Next morning Korotkov found to his delight that his eye no longer needed to be bandaged, so he took the bandage off with relief and immediately looked more handsome and different. Gulping down some tea, he put out the primus-stove and hurried off to work, trying not to be late, and arrived fifty minutes late because instead of taking the number six route, the tram followed the number seven to some remote streets with small wooden houses and broke down there. Korotkov had to walk about two miles and trotted panting into the General Office, just as the Alpine Rose's kitchen clock was striking eleven. In the General Office he was greeted by a most unusual spectacle for that time of day. Lidochka de Runi, Milochka Litovtseva, Anna Yevgrafovna, the chief accountant Drozd, the instructor Gitis, Nomeratsky, Ivanov, Mushka, the registrar and the cashier, in other words, all the General Office staff, instead of sitting in their places at the kitchen tables of the former Alpine Rose Restaurant, were standing in a tight cluster by the wall to which a sheet of quarto paper was nailed. There was a sudden hush as Korotkov came in, and everyone looked away.
"Good morning, all, what's the matter?" Korotkov asked in surprise.
The crowd parted in silence, and Korotkov walked up to the sheet of paper. The first few lines looked at him boldly and clearly, the closing ones through a tearful stupefying haze.
"ORDER No. 1
§ 1. "For an inexcusably negligent attitude to his duties giving rise to gross confusion in important official documents, as well as coming to the office with a disgraceful face obviously damaged in a brawl, Comrade Korotkov is hereby dismissed as from today, the 26th inst. and will receive tram money up to and including the 25th inst."
The first paragraph also happened to be the last, and under it in large letters was the flourishing signature:
"Base Head: Longjohn"
For twenty seconds perfect silence reigned in the dusty mirrored hall of the Alpine Rose that was. And the best, deepest and most deathly silence of all came from a greenish Korotkov. At the twenty-first second the silence was broken.
"What's that? What's that?" Korotkov cracked twice, like an Alpine glass being smashed on someone's heel. "That's his surname — Longjohn?"
At the terrible word the General Office splashed off in different directions and in no time at all were sitting at their tables, like crows on a telegraph wire. Korotkov's face turned from a mouldy putrid green to a spotted purple.
"Deary me, deary me," Skvorets intoned from a distance, peeping out of his ledger. "How could you have dropped a clanger like that? Eh?"
"B-but I th-thought..." the fragments of Korotkov's voice grated. "I read 'longjohns' instead of 'Longjohn'. He writes his name with a small Т and does a twiddle at the end!"
"Shush!" hissed Skvorets snake-like. "What a thing to say!" He dived down and took refuge in his ledger, hiding behind a page.
"And it's not true, what he says about my face!" Korotkov cried quietly, turning white as ermine instead of purple. "I burnt my eye on those foul matches of ours, like Comrade de Runi!"
"Be quiet!" squealed Gitis, turning pale. "What are you saying? He tested them yesterday and said they were excellent."
Rrrr. The electric bell over the door rang suddenly. Panteleimon's heavy body slid off the stool and trundled along the corridor.
"I'll tell him. I'll tell him!" chanted Korotkov in a high, reedy voice. He dashed to the left, then to the right, ran about ten paces on the spot, his reflection distorted in the dusty Alpine mirrors, dived into the corridor and ran towards the light of the dim bulb hanging over a notice saying "Private Rooms". Panting hard, he stopped in front of the terrible door to find himself in the arms of Panteleimon.
"Comrade Panteleimon," Korotkov began anxiously. "Let me in, please. I must see the boss straightaway..."
"You can't, he says not to let anyone in," Panteleimon croaked, drowning Korotkov's determination in a terrible smell of onion. "You can't. Go away, Mr. Korotkov, or you'll get me into trouble..."
"But I must, Panteleimon," Korotkov asked weakly. "You see, my dear Panteleimon, there's been an order-Please let me pass, be a good chap."
"Oh, my goodness..." muttered Panteleimon, glancing at the door in fright. "You can't, I say. You can't, Comrade!"
Inside the office the telephone rang loudly and a copper-heavy voice barked:
"I'm leaving now! This very moment!"
Panteleimon and Korotkov moved aside. The door flew open and out into the corridor rushed Longjohn in an army cap with a briefcase under his arm. Panteleimon trotted along behind him, and after a moment's hesitation Korotkov raced off behind Panteleimon. At a bend in the corridor Korotkov, pale and agitated, darted under Panteleimon's arm, overtook Longjohn and ran along backwards in front of him.
"Comrade Longjohn," he mumbled with a catch in his throat. "Just let me say something, please. About the order..."
"Comrade!" the preoccupied and hurrying Longjohn roared furiously, trying to race past Korotkov. "Can't you see, I'm busy. I'm on my way."
"It's about the ord..."
"Can't you see I'm busy? Go to the Chief Clerk."
Longjohn raced into the vestibule, where the huge unwanted organ of the Alpine Rose was standing on the floor.
"But I am the Chief Clerk!" squealed Korotkov in horror, breaking into a cold sweat. "Please listen to me, Comrade Longjohn."
"Comrade!" Longjohn honked like a siren, not taking the slightest notice. Still running he turned to Panteleimon and shouted: "Take measures to stop me being detained!"
"Comrade!" Panteleimon croaked with fright. "Stop detaining."
And not knowing what measures to take, he took the following one. Putting his arms round Korotkov's torso, he drew him close as if it were the woman of his heart. The measure was most effective. Longjohn whizzed past, raced downstairs as if on roller skates, and shot out of the front door.
"Brrm! Brrm!" shouted a motor-cycle outside the windows, fired five shots and disappeared, veiling the panes with smoke. Only then did Panteleimon let go of Korotkov, wipe the sweat off his face and howl:
"God help us!"
"Panteleimon..." asked Korotkov in a shaky voice. "Where's he gone? Tell me quickly, or he'll get someone else..."