"Роковые яйца"
     Translated by Kathleen Gook-Horujy
     OCR: http://home.freeuk.net/russica2/

     Mikhail  Bulgakov (1891-1940) was born  in Kiev into the  family  of  a
teacher  at  a  religious  academy,  endured  the  hardships  of   wars  and
revolutions, starved, became a playwright  for the country's finest theatre,
knew fame, persecution, public ovations and forced muteness. His best works,
including  the  famous  The Master and Margarita, were  not published  until
after his death. His dramas were struck off the repertoire-The Days  of  the
Turbins at the Moscow Arts Theatre and his plays about Moliere  and Pushkin.
During his lifetime, not a single major anthology  of his  short stories was
ever published
     Bulgakov's works have since been recognised as classics; his books have
been published in all the languages  of the civilised world, studies of  him
have reached the four-figure  mark and the number is still rising;  editions
of  his books  in the USSR  have run into millions.  He has won  the highest
praise from Gabriel  Garcia Marquez  of Columbia and Kendzaburo Oe of Japan.
Kirghiz writer  Chinghiz  Aitmatov looks on Bulgakov as his teacher. Mikhail
Bulgakov's books have at last come into  their own  with their wild  fantasy
and their prophetic ideas  about man and humanity.  Our  collection includes
one of his most vivid stories, "The Fateful Eggs".

     On the evening of 16  April, 1928, the Zoology Professor of the  Fourth
State University and  Director of the Moscow Zoological Institute, Persikov,
went into his laboratory  at the  Zoological Institute in Herzen Street. The
Professor switched on the frosted ceiling light and looked around him.
     This ill-fated evening must be regarded as marking the beginning of the
appalling catastrophe, just as  Professor Vladimir Ipatievich  Persikov must
be seen as the prime cause of the said catastrophe.
     He was fifty-eight years old. With a splendid bald head, like a pestle,
and  tufts  of  yellowish hair  sticking  out  at the sides.  His  face  was
clean-shaven, with a slightly protruding lower lip which  gave it a slightly
cantankerous expression. Tall and round-shouldered, he had small bright eyes
and tiny old-fashioned spectacles in silver frames on  a red nose.  He spoke
in a grating, high, croaking voice and one of his many idiosyncrasies was to
crook  the index finger of his right hand and screw up his eyes, whenever he
was saying something weighty  and authoritative. And since  he  always spoke
authoritatively,  because his knowledge  in his field  was quite phenomenal,
the crooked  finger was  frequently pointed at those with whom the Professor
was conversing.  Outside his field, that  is, zoology, embriology,  anatomy,
botany  and  geography, however,  Professor Persikov said almost nothing  at
     Professor  Persikov did not read the  newspapers  or go to the theatre.
His wife had run away with a tenor from the Zimin opera in 1913, leaving him
a note which read as follows:
     "Your  frogs  make me shudder  with  intolerable  loathing. I  shall be
unhappy all my life because of them."
     The  Professor did  not  marry  again  and  had  no  children.  He  was
short-tempered, but did not bear grudges, liked cloudberry tea and lived  in
Prechistenka Street in a flat with five  rooms, one of which was occupied by
the old housekeeper, Maria Stepanovna, who looked after the Professor like a
     In 1919 three of the Professor's five rooms were taken away.  Whereupon
he announced to Maria Stepanovna:
     "If they  don't  stop  this  outrageous behaviour,  I  shall  leave the
country, Maria Stepanovna."
     Had the Professor  carried out this plan, he would  have experienced no
difficulty in obtaining a place in the zoology department  of any university
in the world, for he was a really first-class scholar, and in the particular
field  which  deals with  amphibians  had  no equal,  with  the exception of
professors William  Weckle in  Cambridge and Giacomo  Bartolomeo Beccari  in
Rome. The  Professor could  read  four languages,  as  Mvell as Russian, and
spoke  French and  German  like  a native. Persikov  did not carry  out  his
intention  of going abroad, and 1920 was even worse  than 1919. All sorts of
things happened, one after the other. Bolshaya Nikitskaya was renamed Herzen
Street. Then the clock on  the wall of the  corner building in Herzen Street
and Mokhovaya  stopped at  a  quarter  past eleven and,  finally,  unable to
endure  the  perturbations  of  this  remarkable   year,  eight  magnificent
specimens  of  tree-frogs died  in the Institute's  terrariums, followed  by
fifteen ordinary toads and an exceptional specimen of the Surinam toad.
     Immediately  after the demise of the toads  which devastated that first
order  of  amphibians  rightly  called tailless,  old Vlas,  the Institute's
caretaker  of  many years'  standing, who  did not  belong  to any order  of
amphibians,  also  passed on to  a better world.  The  cause  of  his death,
incidentally,  was  the  same as that  of  the  unfortunate  amphibians, and
Persikov diagnosed it at once:
     The scientist was perfectly right. Vlas should have been fed with flour
and  the  toads with flour  weevils,  but  the disappearance  of the  former
determined  that  of the latter  likewise,  and Persikov tried to  shift the
twenty surviving specimens  of tree-frogs  onto a diet  of cockroaches,  but
then  the cockroaches disappeared too, thereby  demonstrating  their hostile
attitude to war communism. Consequently, these last remaining specimens also
had to be thrown into the rubbish pits in the Institute yard.
     The  effect  of  these  deaths on  Persikov, particularly  that  of the
Surinam toad,  is  quite  indescribable.  For  some  reason  he  blamed them
entirely on the People's Commissar for Education.
     Standing in his fur  cap and galoshes  in the corridor of the  freezing
Institute,  Persikov said to his assistant Ivanov, an elegant gentleman with
a fair pointed beard:
     "Hanging's too  good  for  him, Pyotr Stepanovich!  What do they  think
they're  doing!  They'll ruin the whole Institute! Eh? An exceptionally rare
male specimen of Pipa americana, thirteen centimetres long..."
     Things went from bad  to worse.  When Vlas died the  Institute  windows
froze  so hard that there  were icy scrolls on the inside of  the panes. The
rabbits, foxes,  wolves  and fish died, as well as every single grass-snake.
Persikov brooded  silently for  days on end, then  caught pneumonia, but did
not die. When he recovered, he started coming to  the Institute twice a week
and in  the  round hall, where  for some reason it  was always  five degrees
below freezing point irrespective of the temperature outside, he delivered a
cycle of lectures on "The  Reptiles  of the Torrid Zone" in  galoshes, a fur
cap with ear-flaps and a scarf, breathing out white steam, to an audience of
eight. The rest of the time he lay under a rug on the divan in Prechistenka,
in a room with books piled up to the ceiling, coughing, gazing into the jaws
of  the  fiery  stove  which Maria  Stepanov-na stoked with gilt chairs, and
remembering the Surinam toad.
     But all  things come to an end. So it was with 'twenty and 'twenty-one,
and in 'twenty-two a kind of reverse process began. Firstly, in place of the
dear departed  Vlas  there  appeared Pankrat, a  young,  but most  promising
zoological caretaker, and the Institute began to be  heated again a  little.
Then in  the summer  with Pankrat's  help  Persikov  caught  fourteen common
toads.  The  terrariums came to life again... In 'twenty-three Persikov gave
eight lectures a week, three at the Institute and five at the University, in
'twenty-four thirteen  a week, not including the ones  at  workers' schools,
and in the spring  of 'twenty-five distinguished himself by failing no  less
than seventy-six students, all on amphibians.
     "What, you don't know  the difference between amphibians and reptilia?"
Persikov  asked.  "That's quite  ridiculous,  young  man.  Amphibia  have no
kidneys. None at all. So  there. You should be ashamed of yourself. I expect
you're a Marxist, aren't you?"
     "Yes," replied the devastated student, faintly.
     "Well, kindly retake the  exam in  the autumn," Persikov said  politely
and shouted cheerfully to Pankrat: "Send in the next one!"
     Just as amphibians come  to  life after  a long drought, with the first
heavy shower of rain, so Professor  Persikov revived in  1926  when a  joint
Americano-Russian  company built fifteen fifteen-storey apartment blocks  in
the centre of Moscow, beginning at the corner of Gazetny Lane and Tverskaya,
and 300  workers' cottages  on the outskirts, each  with  eight  apartments,
thereby putting  an- end once and for  all  to the terrible  and  ridiculous
accommodation  shortage which made  life such a  misery  for Muscovites from
1919 to 1925.
     In   fact,  it  was  a  marvellous  summer  in  Persikov's  life,   and
occasionally he  would  rub his  hands  with'  a  quiet,  satisfied  giggle,
remembering how he and Maria Stepanovna had been cooped up in two rooms. Now
the Professor  had  received  all  five back,  spread  himself, arranged his
two-and-a-half thousand  books, stuffed animals, diagrams and specimens, and
lit the green lamp on the desk in his study.
     You would  not have recognised the  Institute  either.  They painted it
cream, equipped  the  amphibian room with  a  special  water supply  system,
replaced all  the plate glass with mirrors and donated five new microscopes,
glass laboratory  tables,  some 2,000-amp. arc lights, reflectors and museum
     Persikov came  to life again, and  the  whole world suddenly learnt  of
this when  a  brochure  appeared  in December  1926 entitled "More About the
Reproduction  of  Polyplacophora  or  Chitons",  126 pp, Proceedings of  the
Fourth University.
     And in the autumn  of 1927 he published a definitive work of 350 pages,
subsequently  translated  into  six  languages, including Japanese.  It  was
entitled "The Embryology of  Pipae, Spadefoots and Frogs", price 3  roubles.
State Publishing House.
     But in the summer of 1928 something quite appalling happened...

     So, the Professor switched  on  the  light and looked  around. Then  he
turned on  the reflector  on the  long  experimental table, donned his white
coat, and fingered some instruments on the table...
     Of the thirty thousand mechanical carriages  that  raced" around Moscow
in 'twenty-eight many  whizzed  down Herzen Street, swishing over the smooth
paving-stones, and  every  few minutes a  16,22, 48  or 53 tram would career
round  the corner from  Herzen Street  to  Mokhovaya with  much grinding and
clanging. A pale and misty crescent moon cast reflections of coloured lights
through the laboratory windows and was visible far away  and high  up beside
the dark and heavy dome of the Church of Christ the Saviour.
     But neither the moon nor the Moscow spring bustle were of the slightest
concern to the Professor. He sat on his three-legged revolving stool turning
with tobacco-stained fingers the knob  of a  splendid Zeiss  microscope,  in
which there was an ordinary unstained specimen of fresh amoebas. At the very
moment  when  Persikov  was  changing the magnification  from  five  to  ten
thousand,  the  door  opened  slightly,  a pointed  beard  and  leather  bib
appeared, and his assistant called:
     "I've set up the  mesentery, Vladimir Ipatych. Would you care to take a
     Persikov slid quickly  down from  the  stool,  letting  go of the  knob
midway, and  went into  his assistant's room, twirling a cigarette slowly in
his  fingers. There,  on the glass table,  a half-suffocated frog stiff with
fright  and  pain lay crucified on  a  cork mat,  its transparent  micaceous
intestines pulled out of the bleeding abdomen under the microscope.
     "Very  good,"  said  Persikov,  peering   down  the  eye-piece  of  the
     He could  obviously  detect  something very interesting  in the  frog's
mesentery,  where live drops  of blood were racing merrily along the vessels
as clear as daylight. Persikov quite forgot about his amoebas. He and Ivanov
spent the next hour-and-a-half taking turns at the microscope and exchanging
animated remarks, quite incomprehensible to ordinary mortals.
     At last Persikov dragged himself away, announcing:
     "The blood's coagulating, it can't be helped."
     The frog's head twitched painfully and its dimming eyes  said  clearly:
"Bastards, that's what you are..."
     Stretching his stiff legs, Persikov got up, returned to his laboratory,
yawned, rubbed his permanently  inflamed eyelids, sat down on  the stool and
looked into the microscope, his  fingers about to move the knob. But move it
he  did not. With  his  right eye Persikov saw the  cloudy white  plate  and
blurred  pale amoebas on it, but in the middle  of the plate sat  a coloured
tendril, like a female curl. Persikov himself  and hundreds  of his students
had  seen this  tendril many times before  but taken no interest in it,  and
rightly so. The coloured streak of light merely got in the way and indicated
that  the  specimen  was  out  of focus. For this  reason  it was ruthlessly
eliminated with a single turn of the knob, which spread  an even white light
over the plate. The zoologist's  long fingers had already  tightened on  the
knob,  when  suddenly  they trembled and  let go. The  reason for  this  was
Persikov's right eye. It tensed,  stared in amazement and filled with alarm.
No mediocre mind to burden  the Republic sat by the microscope. No, this was
Professor Persikov! All his mental powers were now concentrated in his right
eye. For five  minutes or so in petrified silence  the higher being observed
the lower one, peering hard at the out-of-focus specimen. There was complete
silence  all around. Pankrat  had gone to  sleep in his  cubby-hole  in thes
vestibule, and only once there came a far-off gentle and musical tinkling of
glass in cupboards-that was Ivanov going out and locking his laboratory. The
entrance door groaned behind him. Then came  the  Professor's voice. To whom
his question was addressed no one knows.
     "What on earth is that? I don't understand..."
     A late lorry rumbled  down Herzen  Street, making the old walls of  the
Institute shake. The shallow glass bowl with pipettes  tinkled on the table.
The  Professor  turned pale and  put his hands over  the microscope,  like a
mother whose child is  threatened  by danger. There could now be no question
of Persikov turning  the knob.  Oh no, now he  was afraid that some external
force might push what he had seen out of his field of vision.
     It  was a full white morning with a strip of  gold which cut across the
Institute's cream porch when  the Professor left the microscope  and  walked
over to  the window  on  stiff  legs.  With trembling  fingers  he pressed a
button,  dense  black shutters blotted out the morning and a  wise scholarly
night descended on the room. Sallow and inspired, Persikov placed  his  feet
apart, staring at the parquet floor with his watering eyes, and exclaimed:
     "But  how can it be? It's  monstrous!  Quite monstrous,  gentlemen," he
repeated, addressing the toads in the terrarium, who were asleep and made no
     He paused,  then went over to the button,  raised the shutters,  turned
out  all  the lights and looked into the microscope. His face grew tense and
he raised his bushy yellow eyebrows.
     "Aha, aha," he muttered.  "It's gone. I see. I understand," he drawled,
staring  with crazed  and inspired  eyes at the extinguished light overhead.
"It's simple."
     Again  he  let  down the hissing  shutters and put on the  light.  Then
looked into the microscope and grinned happily, almost greedily.
     "I'll catch  it," he  said solemnly and  gravely, crooking his  finger.
"I'll catch it. Perhaps the sun will do it too."
     The shutters shot  up once more.  Now  you could  see  the sun. It  was
shining  on  the walls of the Institute and slanting down onto the pavements
of Herzen Street. The Professor looked through the window, working out where
the sun would be in the afternoon. He kept stepping back and forwards, doing
a little dance, and eventually lay stomach down on the window-sill.
     After  that  he  got down  to some important  and  mysterious  work. He
covered  the  microscope with  a  bell  glass.  Then  he melted  a  piece of
sealing-wax  in the bluish  flame of the Bun-sen  burner, sealed the edge of
the glass to the table and made a thumb print on  the blobs of  wax. Finally
he turned off  the gas and  went out,  locking  the laboratory  door  firmly
behind him.
     There was semi-darkness in the Institute corridors.
     The Professor reached Pankrat's door and knocked for  a long time to no
effect.  At  last  something  inside  growled like a  watchdog,  coughed and
snorted  and  Pankrat appeared in  the  lighted doorway wearing long striped
underpants tied at  the ankles. His  eyes glared wildly at the scientist and
he whimpered softly with sleep.
     "I must apologise for waking you up, Pankrat," said the
     Professor, peering  at  him over his  spectacles.  "But please don't go
into my laboratory this  morning, dear chap. I've left some work  there that
must on no account be moved. Understand?"
     "Grrr, yessir," Pankrat replied, not understanding a thing.
     He staggered a bit and growled.
     "Now listen here,  Pankrat,  you just  wake up," the zoologist ordered,
prodding  him  lightly in  the  ribs,  which  produced  a look  of fright on
Pankrat's face and a glimmer of comprehension in his eyes. "I've  locked the
laboratory," Persikov went on, "so you need  not clean it until I come back.
     "Yessir," Pankrat croaked.
     "That's fine then, go back to bed."
     Pankrat  turned round, disappeared inside  and collapsed onto the  bed.
The Professor  went into the vestibule. Putting  on his grey summer coat and
soft hat, he remembered what he had observed in the microscope and stared at
his galoshes for a  few seconds, as if seeing them for the first time.  Then
he put on the  left  galosh and tried to put  the  right one over it, but it
wouldn't go on.
     "What  an incredible coincidence  that  he  called  me  away," said the
scientist. "Otherwise I would never have noticed it. But  what does it mean?
The devil only knows!.."
     The Professor smiled, squinted  at his galoshes, took off the left  one
and  put  on  the  right. "Good heavens!  One  can't  even imagine  all  the
consequences..."  The  Professor  prodded  off  the  left  galosh, which had
irritated him by not going on top of the right, and walked to the front door
wearing  one  galosh  only. He  also  lost his  handkerchief and  went  out,
slamming the heavy  door. On  the porch he searched  in his pockets for some
matches, patting  his  sides, found them eventually  and  set  off  down the
street with an unlit cigarette in his mouth.
     The scientist did not  meet a soul all the  way to the church. There he
threw back his  head and stared at the golden  dome. The sun  was licking it
avidly on one side.
     "Why  didn't  I  notice it before? What  a coincidence! Well, I  never!
Silly ass!" The Professor looked down and  stared pensively at his strangely
shod  feet. "Hm, what shall  I do? Go back to Pankrat? No, there's no waking
him. It's a pity to throw the wretched  thing away. I'll have to carry  it."
He removed the galosh and set off carrying it distastefully.
     An old car  drove out of Prechistenka with  three passengers. Two  men,
slightly tipsy,  with a  garishly made-up woman in those baggy silk trousers
that were all the rage in 1928 sitting on their lap.
     "Hey, Dad!" she  shouted in a low husky voice. "Did  you sell the other
galosh for booze?"
     "The old boy got sozzled at the Alcazar,"  howled the man  on the left,
while the one on the right leaned out of the car and shouted:
     "Is  the  night-club  in Volkhonka still open, Dad? That's where  we're
making for!"
     The Professor looked at them sternly  over the  top of his glasses, let
the  cigarette  fall  out  of  his  mouth and  then immediately forgot  they
existed. A beam was cutting its way through Prechistensky Boulevard, and the
dome of Christ the Saviour had begun to burn. The sun had come out.

