There was a white note sticking out of the keyhole. Korotkov read it in the dark.
"Gone to see mother in Zvenigorod. Have left you the wine as a present. Drink as much as you like. No one wants to buy it. They're in the corner.
Yours, A. Paikova"
With a lopsided grin, Korotkov rattled the lock and in twenty trips moved into his room all the bottles standing in a corner of the corridor, then turned on the lamp and collapsed onto the bed just as he was, in his cap and coat. As if in a trance he stared for about half an hour at the portrait of Cromwell dissolving into the dark shadows, then jumped up and suddenly had a kind of violent fit. Pulling off his cap, he flung it into the corner, swept the packets of matches on to the floor with one fell swoop and began to stamp on them.
"Take that! Take that!" Korotkov howled as he crushed the diabolical boxes with a crunch, imagining vaguely that he was trampling on Longjohn's head.
The memory of the egg-shaped head suddenly made him think of the clean-shaven and bearded face, and at this point Korotkov stopped short.
"But how on earth could it be?" he whispered, passing a hand over his eyes. "What's this? Why am I standing here busy with trifles, when it's all awful. After all he's not really a double, is he?"
Fear crept through the dark windows into the room, and Korotkov pulled the curtains so as not to look at them. But this did not help. The double face, now growing a beard, now suddenly shaving it off, kept looming out of the corners, its greenish eyes glittering. At last Korotkov could stand it no longer and, feeling as if his brain would burst from the tension, began sobbing quietly.
After a good cry, which made him feel better, he ate some of yesterday's slippery potatoes, then, returning to the cursed puzzle, cried a bit more.
"Wait a minute," he muttered suddenly. "What am I crying for, when I've got some wine?"
In a flash he knocked back half a tea-glass. The sweet liquid took effect five minutes later — his left temple began to ache painfully and he felt a burning, sickening thirst. After drinking three glasses of water, Korotkov forgot all about Longjohn because of the pain in his temple, tore his top clothes off with a groan and collapsed onto the bed, rolling his eyes miserably. "Aspirin..." he whispered for a long time until a troubled sleep took pity on him.
THE ORGAN AND THE CAT
At ten o'clock next morning Korotkov made some tea quickly, drank a quarter of a glass without relish and, sensing that a hard and troublesome day lay ahead, left his room and ran across the wet asphalted yard in the mist. On the door of the side-wing were the words "House-Manager". Korotkov stretched a hand towards the knob, when his eyes read: "No warrants issued due to death."
"Oh, my goodness," Korotkov exclaimed irritably. "Everything's going wrong." And added: "I'll see about the documents later then, and go to MACBAMM now. I must find out what's happening there. Maybe Chekushin's back already."
Walking all the way, because his money had been stolen, Korotkov eventually reached MACBAMM, crossed the vestibule and made straight for the General Office. On the threshold he stopped short and gaped with surprise. There was not a single familiar face in the whole crystal hall. No Drozd or Anna Yevgrafovna, no one. At the tables looking not at all like crows on a telegraph wire, but like the three falcons of Tsar Alexis, sat three completely identical fair-headed, clean-shaven men in light-grey checked suits and a young woman with dreamy eyes and diamond earrings. The young men paid no attention to Korotkov and went on scratching away at their ledgers, but the woman made eyes at Korotkov. When he responded to this with a vague smile, she smiled haughtily and turned away. "Strange," thought Korotkov and walked out of the General Office, stumbling on the threshold. By the door to his room he hesitated and sighed, looking at the familiar words "Chief Clerk", opened the door and went in. Everything suddenly blurred before Korotkov's eyes and the floor rocked gently under his feet. There at Korotkov's desk, elbows akimbo and writing furiously with a pen, sat Longjohn himself in the flesh. Shining goffered locks covered his chest. Korotkov caught his breath as he looked at the lacquered bald pate over the green baize. Longjohn was the first to break the silence.
"What can I do for you, Comrade?" he cooed in a deferential falsetto.
Korotkov licked his lips convulsively, inhaled a large cube of air into his narrow chest and said in a barely audible voice:
"Ahem... I'm the Chief Clerk here, Comrade. I mean... Well, yes, if you remember the order..."
Surprise changed the upper half of Longjohn's face considerably. His fair eyebrows rose and his forehead turned into a concertina.
"I beg your pardon," he replied politely, "I am the Chief Clerk here."
Korotkov was struck by a temporary dumbness. When it passed, he uttered the following words:
"Oh, really? Yesterday, that is. Ah, yes. Please excuse me. I've got confused. So sorry."
