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 announcements.
"Anti-fowl vaccinations at Lefortovo Veterinary Institute have produced brilliant results. The number of... fowl deaths for today has dropped by half..."
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 reflectors.
"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 stations."
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 letters:
"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 belt.
"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 banisters.
"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 grass-snake.
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.
"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.
"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 microscope.
"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. Yes."
"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 chickens."
"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.
"Yessir," Pankrat replied plaintively, thinking, "If only you'd bawl at me!"
"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 letter..."
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.