     What had  happened  was this. When the Professor put his discerning eye
to the  microscope,  he  noticed  for the first  time in his  life  that one
particular ray in  the coloured tendril stood  out  more vividly  and boldly
than the others.  This  ray was bright red and stuck out of the tendril like
the tiny point of a needle, say.
     Thus,  as ill luck would have it,  this ray attracted the  attention of
the great man's experienced eye for several seconds.
     In it, the ray, the Professor detected something a thousand
     times  more  significant  and  important  than  the  ray  itself,  that
precarious offspring accidentally engendered by the movement of a microscope
mirror  and  lens. Due to  the  assistant calling  the Professor away,  some
amoebas had been subject to the action of the ray for an hour-and-a-half and
this is what had happened: whereas the blobs of amoebas on the plate outside
the ray simply lay there limp and helpless, some very strange phenomena were
taking place on the spot over  which  the sharp red  sword  was poised. This
strip of red was teeming with life. The old amoebas were forming pseudopodia
in a desperate effort to reach the red strip, and when they did they came to
life,  as if by  magic. Some force  seemed to  breathe life into  them. They
flocked there, fighting  one another for a place in  the ray, where the most
frantic  (there was no other word for  it) reproduction was taking place. In
defiance of all the laws which Persikov knew like the back of his hand, they
gemmated  before his eyes with lightning speed. They split into  two  in the
ray,  and each  of the  parts  became a new, fresh organism  in a  couple of
seconds.  In  another  second or  two these organisms  grew  to maturity and
produced a new  generation  in their turn. There was soon  no room at all in
the red strip or  on the plate, and inevitably a bitter struggle  broke out.
The newly born amoebas tore one another to pieces and gobbled the pieces up.
Among the newly born  lay the corpses of those who had perished in the fight
for  survival.  It was the  best  and  strongest  who  won.  And  they  were
terrifying. Firstly, they were about twice the size of ordinary amoebas and,
secondly, they  were far  more active and  aggressive. Their movements  were
rapid,  their  pseudopodia much  longer than  normal, and  it  would  be  no
exaggeration to say that they used them like an octopus's tentacles.
     On  the  second  evening the  Professor,  pale  and haggard,  his  only
sustenance   the  thick  cigarettes  he  rolled  himself,  studied  the  new
generation of amoebas. And on the third day he turned to the primary source,
i.e., the red ray.
     The  gas  hissed faintly in  the  Bunsen burner,  the traffic clattered
along  the  street  outside,  and  the  Professor,  poisoned  by  a  hundred
cigarettes, eyes half-closed, leaned back in his revolving chair.
     "I see it all  now. The ray brought them to life. It's a new ray, never
studied or even discovered by anyone before. The first  thing is to find out
whether it is produced only by electricity, or by the sun as well," Persikov
muttered to himself.
     The next  night provided the answer  to this question. Persikov  caught
three  rays in  three microscopes from  the arc light,  but nothing from the
sun, and summed this up as follows:
     "We must assume that it is not found in the solar spectrum... Hm, well,
in  short we  must assume it can only  be obtained  from electric light." He
gazed  fondly at the frosted ball overhead, thought for a moment and invited
Ivanov  into  the  laboratory, where  he  told  him  all  and showed him the
     Decent Ivanov was amazed, quite flabbergasted. Why  on  earth hadn't  a
simple  thing as this tiny arrow been noticed  before? By anyone, or even by
him, Ivanov. It was really appalling! Just look...
     "Look, Vladimir Ipatych!" Ivanov said, his eye glued to the microscope.
"Look what's happening! They're growing be" fore my  eyes... You must take a
     "I've been observing them for three days," Persikov replied animatedly.
     Then a conversation took place between  the two scientists, the gist of
which  was as  follows. Decent  Ivanov undertook with the help of lenses and
mirrors to make a  chamber in which they  could  obtain the ray in magnified
form without a microscope. Ivanov hoped, was even convinced, that this would
be extremely  simple. He would obtain the ray, Vladimir Ipatych need have no
doubts on that score. There was a slight pause.
     "When  I publish a paper, I shall mention that the chamber was built by
you,  Pyotr Stepanovich,"  Persikov  interspersed,  feeling  that  the pause
should be ended.
     "Oh, that doesn't matter... However, if you insist..."
     And the pause ended.  After that the ray devoured Ivanov as well. While
Persikov,  emaciated and hungry, spent all day and  half  the night  at  his
microscope, Ivanov got busy in the brightly-lit  physics laboratory, working
out a combination of lenses and mirrors. He was assisted by the mechanic.
     Following  a  request made to  the Commissariat of  Education, Persikov
received three parcels  from  Germany  containing  mirrors,  convexo-convex,
concavo-concave and even some convexo-concave polished lenses. The upshot of
all this was that Ivanov not only built his chamber, but actually caught the
red ray in it.  And quite brilliantly, it must be said. The ray was a  thick
one, about four centimetres in diameter, sharp and strong.
     On June  1st  the  chamber was set up in Persikov's laboratory, and  he
began  experimenting  avidly  by  putting  frog  spawn  in  the  ray.  These
experiments produced amazing  results.  In  the  course of forty-eight hours
thousands of tadpoles  hatched  out from  the spawn. But  that was  not all.
Within another twenty-four hours the tadpoles  grew fantastically  into such
vicious, greedy frogs that half of them were devoured by the other half. The
survivors  then  began to  spawn  rapidly and two  days  later, without  the
assistance of the ray, a new generation appeared too numerous to count. Then
all hell was let loose in the Professor's laboratory. The tadpoles slithered
out  all over  the Institute. Lusty choirs croaked loudly in  the terrariums
and all the nooks and crannies, as in marshes. Pankrat, who was scared stiff
of Persikov as  it was, now went in  mortal terror of him. After a week  the
scientist himself felt he  was going  mad. The Institute reeked of ether and
potassium  cyanide,  which nearly finished off  Pankrat when he removed  his
mask  too   soon.  This   expanding  marshland  generation  was   eventually
exterminated with poison and the laboratories aired.
     "You know, Pyotr Stepanovich,"  Persikov said to Ivanov, "the effect of
the ray on deuteroplasm and on the ovule in general is quite extraordinary."
     Ivanov,  a cold and reserved gentleman, interrupted the Professor in an
unusual voice:
     "Why talk  of  such  minor details  as  deuteroplasm, Vladimir Ipatych?
Let's not beat about the bush. You  have discovered something unheard-of..."
With  a  great  effort  Ivanov  managed to force the  words  out. "You  have
discovered the ray of life, Professor Persikov!"
     A faint flush appeared on Persikov's pale, unshaven cheekbones.
     "Well, well," he mumbled.
     "You," Ivanov went on, "you will win such renown... It makes my head go
round. Do you understand, Vladimir Ipatych," he continued excitedly,  "H. G.
Wells's heroes  are nothing  compared  to you... And I thought that was  all
make-believe... Remember his Food for the Gods'!"
     "Ah, that's a novel," Persikov replied.
     "Yes, of course, but it's famous!"
     "I've forgotten it," Persikov said. "I  remember  reading it,  but I've
forgotten it."
     "How can you  have? Just look at that!" Ivanov  picked up an incredibly
large frog with a swollen belly  from the glass table by its leg. Even after
death its face had a vicious expression. "It's monstrous!"

     Goodness only knows why, perhaps  Ivanov  was  to blame or perhaps  the
sensational news  just travelled through the air on its own, but in the huge
seething city  of Moscow people suddenly  started  talking about the ray and
Professor  Persikov.  True, only in passing and vaguely. The news  about the
miraculous discovery hopped like  a wounded bird round the  shining capital,
disappearing from time  to time, then popping up again,  until the middle of
July when a short item about  the ray appeared in the Science and Technology
News section on page 20 of the newspaper Izvestia. It announced briefly that
a well-known  professor at the Fourth University had invented  a ray capable
of  increasing the  activity of lower organisms to an incredible degree, and
that the phenomenon would  have to  be checked. There  was a  mistake in the
name, of course, which was given as "Pepsikov".
     Ivanov brought the newspaper and showed Persikov the article.
     "Pepsikov," muttered Persikov, as he busied himself with the chamber in
his laboratory. "How do those newsmongers find out everything?"
     Alas, the misprinted surname did not save the Professor from the events
that  followed,  and  they began  the  very  next day,  immediately  turning
Persikov's whole life upside down.
     After a discreet knock,  Pankrat appeared in the  laboratory and handed
Persikov a magnificent glossy visiting card.
     "'E's out there," Pankrat added timidly.
     The elegantly printed card said:

     Alfred Arkadyevich Bronsky
     Correspondent  for the  Moscow  magazines Red  Light,  Red Pepper,  Red
Journal and Red Searchlight and the newspaper Red Moscow Evening News

     "Tell  him to go  to  blazes," said Persikov  flatly, tossing the  card
under the table.
     Pankrat turned round  and went  out, only to  return five minutes later
with  a  pained expression on his face  and  a second  specimen of the  same
visiting card.
     "Is  this supposed to be a joke?"  squeaked Persikov,  his voice shrill
with rage.
     "Sez 'e's from the Gee-Pee-Yoo," Pankrat replied, white as a sheet.
     Persikov snatched the  card  with one hand,  almost tearing it in half,
and threw his pincers onto the table with the other. The card bore a message
in ornate handwriting: "Humbly request three  minutes of your precious time,
esteemed Professor, on public press business, correspondent of the satirical
magazine Red Maria, a GPU publication."
     "Send him in," said Persikov with a sigh.
     A  young man  with a smoothly shaven oily face  immediately popped  out
from  behind  Pankrat's  back.  He  had  permanently raised eyebrows, like a
Chinaman, over agate  eyes which  never looked at the person  he was talking
to. The young man  was dressed impeccably in  the latest fashion. He wore  a
long  narrow  jacket  down  to  his  knees,  extremely  baggy  trousers  and
unnaturally wide glossy shoes with toes like hooves. In his hands  he held a
cane, a hat with a pointed top and a note-pad.
     "What  do you want?"  asked  Persikov  in  a  voice which sent  Pankrat
scuttling out of the room. "Weren't you told that I am busy?"
     In lieu  of a reply the  young man bowed twice to the Professor, to the
left  and  to  the  right of  him,  then  his eyes  skimmed  over  the whole
laboratory, and the young man jotted a mark in his pad.
     "I am  busy," repeated the  Professor, looking with loathing  into  the
visitor's eyes, but to no avail for they were too elusive.
     "A  thousand apologies, esteemed  Professor," the young man said  in  a
thin voice, "for intruding upon you  and taking  up your precious time,  but
the news of your incredible discovery which  has astounded  the whole  world
compels our journal to ask you for some explanations."
     "What  explanations,  what  whole  world?"  Persikov whined  miserably,
turning yellow.  "I don't have to give you any explanations  or anything  of
the sort... I'm busy... Terribly busy."
     "What are you working on?" the young man  asked ingratiatingly, putting
a second mark in his pad.
     "Well, I'm... Why? Do you want to publish something?"
     "Yes," replied the young man and suddenly started scribbling furiously.
     "Firstly, I do not intend to publish anything  until I have finished my
work ... and certainly not in your newspapers...  Secondly, how did you find
out about this?" Persikov suddenly felt at a loss.
     "Is it true that you have invented a new life ray?"
     "What  new  life?"  exploded the  Professor.  "You're  talking absolute
piffle! The ray I am working on has not been fully  studied,  and nothing at
all is known yet! It may be able to increase the activity of protoplasm..."
     "By how much?" the young man asked quickly.
     Persikov was really at a loss now. "The insolent devil! What the blazes
is going on?" he thought to himself.
     "What ridiculous questions! Suppose I say, well, a thousand times!"
     Predatory delight flashed in the young man's eyes.'
     "Does that produce gigantic organisms?" "Nothing of the sort!  Well, of
course, the organisms  I have  obtained are bigger than  usual. And  they do
have  some new  properties.  But the main  thing is  not the  size, but  the
incredible speed of reproduction," Persikov heard himself say to his  utmost
dismay. Having filled up a whole page, the young man turned over and went on
     "Don't write  it down!"  Persikov croaked in despair, realising that he
was in the young man's hands. "What are you writing?"
     "Is it  true  that  in  forty-eight  hours you can  hatch  two  million
tadpoles from frog-spawn?"
     "From  how much  spawn?"  exploded Persikov, losing  his  temper again.
"Have you ever seen the spawn of a tree-frog, say?"
     "From half-a-pound?" asked  the young man, unabashed.  Persikov flushed
with anger.
     "Whoever  measures it like  that? Pah! What are you  talking about?  Of
course,  if you  were to  take half-a-pound of frog-spawn,  then  perhaps...
Well, about that much, damn it, but perhaps a lot more!"
     Diamonds flashed  in the young man's eyes, as he filled  up yet another
page in one fell swoop.
     "Is  it  true that  this  will  cause  a  world  revolution  in  animal
     "Trust the  press  to ask  a question like  that," Persikov  howled. "I
forbid you  to  write  such rubbish. I  can see from your  face that  you're
writing sheer nonsense!"
     "And now, if you'd  be so kind, Professor,  a photograph of  you," said
the young man, closing his note-pad with a snap.
     "What's that? A photograph of me? To put  in  those magazines of yours?
Together with all that  diabolical rubbish you've been scribbling down.  No,
certainly not... And I'm extremely busy. I really must ask you to..."
     "Any old one will do. And we'll return it straightaway." "Pankrat!" the
Professor  yelled in a fury. "Your  humble servant," said the young  man and
vanished. Instead  of  Pankrat  came the strange rhythmic  scraping sound of
something metallic  hitting the floor, and into the laboratory rolled a  man
of unusual  girth,  dressed in a blouse and  trousers  made from  a  woollen
blanket. His left, artificial leg clattered  and clanked, and he was holding
a briefcase. The clean-shaven round face resembling yellowish meat-jelly was
creased  into  a  welcoming  smile.  He  bowed  in  military  fashion to the
Professor and drew himself  up, his leg giving  a springlike  snap. Persikov
was speechless.
     "My dear Professor," the stranger began in a pleasant, slightly throaty
voice, "forgive an ordinary mortal for invading your seclusion."
     "Are you a reporter?" Persikov asked. "Pankrat!"
     "Certainly  not, dear  Professor," the  fat  man replied. "Allow me  to
introduce  myself-naval captain  and contributor  to the  Industrial Herald,
newspaper of the Council of People's Commissars."
     "Pankrat!" cried Persikov hysterically, and  at that very  moment a red
light went on in  the corner  and the telephone rang softly. "Pankrat!"  the
Professor cried again. "Hello."
     "Verzeihen Sie bitte, Herr Professor," croaked the telephone in German,
"das ich store. Ich bin Mitarbeiter des Berliner Tageblatts..."
     "Pankrat!" the Professor shouted down  the receiver. "Bin momental sehr
beschaftigt und kann Sie deshalb jetzt nicht empfangen. Pankrat!"
     And just at this moment the bell at the main door started ringing.
     "Terrible murder in Bronnaya Street!" yelled unnaturally hoarse voices,
darting about  between  wheels  and flashing  headlights  on  the  hot  June
roadway.  "Terrible  illness  of  chickens  belonging to  the priest's widow
Drozdova with  a picture of her! Terrible discovery of life ray by Professor
     Persikov dashed out so quickly that he almost got run over by a  car in
Mokhovaya and grabbed a newspaper angrily.
     "Three  copecks, citizen!" cried the newsboy, squeezing  into the crowd
on the pavement and yelling: "Red Moscow Evening News, discovery of X-ray!"
     The  flabbergasted Persikov opened the  newspaper and huddled against a
lamp-post.  On page two  in  the left-hand  corner  a  bald man with crazed,
unseeing  eyes  and  a  hanging  lower  jaw,  the fruit of Alfred  Bronsky's
artistic endeavours,
     stared at him from a  smudged frame. The caption beneath it read: "V I.
Persikov who discovered the  mysterious ray." Lower down,  under the heading
World-Wide Enigma was an article which began as follows:
     "'Take   a   seat,'   the   eminent   scientist   Persikov  invited  me
     The article was signed with a flourish "Alfred Bronsky (Alonso)".
     A greenish light soared up over the University roof; the words "Talking
Newspaper" lit up in the sky, and a crowd jammed Mokhovaya.
     "Take a seat!' an  unpleasant  thin  voice,  just like Alfred Bronsky's
magnified  a thousand times,  yelped  from a loudspeaker on  the roof,  "the
eminent scientist Persikov invited me hospitably. 'I've been wanting to tell
the workers of Moscow the results of my discovery for some time...'"
     There was a faint metallic scraping behind Persikov's back, and someone
tugged at his  sleeve. Turning round  he  saw the yellow rotund face of  the
owner of  the artificial leg. His  eyes  were glistening  with tears and his
lips trembled.
     "You  wouldn't  tell  me  the  results  of your  remarkable  discovery,
Professor,"  he said sadly with a deep  sigh.  "So that's farewell to a  few
more copecks."
     He gazed  miserably at the University  roof, where the invisible Alfred
raved  on  in the loudspeaker's  black jaws.  For  some reason Persikov felt
sorry for the fat man.
     "I never asked him to  sit down!" he  growled, catching words from  the
sky furiously. "He's an utter scoundrel! You must excuse me, but really when
you're working like that and people come bursting in... I'm not referring to
you, of course..."
     "Then perhaps you'd just describe your chamber to  me,  Professor?" the
man  with  the  artificial  leg wheedled  mournfully.  "It  doesn't make any
difference now..."
     "In three days half-a-pound of frog-spawn  produces more  tadpoles than
you could possibly count," the invisible man in the loudspeaker boomed.
     "Toot-toot," cried the cars on Mokhovaya.
     "Ooo! Ah! Listen to that!" the crowd murmured, staring upwards.
     "What a  scoundrel! Eh?" hissed Persikov,  shaking  with anger, to  the
artificial  man. "How do you  like that? I'll  lodge  an  official complaint
against him."
     "Disgraceful!" the fat man agreed.
     A  blinding  violet  ray  dazzled  the Professor's  eyes,  lighting  up
everything around-a lamp-post, a section  of pavement, a yellow wall and the
avid faces.
     "They're   photographing   you,   Professor,"  the  fat  man  whispered
admiringly and hung  on  the  Professor's arm like  a ton weight.  Something
clicked in the air.
     "To blazes with them!"  cried Persikov wretchedly, pushing his way with
the ton weight out of the crowd. "Hey, taxi! Prechistenka Street!"
     A battered old jalopy, a 'twenty-four model, chugged to a stop, and the
Professor climbed in, trying to shake off the fat man.
     "Let go!" he hissed, shielding  his face with his hands to ward off the
violet light.
     "Have you read it? What they're  shouting? Professor  Persikov and  his
children've had  their throats cut in Malaya Bronnaya!" people were shouting
in the crowd.
     "I  don't  have  any children, blast you!"  yelled  Persikov,  suddenly
coming into the  focus of a  black camera which  snapped him in profile with
his mouth wide open and eyes glaring.
     "Chu... ug, chu... ug," revved the taxi and barged into the crowd.
     The fat man was  already sitting in  the  cab, warming the  Professor's