He backed out of the room and croaked hoarsely to himself in the corridor:
"Try to remember, Korotkov, what's the date today?"
And then answered himself:
"It's Tuesday, I mean Friday. Nineteen hundred."
No sooner had he turned round than two corridor light bulbs flared up before him on a human sphere of ivory, and Longjohn's clean-shaven face obscured the whole world.
"Very good," the copper clanged, and Korotkov got the shakes. "I was waiting for you. Excellent. Pleased to meet you."
So saying he advanced towards Korotkov and gave his hand such a shake that he perched on one foot like a stork on a rooftop.
"I've allocated the staff," Longjohn began talking quickly, jerkily and authoritatively. Three in there," he pointed at the door of the General Office. "And Manechka, of course. You're my assistant. Longjohn's chief clerk. The old lot have all got the sack. That idiot Panteleimon too. I have information that he was a footman in the Alpine Rose. I'm just off to the Board, but you and Longjohn write a memo about that lot, particularly about that — what's his name? — Korotkov. Actually, you look a bit like that scoundrel yourself. Only he had a black eye."
"Oh, no. Not me," said Korotkov, open-mouthed and swaying. "I'm not a scoundrel. I've had my documents stolen. Everything."
"Everything?" Longjohn shouted. "Nonsense. So much the better."
He dug his fingers into the panting Korotkov's hand, pulled him along the corridor to his precious office, threw him into a plump leather chair and sat down at his desk. Still feeling a strange quaking of the floor under his feet, Korotkov huddled up, closed his eyes and muttered: "The twentieth was Monday, so Tuesday is the twenty-first. No, what's the matter with me? It's the year twenty-one. Outgoing No. 0.15, space for signature dash Varfolomei Korotkov. That's me. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. Tuesday and Thursday both begin with a T, and Wednesday ... Wednessss ... with an S, like Saturday..."
Longjohn scribbled noisily on a piece of paper, stamped it with a thump and thrust it at him. At that moment the phone rang furiously. Longjohn snatched up the receiver and yelled into it:
"Uhuh! Okay. Okay. I'm just leaving."
He raced over to the coat-rack, grabbed his cap, covered his bald patch with it and vanished through the door with the parting words:
"Wait for me at Longjohn's."
Everything really swam before Korotkov's eyes, when he read what was written on the paper with the stamp.
"The bearer of this is really my assistant Comrade Vassily Pavlovich Kolobkov, which is really true. Longjohn."
"Oooh!" groaned Korotkov, dropping the paper and his cap on the floor. "What is going on?"
At that moment the door sang shrilly, and Longjohn returned in his beard.
"Longjohn gone, has he?" he asked Korotkov in a high, affectionate voice.
Everything went dark.
"Aaah!" Korotkov howled, unable to endure the torture, and beside himself with fury, rushed at Longjohn, baring his teeth. Longjohn's face turned yellow with horror. Backing into the door, he opened it with a clatter, tumbled into the corridor, losing his balance, and squatted on his heels, then jumped up and ran off shouting:
"Messenger! Messenger! Help!"
"Stop! Stop! I beg of you, Comrade," cried Korotkov, coming to and rushing after him.
There was a bang in the General Office, and the falcons jumped up as if by order. The woman's dreamy eyes leapt up from the typewriter.
"They'll shoot! They'll shoot!" she shouted hysterically.
Longjohn ran into the vestibule first, onto the dias where the organ was, hesitated for a moment, wondering where to go, then rushed off, cutting a corner, and disappeared behind the organ. Korotkov raced after him, slipped and would probably had banged his head on the rail, if it hadn't been for a huge black crooked handle sticking out of the yellow side. It caught Korotkov's coat, the worn cloth tore with a quiet squeal, and Korotkov sat gently down on the cold floor. The side door behind the organ banged to after Longjohn.
"Goodness..." began Korotkov, but did not finish.
The impressive box with dusty copper pipes emitted a strange sound like a glass breaking, followed by a deep dusty growl, a strange chromatic squeak and the stroke of a bell. Then came a resonant major chord, an ebullient full-blooded stream, and the whole three-tiered yellow box began to play, turning over deposits of stagnating sound.
The fire of Moscow roared and thundered...
Panteleimon's pale face suddenly appeared in the black square of the door. In a trice he, too, underwent a metamorphosis. His tiny eyes shone triumphantly, he drew himself up, flung his right arm across his left, as if putting on an invisible napkin, leapt up and galloped downstairs sideways, obliquely, like a trace-horse, circling his arms as if he were holding a trayful of cups.
