Mikhail Bulgakov the heart of a dog and other stories



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CHAPTER III

Persikov Catches It


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 amoebas.

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 look..."

"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!"




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