiver the woman quietly asked Ryukhin:
' Is he married? '
' No, he's a bachelor,' replied Ryukhin, startled.
' Is he a union member? '
' Police? ' shouted Ivan into the mouthpiece. ' Police? Is that the
duty officer? Sergeant, please arrange to send five motor cycles with
sidecars, armed with machine-guns to arrest the foreign professor. What?
Take me with you, I'll show you where to go. . . . This is Bezdomny, I'm a
poet, and I'm speaking from the lunatic asylum. . . . What's your address? '
Bezdomny whispered to the doctor, covering the mouthpiece with his palm, and
then yelled back into the receiver: ' Are you listening? Hullo! . . . Fools!
. . .' Ivan suddenly roared, hurling the receiver at the wall. Then he
turned round to the doctor, offered him his hand, said a curt goodbye and
started to go.
' Excuse me, but where are you proposing to go?' said the doctor,
looking Ivan in the eye. ' At this hour of night, in your underwear . . .
You're not well, stay with us.'
' Come on, let me through,' said Ivan to the orderlies who had lined up
to block the doorway. ' Are you going to let me go or not? ' shouted the
poet in a terrible voice.
Ryukhin shuddered. The woman pressed a button on the desk ; a
glittering metal box and a sealed ampoule popped out on to its glass
' Ah, so that's your game, is it? ' said Ivan with a wild, hunted
glance around. ' All right then . . . Goodbye!! ' And he threw himself head
first at the shuttered window.
There was a loud crash, but the glass did not even crack, and a moment
later Ivan Nikolayich was struggling in the arms of the orderlies. He
screamed, tried to bite, then shouted :
' Fine sort of glass you put in your windows! Let me go! Let me go! '
A hypodermic syringe glittered in the doctor's hand, with one sweep the
woman pushed back the tattered sleeve of Ivan's blouse and clamped his arm
in a most un-feminine grip. There was a smell of ether, Ivan weakened
slightly in the grasp of the four men and the doctor skilfully seized the
moment to jab the needle into Ivan's arm. Ivan kept up the struggle for a
few more seconds, then collapsed on to the divan.
' Bandits! ' cried Ivan and leaped up, only to be pushed back. As soon
as they let him go he jumped up again, but sat down of his own accord. He
said nothing, staring wildly about him, then gave a sudden unexpected yawn
and smiled malevolently :
' So you're going to lock me up after all,' he said, yawned again, lay
down with his head on the cushion, his fist under his cheek like a child and
muttered in a sleepy voice but without malice : ' All right, then . . . but
you'll pay for it ... I warned you, but if you want to ... What interests me
most now is Pontius Pilate . . . Pilate . . .' And with that he closed his
' Vanna, put him in No. 117 by himself and with someone to watch him.'
The doctor gave his instructions and replaced his spectacles. Then Ryukhin
shuddered again : a pair of white doors opened without a sound and beyond
them stretched a corridor lit by a row of blue night-bulbs. Out of the
corridor rolled a couch on rubber wheels. The sleeping Ivan was lifted on to
it, he was pushed off down the corridor and the doors closed after him.
' Doctor,' asked the shaken Ryukhin in a whisper, ' is he really ill?'
' Oh yes,' replied the doctor.
' Then what's the matter with him?' enquired Rvukhin timidly.
The exhausted doctor looked at Ryukhin and answered wearily:
' Overstimulation of the motor nerves and speech centres . . .
delirious illusions. . . . Obviously a complicated case. Schizophrenia, I
should think . . . touch of alcoholism, too. . . .'
Ryukhin understood nothing of this, except that Ivan Nikolayich was
obviously in poor shape. He sighed and asked :
' What was that he said about some professor? '
' I expect he saw someone who gave a shock to his disturbed
imagination. Or maybe it was a hallucination. . . .'
A few minutes later a lorry was taking Ryukhin back into Moscow. Dawn
was breaking and the still-lit street lamps seemed superfluous and
unpleasant. The driver, annoyed at missing a night's sleep, pushed his lorry
as hard as it would go, making it skid round the corners.
The woods fell away in the distance and the river wandered off in
another direction. As the lorry drove on the scenery slowly changed: fences,
a watchman's hut, piles of logs, dried and split telegraph poles with
bobbins strung on the wires between them, heaps of stones, ditches--in
short, a feeling that Moscow was about to appear round the next corner and
would rise up and engulf them at any moment.