The smoke did o'er the river spread...
"What on earth have I done?" Korotkov gasped in horror. After rushing through the first stagnating waves, the machine settled down smoothly, filling the empty halls of MACBAMM with the roar of a thousand-headed lion.
And on the walls by the Kremlin Gat…-
Through the howling and thundering of bells came the sound of a car, and Longjohn returned through the main entrance, a clean-shaven, vindictive and menacing Longjohn. He began to mount the staircase smoothly in a sinister bluish light. Korotkov's hair stood on end. Jumping up, he ran through the side door down the crooked staircase behind the organ and across the gravel-covered yard into the street. As if pursued by the Furies he flew into the street with the Alpine Rose booming behind him.
A grey frock-coated figure stood...
On the corner a cabby brandishing a whip was trying furiously to get his old nag going.
"Oh, my God!" Korotkov sobbed frantically. "It's him again! What is going on?"
A bearded Longjohn loomed out of the pavement bf the cab, hopped in and began to whack the cabby on the back, chanting in his high voice:
"Get going, you rascal! Get going!"
The old nag gave a start, kicked up its heels and raced off under the stinging blows of the whip, clattering down the street. Through tempestuous tears Korotkov saw the cabby's patent-leather hat fly off and banknotes came fluttering out of it in all directions. Small boys chased after them, whistling. The cabby turned round and pulled in the reins wildly, but Longjohn thumped him on the back furiously and yelled:
"Keep going! Keep going! I'll pay you."
"Ее, your good health, it's rack and ruin, ain't it?" the cabby cried wildly, putting the nag into a full gallop, and they all disappeared round the corner.
Sobbing, Korotkov looked at the grey sky racing overhead, staggered and cried painfully:
"That's enough. I can't leave it like this! I must explain everything." He jumped on to a tram. It shook him along for five minutes or so then threw him down by a green nine-storey building. Rushing into the vestibule, Korotkov stuck his head through the quadrangular opening in a wooden partition and asked a big blue teapot:
"Where's the Complaints Bureau, Comrade?
"Eighth floor, ninth corridor, flat 41, room 302," the teapot replied in a woman's voice.
"Eighth, ninth, 41, three hundred ... three hundred and what was that ... 302," muttered Korotkov, running up the broad staircase. "Eighth, ninth, eighth, no, forty ... no, 42 ... no, 302," he mumbled. "Oh, goodness, I've forgotten ... 40, that's it."
On the eighth floor he walked past three doors, saw the black number "40" on the fourth and went into an enormous hall with columns and two rows of windows. In the corners lay rolls of paper on spools, and the floor was strewn with scraps of paper covered with writing. In the distance at a small table with a typewriter sat a goldenish woman, cheek in hand, purring a song quietly. Looking round in confusion Korotkov saw the massive figure of a man in a long white coat walk down heavily from the platform behind the columns. The marble face sported a grey drooping moustache. With an unusually polite, lifeless smile, the man came up to Korotkov, shook his hand warmly and announced, clicking his heels:
"You can't be!" replied Korotkov, taken aback.
The man gave a pleasant smile.
"That surprises a lot of people, you know," he said, getting the word stresses wrong. "But don't think I have anything to do with that rascal, Comrade. Oh, no. It's an unfortunate coincidence, nothing more. I've already applied to change my name to Socvossky. That's much nicer, and not so dangerous. But if you don't like it," the man twisted his mouth sensitively, "I don't insist. We always find people. They come looking for us."
"Oh, but, of course," Korotkov yelped painfully, sensing that something strange was beginning here too, like everywhere else. He looked round with a hunted expression, afraid that a clean-shaven countenance and bald eggshell might suddenly pop up out of thin air, and then added clumsily: "I'm very glad, very..."
A faint blush appeared on the marble man; taking Korotkov’s arm gently, he led him to a table, talking all the time.
"And I'm very glad too. But the trouble is, you know, that I haven't anywhere to put you. They keep us in the background, in spite of all our importance." (The man waved a hand at the spools of paper.) "Intrigues. But we'll get going, don't you worry."
"Hm. And what have you got for us this time?" he asked the pale Korotkov affectionately. "Oh, I'm so sorry, I really must apologise, allow me to introduce," he waved a white hand elegantly in the direction of the typewriter. "Henrietta Potapovna Persymphens."
The woman immediately offered Korotkov a cold hand and a languid look.