     In  the  small   provincial  town  formerly  called  Trinity,  but  now
Glassworks, in Kostroma Province  (Glassworks District),  a  woman in a grey
dress with a kerchief tied round her head walked  onto the porch of a little
house in  what was formerly Church, but  now  Personal Street and burst into
tears.  This  woman, the widow of Drozdov,  the  former priest of the former
church,  sobbed  so loudly that  soon another woman's head in a fluffy scarf
popped out of a window in the house across the road and exclaimed:
     "What's the matter, Stepanovna? Another one?"
     "The seventeenth!" replied the former Drozdova, sobbing even louder.
     "Dearie me," tutted  the woman in the scarf, shaking her head, "did you
ever hear of such a thing? Tis the anger  of the Lord, and no mistake! Dead,
is she?"
     "Come and see, Matryona," said the priest's widow, amid loud and bitter
sobs. "Take a look at her!"
     Banging the rickety grey gate, the woman padded barefoot over the dusty
hummocks in the road to be taken by the priest's widow into the chicken run.
     It  must  be said  that  instead of losing  heart, the widow  of Father
Sawaty Drozdov, who had died  in twenty-six of anti-religious mortification,
set  up a  nice little poultry business. As soon as things began to go well,
the widow received such  an exorbitant tax  demand that the poultry business
would have closed down had it  not  been for certain good folk. They advised
the widow to inform the  local authorities that  she, the widow, was setting
up a poultry cooperative. The cooperative consisted of Drozdova herself, her
faithful servant Matryoshka and the widow's dear niece. The tax was reduced,
and the poultry-farm prospered so much that in twenty-eight the widow had as
many as  250  chickens, even including some Cochins. Each Sunday the widow's
eggs appeared at Glassworks market. They were sold in Tambov and  were  even
occasionally displayed  in the windows of the  former Chichkin's  Cheese and
Butter Shop in Moscow.
     And  now, the seventeenth brahmaputra  that  morning, their dear little
crested hen, was walking round the yard vomiting. The poor thing gurgled and
retched, rolling her  eyes sadly at  the sun as  if she  would  never see it
again. In front of her squatted co-operative-member Matryoshka with a cup of
     "Come  on,  Cresty  dear...  chuck-chuck-chuck...  drink  some  water,"
Matryoshka begged, thrusting the cup under the hen's beak, but the hen would
not  drink. She opened her beak wide, threw back her head and began to vomit
     "Lord Jesus!" cried the guest, slapping her thighs. "Just look at that!
Clots of blood. I've never seen a hen bring up like  that before, so help me
     These words accompanied the poor hen on her  last journey. She suddenly
keeled  over, digging her beak helplessly into the dust, and  swivelled  her
eyes. Then  she  rolled  onto  her back with her legs  sticking  up  and lay
motionless. Matryoshka wept in her deep bass voice, spilling the  water, and
the  Chairman of the cooperative, the  priest's  widow,  wept too while  her
guest lent over and whispered in her ear:
     "Stepanovna, I'll eat my hat if someone hasn't put the evil eye on your
hens. Whoever heard of it! Chickens don't have diseases like this! Someone's
put a spell on them."
     "Tis devils' work!" the priest's  widow cried  to heaven. "They want to
see me good and done for!"
     Her words called forth a loud cock-a-doodle-doo, and  lurching sideways
out of the chicken-coop, like a restless drunk out of a tavern, came a tatty
scrawny rooster. Rolling his eyes at them ferociously, he staggered about on
the spot and spread his wings like an eagle,  but  instead of flying up,  he
began to run round the yard in circles, like a horse on a rope. On his third
time round  he  stopped,  vomited, then began  to cough and choke,  spitting
blood all over the place and finally fell down with  his legs pointing up at
the sun  like masts.  The  yard  was filled with women's  wails,  which were
answered  by  an   anxious  clucking,  clattering  and  fidgeting  from  the
     "What did I tell you? The evil eye," said the guest triumphantly.  "You
must get Father Sergius to sprinkle holy water."
     At six o'clock in the evening, when the sun's  fiery visage was sitting
low among the faces of  young sunflowers, Father  Sergius, the senior priest
at the church, finished the  rite and took  off his stole. Inquisitive heads
peeped  over the wooden fence and through the cracks. The  mournful priest's
widow kissed the crucifix and handed a torn yellow rouble note damp from her
tears to Father Sergius, in response to which the latter sighed and muttered
something about the  good Lord visiting his wrath upon us. Father  Sergius's
expression suggested that he knew perfectly well why the good Lord was doing
so, only he would not say.
     Whereupon the crowd in  the street dispersed, and since  chickens go to
sleep  early no  one knew  that in the chicken-coop  of Drozdova's neighbour
three  hens and a rooster had kicked  the bucket all  at once. They  vomited
like  Drozdova's  hens, only  their end came  inconspicuously  in the locked
chicken-coop. The rooster  toppled off the perch head-first and died in that
pose. As for the widow's hens, they gave  up the ghost immediately after the
service, and by  evening there  was  a deathly hush in her chicken-coop  and
piles of dead poultry.
     The next morning the town got up and was thunderstruck to hear that the
story had assumed strange,  monstrous proportions. By midday there were only
three chickens still alive in  Personal Street, in  the last house where the
provincial tax  inspector rented lodgings, but they, too, popped off by  one
p.  m. And come evening, the small  town  of Glassworks  was buzzing  like a
bee-hive  with  the terrible  word "plague"  passing  from mouth  to  mouth.
Drozdova's name got into The Red Warrior, the local newspaper, in an article
entitled  "Does  This Mean  a  Chicken  Plague?" and from there raced on  to
     Professor  Persikov's  life  took on  a  strange, uneasy and  worrisome
complexion.  In  short,  it was quite impossible for  him  to  work in  this
situation.  The  day after he  got rid  of Alfred Bronsky, he was  forced to
disconnect the telephone in  his laboratory  at the Institute  by taking the
receiver off,  and  in the evening as he  was riding  along Okhotny Row in a
tram, the  Professor saw himself on  the roof of  an enormous building  with
Workers'  Paper in  black  letters. He, the  Professor, was  climbing into a
taxi,  fuming,  green around the gills, and blinking,  followed  by a rotund
figure  in a blanket,  who was clutching his  sleeve. The  Professor  on the
roof, on  the  white  screen, put his  hands  over his face to ward  off the
violet ray. Then followed in letters  of  fire: "Professor Persikov in a car
explaining  everything to  our well-known  reporter  Captain  Stepanov." And
there was the rickety old jalopy dashing along Volkhonka, past the Church of
Christ  the  Saviour,  with the  Professor bumping up  and down  inside  it,
looking like a wolf at bay.
     "They're devils,  not  human  beings,"  the  zoologist  hissed  through
clenched teeth as he rode past.
     That evening, returning to his apartment in Prechistenka, the zoologist
received from  the housekeeper, Maria Stepanovna, seventeen  slips  of paper
with the telephone numbers of  people who had rung  during his absence, plus
Maria  Stepanovna's oral statement that she was  worn out. The Professor was
about  to  tear the  pieces of  paper up, but stopped  when he saw "People's
Commissariat of Health" scribbled next to one of the numbers.
     "What's up?" the eccentric scientist was genuinely puzzled. "What's the
matter with them?"
     At ten fifteen on the same evening the bell rang, and the Professor was
obliged  to  converse  with  a  certain  exquisitely  attired  citizen.  The
Professor received  him  thanks  to a  visiting  card  which  said  (without
mentioning any names) "Authorised Head of Trading Sections for Foreign Firms
Represented in the Republic of Soviets."
     "The  devil take  him," Persikov growled, putting his magnifying  glass
and some diagrams down on the baize cloth.
     "Send him in here, that authorised whatever  he  is," he said to  Maria
     "What  can I  do  for you?" Persikov  asked in  a  tone that  made  the
authorised  whatever  he  was  shudder  perceptibly.  Persikov  shifted  his
spectacles  from his  nose  to his forehead and  back  again, and looked his
visitor  up  and down.  The latter glistened with  hair  cream  and precious
stones, and  a  monocle sat in his right  eye.  "What a foul-looking  face,"
Persikov thought to himself for some reason.
     The guest began in circuitous  fashion by asking permission to smoke  a
cigar, as a result of which Persikov reluctantly invited him to take a seat.
Then  the guest began  apologising at length  for having come  so late. "But
it's  impossible  to  catch  ... oh,  tee-hee, pardon  me  ...  to find  the
Professor at  home in  the daytime." (The guest gave  a sobbing laugh like a
     "Yes,  I'm  very busy!"  Persikov  answered so curtly  that the visitor
shuddered visibly again.
     Nevertheless  he  had  taken  the  liberty  of  disturbing  the  famous
scientist. Time is money, as they say ... the Professor didn't object to his
cigar, did he?
     "Hrmph, hrmph, hrmph," Persikov replied. He'd given him permission."
     "You have discovered the ray of life, haven't you, Professor?"
     "Balderdash! What life? The newspapers invented that!"
     "Oh, no, tee-hee-hee..." He perfectly understood the modesty that is an
invariable  attribute of  all  true scholars...  of course... There had been
telegrams today... In the cities of Warsaw  and Riga they had  already heard
about the ray. Professor Persikov's name was on everyone's lips... The whole
world was following his work with bated breath... But everyone knew how hard
it was  for scholars in Soviet  Russia. Entre nous, soi-dis...  There wasn't
anyone else listening, was there? Alas, they didn't appreciate academic work
here, so he would like to have a little talk with the Professor... A certain
foreign  state  was  offering   Professor  Persikov  entirely  disinterested
assistance  with his laboratory research. Why cast your pearls here,  as the
Scriptures  say?  This state knew how hard it had been  for the Professor in
'nineteen  and 'twenty  during that  tee-hee ... revolution. Of  course,  it
would all be kept absolutely secret. The Professor would inform the state of
the  results  of his work, and  it  would finance  him  in return. Take that
chamber he had built, for  instance. It would be  interesting to have a peep
at the designs for it...
     At this point  the  guest took  a pristine wad of  banknotes out of his
inside jacket pocket...
     A mere  trifle, a deposit of 5,000 roubles,  say, could be given to the
Professor  this  very  moment...  no  receipt  was  required. The authorised
whatever he  was  would be most offended if the  Professor even mentioned  a
     "Get out!" Persikov suddenly roared  so terrifyingly that the high keys
on the piano in the drawing-room vibrated.
     The guest vanished  so quickly that  after  a moment Persikov, who  was
shaking with rage, was not sure whether he had been a hallucination or not.
     "His galoshes?" Persikov yelled a moment later in the hall.
     "The gentleman forgot them, sir," replied a quaking Maria Stepanovna.
     "Throw them out!"
     "How can I? The gentleman's bound to come back for them."
     "Hand them over to the house committee. And get a receipt. Don't let me
ever set eyes  on them again! Take them to the committee! Let them have that
spy's galoshes!"
     Maria  Stepanovna  crossed  herself,  picked up  the  splendid  leather
galoshes and took them out of the back door.  She stood outside for a while,
then hid the galoshes in the pantry.
     "Handed them over?" growled Persikov.
     "Yes, sir."
     "Give me the receipt."
     "But the Chairman can't write, Vladimir Ipatych!"
     "Get. Me. A.  Receipt.  At. Once. Let  some literate rascal sign it for
     Maria  Stepanovna just shook her head, went off and  returned a quarter
of an hour later with a note which said:
     "Rcvd for storage from Prof. Persikov I (one) pr. ga's. Kolesov."
     "And what might that be?"
     "It's a baggage check, sir."
     Persikov trampled on the check, but put the receipt under the  blotter.
Then a  sudden  thought made  his high forehead  darken.  He  rushed to  the
telephone, rang Pankrat  at the  Institute and asked him  if everything  was
alright  there.  Pankrat snarled something into the receiver, which could be
interpreted  as meaning that,  as far as he could  see, everything there was
fine. But Persikov did not calm down for long. A moment later he grabbed the
phone and boomed into the receiver:
     "Give me the, what's it called, Lubyanka. Merci... Which of  you should
I  report this  to  ...  there  are  some suspicious-looking  characters  in
galoshes round here, and... Professor Persikov of the Fourth University..."
     The  receiver  suddenly cut the conversation short, and Persikov walked
away, cursing under his breath.
     "Would you like some tea, Vladimir Ipatych?" Maria  Stepanovna enquired
timidly, peeping into the study.
     "No, I would not  ... and the devil take the lot of them...  What's got
into them!"
     Exactly ten minutes later  the Professor received  some new visitors in
his study. One of them was pleasant, rotund  and very polite, in an ordinary
khaki service jacket  and breeches. A  pince-nez perched on his nose, like a
crystal butterfly. In  fact he looked like a cherub in patent leather boots.
The second, short and extremely grim, wore civilian clothes, but they seemed
to  constrict him. The third  visitor behaved in a most peculiar fashion. He
did  not  enter  the  Professor's  study,  but stayed  outside in  the  dark
corridor. The brightly  lit  study wreathed in clouds  of tobacco smoke  was
entirely visible to  him.  The face  of this  third man,  also  in  civilian
clothes, was adorned by a tinted pince-nez.
     The two  inside the study wore  Persikov  out completely, examining the
visiting  card,  asking him about the five thousand and making  him describe
what the man looked like.
     "The  devil only knows," Persikov muttered. "Well, he had  a  loathsome
face. A degenerate."
     "Did he have a glass eye?" the small man croaked.
     "The devil only knows. But no, he didn't. His eyes darted about all the
     "Rubinstein?" the cherub asked the small man quietly. But the small man
shook his head gloomily.
     "Rubinstein would never give cash without a receipt, that's  for sure,"
he muttered. "This isn't Rubinstein's work. It's someone bigger."
     The story about the  galoshes evoked the liveliest  interest  from  the
visitors.  The cherub rapped a few  words  down  the  receiver:  "The  State
Political  Board  orders  house  committee  secretary  Kolesov  to  come  to
Professor Persikov's  apartment I at once  with the  galoshes."  In a  flash
Kolesov  turned  up in  thes  study, pale-faced  and clutching the  pair  of
     "Vasenka!" the cherub called quietly  to  the man sitting  in the hall,
who  got up lethargically and slouched into the study. The tinted lenses had
swallowed up his eyes completely.
     "Yeh?" he asked briefly and sleepily.
     "The galoshes."
     The tinted lenses slid over the galoshes, and Persikov thought he saw a
pair of very sharp  eyes, not at all sleepy, flash out from under the lenses
for a second. But they disappeared almost at once.
     "Well, Vasenka?"
     The man called Vasenka replied in a flat voice:
     "Well what? They're Polenzhkovsky's galoshes."
     The house  committee was immediately deprived of  Professor  Persikov's
present. The  galoshes  disappeared in  a  newspaper. Highly  delighted, the
cherub  in the  service  jacket rose  to  his  feet and  began to  pump  the
Professor's hand,  even delivering  a small speech, the gist of which was as
follows: it did  the Professor  honour ... the Professor could  rest assured
... he would not be  disturbed any more,  either at the Institute or at home
... steps would be taken, his chambers were perfectly safe...
     "But couldn't you shoot  the  reporters?" asked  Persikov, looking over
his spectacles.
     His  question cheered the visitors up no end. Not only the small gloomy
one,  but  even  the tinted one in  the hall  gave a big smile.  Beaming and
sparkling, the cherub explained that that was impossible.
     "But who was that scoundrel who came here?"
     The  smiles disappeared at once, and the cherub replied  evasively that
it was just some petty speculator not  worth worrying about. All the same he
trusted that the  Professor  would  treat  the  events  of  this  evening in
complete confidence, and the visitors left.
     Persikov  returned  to  his  study  and  the  diagrams, but  he was not
destined  to study them. The  telephone's  red light went  on, and  a female
voice  suggested that the Professor  might like to  marry  an attractive and
amorous  widow  with  a  seven-roomed apartment. Persikov  howled  down  the
     "I advise  you to  get treatment from Professor Rossolimo..."  and then
the phone rang again.
     This time  Persikov  softened somewhat,  because  the  person,  quite a
famous one, who  was ringing from the Kremlin enquired at length with  great
concern  about  Persikov's  work  and  expressed  the  desire  to visit  his
laboratory. Stepping  back  from the telephone, Persikov  wiped his forehead
and took off the receiver.  Then  trumpets began  blaring and the shrieks of
the Valkyrie rang in the apartment upstairs. The cloth mill director's radio
had tuned in to the Wagner concert at the  Bolshoi. To the accompaniment  of
howls and rumbles  descending from the ceiling, Persikov  declared  to Maria
Stepanovna that he would  take the  director to  court,  smash  his radio to
bits, and  get the blazes out of Moscow, because somebody was clearly trying
to drive  him out.  He  broke his magnifying glass, spent  the  night on the
divan in the study and was lulled to sleep by  the sweet trills of  a famous
pianist wafted from the Bolshoi Theatre.
     The following day was  also full of surprises. After taking the tram to
the Institute, Persikov found a stranger  in a  fashionable green bowler hat
standing  on the  porch.  He scrutinised  Persikov  carefully,  but  did not
address any questions to  him,  so Persikov  put up with  him.  But  in  the
Institute  hall, apart from the  dismayed Pankrat, a second bowler hat stood
up as Persikov came  in and greeted him  courteously: "Good morning, Citizen
     "What do you want?" asked Persikov furiously, tearing off his coat with
Pankrat's help. But the  bowler hat quickly pacified  Persikov by whispering
in the gentlest of voices that there was no need at all for the Professor to
be upset. He, the bowler hat, was  there precisely in  order to protect  the
Professor from all sorts of  importunate  visitors. The Professor could rest
assured not only about the  laboratory doors, but also about the windows. So
saying the  stranger turned  back the lapel of his jacket  for a moment  and
showed the Professor a badge.
     "Hm  ...  you work  pretty efficiently,  I must say," Persikov growled,
adding naively: "What will you have to eat?"
     Whereupon the  bowler hat smiled and explained that someone  would come
to relieve him.
     The next three days  were splendid. The  Professor had two  visits from
the Kremlin and one from the  students whom he was  to examine. The students
all  failed to a man,  and you could see from their faces  that Persikov now
filled them with a superstitious dread.
     "Go and be bus  conductors! You're not fit to study zoology,"  came the
shouts from his laboratory.
     "Strict, is he?" the bowler hat asked Pankrat.
     "I should say so," Pankrat replied. "If any of 'em stick it to the end,
they come  staggerin'  out, sweatin' like  pigs, and make straight  for  the
     With all  this going on the Professor did not notice the time pass, but
on the  fourth day he  was again brought back to reality, thanks to a  thin,
shrill voice from the street.
     "Vladimir  Ipatych!" the  voice shouted through  the open  window  from
Herzen Street. The  voice  was in luck. Persikov had driven himself too hard
in  the  last few days. And  at that moment he  was  sitting in  an armchair
having a  rest and a smoke, with  a vacant stare in his  red-rimmed eyes. He
was exhausted. So it was even with a certain curiosity that he looked out of
the window and saw Alfred Bronsky on the pavement. The Professor  recognised
the titled  owner  of the  visiting card  from his pointed hat and note-pad.
Bronsky gave a tender and courteous bow to the window.
     "Oh,  it's you, is  it?" asked  the  Professor. He  did  not  have  the
strength to be  angry and was even curious to  know what would  happen next.
Protected  by the window he felt safe from  Alfred. The ever-vigilant bowler
hat  outside  immediately turned  an  ear  to  Bronsky.  The  latter's  face
blossomed into the smarmiest of smiles.
     "Just a sec or two, dear Professor," said Bronsky, raising his voice to
make himself heard. "I have one question only and it concerns zoology. May I
put it to you?"
     "You  may," Persikov replied in a  laconic, ironical  tone, thinking to
himself: "There's something American about that rascal, you know."
     "What  have  you  to say  re the  fowls,  Professor?"  shouted Bronsky,
cupping his hands round his mouth.
     Persikov was taken  aback.  He sat on the window-sill,  then got  down,
pressed a knob and shouted, pointing at the window: "Let that  fellow on the
pavement in, Pankrat!"
     When Bronsky  walked into the room, Persikov extended  his  bonhomie to
the point of barking "Sit down!" to him.
     Smiling ecstatically, Bronsky sat down on the revolving stool
     "Kindly explain something to me," Persikov began. "You  write for those
newspapers of yours, don't you?"
     "That is so," Alfred replied respectfully.
     "Well, what I can't understand is  how you can write  if you can't even
speak Russian properly.  What  do you mean by  'a sec or  two'  and  're the
     Bronsky gave a thin, respectful laugh.
     "Valentin Petrovich corrects it."
     "And who might Valentin Petrovich be?"
     "The head of the literary section."
     "Oh,  well. I'm  not  a philologist  anyway. Now,  leaving  aside  that
Petrovich of yours, what exactly do you wish to know about fowls?"
     "Everything you can tell me, Professor."
     At this point Bronsky armed himself  with  a pencil.  Sparks of triumph
flashed in Persikov's eyes.
     "You shouldn't have  come  to  me, I don't specialise in  our feathered
friends. You  should  have gone to  Yemelian Ivano-vich  Portugalov,  at the
First University. I personally know very little..."
     Bronsky smiled ecstatically to indicate that he had got the Professor's
joke. "Joke-very little!" he scribbled in his pad.
     "But if it interests you, of  course. Hens,  or cristates are a variety
of bird from the fowl species.  From the pheasant family," Persikov began in
a  loud voice, looking not at Bronsky, but  into  the far  distance where he
could see an audience of  thousands. "From the pheasant family ...phasianus.
They are birds with a fleshy skin crown and two gills under the lower jaw...
Hm, although some have  only one  in the middle  under the beak.  Now,  what
else. Their  wings are  short  and  rounded. The tail is  of medium  length,
somewhat stepped and even, I would say, roof-shaped. The middle feathers are
bent in the  form of a sickle... Pankrat... bring me model No.  705 from the
model room, the cross-section of the domestic cock. You don't need it? Don't
bring the model, Pankrat. I repeat, I am not a specialist. Go to Portugalov.
Now  let  me see, I  personally  know  of  six  types of  wild  fowl...  Hm,
Portugalov knows more...  In India  and  on the  Malaysian  archipelago. For
example, the Bankiva fowl, or Callus  bankiva. It is found in  the foothills
of the Himalayas, throughout India, in Assam and Burma... The  Java fowl, or
Gallus varius on Lombok, Sumbawa and Flores. And on the island of Java there
is the splendid Gallus eneus fowl. In  south-east India I  can recommend the
very beautiful Sonneratii.  I'll  show  you  a drawing of it  later.  As for
Ceylon, here we have the Stanley fowl, which is not found anywhere else."
     Bronsky sat there, eyes popping, and scribbled madly.
     "Anything else I can tell you?"
     "I'd like  to  hear  something about  fowl diseases," Alfred  whispered
     "Hm,  it's not  my subject.  You should  ask Portugalov. But  anyway...
Well, there are tape-worms, leeches, the itchmite, bird-mite, chicken louse,
Eomenacanthus stramineus, fleas, chicken cholera, inflammation of the mucous
membrane,  Pneumonomicosis,  tuberculosis,  chicken  mange...  all  sorts of
things (Persikov's eyes flashed.) ... poisoning, tumours, rickets, jaundice,
rheumatism, Ahorion Schonlein's  fungus - that's a most interesting disease.
Small spots like mould appear on the crown..."
     Bronsky wiped the sweat off his brow with a coloured handkerchief.
     "And what in  your opinion,  Professor,  is the cause  of  the  present
     "What catastrophe?"
     "Haven't you read about it, Professor?" exclaimed  Bronsky in surprise,
pulling a crumpled page of Izvestia out of his briefcase.
     "I don't read newspapers," Persikov pouted.
     "But why not, Professor?" Alfred asked gently.
     "Because they write such rubbish," Persikov replied, without thinking.
     "But  surely  not,  Professor?" Bronsky whispered softly, unfolding the
     "What's the matter?" asked Persikov, even rising to his feet. Bronsky's
eyes were flashing now. He pointed a sharp painted finger  at an  incredibly
large headline which ran right across the whole page: "Chicken plague in the
     "What?" asked Persikov, pushing his spectacles onto his forehead...

