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:
"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 eggs?"
"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 ones!"
"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 abroad..."
"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 sort."
"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?"
"So it was him, was it? I can imagine what he'll concoct out of those eggs."
"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 come."
"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 experiments."
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.
"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 gas."
"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 regime.
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 white.
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.
A Writhing Mass
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 down."
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 table.
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 prophet:
"Listen to me. Listen. Why don't you believe me? I saw it. Where is my wife?"
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 house."
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 packet."
"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 cried:
"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 care!"
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 Porosyuk'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:
"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."
Bloodshed and Death
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 commanders:
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..."
"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:
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.
A Frosty God Ex Machina
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 killed.
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.