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 water.
"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 blood.
"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 God!"
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 chicken-coop.
"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 Moscow.
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 Stepanovna.
"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 hyena.)
"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 receipt.
"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.
"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 him."
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 time."
"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 galoshes.
"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 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.
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 receiver:
"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 Professor."
"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 boozer."
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 fowls'?"
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 quietly.
"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 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 page.
"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 Republic".
"What?" asked Persikov, pushing his spectacles onto his forehead...