The log of wood on which Ryukhin was sitting kept wobbling and
slithering about and now and again it tried to slide away from under him
altogether. The restaurant dish-cloths, which the policeman and the barman
had thrown on to the back of the lorry before leaving earlier by
trolley-bus, were being flung about all over the back of the lorry. Ryukhin
started to try and pick them up, but with a sudden burst of ill-temper he
' To hell with them! Why should I crawl around after them? ' He pushed
them away with his foot and turned away from them.
Ryukhin was in a state of depression. It was obvious that his visit to
the asylum had affected him deeply. He tried to think what it was that was
disturbing him. Was it the corridor with its blue lamps, which had lodged so
firmly in his memory? Was it the thought that the worst misfortune in the
world was to lose one's reason? Yes, it was that, of course--but that after
all was a generalisation, it applied to everybody. There was something else,
though. What was it? The insult--that was it. Yes, those insulting words
that Bezdomny had flung into his face. And the agony of it was not that they
were insulting but that they were true.
The poet stopped looking about him and instead stared gloomily at the
dirty, shaking floor of the lorry in an agony of self-reproach.
Yes, his poetry . . . He was thirty-two! And what were his prospects?
To go on writing a few poems every year. How long--until he was an old man?
Yes, until he was an old man. What would these poems do for him? Make him
famous? ' What rubbish! Don't fool yourself. Nobody ever gets famous from
writing bad poetry. Why is it bad, though? He was right --he was telling the
truth! ' said Ryukhin pitilessly to himself. I don't believe in a single
word of what I've written . . .! '
Embittered by an upsurge of neurasthenia, the poet swayed. The floor
beneath had stopped shaking. Ryukhin lifted his head and saw that he was in
the middle of Moscow, that day had dawned, that his lorry had stopped in a
traffic-jam at a boulevard intersection and that right near him stood a
metal man on a plinth, his head inclined slightly forward, staring blankly
down the street.
Strange thoughts assailed the poet, who was beginning to feel ill. '
Now there's an example of pure luck .'--Ryukhin stood up on the lorry's
platform and raised his fist in an inexplicable urge to attack the harmless
cast-iron man--'. . . everything he did in life, whatever happened to him,
it all went his way, everything conspired to make him famous! But what did
he achieve? I've never been able to discover . . . What about that famous
phrase of his that begins " A storm of mist. . ."? What a load of rot! He
was lucky, that's all, just lucky! '--Ryukhin concluded venomously, feeling
the lorry start to move under him--' and just because that White officer
shot at him and smashed his hip, he's famous for ever . . .'
The jam was moving. Less than two minutes later the poet, now not only
ill but ageing, walked on to the Griboyedov verandah. It was nearly empty.
Ryukhin, laden with dish-cloths, was greeted warmly by Archibald
Archibaldovich and immediately relieved of the horrible rags. If Ryukhin had
not been so exhausted by the lorry-ride and by his experiences at the
clinic, he would probably have enjoyed describing everything that had
happened in the hospital and would have embellished the story with some
invented details. But for the moment he was incapable. Although Ryukhin was
not an observant man, now, after his agony on the lorry, for the first time
be looked really hard at the pirate and realised that although the man was
asking questions about Bezdomny and even exclaiming ' Oh, poor fellow! ' he
was in reality totally indifferent to Bezdomny's fate and did not feel sorry
for him at all. ' Good for him! He's right! ' thought Ryukhin with cynical,
masochistic relish and breaking off his description of the symptoms of
schizophrenia, he asked :
' Archibald Archibaldovich, could I possibly have a glass of vodka. .
The pirate put on a sympathetic expression and whispered :
' Of course, I quite understand . . . right away . . .' and signalled
to a waiter.
A quarter of an hour later Ryukhin was sitting in absolute solitude
hunched over a dish of sardines, drinking glass after glass of vodka,
understanding more and more about himself and admitting that there was
nothing in his life that he could put right--he could only try to forget.
The poet had wasted his night while others had spent it enjoying
themselves and now he realised that it was lost forever. He only had to lift
his head up from the lamp and look at the sky to see that the night had gone
beyond return. Waiters were hurriedly jerking the cloths off the tables. The
cats pacing the verandah had a morning look about them. Day broke inexorably
over the poet.
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