Anacondas and other exotic reptiles are approaching Moscow. Professor Persikov finds out about the fatal substitution of the eggs. Does he have a plan to prevent catastrophe? More to come in Chapter X. Enjoy the read!
CHAPTER X. Catastrophe
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 Poro-syuk’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.”
Source: “The Fatal Eggs”, Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Kathleen Gook-Horujy, Raduga, Moscow, 1990