The approaching hordes of reptiles have panicked and terrified the inhabitants of Moscow. Residents are preparing for the worst. Artistic masterpieces have been evacuated from the Tretyakov Gallery. Is it nothing more than an overreaction? Let’s find out in Chapter XI. Enjoy the read!
CHAPTER XI. 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.
Source: “The Fatal Eggs”, Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Kathleen Gook-Horujy, Raduga, Moscow, 1990