     The city shone, the lights danced, going out and blazing on. In Theatre
Square  the  white lamps of  buses mingled with  the green  lights of trams;
above the former Muir  and Merilees, its  tenth floor added later, skipped a
multi-coloured  electrical   woman,  tossing  out   letter   by  letter  the
multicoloured words:
     "Workers'  Credit". A crowd thronged and  murmured in  the small garden
opposite  the Bolshoi  Theatre,  where  a  multicoloured  fountain played at
night.  And  over   the  Bolshoi  itself  a  huge  loudspeaker  kept  making
     "Anti-fowl vaccinations at Lefortovo Veterinary Institute have produced
brilliant  results.  The  number of... fowl deaths for today has dropped  by
     Then the  loudspeaker changed  its tone, something growled inside it, a
spray of green blazed up over the theatre, then went out and the loudspeaker
complained in a deep bass:
     "An extraordinary commission has been set  up to fight the  fowl plague
consisting  of the People's Commissar of Health, the  People's Commissar  of
Agriculture,   the  head   of  animal  husbandry,  Comrade  Ptakha-Porosyuk,
Professors Persikov and Portugalov... and  Comrade Rabinovich!  New attempts
at intervention,"  the loudspeaker giggled and cried,  like  a  jackal,  "in
connection with the fowl plague!"
     Theatre Passage, Neglinnaya  and  Lubyanka blazed with white and violet
neon  strips  and flickering lights amid wailing  sirens and clouds of dust.
People  crowded round  the large  notices  on the walls,  lit by glaring red
     "All consumption of chickens and chicken  eggs is strictly forbidden on
pain  of  severe punishment. Any attempt by  private traders to sell them in
markets is punishable by law with confiscation of all property. All citizens
in possession of  eggs are  urgently requested to take them to local  police
     A screen on  the roof of the Workers' Paper showed chickens piled up to
the  sky  as  greenish firemen,  fragmenting and sparkling, hosed them  with
kerosene.  Red waves washed  over the screen, deathly smoke  belched  forth,
swirling in clouds, and drifted  up in a  column, then out  hopped the fiery
     "Dead chickens being burnt in Khodynka."
     Amid  the  madly  blazing  windows of shops open  until  three  in  the
morning,  with breaks  for lunch  and  supper, boarded-up windows with signs
saying  "Eggs  for  sale. Quality guaranteed"  stared  out  blindly. Hissing
ambulances with "Moscow  Health  Dept."  on  them raced  past  policemen and
overtook heavy buses, their sirens wailing.
     "Someone else poisoned himself with rotten eggs," the crowd murmured.
     The world-famous Empire Restaurant in Petrovsky Lines glowed with green
and orange lamps, and inside it by the portable telephones on the tables lay
liqueur-stained cardboard notices saying "No omelettes until further notice.
Try our fresh oysters."
     In the Hermitage Gardens, where  Chinese lanterns  shone like sad beads
in dead  choked foliage,  on a blindingly lit stage  the singers Shrams  and
Karmanchikov sang satirical songs composed by the poets Ardo and Arguyev,

     Oh, Mama, what shall I do
     Without my little eggies two?
     accompanied by a tap-dance.
     The theatre named after  the  deceased Vsevolod Meyer-hold who, it will
be remembered, met his end  in 1927  during  a production of Pushkin's Boris
Godunov, when the trapezes  with naked boyars  collapsed,  sported a running
coloured neon strip  announcing a new  play by the writer Erendors, entitled
"Fowl Farewell" directed by Kuchterman, a  pupil of Meyerhold. Next door, at
the Aquarium Gardens, ablaze with neon advertisements and shining half-naked
women, the revue "Son-of-a-Hen" by the writer Lenivtsev was playing  to loud
applause among  the  foliage  of  the  open-air  variety  stage.  And  along
Tverskaya trotted a line of circus donkeys, with lanterns under each ear and
gaudy posters. The Korsh Theatre was reviving Rostand's Chantecler.
     Newspaper boys bellowed and yelled among the motor wheels:
     "Horrific  find in underground cave! Poland preparing for horrific war!
Horrific experiments by Professor Persikov!"
     In  the circus of  the former Nikitin,  in a rich  brown arena smelling
sweetly  of dung,  the  deathly  white clown  Born was talking  to  Bim, all
swollen up with dropsy.
     "I know why you're so fed up!"
     "Why ith it?" squealed Bim.
     "You buried your eggs under a  gooseberry bush,  and the  15th District
police squad has found them."
     "Ha-ha-ha-ha,"  laughed  the  circus, so hard  that  the blood  curdled
happily and longingly in  their veins and the  trapezes and  cobwebs stirred
under the old dome.
     "Allez-oop!"  the clowns  shouted  loudly, and  a  well-fed white horse
trotted  out bearing a stunningly  beautiful  woman with shapely  legs in  a
crimson costume.
     Not looking  at or taking heed  of anyone and ignoring the prostitutes'
nudges  and soft, enticing invitations, the inspired and  solitary Professor
Persikov crowned with  unexpected fame  made his way along Mokhovaya  to the
neon  clock by the Manege. Here, engrossed in his  thoughts and not  looking
where he was going, he collided with a strange, old-fashioned man and banged
his  fingers  painfully against  the wooden holster  hanging from the  man's
     "What  the  devil!"  squealed  Persikov. "My  apologies!"  "Pardon me!"
replied  an unpleasant  voice in return,  and  they  managed  to disentangle
themselves  in the  mass of people.  The  Professor  continued on his way to
Prechistenka, putting the incident out of his head straightaway.