"Now then," the boss continued sweetly. "What have you got for us today? A feuilleton? Some essays?" Rolling his white eyes, he drawled: "You can't imagine how much we need them."
"Good heavens, what's all this about?" thought Korotkov dimly, then he drew a deep convulsive breath and began talking.
"Something, er, terrible has happened. He... I don't understand. Please don't think it's a hallucination... Hmm. Ha-ha." (Korotkov tried to give an artificial laugh, but it didn't work.) "He's alive. I assure you ... only I can't make it out, sometimes he has a beard and a moment later it disappears. I just don't understand... He changes his voice too... What's more, I've had all my documents stolen, and to make matters worse the house-manager's gone and died. That Longjohn..."
"I knew as much," exclaimed the boss. "Is it them?"
"Oh, my goodness, of course," the woman replied. "Those dreadful Longjohns."
"You know," the boss interrupted excitedly, "it's because of him that I'm sitting on the floor. Take a look at that, old chap. And what does he know about journalism?" he caught hold of Korotkov's button. "Kindly tell me that, what does he know? He spent two days here and nearly tormented me to death. But imagine what luck. I went to see Fyodor Vassilievich and he got rid of him at last. I didn't mince my words: it's either him or me, I said. They transferred him to some MACBAMM or something, devil knows what. Let him stink the place out with those matches! But he managed to move the furniture to that damned office. The whole damn lot, if you please. And what, may I ask, am I going to write on? What are you going to write on? For I have no doubt at all that you will be one of us, dear chap." (Korotkov's host embraced him.) "In a most irresponsible fashion that scoundrel moved all our lovely Louis Quatorze satin furniture to that stupid bureau, which they'll shut down tomorrow in any case, the devil take it."
"What bureau?" Korotkov asked in a hollow voice.
"Oh, those complaints or whatever they are," the boss said irritably.
"What?" cried Korotkov. "What? Where is it?"
"There," the boss replied in surprise, prodding the floor.
Korotkov took one last crazed look at the white coat and raced into the corridor. Pausing for a moment, he turned left looking for steps going down and ran along for about five minutes, following the whimsical bends in the corridor. Five minutes later he was back where he had started. At door No. 40.
"Oh, hell!" he exclaimed, hesitating for a moment, then turned right and ran along for another five minutes until he arrived at No. 40 again. Pulling the door open, he ran into the hall to find it now empty. Only the typewriter's white teeth smiled silently on the desk. Korotkov ran up to the colonnade and saw the boss there. He was standing on a pedestal, unsmiling, with an affronted expression.
"Forgive me for not saying goodbye..." Korotkov began, then stopped. The boss's left arm was broken off and his nose and one ear were missing. Recoiling in horror, Korotkov ran into the corridor again. A secret door opposite, which he had not noticed, opened suddenly and out came a wrinkled brown old woman with empty buckets on a yoke.
"Granny! Granny!" cried Korotkov anxiously. "Where's the bureau?"
"I don't know, sir, I don't know, your honour," the old woman replied. "Only don't you go runnin' around like that, duck, 'cos you won't find it any ways. Ten floors is no joke."
"Ugh, silly old thing," hissed Korotkov and rushed through the door. It banged shut behind him and Korotkov found himself in a dark space with no way out. He flung himself at the walls, scratching like someone trapped in a mine, until at last he found a white spot which let him out to a kind of staircase. He ran down it with a staccato clatter, and heard steps coming up towards him. A dreadful unease gripped his heart, and he slowed down to a halt. A moment later a shiny cap appeared, followed by a grey blanket and a long beard. Korotkov swayed and clutched the rail. At that moment their eyes met, and they both howled shrilly with fear and pain. Korotkov backed away upstairs, while Long-John retreated, horror-stricken, in the opposite direction.
"Wait a minute," croaked Korotkov. "You just explain..."
"Help!" howled Longjohn, changing his shrill voice for the old copper bass. He stumbled and fell down, striking the back of his head. It was a blow that cost him dear. Turning into a black cat with phosphorous eyes, he flew upstairs, streaking like velvet lightning across the landing, tensed into a ball, then sprang onto the window-sill and vanished in the broken glass and spider's webs. A white fog befuddled Korotkov’s brain for an instant, then lifted, giving way to an extraordinary clarity.
"Now I see it all," Korotkov whispered, laughing quietly. "Yes, I see. That's what it is. Cats! Now I get it. Cats!"
He began to laugh louder and louder, until the whole staircase rang with pealing echoes.