     Whether or  not the  Lefortovo veterinary vaccinations were  effective,
the Samara quarantine teams efficient, the strict measures taken with regard
to  buyers-up of eggs  in Kaluga and Voronezh adequate and the  work of  the
Special  Moscow Commission  successful, is not  known,  but what is known is
that a fortnight after Persikov's last  meeting with Alfred there was  not a
single chicken left in the Republic. Here and there in provincial back-yards
lay plaintive tufts of feathers, bringing tears  to the eyes of  the owners,
and  in  hospital  the last  gluttons recovered  from diarrhea and  vomiting
blood. The loss  in  human life for the whole country was  not  more than  a
thousand, fortunately. There were also no large-scale disturbances. True, in
Volokolamsk someone calling himself a prophet announced that the commissars,
no less, were to blame for the chicken plague,  but no one took much  notice
of him. A few policemen who were confiscating chickens from peasant women at
Volokolamsk market got beaten  up,  and some windows in  the local  post and
telegraph  office  were  smashed.  Fortunately,  the  efficient  Volokolamsk
authorities took measures as a result of which, firstly,  the prophet ceased
his activities and, secondly, the telegraph windows were replaced.
     After travelling  north as  far as Archangel and  Syumkin Vyselok,  the
plague stopped of its  own  accord for the simple reason that it could go no
further-there  are  no  chickens in  the White Sea, as we all know.  It also
stopped in  Vladivostok, because after that came the ocean. In the far south
it died  down and disappeared somewhere in the scorched expanses of Ordubat,
Djilfa and  Karabulak, and in the west it  stopped miraculously right at the
Polish and Rumanian frontiers. Perhaps the climate  there  was  different or
the  quarantine  cordon  measures taken by these neighbouring states helped.
But the  fact  remains  that the plague  went no further. The  foreign press
discussed  the  unprecedented  plague  loudly  and  avidly, and  the  Soviet
government,  without kicking up a racket, worked tirelessly round the clock.
The Extraordinary  Commission to combat  the  chicken plague was renamed the
Extraordinary  Commission to  encourage  and revive  poultry-keeping in  the
Republic  and  supplemented  by  a  new  extraordinary  troika consisting of
sixteen  comrades.  "Volunteer-Fowl"  was  founded, of  which  Persikov  and
Portugalov became  honorary deputy chairmen. The newspapers carried pictures
of them with the captions "Mass purchase of eggs from abroad" and "Mr Hughes
tries to  sabotage  egg  campaign".  A  venomous  article  by the journalist
Kolechkin,  ending with  the  words:  "Keep  your hands  off  our  eggs,  Mr
Hughes-you've got eggs of your own!", resounded all over Moscow.
     Professor Persikov had worked himself to a state of complete exhaustion
over the last  three weeks.  The fowl events had disturbed his usual routine
and placed an extra burden on him. He had  to spend whole evenings attending
fowl committee meetings  and from time to time endure long talks either with
Alfred  Bronsky  or the  fat  man with the artificial leg. And together with
Professor  Portugalov  and docents  Ivanov and  Borngart  he  anatomised and
microscopised fowls in  search  of  the  plague  bacillus and  even wrote  a
brochure in the  space of only three evenings,  entitled "On  Changes in the
Liver of Fowls Attacked by Plague".
     Persikov worked  without  great  enthusiasm  in  the  fowl  field,  and
understandably so since his head was full  of something quite different, the
main and most important thing, from which the fowl catastrophe  had diverted
him, i.e., the red ray. Undermining his already overtaxed health by stealing
time  from sleeping and  eating, sometimes not returning to Prechistenka but
dozing  on the  oilskin divan in  his room at the Institute, Persikov  spent
night after night working with the chamber and the microscope.
     By  the  end  of July the  commotion  had  abated  somewhat The renamed
commission  began  to work  along  normal lines,  .and Persikov  resumed his
interrupted  studies. The microscopes were  loaded  with  new specimens, and
fish-  and frog-spawn matured in the chamber  at incredible speed. Specially
ordered lenses were delivered from Konigsberg  by aeroplane, and in the last
few  days  of July, under Ivanov's supervision, mechanics installed two  big
new  chambers, in which  the  beam was as broad as a cigarette packet at its
base and  a whole  metre wide at the  other end. Persikov  rubbed  his hands
happily and began to prepare some mysterious and complex experiments.  First
of all, he  came to  some agreement with the People's Commissar of Education
by phone, and the receiver promised  him  the most willing assistance of all
kinds, then Persikov had  a word with Comrade  Ptakha-Porosyuk, head  of the
Supreme Commission's Animal Husbandry Department. Persikov met with the most
cordial attention form Ptakha-Porosyuk with respect  to  a large order  from
abroad  for Professor  Persikov. Ptakha-Porosyuk said on  the  phone that he
would cable Berlin and  New York rightaway. After that there was a call from
the   Kremlin   to   enquire  how   Persikov   was   getting  on,   and   an
important-sounding voice asked affectionately if he would like a motor-car.
     "No, thank you. I prefer to travel by tram," Persikov replied.
     "But why?" the mysterious voice asked, with an indulgent laugh.
     Actually  everyone spoke  to Persikov  either with respect  and awe, or
with  an  affectionate  laugh,  as  if  addressing a  silly,  although  very
important child.
     "It  goes faster," Persikov said, after which the resonant bass on  the
telephone said:
     "Well, as you like."
     Another week passed,  during  which Persikov withdrew increasingly from
the subsiding fowl problems  to immerse himself entirely in the study of the
ray.  His head  became light, somehow  transparent and weightless, from  the
sleepless nights  and  exhaustion. The red rims never left his eyes now, and
almost every  night  was spent  at  the  Institute.  Once  he abandoned  his
zoological refuge to read a paper on  his ray and its action on the ovule in
the huge hall  of the Central Commission for Improving the Living Conditions
of  Scientists in Prechistenka. This  was a great triumph for the  eccentric
zoologist. The applause in the hall made the plaster flake off the  ceiling,
while the hissing arc lamps lit up  the black dinner jackets of club-members
and the white dresses of their  ladies. On the stage, next to the rostrum, a
clammy grey frog the size  of a  cat sat  breathing  heavily in a dish on  a
glass table.  Notes were thrown  onto the  stage.  They  included seven love
letters,  which Persikov  tore up. The  club president had great  difficulty
persuading him onto the platform. Persikov bowed angrily. His hands were wet
with sweat  and his black  tie was somewhere behind his left ear, instead of
under his chin. Before him in a breathing haze were hundreds of yellow faces
and white  male chests, when suddenly the yellow holster of a pistol flashed
past and  vanished behind a  white column. Persikov  noticed  it vaguely and
then forgot about it.  But after the lecture, as he was walking down the red
carpet of the staircase, he suddenly felt unwell. For  a  second the  bright
chandelier in  the  vestibule  clouded  and  Persikov  came  over dizzy  and
slightly  queasy.  He seemed  to  smell burning and  feel  hot, sticky blood
running down his neck... With a  trembling hand  the Professor  clutched the
     "Is anything the matter, Vladimir Ipatych?"  he was besieged by anxious
voices on all sides.
     "No, no," Persikov replied, pulling himself  together. "I'm just rather
tired. Yes. Kindly bring me a glass of water."
     It  was a very sunny August day. This disturbed  the  Professor, so the
blinds were pulled down. One  flexible standing  reflector cast a pencil  of
sharp  light  onto the  glass table piled  with  instruments and lenses. The
exhausted Persikov was leaning  against the  back  of  his revolving  chair,
smoking  and staring through clouds  of smoke with dead-tired  but contented
eyes at  the slightly open door of the chamber inside which a  red  sheaf of
light lay quietly, warming the already stuffy and fetid air in the room.
     There was a knock at the door.
     "What is it?" Persikov asked.
     The door creaked lightly,  and in  came Pankrat. He stood to attention,
pallid with fear before the divinity, and announced:
     "Feight's come for you, Professor."
     The ghost of a smile flickered on the scientist's face. He narrowed his
eyes and said:
     "That's interesting. Only I'm busy."
     '"E says 'e's got an official warrant from the Kremlin."
     "Fate  with a warrant? That's a  rare combination," Persikov  remarked.
"Oh, well, send him in then!"
     "Yessir,"  Pankrat  replied,  slithering   through   the  door  like  a
     A minute later it opened again,  and  a man  appeared on the threshold.
Persikov creaked  his chair and  stared at the newcomer over the  top of his
spectacles and over his shoulder. Persikov was very isolated from real life.
He was not interested in it. But even Persikov could not fail to  notice the
main  thing  about  the  man  who  had  just  come  in.  He  was  dreadfully
old-fashioned. In 1919 this man would have looked perfectly  at home  in the
streets of the  capital. He would  have  looked  tolerable in  1924, at  the
beginning. But in 1928 he looked positively strange. At a time when even the
most backward part of the proletariat, bakers, were wearing jackets and when
military tunics were a rarity, having been  finally discarded  at the end of
1924,  the newcomer  was  dressed in a double-breasted leather jacket, green
trousers, foot bindings and army boots, with  a big old-fashioned  Mauser in
the cracked yellow holster  at his side. The newcomer's  face made the  same
impression on Persikov as  on everyone  else,  a highly unpleasant  one. The
small  eyes  looked  out  on  the  world  with  a  surprised,  yet confident
expression,  and  there  was something unduly familiar about  the short legs
with their flat  feet. The face was bluish-shaven. Persikov frowned at once.
Creak'  ing  the  screw  mercilessly, he  peered  at  the  newcomer over his
spectacles, then through them, and barked:
     "So you've got a warrant, have you? Where is it then?"
     The newcomer was clearly taken aback by what he saw. In general he  was
not prone  to  confusion, but now he was confused. Judging  by his eyes, the
thing  that  impressed  him  most  was  the  bookcase  with  twelve  shelves
stretching  right  up to  the  ceiling and packed  full  of books. Then,  of
course,  the chambers which, hell-like, were flooded  with  the  crimson ray
swelling up  in the  lenses. And Persikov  himself  in the  semi-darkness by
sharp  point  of  the  ray  falling  from  the reflector looked  strange and
majestic  in  his  revolving  chair.  The newcomer  stared  at  him with  an
expression  in  which   sparks  of   respect  flashed  clearly  through  the
self-assurance, did not hand over any warrant, but said:
     "I am Alexander Semyonovich Feight!"
     "Well then? So what?"
     "I  have  been put in  charge  of the Red  Ray Model  State  Farm," the
newcomer explained.
     "So what?"
     "And so I have come to see you on secret business, comrade."
     "Well, I wonder what that can be. Put it briefly, if you don't mind."
     The  newcomer  unbuttoned  his  jacket and pulled out some instructions
typed  on splendid  thick paper. He handed  the paper to  Persikov, then sat
down uninvited on a revolving stool.
     "Don't push the table," said Persikov with hatred.
     The newcomer  looked round in alarm at the  table, on the far  edge  of
which a pair  of  eyes  glittered lifelessly like  diamonds  in a damp  dark
opening. They sent shivers down your spine.
     No sooner had Persikov read the  warrant, than  he jumped up and rushed
to  the telephone.  A few seconds later he was already saying hastily  in  a
state of extreme irritation:
     "Forgive  me... I just don't  understand...  How can it  be? Without my
consent or advice... The devil only knows what he'll do!"
     At that point the stranger, highly offended, spun round on the stool.
     "Pardon me, but I'm in charge..." he began.
     But Persikov shook a crooked finger at him and went on:
     "Excuse  me,   but   I  just  don't  understand.  In  fact,   I  object
categorically. I refuse to sanction any experiments with the eggs... Until I
have tried them myself..."
     Something croaked  and rattled in the receiver, and  even at a distance
it was clear that the  indulgent  voice on the phone was  talking to a small
child.  In  the end  a purple-faced  Persikov  slammed  down  the  receiver,
shouting over it at the wall:
     "I wash my hands of the whole business!"
     Going back to the table, he picked  up the  warrant, read  it once from
top to bottom over his spectacles, then from bottom to top through them, and
suddenly howled:
     Pankrat  appeared in the  doorway  as  if  he had  shot up  through the
trap-door in an opera. Persikov glared at him and barked:
     "Go away,  Pankrat!" And Pankrat disappeared, his  face  not expressing
the slightest surprise.
     Then Persikov turned to the newcomer and said:
     "I beg your pardon. I will obey. It's none of my business.
     And of no interest to me."
     The newcomer was not so much offended as taken aback.
     "Excuse me," he began, "but comrade..."
     "Why do you keep saying  comrade all the time," Persikov muttered, then
fell silent.
     "Well, I never," was written all over Feight's face.
     "Pard..." "Alright then, here you are," Persikov interrupted him.
     "See  this  arc lamp.  From  this  you obtain by moving  the eyepiece,"
Persikov clicked the lid of  the chamber, like a camera, "a  beam which  you
can collect  by  moving the lenses,  number 1 here... and the mirror, number
2." Persikov put the ray out, then lit it again on the floor of the asbestos
chamber. "And on the floor you can put anything you like and experiment with
it. Extremely simple, is it not?"
     Persikov  intended to express irony and  contempt, but the newcomer was
peering hard at the chamber with shining eyes and did not notice them.
     "Only I warn you,"  Persikov went on. "You must not  put your  hands in
the ray, because from my observations  it causes  growths of the epithelium.
And whether they are malignant or not, I unfortunately have not yet had time
to establish."
     Hereupon  the  newcomer quickly put his hands behind his back, dropping
his leather cap, and looked at the Professor's hands. They were stained with
iodine, and the right hand was bandaged at the wrist.
     "But what about you, Professor?"
     "You can buy  rubber gloves at  Schwabe's on  Kuznetsky," the Professor
replied irritably. "I'm not obliged to worry about that"
     At  this point Persikov stared  hard at  the newcomer as  if through  a
     "Where are you from? And why have you..."
     Feight took offence at last.
     "But a person should  know what he's doing! Why have you latched  on to
this ray?"
     "Because it's a matter of the greatest importance..."
     "Hm. The greatest importance? In that case... Pankrat!"
     And when Pankrat appeared:
     "Wait a minute, I must think." " Pankrat dutifully disappeared again.
     "There's one  thing I can't understand," said  Persikov.  "Why the need
for all this speed and secrecy?"
     "You've got me all  muddled  up. Professor,"  Feight replied. "You know
there's not a single chicken left in the whole country."
     "Well, what of it?" Persikov  howled. "Surely you're  not going to  try
and resurrect them all at the  drop of a hat, are you? And why do  you  need
this ray which hasn't been properly studied yet?"
     "Comrade Professor," Feight replied, "you've got me all muddled, honest
you have. I'm telling you that  we must put poultry-keeping back on its feet
again, because they're writing all sorts  of rotten things about  us abroad.
     "Well, let them..."
     "Tut-tut," Feight replied enigmatically, shaking his head.
     "Who on earth, I should like to know, would ever think of using the ray
to hatch chickens..."
     "Me," said Feight.
     "Oh, I see. And why, if you  don't mind my asking? How did you find out
about the properties of the ray?"
     "I was at your lecture, Professor."
     "But I haven't done anything with the eggs yet! I'm only planning to!"
     "It'll work alright,  honest  it will," said Feight suddenly with great
conviction.  "Your  ray's  so  famous  it  could  hatch elephants,  not only
     "Now listen here,"  Persikov said.  "You're not a  zoologist, are  you?
That's a pity.  You would make  a very bold experimenter. Yes, only you risk
... failure ... and you're taking up my time."
     "We'll give the chambers back to you. Don't you worry!"
     "After I've hatched out the first batch."
     "How confidently you said that! Very well! Pankrat!"
     "I've brought some people with me," said Feight. "And a guard..."
     By  evening  Persikov's study  was desolate.  The  tables  were  empty.
Feight's people took away the three big chambers, only leaving the Professor
the first, the small one which he had used to begin the experiments.
     The July dusk was falling.  A  greyness invaded the Institute, creeping
along the corridors. Monotonous steps could be  heard in the study. Persikov
was  pacing the large  room from window to door, in  the dark... And strange
though it  may seem all the inmates of  the Institute, and the animals  too,
were prey  to a  curious melancholy  that evening. For some reason the toads
gave a very mournful concert, croaking in  a most sinister, ominous fashion.
Pankrat had to chase a grass-snake that slipped out of its chamber, and when
he caught it in the corridor the snake  looked  as  if  it would do anything
just to get away from there.
     Late that evening the bell from Persikov's study rang. Pankrat appeared
on the  threshold  to  be greeted  by  a strange  sight.  The scientist  was
standing alone  in the middle  of  the study, staring at the tables. Pankrat
coughed and froze to attention.
     "There,  Pankrat," said Persikov, pointing at the  empty table. Pankrat
took fright. It looked in the dark as if the Professor
     had been crying. That was unusual, terrifying.
     "Yessir," Pankrat replied plaintively, thinking, "If only you'd bawl at
     "There,"  Persikov repeated, and his lips trembled  like a little boy's
whose favourite toy has suddenly been taken away from him.
     "You know, my dear Pankrat," Persikov went on, turning away to face the
window. "My  wife who  left  me  fifteen years ago  and  joined  an operetta
company has now  apparently died... So there, Pankrat, dear  chap... I got a
     The  toads  croaked  mournfully,  and   darkness  slowly  engulfed  the
Professor.  Night  was falling. Here and  there white lamps went on  in  the
windows. Pankrat stood to attention with fright, confused and miserable.
     "You can go, Pankrat," the  Professor said heavily,  with a wave of the
hand. "Go to bed, Pankrat, my dear fellow."
     And so  night fell.  Pankrat left the study quickly on  tiptoe for some
reason, ran to his cubby-hole, rummaged among a  pile of rags in the corner,
pulled  out  an already opened  bottle  of  vodka  and  gulped down  a large
glassful. Then he ate some bread and salt, and his eyes cheered up a bit.
     Late that  evening, just  before midnight, Pankrat was sitting barefoot
on a bench in the poorly lit vestibule, talking to the  indefatigable bowler
hat on duty and scratching his chest under a calico shirt.
     "Honest, it would've been better if he'd done me in..."
     "Was he really crying?" asked the bowler hat, inquisitively.
     "Honest he was," Pankrat insisted.
     "A great scientist," the bowler hat agreed. "A frog's no substitute for
a wife, anyone knows that."
     "It sure isn't," Pankrat agreed.
     Then he paused and added:
     "I'm thinking of bringing the wife up here... No sense  her  staying in
the country. Only she couldn't stand them there reptiles..."
     "I'm not surprised, the filthy things," agreed the bowler hat.
     Not a sound could be  heard from the  Professor's study.  The light was
not on either. There was no strip under the door.

     There is  no  better  time  of  the  year  than mid-August in  Smolensk
Province, say. The summer of 1928 was a splendid one,  as we all  know, with
rains  just at  the  right time  in spring, a  full hot sun, and  a splendid
harvest... The apples on the former  Sheremetev family estate were ripening,
the forests were a lush green  and the fields were squares of rich yellow...
Man becomes nobler in the lap of nature. Alexander Se-myonovich too did  not
seem  quite  as unpleasant  as  in the  town. And  he  wasn't  wearing  that
revolting jacket. His  face  had a bronze tan, the  unbuttoned calico  shirt
revealed a chest thickly covered with black hair. He had canvas trousers on.
And his eyes were calmer and kinder.
     Alexander Semyonovich trotted excitedly  down  the  colon-naded  porch,
which sported a notice with the words "Red Ray State Farm" under a star, and
went  straight to the  truck that had just brought the  three black chambers
under escort.
     All day Alexander Semyonovich worked  hard with his assistants  setting
up the chambers  in the former winter garden, the Sheremetevs' conservatory.
By evening all was ready.  A  white frosted  arc lamp shone under  the glass
roof, the chambers were set up on bricks and, after much tapping and turning
of shining knobs, the mechanic who had come with the  chambers produced  the
mysterious red ray on the asbestos floor in the black crates.
     Alexander Semyonovich bustled about, climbing up the ladder himself and
checking the wiring.
     The  next day  the same  truck came back  from the station and spat out
three  boxes  of  magnificent smooth plywood stuck all over with labels  and
white notices on a black background that read:
     "Vorsicht: Eier!"
     "Eggs. Handle with care!"
     "Why  have  they  sent  so few?"  Alexander  Semyonovich  exclaimed  in
surprise and  set about unpacking the  eggs at once. The unpacking also took
place in the conservatory with the participation of the following: Alexander
Semyonovich himself,  his  unusually plump wife Manya,  the  one-eyed former
gardener of the former Sheremetevs, who now worked for the state farm in the
universal post of watchman, the guard doomed to live on the  state farm, and
the cleaning girl Dunya. It was not Moscow, and everything here was simpler,
more friendly and  more homely. Alexander Semyonovich gave the instructions,
glancing avidly from time to  time at  the boxes which lay  like  some  rich
present   under  the  gentle  sunset  glow  from  the  upper  panes  in  the
conservatory.  The  guard, his  rifle dozing  peacefully  by  the  door, was
ripping open the braces  and  metal bands with a pair of pliers. There was a
sound of cracking wood. Clouds of dust rose up. Alexander Semyonovich padded
around in his sandals, fussing by the boxes.
     "Gently does it," he said to the guard. "Be careful. Can't you see it's
     "Don't  worry," croaked the  provincial  warrior, bashing away happily.
"Won't be a minute..."
     Wrr-ench. Down came another shower of dust.
     The eggs were  beautifully packed: first  came sheets  of  waxed  paper
under  the wooden top, next some blotting paper, then  a thick layer of wood
shavings and finally the sawdust in which the white egg-tops nestled.
     "Foreign  packing,"  said  Alexander  Semyonovich  lovingly,  rummaging
around in the sawdust.  "Not  the  way we do it.  Careful, Manya, or  you'll
break them."
     "Have  you gone daft, Alexander Semyonovich," replied his wife. "What's
so special about this lot? Think I've  never  seen eggs before? Oh, what big
     "Foreign,"  said  Alexander  Semyonovich,  laying the  eggs out  on the
wooden  table.  "Not  like  our  poor  old  peasant  eggs. Bet  they're  all
brahmaputras, the devil take them! German..."
     "I should say so," the guard agreed, admitting the eggs.
     "Only why are they so dirty?" Alexander Semyonovich mused thoughtfully.
"Keep an  eye on things, Manya. Tell them to go on unloading.  I'm going off
to make a phone call."
     And Alexander Semyonovich went to  use the telephone in the farm office
across the yard.
     That  evening  the  phone  rang  in the laboratory  at  the  Zoological
Institute. Professor Persikov tousled his hair and went to answer it.
     "Yes?" he asked.
     "There's  a call for you  from  the provinces," a  female  voice hissed
quietly down the receiver.
     "Well, put it through then," said Persikov  disdainfully into the black
mouthpiece. After a bit of crackling a far-off male voice asked anxiously in
his ear:
     "Should the eggs be washed. Professor?"
     "What's  that?  What?  What  did  you say?" snapped Persikov irritably.
"Where are you speaking from?"
     "Nikolskoye, Smolensk Province," the receiver replied.
     "Don't understand. Never heard of it. Who's that speaking?"
     "Feight," the receiver said sternly.
     "What Feight? Ah, yes. It's you. What did you want to know?"
     "Whether to  wash them.  They've  sent  a  batch of  chicken  eggs from
     "But they're all mucky..."
     "You must be wrong. How can they be  'mucky', as you put  it? Well,  of
course,  maybe  a few, er,  droppings got stuck to them, or something of the
     "So what about washing them?"
     "No  need at  all, of course.  Why, are you  putting the eggs  into the
chambers already?"
     "Yes, I am," the receiver replied.
     "Hm," Persikov grunted.
     "So long," the receiver clattered and fell silent.
     "So  long," Persikov repeated distastefully to  Decent  Ivanov. "How do
you like that character, Pyotr Stepanovich?"
     Ivanov laughed.
     "So it  was him,  was it? I can imagine what he'll concoct out of those
     "Ye-e-es," Persikov began maliciously.  "Just think, Pyotr Stepanovich.
Well, of course, it's highly possible that the ray will have the same effect
on the deuteroplasma of a chicken egg as on the  plasma of amphibians. It is
also highly possible that he will  hatch out chickens. But neither you nor I
can  say precisely what sort of chickens they  will  be. They may  be of  no
earthly use to anyone.  They may  die after  a day  or two. Or  they may  be
inedible. And can I even guarantee that they'll be able to stand up. Perhaps
they'll have  brittle  bones."  Persikov got  excited,  waved  his  hand and
crooked his fingers.
     "Quite so," Ivanov agreed.
     "Can  you guarantee,  Pyotr Stepanovich, that  they  will  be  able  to
reproduce? Perhaps that  character  will hatch  out sterile chickens.  He'll
make  them  as  big as a dog, and they won't have  any chicks until  kingdom
     "Precisely," Ivanov agreed.
     "And such nonchalance," Persikov was working himself into a fury. "Such
perkiness!  And kindly  note that I  was asked  to instruct that scoundrel."
Persikov pointed  to the warrant delivered by Feight (which was lying on the
experimental table). "But how am I  to instruct that ignoramus when I myself
can say nothing about the question?"
     "Couldn't you have refused?" asked Ivanov.
     Persikov turned purple, snatched up the warrant and showed it to Ivanov
who read it and gave an ironic smile.
     "Yes, I see," he said significantly.
     "And  kindly  note also  that  I've been  expecting my shipment for two
months, and there's still  no  sign  of  it. But  that rascal  got  his eggs
straightaway and all sorts of assistance."
     "It won't  do him any good,  Vladimir Ipatych. In the  end they'll just
give you back your chambers."
     "Well,   let's  hope   it's  soon,  because  they're  holding   up   my
     "Yes, that's dreadful. I've got everything ready."
     "Has the protective clothing arrived?"
     "Yes, today."
     Persikov was somewhat reassured by this and brightened up.
     "Then I  think  we'll proceed like this. We  can close the doors of the
operating-room tight and open up the windows."
     "Of course," Ivanov agreed.
     "Three helmets?"
     "Yes, three."
     "Well then, that's you  and me, and we'll ask one of  the students.  He
can have the third helmet."
     "Grinmut would do."
     "That's the one you've got working on salamanders, isn't  it? Hm,  he's
not bad, but, if you don't mind my saying so, last spring he didn't know the
difference  between a Pseudotyphlops and  a  Platyplecturus," Persikov added
with rancour.
     "But he's not bad. He's a good student," Ivanov defended him.
     "We'll  have to  go without sleep completely for  one night,"  Persikov
went on. "Only you must  check  the gas,  Pyotr Stepanovich.  The devil only
knows what it's like. That Volunteer-Chem lot might send us some rubbish."
     "No, no," Ivanov waved his hands. "I tested it yesterday. You must give
them some credit, Vladimir Ipatych, the gas is excellent."
     "What did you try it on?"
     "Some common toads. You just spray them with it and they die instantly.
And another  thing, Vladimir Ipatych. Write and  ask the  GPU to send you an
electric revolver."
     "But I don't know how to use it."
     "I'll see to that," Ivanov replied. "We tried one  out  on the Klyazma,
just for fun. There  was  a  GPU chap  living  next to me. It's  a wonderful
thing. And  incredibly efficient. Kills outright  at a hundred paces without
making  a sound. We  were shooting ravens. I don't even think we'll need the
     "Hm, that's a bright idea.  Very bright." Persikov went into the comer,
lifted the receiver and barked:
     "Give me that, what's it called, Lubyanka."
     The weather was  unusually hot. You could see the rich transparent heat
shimmering  over  the  fields.  But the  nights  were  wonderful,  green and
deceptive.  The  moon made  the former estate of the  Sheremetevs  look  too
beautiful for words. The palace-cum-state  farm glistened as if it were made
of sugar, shadows  quivered  in the park,  and  the ponds had two  different
halves,  one a slanting column of  light, the other fathomless darkness.  In
the  patches of  moonlight  you could easily read  Izvestia, except for  the
chess section which was in small nonpareil.  But on nights like these no one
read  Izvestia, of  course. Dunya the cleaner was in  the woods  behind  the
state farm and as coincidence would have it, the ginger-moustached driver of
the  farm's battered truck  happened to be there too. What  they were  doing
there  no one knows. They were sheltering in  the unreliable shade of an elm
tree,  on the driver leather coat which was spread out on the ground. A lamp
shone in the kitchen,  where the two market-gardeners were having  supper, -
and Madame Feight was sitting  in  a white neglige  on the columned veranda,
gazing at the beautiful moon and dreaming.
     At  ten o'clock in the evening when the  sounds  had died down  in  the
village of Kontsovka behind the state farm, the idyllic landscape was filled
with the charming gentle  playing of a flute. This fitted in with the groves
and former columns  of the Sheremetev palace more than words can say. In the
duet the voice of  the delicate Liza  from The  Queen of Spades blended with
that of the passionate Polina and soared up into. the moonlit heights like a
vision  of  the  old  and yet infinitely  dear,  heartbreakingly  entrancing
     Do fade away... Fade away...
     piped the flute, trilling and sighing.
     The copses were hushed, and Dunya, fatal as a wood nymph, listened, her
cheek pressed against the rough, ginger and manly cheek of the driver.
     "He don't play bad, the bastard," said the driver, putting a  manly arm
round Dunya's waist.
     The  flute was being played by none other than the manager of the state
farm himself,  Alexander  Semyonovich  Feight,  who, to do him  justice, was
playing  it  beautifully.  The  fact  of  the  matter  was  that   Alexander
Semyonovich had once  specialised  in  the flute.  Right up to  1917  he had
played  in the well-known  concert ensemble of the maestro Petukhov, filling
the  foyer  of  the  cosy  little   Magic  Dreams  cinema  in  the  town  of
Yekaterinoslav  with its sweet notes every evening.  But  the  great year of
1917,  which broke  the  careers of so many, had swept Alexander Semyonovich
onto  a new path too.  He left the Magic Dreams and the dusty  star-spangled
satin of its  foyer  to  plunge into  the open  sea  of war  and revolution,
exchanging  his flute for a  death-dealing Mauser. For a  long  time  he was
tossed  about  on waves which  washed him ashore, now  in the Crimea, now in
Moscow, now in Turkestan, and even in Vladivostok. It  needed the revolution
for Alexander Semyonovich to realise his full potential. It  turned out that
here was a truly great  man, who should  not be allowed to waste his talents
in  the  foyer of  Magic Dreams, of course.  Without going into  unnecessary
detail, we shall merely say that the year before, 1927, and the beginning of
1928 had found Alexander Semyonovich in  Turkestan  where  he first edited a
big  newspaper  and  then,  as  a  local  member  of  the  Supreme  Economic
Commission,  became   renowned  for  his   remarkable  contribution  to  the
irrigation  of Turkestan. In 1928 Feight came to  Moscow  and received  some
well-deserved  leave.  The  Supreme  Commission  of the organisation,  whose
membership card this provincially  old-fashioned man  carried with honour in
his pocket, appreciated his  qualities and  appointed  him  to a  quiet  and
honorary post.  Alas and alack!  To the  great misfortune  of the  Republic,
Alexander  Semyonovich's seething  brain did  not  quieten  down. In  Moscow
Feight learned of Persikov's discovery,  and in  the rooms  of  Red Paris in
Tverskaya Street Alexander Semyonovich had the brainwave of using the ray to
restore  the Republic's poultry in a month. The Animal  Husbandry Commission
listened to what he had to say, agreed with him, and Feight took his warrant
to the eccentric scientist.
     The concert over the glassy waters, the grove and the park  was drawing
to a close, when something happened to cut it short. The dogs  in Kontsovka,
who  Should  have  been  fast  asleep by  then, suddenly set  up a  frenzied
barking, which gradually turned  into an excruciating general howl. The howl
swelled  up, drifting  over  the fields, and was answered  by a high-pitched
concert from the million frogs on the ponds.  All  this was so ghastly, that
for a moment the mysterious enchanted night seemed to fade away.
     Alexander Semyonovich put down his flute and went onto the veranda.
     "Hear that,  Manya? It's  those  blasted dogs... What  do you think set
them off like that?"
     "How should I know?" she replied, gazing at the moon.
     "Hey,  Manya,  let's  go  and  take a  look  at  the  eggs,"  Alexander
Semyonovich suggested.
     "For goodness sake, Alexander Semyonovich.  You're  darned  crazy about
those eggs and chickens. Have a rest for a bit."
     "No, Manya, let's go."
     A bright light was burning in  the conservatory. Dunya came in too with
a  burning  face  and  shining   eyes.   Alexander  Semyonovich  opened  the
observation windows carefully, and they all began peeping into the chambers.
On the  white asbestos floor lay neat rows  of bright-red eggs with spots on
them. There was total silence in the chambers, except for the hissing of the
15,000 candle-power light overhead.
     "I'll hatch those chicks out alright!" exclaimed Alexander  Semyonovich
excitedly, looking now through the observation  windows  at  the  side,  now
through  the wide ventilation hatches  overhead. "You'll  see. Eh? Don't you
think so?"
     "You know what,  Alexander Semyonovich," said Dunya, smiling.  "The men
in  Kontsovka think you're the Antichrist.  They say  your eggs are from the
devil. It's a sin to hatch eggs with machines. They want to kill you."
     Alexander Semyonovich shuddered and turned  to his  wife.  His face had
gone yellow.
     "Well, how about that? Ignorant  lot! What can you do with  people like
that? Eh? We'll have  to fix up a  meeting  for them, Manya. I'll  phone the
district centre tomorrow for some Party workers. And I'll give 'em a  speech
myself.  This place needs a bit of working over alright.  Stuck  away at the
back of beyond..."
     "Thick as posts," muttered  the guard, who  had  settled  down  on  his
greatcoat in the conservatory doorway.
     The  next  day was heralded by some strange and inexplicable events. In
the early morning, at the first glint of sunlight, the groves, which usually
greeted the heavenly body  with a strong and unceasing twitter of birds, met
it with total silence. This was noticed by absolutely everybody. It was like
the  calm before a storm.  But no storm followed. Conversations at the state
farm  took on  a  strange  and  sinister  note  for  Alexander  Semyonovich,
especially  because according to the well-known Kontsovka trouble-maker  and
sage nicknamed Goat Gob, all the birds had gathered in flocks and flown away
northwards from Sheremetevo at  dawn, which was quite  ridiculous. Alexander
Semyonovich  was  most upset and spent  the whole day putting  a phone  call
through to the town of Grachevka. Eventually they promised to send him  in a
few days' time two speakers on two subjects, the international situation and
the question of Volunteer-Fowl.
     The evening  brought some more surprises.  Whereas in  the morning  the
woods had fallen silent, showing clearly how suspiciously unpleasant  it was
when the trees were quiet, and whereas by midday the sparrows from the state
farmyard had also  flown off somewhere,  that  evening there was not a sound
from the  Sheremetevka pond  either. This  was quite  extraordinary, because
everyone for twenty  miles around  was  familiar with  the  croaking of  the
Sheremetev frogs.  But now they seemed to be extinct. There was not a single
voice  from the pond, and the  sedge  was silent. It  must be confessed that
this really upset Alexander Semyonovich.  People  had  begun  to talk  about
these happenings in a most unpleasant fashion, i.e., behind his back.
     "It  really is  strange,"  said  Alexander  Semyonovich to his  wife at
lunch. "I can't understand why those birds had to go and fly away."
     "How should I know?" Manya replied. "Perhaps it's because of your ray."
     "Don't be so silly, Manya!" exclaimed  Alexander  Semyonovich, flinging
down his spoon. "You're as  bad as the  peasants. What's  the ray  got to do
with it?" "I  don't know. Stop pestering me." That evening brought the third
surprise. The dogs began howling  again  in Kontsovka and how! Their endless
whines and angry, mournful yelping wafted over the moonlit fields.
     Alexander  Semyonovich  rewarded  himself  somewhat  with  yet  another
surprise, a  pleasant one this time, in the conservatory. A constant tapping
had begun inside the red  eggs  in the  chambers. "Tappity-tappity-tappity,"
came from one, then another, then a third.
     The  tapping in the eggs was  a triumph for  Alexander Semyonovich. The
strange events in  the  woods and on  the  pond were immediately  forgotten.
Everyone gathered in the conservatory,  Manya,  Dunya,  the watchman and the
guard, who left his rifle by the door.
     "Well,   then?   What   about   that?"   asked  Alexander   Semyonovich
triumphantly. Everyone put  their ears  eagerly  to the doors of  the  first
chamber.  "That's  them tapping  with  their  little beaks,  the  chickens,"
Alexander Semyonovich went on, beaming. "So you thought I wouldn't hatch out
any chicks, did you?  Well, you were wrong, my hearties." From an  excess of
emotion  he slapped  the guard on the shoulder. "I'll hatch chickens that'll
take your breath away. Only now I must keep  alert," he added strictly. "Let
me know as soon as they start hatching."
     "Right you are," replied the watchman, Dunya and the guard in a chorus.
     "Tappity-tappity-tappity,"  went one  egg,  then another,  in the first
chamber. In fact this on-the-spot spectacle of new life being born in a thin
shining shell was so  intriguing that they all  sat  for a long  time on the
upturned empty crates, watching the crimson  eggs  mature in  the mysterious
glimmering  light. By  the time they went  to bed it  was  quite  late and a
greenish night had spread over the farm and the surrounding countryside. The
night was  mysterious, one might even say frightening,  probably because its
total  silence was broken now and then by the abject,  excruciating howls of
the dogs in Kontsovka. What on earth had  got into those blasted dogs no one
could say.
     An unpleasant surprise  awaited Alexander Semyonovich the next morning.
The  guard was  extremely  upset and kept putting  his  hands  on his heart,
swearing that he had not fallen asleep but had noticed nothing.
     "I can't understand it," the guard insisted. "It's through no fault  of
mine, Comrade Feight."
     "Very  grateful  to  you,  I'm  sure," retorted  Alexander  Semyonovich
heatedly. "What do you think, comrade? Why were you put on guard? To keep an
eye on things. So tell me where they are. They've hatched out, haven't they?
So they must have run away. That means you  must have left the door open and
gone off somewhere. Get me those chickens!"
     "Where  could  I have  gone?  I know my job." The guard  took  offence.
"Don't you go accusing me unfairly, Comrade Feight!"
     "Then where are they?"
     "How  the blazes should I know!" the guard  finally exploded. "I'm  not
supposed  to guard them, am I? Why  was I  put on duty?  To see  that nobody
pinched  the chambers, and that's what I've done. Your chambers are safe and
sound.  But  there's  no law that says I  must chase  after  your  chickens.
Goodness only knows what  they'll be  like. Maybe you won't be able to catch
them on a bicycle."
     This  somewhat deflated  Alexander Semyonovich. He  muttered  something
else, then relapsed  into a state of perplexity. It was  a  strange business
indeed. In the first chamber, which had  been switched on before the others,
the two  eggs at the  very base of  the ray had broken open. One of them had
even rolled to one side.  The empty shell was lying on the asbestos floor in
the ray.
     "The devil only knows," muttered  Alexander Semyonovich.  "The  windows
are closed and they couldn't have flown away over the roof, could they?"
     He threw back his head and looked at some big holes in the glass roof.
     "Of course, they couldn't,  Alexander Semyonovich!" exclaimed Dunya  in
surprise.  "Chickens can't fly.  They must be here somewhere.  Chuck, chuck,
chuck," she called, peering into the corners of the conservatory, which were
cluttered with dusty flower pots, bits of boards  and other rubbish.  But no
chicks answered her call.
     The  whole staff  spent about  two hours  running  round  the farmyard,
looking for the runaway chickens and found nothing. The day passed  in great
excitement. The duty guard  on  the chambers was reinforced by the watchman,
who  had strict orders to look through the chamber windows every  quarter of
an hour  and call Alexander Semyonovich  if anything happened. The guard sat
huffily by the door, holding his rifle  between his knees. What with all the
worry Alexander Semyonovich did not have lunch until nearly two. After lunch
he  slept for an hour or  so  in the cool  shade  on  the former She-remetev
ottoman,  had a refreshing drink of the farm's  kvass and slipped  into  the
conservatory to make sure everything was alright. The old watchman was lying
on his  stomach  on some  bast  matting  and staring through the observation
window of the first chamber. The guard was keeping watch by the door.
     But there was a piece of news: the eggs in the third chamber, which had
been switched on  last, were making a kind of gulping, hissing sound,  as if
something inside them were whimpering.
     "They're hatching out alright," said Alexander Semyonovich. "That's for
sure. See?" he said to the watchman.
     "Aye, it's most extraordinary," the latter replied in a  most ambiguous
tone, shaking his head.
     Alexander Semyonovich squatted by the chambers for a while, but nothing
hatched out.  So he  got up, stretched and announced that he would not leave
the  grounds, but was going for a  swim in the  pond  and  must be called if
there were any developments. He went into the palace to his bedroom with its
two narrow iron bedsteads, rumpled bedclothes and piles  of green apples and
millet on  the floor for the newly-hatched chickens,  took a  towel and,  on
reflection, his flute as well to play at leisure over the still waters. Then
he  ran  quickly  out  of  the  palace, across  the  farmyard  and down  the
willow-lined  path to  the pond. He walked briskly, swinging the towel, with
the  flute under his arm. The sky shimmered with heat  through  the willows,
and his  aching body begged to dive into the water.  On the right  of Feight
began a dense patch of burdock, into which  he spat en passant. All at  once
there was a rustling in the tangle of big leaves, as if someone was dragging
a log. With a sudden sinking feeling  in  his stomach, Alexander Semyonovich
turned his head towards the burdock in surprise. There had  not been a sound
from the pond for two days.  The rustling stopped, and above the burdock the
smooth  surface  of the pond flashed invitingly with  the  grey roof of  the
changing hut.  Some  dragon-flies darted to and  fro  in front of  Alexander
Semyonovich. He was about to turn off to the wooden platform, when there was
another rustle in the burdock accompanied this time by a  short hissing like
steam  coming out of an engine. Alexander Semyonovich tensed and  stared  at
the dense thicket of weeds.
     At  that moment the voice  of Feight's wife rang  out,  and  her  white
blouse flashed in  and  out through  the raspberry  bushes.  "Wait  for  me,
Alexander Semyonovich. I'm coming for a swim too."
     His wife  was  hurrying to  the pond, but Alexander Se-myonovich's eyes
were  riveted on the burdock and he  did not reply. A greyish olive-coloured
log had  begun to rise out of the  thicket,  growing ever bigger before  his
horrified  gaze. The log seemed  to be covered  with wet yellowish spots. It
began to straighten up, bending and swaying, and was so long that it reached
above a  short  gnarled willow. Then the top of  the log  cracked, bent down
slightly,  and  something  about the height of  a  Moscow electric lamp-post
loomed over Alexander Semyonovich. Only this something was about three times
thicker  that  a  lamp-post and  far  more beautiful  because of  its  scaly
tattooing.  Completely mystified, but with  shivers running down  his spine,
Alexander Semyonovich looked at  the top of  this  terrifying lamp-post, and
his heart almost stopped beating. He  turned to  ice on the warm August day,
and everything went dark before his eyes  as  if he were  looking at the sun
through his summer trousers.
     On the  tip of  the log  was a head. A flattened,  pointed head adorned
with a round yellow spot on an olive background. In the roof of the head sat
a  pair  of  lidless  icy  narrow  eyes,  and  these   eyes  glittered  with
indescribable malice. The head moved as if spitting  air and the whole  post
slid back into the burdock, leaving only the eyes which  glared at Alexander
Semyonovich  without blinking.  Drenched with sweat, the latter uttered five
incredible fear-crazed words. So piercing were the eyes between the leaves.
     "What the devil's going on..."
     Then  he remembered about fakirs... Yes, yes, in India, a wicker basket
and a picture. Snake-charming.
     The  head  reared up  again,  and the body began  to uncoil.  Alexander
Semyonovich raised his flute to his lips, gave a hoarse  squeak and, gasping
for  breath,  began to play the  waltz from Eugene  Onegin. The eyes in  the
burdock lit up at once with implacable hatred for the opera.
     "Are you crazy, playing in this heat?" came Manya's cheerful voice, and
out  of  the  corner of his eye  Alexander  Semyonovich  glimpsed a patch of
     Then a terrible scream shattered the  farm, swelling,  rising, and  the
waltz began to limp  painfully. The  head shot out of the  burdock, its eyes
leaving Alexander Semyonovich's soul to repent of his  sins. A  snake  about
thirty  feet long and as thick as a  man uncoiled like a spring and shot out
of the weeds. Clouds of dust sprayed up from the path, and the waltz ceased.
The snake  raced past the state  farm manager straight to the  white blouse.
Feight saw everything clearly: Manya went a yellowish-white,  and  her  long
hair  rose about a foot above her head like wire. Before Feight's  eyes  the
snake opened its mouth, something fork-like darting out, then sank its teeth
into the shoulder of Manya, who was sinking into the dust, and jerked her up
about  two feet above the ground. Manya gave another piercing death cry. The
snake  coiled itself  into  a  twelve-yard screw,  its  tail  sweeping up  a
tornado, and began  to crush  Manya. She did not make  another sound. Feight
could  hear her bones  crunching. High above  the  ground  rose Manya's head
pressed lovingly against the snake's cheek. Blood gushed out of her mouth, a
broken arm  dangled  in  the air and more blood spurted  out  from under the
fingernails. Then the snake  opened its  mouth,  put  its gaping  jaws  over
Manya's  head and  slid  onto  the rest of  her like a glove slipping onto a
finger. The snake's breath was so hot that Feight could feel it on his face,
and the tail all but swept him off the path into the acrid dust. It was then
that Feight  went grey. First the left, then the right half of his jet-black
head  turned  to silver. Nauseated  to death, he  eventually managed to drag
himself away from the  path, then turned and ran, seeing nothing and nobody,
with a wild shriek that echoed for miles around.

     Shukin, the GPU agent at Dugino Station, was  a very brave man. He said
thoughtfully to his companion, the ginger-headed Polaitis:
     "Well, let's go. Eh? Get  the  motorbike." Then he paused for  a moment
and added, turning  to the man who was sitting on the bench: "Put  the flute
     But instead of putting down the flute, the trembling grey-haired man on
the  bench in the Dugino GPU office, began weeping and moaning.  Shukin  and
Polaitis realised they would have to pull the flute away. His fingers seemed
to  be  stuck to  it.  Shukin, who  possessed  enormous,  almost circus-like
strength, prised the fingers away one by one. Then they put the flute on the
     It was early on the sunny morning of the day after Manya's death.
     "You  come  too," Shukin said  to  Alexander Semyonovich,  "and show us
where everything is." But Feight  shrank back from him in horror, putting up
his hands as if to ward off some terrible vision.
     "You must show us," Polaitis added  sternly.  "Leave him alone. You can
see the state he's in."
     "Send me to Moscow," begged Alexander Semyonovich, weeping.
     "You really don't want to go back to the farm again?"
     Instead of replying Feight  shielded himself with  his hands again, his
eyes radiating horror.
     "Alright  then," decided Shukin. "You're really not in a fit state... I
can see that. There's an express train leaving shortly, you can go on it."
     While the  station  watchman helped Alexander Semyonovich, whose  teeth
were chattering  on the battered blue mug, to have a drink of water,  Shukin
and Polaitis conferred  together.  Polaitis  took the view  that nothing had
happened. But that Feight was mentally  ill and it had all been a  terrible,
hallucination.   Shukin,  however,  was  inclined  to  believe  that  a  boa
constrictor had escaped from the  circus  on tour in the town of  Grachevka.
The sound of  their doubting whispers made  Feight rise to his feet.  He had
recovered  somewhat  and  said,  raising his  hands  like an  Old  Testament
     "Listen to me. Listen. Why  don't you believe me? I saw it. Where is my
     Shukin went  silent  and serious and immediately sent off a telegram to
Grachevka. On Shukin's instructions, a third agent began to stick closely to
Alexander  Semyonovich  and  was  to accompany  him  to  Moscow.  Shukin and
Polaitis got ready for the journey. They only had one electric revolver, but
it was  good protection.  A 1927 model, the  pride of  French technology for
shooting at close range, could kill at a mere hundred paces, but had a range
of  two  metres  in  diameter and  within this  range any living  thing  was
exterminated  outright. It was very  hard to  miss. Shukin put on this shiny
electric  toy,  while  Polaitis  armed   himself  with   an  ordinary  light
machine-gun, then they took some ammunition  and raced off on the  motorbike
along the main  road through the early morning dew and chill  to  the  state
farm. The  motorbike  covered the twelve miles between  the station and  the
farm  in a quarter of an hour  (Feight had walked  all  night,  occasionally
hiding in the grass by the wayside in spasms of mortal terror), and when the
sun began to  get hot, the sugar palace with columns appeared amid the trees
on the  hill overlooking the  winding River Top. There was a deathly silence
all around. At the beginning of the  turning up to the state farm the agents
overtook a peasant on a cart. He was riding along at a leisurely pace with a
load  of sacks, and was soon left far behind. The motorbike  drove  over the
bridge,  and Polaitis sounded the horn to announce their  arrival. But  this
elicited no response whatsoever,  except from  some distant frenzied dogs in
Kontsovka.  The  motorbike  slowed  down as  it  approached  the  gates with
verdigris lions. Covered with dust, the agents in yellow gaiters dismounted,
padlocked  their motorbike to the iron railings  and went into the yard. The
silence was eery.
     "Hey, anybody around?" shouted Shukin loudly.
     But no one answered his  deep voice. The agents  walked round the yard,
growing  more  and more  mystified. Polaitis  was scowling.  Shukin began to
search seriously, his fair eyebrows knit in  a frown. They looked through an
open window into  the kitchen and saw that it  was  empty, but the floor was
covered with broken bits of white china.
     "Something really has  happened to  them, you know. I  can see  it now.
Some catastrophe," Polaitis said.
     "Anybody there?  Hey!" shouted Shukin,  but the only reply  was an echo
from  the kitchen vaults.  "The  devil only knows! It  couldn't have gobbled
them all up, could it? Perhaps they've run off somewhere.  Let's go into the
     The front door with the  colonnaded  veranda was wide open. The  palace
was completely  empty  inside. The  agents  even  climbed  up to the  attic,
knocking  and  opening all the doors, but  they found nothing  and went  out
again into the yard through the deserted porch.
     "We'll walk round the outside to the conservatory," Shukin said. "We'll
give that a good going over and we can phone from there too."
     The agents set off along the brick path, past the flowerbeds and across
the backyard, at which point the conservatory came into sight.
     "Wait  a  minute," whispered Shukin, unbuckling  his revolver. Polaitis
tensed  and took his  machine-gun in both hands. A strange, very  loud noise
was  coming from the conservatory and somewhere behind it. It  was  like the
sound of a steam engine. "Zzzz-zzzz," the conservatory hissed.
     "Careful  now," whispered Shukin,  and trying  not to make a  sound the
agents stole up to the glass walls and peered into the conservatory.
     Polaitis immediately recoiled, his face white as a sheet. Shukin froze,
mouth open and revolver in hand.
     The  conservatory was a terrible writhing mass.  Huge  snakes slithered
across the floor, twisting and intertwining, hissing and uncoiling, swinging
and shaking their heads. The broken shells on the floor crunched under their
bodies.  Overhead a powerful  electric lamp shone  palely,  casting  an eery
cinematographic light over the inside of the conservatory. On the  floor lay
three huge  photographic-like chambers, two of which were dark  and had been
pushed  aside,  but  a  small deep-red patch of light  glowed in  the third.
Snakes of  all sizes were crawling over the cables, coiling round the frames
and climbing through the holes  in the roof. From the  electric lamp  itself
hung a jet-black spotted snake  several yards long, its head swinging like a
pendulum. There  was an occasional rattle  amid the  hissing, and a  strange
putrid pond-like smell wafted out of the conservatory. The agents could just
make out piles of white eggs in the dusty corners, an  enormous  long-legged
bird  lying  motionless by the chambers and the body of a man in grey by the
door, with a rifle next to him.
     "Get back!"  shouted Shukin and began to retreat, pushing Polaitis with
his  left hand and raising his  revolver with his right. He  managed to fire
nine hissing  shots which  cast flashes of green lightning  all  round.  The
noise  swelled  terribly   as  in  response  to  Shukin's  shots  the  whole
conservatory was galvanised into frantic motion,  and flat heads appeared in
all the holes.  Peals of thunder began to roll over the farm and echo on the
walls. "Rat-tat-tat-tat," Polaitis fired, retreating backwards.  There was a
strange four-footed  shuffling behind  him. Polaitis suddenly gave  an awful
cry and fell to the  ground. A brownish-green creature on bandy legs, with a
huge  pointed  head  and  a  cristate tail,  like an  enormous  lizard,  had
slithered  out from behind the barn, given Polaitis  a  vicious bite in  the
leg, and knocked him over.
     "Help!" shouted  Polaitis. His left arm was immediately  snapped up and
crunched by a pair of jaws, while his right, which he tried in vain to lift,
trailed the machine-gun  over  the ground. Shukin turned round in confusion.
He managed to fire once, but  the shot  went wide, because he was  afraid of
hitting his  companion. The second  time  he  fired in the direction  of the
conservatory, because  amid the smaller snake-heads a  huge olive  one on an
enormous  body had reared up and was  slithering straight  towards  him. The
shot killed the  giant snake,  and Shukin hopped and skipped round Polaitis,
already  half-dead in the crocodile's jaws, trying to find the right spot to
shoot  the  terrible  monster without  hitting  the  agent.  In  the  end he
succeeded. The electric revolver fired twice, lighting  up everything around
with a greenish flash, and the crocodile  shuddered and stretched out rigid,
letting  go  of  Polaitis.  Blood  gushed  out  of  his sleeve and mouth. He
collapsed onto his  sound  right  arm, dragging his broken left leg. He  was
sinking fast.
     "Get out... Shukin," he sobbed.
     Shukin fired a few  more  shots in the  direction of  the conservatory,
smashing several panes of glass.  But behind him a huge olive-coloured  coil
sprang out of a cellar window, slithered over the yard, covering it entirely
with its ten-yard-long body and wound itself round Shukin's legs in a flash.
It dashed him to the ground, and  the  shiny revolver bounced  away.  Shukin
screamed with all his might,  then choked, as the coils  enfolded all of him
except  his head. Another coil swung round his  head, ripping off the scalp,
and the skull cracked. No more shots  were heard in the farm. Everything was
drowned  by the  all-pervading hissing. In reply  to  the  hissing  the wind
wafted distant  howls  from Kontsovka,  only now it was hard to say who  was
howling, dogs or people.

     In the editorial office of Izvestia the  lights were  shining brightly,
and the fat duty editor was  laying out the  second  " column with telegrams
"Around the  Union Republics". One galley caught his  eye.  He looked  at it
through his pince-nez;
     and laughed, then called the  proof-readers and the maker-up and showed
them it. On the narrow strip of damp paper they read:
     "Grachevka,  Smolensk  Province.  A hen that is as big  as a  horse and
kicks like  a horse has  appeared  in the  district. It has bourgeois lady's
feathers instead of a tail."
     The compositors laughed themselves silly.
     "In  my  day,"  said the  duty  editor, chuckling  richly, "when  I was
working for Vanya Sytin on The Russian Word they used to  see elephants when
they got sozzled. That's right. Now it's ostriches."
     The compositors laughed.
     "Yes, of course, it's  an ostrich," said the maker-up. "Shall we put it
in, Ivan Vonifatievich?"
     "Are you crazy?" the editor replied. "I'm surprised  the secretary  let
it through. It was written under the influence alright."
     "Yes,  they must have  had a drop  or two," agreed the compositors, and
the maker-up removed the ostrich report from the desk.
     So  it was that Izvestia came out next day containing, as usual, a mass
of  interesting material but no mention whatsoever of the Grachevka ostrich.
Decent Ivanov,  who  was  conscientiously  reading  Izvestia in his  office,
rolled it up and yawned,  muttering: "Nothing of interest," then put  on his
white coat.  A little later the Bunsen burners went on in his  room and  the
frogs started  croaking.  In Professor  Persikov's  room, however, there was
hell let loose. The petrified Pankrat Stood stiffly to attention.
     "Yessir, I will," he was saying.
     Persikov handed him a sealed packet and told him:
     "Go  at  once  to the  head of the Husbandry Department,  and  tell him
straight  that he's a  swine. Tell  him  that  I said  so. And give him this
     "That's a nice little errand  and no  mistake,"  thought the pale-faced
Pankrat and disappeared with the packet.
     Persikov fumed angrily.
     "The devil only  knows what's going  on,"  he raged, pacing up and down
the office and rubbing his gloved  hands. "It's making  a mockery of me  and
zoology. They're bringing him  pile upon pile of those blasted chicken eggs,
when I've been waiting two months for what I really need. America's not that
far away! It's sheer inefficiency! A  real disgrace!"  He began counting  on
his fingers. "Catching them takes, say, ten days at the most,  alright then,
fifteen, well, certainly not more than  twenty, plus two days to get them to
London, and another one from London to Berlin. And from Berlin it's only six
hours to get here. It's an utter disgrace!"
     He snatched up the phone in a rage and began ringing someone.
     Everything in his laboratory was  ready for  some mysterious and highly
dangerous experiments.  There were  strips of  paper  to seal  up the doors,
divers'  helmets with  snorkels and  several  cylinders shining like mercury
with labels saying "Volunteer-Chem" and "Do not touch" plus the drawing of a
skull and cross-bones on the label.
     It took at least three hours for the Professor to calm down and  get on
with some minor jobs. Which is what he did. He worked at the Institute until
eleven in  the evening and  therefore had no idea what was happening outside
its  cream-painted  walls.  Neither  the  absurd rumours  circulating around
Moscow about  terrible dragons, nor  the  newsboys'  shouts about a  strange
telegram in the evening paper reached his  ears. Docent  Ivanov had  gone to
see TsarFyodor  Ivanovich at the Arts Theatre, so  there was no  one to tell
the Professor the news.
     Around midnight Persikov arrived at Prechistenka and went to bed, where
he  read  an  English article in the Zoological  Proceedings  received  from
London. Then  he fell asleep, like the rest of  late-night  Moscow. The only
thing that did not sleep  was the big grey  building  set  back in Tverskaya
Street where  the  Izvestia rotary  presses clattered noisily,  shaking  the
whole block. There was an incredible din and confusion in the office  of the
duty editor. He was rampaging  around with bloodshot eyes like a madman, not
knowing what to do, and sending everyone to the devil. The maker-up followed
close on his heels, breathing out wine fumes and saying:
     "It  can't be helped, Ivan Vonifatievich. Let them  bring out a special
supplement tomorrow. We can't take the paper off the presses now."
     Instead  of  going home, the compositors clustered together reading the
telegrams that  were now arriving in a steady  stream, every fifteen minutes
or so, each  more eerie and disturbing than the one before. Alfred Bronsky's
pointed hat flashed  by in the blinding pink light  of  the printing office,
and the  fat man with  the artificial leg  scraped and hobbled around. Doors
slammed in the  entrance  and  reporters  kept  dashing  up  all night.  The
printing  office's  twelve telephones were busy non-stop,  and the  exchange
almost automatically replied  to the mysterious calls by  giving the engaged
signal, while  the signal horns beeped  constantly before the sleepless eyes
of the lady telephonists.
     The  compositors  had  gathered  round  the  metal-legged   ocean-going
captain, who was saying to them:
     "They'll have to send aeroplanes with gas."
     "They  will  and  all," replied  the  compositors.  "It's  a  downright
disgrace,  it  is!" Then the air  rang with foul  curses and a shrill  voice
     "That Persikov should be shot!"
     "What's  Persikov got to do with it?" said someone in  the crowd. "It's
that son-of-a-bitch at the farm who should be shot."
     "There should have been a guard!" someone shouted.
     "Perhaps it's not the eggs at all."
     The whole building thundered and shook from the rotary machines, and it
felt as if the ugly grey block was blazing in an electrical conflagration.
     Far from ceasing with the break of a new day, the pandemonium grew more
intense than ever, although the electric lights  went out. One after another
motorbikes  and automobiles  raced into the  asphalted courtyard. All Moscow
rose to  don white sheets of newspapers like birds. They fluttered down  and
rustled in everyone's hands. By eleven a.m. the newspaper-boys had sold out,
although that month they were printing a million  and  a half copies of each
issue of Izvestia. Professor Persikov took the bus from  Prechistenka to the
Institute. There he was  greeted by  some news. In the vestibule stood three
wooden crates neatly bound with metal strips and covered with foreign labels
in German, over which someone had  chalked in  Russian:  "Eggs. Handle  with
     The Professor was overjoyed.
     "At last!" he cried. "Open the crates at once, Pankrat, only be careful
not to damage the eggs. And bring them into my office."
     Pankrat  carried out these instructions straightaway, and a  quarter of
an hour later in the  Professor's office, strewn with sawdust and scraps  of
paper, a voice began shouting angrily.
     "Are they trying  to make fun of me?" the Professor howled, shaking his
fists and  waving a couple of eggs.  "That Poro-syuk's a real beast. I won't
be treated like this. What do you think they are, Pankrat?"
     "Eggs, sir," Pankrat replied mournfully.
     "Chicken eggs, see, the devil take them! What good are they to me? They
should be sent to that rascal on his state farm!"
     Persikov rushed to the phone, but did not have time to make a call.
     "Vladimir  Ipatych!  Vladimir  Ipatych!" Ivanov's voice called urgently
down the Institute's corridor.
     Persikov put down the  phone and Pankrat hopped aside to  make  way for
the decent. The latter hurried  into the office and,  contrary to  his usual
gentlemanly practice, did  not even remove the grey hat sitting on his head.
In his hand he held a newspaper.
     "Do you  know  what's  happened,  Vladimir Ipatych?"  he  cried, waving
before Persikov's face  a sheet with the headline "Special Supplement" and a
bright coloured picture in the middle.
     "Just listen to what they've done!" Persikov shouted  back at him,  not
listening.  "They've sent  me some  chicken  eggs  as a nice  surprise. That
Porosyuk's a positive cretin, just look!"
     Ivanov  stopped short. He stared in horror at the open crates, then  at
the newspaper, and his eyes nearly popped out of his head.
     "So  that's  it," he gasped. "Now  I understand. Take a  look at  this,
Vladimir Ipatych." He quickly unfolded  the paper and pointed with trembling
fingers  at  the  coloured  picture. It showed an  olive-coloured snake with
yellow spots  swaying like terrible fire hose in  strange smudgy foliage. It
had been  taken  from  a light aeroplane flying cautiously  over  the snake.
"What is that in your opinion, Vladimir Ipatych?"
     Persikov pushed the spectacles onto his forehead, then pulled them back
onto his nose, stared at the photograph and said in great surprise:
     "Well, I'll be damned. It's ... it's an anaconda. A boa constrictor..."
     Ivanov pulled off his hat, sat down  on  a chair and said, banging  the
table with his fist to emphasise each word:
     "It's  an  anaconda from Smolensk Province, Vladimir  Ipatych.  What  a
monstrosity!  That  scoundrel has hatched  out snakes instead  of  chickens,
understand, and they are reproducing at the same fantastic rate as frogs!"
     "What's that?"  Persikov exclaimed, his  face  turning  ashen.  "You're
joking, Pyotr Stepanovich. How could he have?"
     Ivanov  could  say  nothing  for a  moment,  then regained the power of
speech and said, poking a  finger into the open crate where tiny white heads
lay shining in the yellow sawdust:
     "That's how."
     "Wha-a-at?" Persikov howled, as the truth gradually dawned on him.
     "You can be sure of it. They sent your order for snake and ostrich eggs
to the state farm by mistake, and the chicken eggs to you."
     "Good  grief  ...  good grief," Persikov repeated,  his face turning  a
greenish white as he sank down onto a stool.
     Pankrat stood petrified by the door, pale and speechless. Ivanov jumped
up,  grabbed the newspaper and, pointing at the  headline with a sharp nail,
yelled into the Professor's ear:
     "Now the fun's going to start alright! What  will happen now,  I simply
can't imagine. Look here, Vladimir Ipatych." He yelled out the first passage
to catch  his eye on the crumpled newspaper: "The snakes are swarming in the
direction of Mozhaisk  ...  laying vast  numbers of  eggs.  Eggs  have  been
discovered in Dukhovsky District... Crocodiles and  ostriches have appeared.
Special armed units... and GPU detachments put an end to the panic in Vyazma
by  burning  down  stretches of  forest  outside the town  and  checking the
reptiles' advance..."
     With  an  ashen blotched face and demented eyes, Persikov rose from the
stool and began to gasp:
     "An  anaconda!  A  boa  constrictor! Good  grief!" Neither  Ivanov  nor
Pankrat had ever seen him in such a state before.
     The  Professor  tore off his  tie,  ripped  the buttons off his  shirt,
turned a strange paralysed purple and staggered out with vacant glassy eyes.
His howls echoed beneath the Institute's stone vaulting.
     "Anaconda! Anaconda!" they rang.
     "Go  and catch the Professor!"  Ivanov cried to Pankrat who was hopping
up and down with terror on the spot. "Get him some water. He's had a fit."

     A frenzied  electrical  night blazed  in  Moscow. All  the  lights were
burning,  and the flats were full of lamps with the shades taken off. No one
was asleep  in  the  whole of Moscow  with  its population of  four million,
except for small children. In their apartments people ate and drank whatever
came to hand,  and  the  slightest cry  brought fear-distorted  faces to the
windows  on  all  floors  to  stare up  at the  night  sky criss-crossed  by
searchlights.  Now  and then  white lights flared  up,  casting pale melting
cones over Moscow before  they  faded away. There was the constant low drone
of aeroplanes. It was particularly frightening in Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street.
Every  ten  minutes trains  made up of  goods vans,  passenger carriages  of
different  classes  and  even  tank-trucks kept  arriving  at  Alexandrovsky
Station with  fear-crazed folk clinging to them,  and Tverskaya-Yamskaya was
packed with  people riding in buses and on the roofs of  trams, crushing one
another and getting run over. Now and then  came the anxious crack of  shots
being  fired  above  the  crowd  at  the  station.  That  was  the  military
detachments  stopping panic-stricken  demented people who were running along
the railway track from Smolensk  Province to Moscow. Now and then the  glass
in the station windows would fly out with a light frenzied sob and the steam
engines  start wailing. The streets were strewn with posters, which had been
dropped and trampled on, while the same posters  stared out  from the  walls
under  the hot red reflectors. Everyone knew what they said, and no one read
them  any  more.  They announced  that  Moscow was  now  under martial  law.
Panicking was  forbidden  on  threat  of severe  punishment,  and  Red  Army
detachments armed  with  poison  gas  were  already on their way to Smolensk
Province.  But  the  posters could  not  stop the  howling  night.  In their
apartments people dropped and broke dishes and vases, ran about banging into
things,  tied  and  untied bundles and cases in  the  vain  hope of  somehow
getting to Kalanchevskaya Square and Yaroslavl or Nikolayevsky Station. But,
alas,  all the  stations to  the north and east were surrounded  by  a dense
cordon  of  infantry, and huge  lorries, swaying and rattling  their chains,
piled high  with boxes on top of which sat Red Army men in pointed  helmets,
bayonets at  the ready, were  evacuating gold bullion from the vaults of the
People's  Commissariat  of  Finances  and  large  crates  marked  "Tretyakov
Gallery. Handle with care!" Cars were roaring and racing all over Moscow.
     Far away in  the sky was the reflected glow of a fire, and the constant
boom of cannons rocked the dense blackness of August.
     Towards morning,  a  huge snake of  cavalry,  thousands  strong, hooves
clattering  on  the  cobble-stones,  wended  its  way up  Tverskaya  through
sleepless Moscow, which had still not extinguished a  single light. Everyone
in its path huddled against entrances and shop-windows, knocking in panes of
glass.  The ends of crimson helmets dangled down  grey backs,  and pike tips
pierced the sky. At the  sight of these advancing columns  cutting their way
through the sea of madness, the frantic, wailing  crowds of people seemed to
come to their senses. There were hopeful shouts from the thronged pavements.
     "Hooray! Long live the cavalry!" shouted some frenzied women's voices.
     "Hooray!" echoed some men.
     "We'll be crushed to death!" someone wailed.
     "Help!" came shouts from the pavement.
     Packets  of  cigarettes, silver coins and watches flew into the columns
from the pavements.  Some women  jumped out into the roadway, at great risk,
and ran  alongside  the  cavalry, clutching the stirrups and  kissing  them.
Above the constant clatter of hooves rose occasional shouts from the platoon
     "Rein in."
     There  was  some  rowdy,  lewd singing and the faces in  cocked crimson
helmets  stared  from  their  horses  in   the  flickering  neon  lights  of
advertisements. Now and then, behind the columns of open-faced cavalry, came
weird  figures, also on horseback, wearing strange masks with pipes that ran
over  their  shoulders and cylinders  strapped to  their  backs. Behind them
crawled huge tank-trucks with  long hoses like  those on fire-engines. Heavy
tanks  on caterpillar  tracks, shut  tight, with  narrow shinning loopholes,
rumbled along  the  roadway. The cavalry columns  gave way to grey  armoured
cars with the same pipes sticking out and white skulls painted on  the sides
over the words "Volunteer-Chem. Poison gas".
     "Let 'em have it, lads!" the crowds on the pavements shouted. "Kill the
reptiles! Save Moscow!"
     Cheerful curses rippled along the ranks. Packets of cigarettes  whizzed
through  the lamp-lit night air, and white teeth grinned  from the horses at
the crazed people. A hoarse heartrending song spread through the ranks:
     ...No  ace,  nor queen, nor  jack have we, But we'll kill  the reptiles
sure as can be. And blast them into eternity...
     Loud  bursts of  cheering surged over the  motley throng as  the rumour
spread  that  out in front on horseback, wearing the  same crimson helmet as
all  the other  horsemen,  was  the  now  grey-haired  and  elderly  cavalry
commander who had become a legend ten years ago. The crowd howled, and their
hoorays  floated  up  into  the  sky,  bringing  a  little  comfort to their
desperate hearts.
     The  Institute  was dimly  lit. The events reached it only as isolated,
confused and  vague echoes. At one point  some shots rang out under the neon
clock  by  the Manege.  Some marauders who  had  tried to  loot  a  flat  in
Volkhonka were being shot on the spot There was little traffic in the street
here. It was all concentrated round the railway stations. In the Professor's
room,  where a single  lamp burned dimly casting a circle  of light  on  the
desk, Persikov sat silently, head in hands. Streak of smoke hung around him.
The ray in  the chamber had been switched off.  The  frogs in the terrariums
were silent, for they were already asleep. The Professor was not working  or
reading.  At his side,  under  his  left  elbow, lay the evening  edition of
telegrams in the narrow column, which announced that Smolensk was in  flames
and artillery  were bombarding  the  Mozhaisk  forest  section  by  section,
destroying deposits  of crocodile eggs  in  all  the damp  ravines.  It also
reported that a  squadron of  aeroplanes had carried out a highly successful
operation  near Vyazma, spraying almost the whole district  with poison gas,
but there were countless human losses in the area because instead of leaving
it  in an orderly fashion, the population had panicked and made off in small
groups to  wherever  the  fancy  took  them.  It  also  said that a  certain
Caucasian cavalry division  on the  way to  Mozhaisk  had  won  a  brilliant
victory against hordes of ostriches, killing the lot of them  and destroying
huge deposits of ostrich  eggs. The  division  itself  had suffered very few
losses.  There  was  a  government announcement  that  if  it  should  prove
impossible to keep the reptiles outside the 120-mile zone around Moscow, the
capital would be completely evacuated.  Office- and  factory-workers  should
remain  calm. The  government would  take  the strictest measures to avoid a
repetition  of the Smolensk  situation,  as a  result  of which, due to  the
pandemonium caused by  a  sudden attack from  rattlesnakes numbering several
thousands, the town had been set on  fire in several places when  people had
abandoned burning stoves and begun a hopeless mass exodus. It also announced
that  Moscow's food supplies would  last for at least  six months and that a
committee under the Commander-in-Chief  was taking urgent measures to armour
apartments against attacks by reptiles in the streets of the capital, if the
Red Army and aeroplanes did not succeed in halting their advance.
     The Professor  read none  of this, but stared vacantly in  front of him
and  smoked.  Apart  from  him  there were  only  two  other people  in  the
Institute, Pankrat and the house-keeper, Maria Stepanovna, who kept bursting
into  tears. This was her third sleepless  night, which she  was spending in
the  Professor's  laboratory, because he flatly refused  to leave  his  only
remaining chamber, even though  it  had been switched  off. Maria Stepanovna
had taken refuge on the oilcloth-covered divan, in the  shade in the corner,
and maintained  a  grief-stricken  silence,  watching  the  kettle  with the
Professor's tea boil  on the  tripod of a Bunsen  Burner. The  Institute was
quiet. It all happened very suddenly.
     Some loud angry cries rang  out in the street,  making Maria Stepanovna
jump up  and scream. Lamps flashed outside, and Pankrat's voice was heard in
the  vestibule. The Professor misinterpreted this noise. He  raised his head
for a  moment and muttered: "Listen  to them raving...  what can  I do now?"
Then he  went into a trance again. But  he was soon brought out of it. There
was a terrible pounding on the iron doors of the Institute in Herzen Street,
and  the  walls  trembled. Then a whole  section  of  mirror cracked in  the
neighbouring room. A window pane in the Professor's  laboratory  was smashed
as a  grey cobble-stone  flew  through it, knocking over a  glass table. The
frogs woke up in the terrariums and began to croak. Maria Stepanovna  rushed
up  to  the  Professor, clutched  his arm and  cried:  "Run  away,  Vladimir
Ipatych, run away!" The Professor got off the  revolving chair, straightened
up and crooked  his finger,  his eyes flashing for a moment with a sharpness
which recalled the earlier inspired Persikov.
     "I'm not  going  anywhere,"  he said. "It's quite  ridiculous.  They're
rushing around like madmen. And if the whole of Moscow has gone crazy, where
could I go? And please stop shouting. What's it got to do with me? Pankrat!"
he cried, pressing the button.
     He probably  wanted Pankrat to stop all the fuss,  which  he  had never
liked. But Pankrat was no longer in a state to do anything. The pounding had
ended with the Institute doors flying open and the sound of distant gunfire.
But  then the  whole stone building shook with a sudden stampede, shouts and
breaking glass. Maria Stepanovna  seized  hold of Persi-kov's arms and tried
to drag  him away, but he shook her off, straightened himself up to his full
height and went into the corridor, still wearing his white coat.
     "Well?" he asked. The door burst open, and the first thing to appear on
the threshold was the back of a soldier with a red long-service stripe and a
star on his left sleeve. He  was firing his revolver and retreating from the
door, through  which a furious crowd was surging. Then he turned and shouted
at Persikov:
     "Run for your life, Professor! I can't help you anymore."
     His words were greeted by  a scream from Maria  Stepanovna. The soldier
rushed past Persikov, who stood rooted to the spot like  a white statue, and
disappeared down the dark winding corridors at the other  end. People rushed
through the door, howling:
     "Beat him! Kill him..."
     "The villain!"
     "You let the reptiles loose!"
     The corridor was a swarming mass of contorted faces and torn clothes. A
shot rang out. Sticks were brandished. Persikov stepped back and half-closed
the door  of his room,  where Maria Stepanovna was kneeling  on the floor in
terror, then stretched out his arms like one  crucified. He did  not want to
let the crowd in and shouted angrily:
     "It's positive madness. You're  like wild animals. What  do you  want?"
Then he  yelled:  "Get out  of  here!" and finished with the  curt, familiar
command: "Get rid of them, Pankrat."
     But Pankrat could not get rid of anyone now. He was lying motionless in
the vestibule, torn and trampled, with a smashed skull. More and more people
swarmed past him, paying no attention to the police firing in the street.
     A  short man  on crooked ape-like legs, in a tattered jacket  and  torn
shirt-front all  askew,  leapt out  of the crowd at  Persikov and  split the
Professor's  skull  open  with  a  terrible blow  from  his  stick. Persikov
staggered and collapsed slowly onto one side. His last words were:
     "Pankrat. Pankrat."
     The totally innocent Maria Stepanovna was killed  and torn to pieces in
the Professor's room. They also smashed  the  chamber with the  extinguished
ray and  the  terrariums, after killing and  trampling on the  crazed frogs,
then the glass tables and the reflectors. An hour later the Institute was in
flames. Around lay corpses cordoned off by  a column of soldiers  armed with
electric revolvers, while fire-engines sucked up water and sprayed it on all
the windows through which long roaring tongues of flame were leaping.

     On the  night  of 19th August, 1928, there was an  unheard-of frost the
likes of which no elderly  folk could recall within living memory. It lasted
forty-eight  hours and reached eighteen degrees below. Panic-stricken Moscow
closed all its doors and windows. Only towards the end of the  third day did
the  public realise that the frost  had saved  the capital and  the  endless
expanses  under  its  sway afflicted  by the  terrible disaster of 1928. The
cavalry army by Mozhaisk, which  had lost three-quarters of its  men, was on
its last legs,  and  the  poison  gas  squads had been  unable to  halt  the
loathsome reptiles, who were advancing  on Moscow in a  semi-circle from the
west, south-west and south.
     They were killed off by the frost.  The  foul  hordes could not survive
two days of minus eighteen degrees  centigrade, and  come  the  last week of
August,  when the  frost disappeared  leaving only  damp  and wet behind it,
moisture in the air  and trees  with leaves dead  from the unexpected  cold,
there was  nothing to fight. The catastrophe was  over. The  forests, fields
and  boundless  marshes were still covered  with coloured eggs, some bearing
the  strange  pattern  unfamiliar  in these parts,  which  Feight,  who  had
disappeared no one knew where, had taken to be muck, but these eggs were now
completely  harmless.  They were  dead, the  embryos inside  them  had  been
     For a long time afterwards  these  vast  expanses were  heavy with  the
rotting  corpses  of  crocodiles  and  snakes brought  to  life by  the  ray
engendered in  Herzen Street under a genius's eye, but they  were no  longer
dangerous. These precarious creations of putrid  tropical swamps perished in
two  days, leaving  a  terrible  stench, putrefaction  and decay  over three
provinces. There were epidemics  and widespread diseases from the corpses of
reptiles  and people, and  the  army was  kept  busy  for  a long time,  now
supplied not with poison gas, but with engineering equipment, kerosene tanks
and hoses to clean the ground. It completed this work by the spring of 1929.
     And in the  spring of 'twenty-nine  Moscow  began  to dance, whirl  and
shimmer with lights again. Once  more you could hear the old shuffling sound
of the mechanical carriages, a crescent  moon hung, as if by  a thread, over
the dome of  Christ the Saviour, and on the site of the two-storey Institute
which burnt down in August 'twenty-eight they built a new zoological palace,
with Docent  Ivanov  in charge. But Persikov was no more. No more did people
see  the  persuasive  crooked  finger  thrust at them  or  hear  the rasping
croaking voice. The world went on talking and writing about the  ray and the
catastrophe  of '28  for  a  long  time  afterwards,  but then  the name  of
Professor   Vladimir   Ipatievich  Persikov   was  enveloped  in   mist  and
extinguished, like  the  red  ray discovered by him  on  that fateful  April
night. No one succeeded in producing this  ray  again, although that refined
gentleman,  Pyotr Stepanovich Ivanov, now  a  professor, occasionally tried.
The  first  chamber  was destroyed by  the  frenzied crowd on  the  night of
Persikov's  murder. The other three chambers were burnt on the Red Ray State
Farm  in Nikolskoye  during  the first  battle  of  the aeroplanes with  the
reptiles, and it did  not prove possible to reconstruct  them. Simple though
the combination of the lenses with the mirror-reflected light may have been,
it  could not  be  reproduced  a second time, in spite of  Ivanov's efforts.
Evidently,  in  addition to  mere knowledge  it required  something special,
something possessed by one man alone in the whole world, the late  Professor
Vladimir Ipatievich Persikov.

Популярность: 9, Last-modified: Mon, 24 Jul 2006 14:46:19 GMT