On the evening of 16 April, 1928, the Zoology Professor of the Fourth State University and Director of the Moscow Zoological Institute, Persikov, went into his laboratory at the Zoological Institute in Herzen Street. The Professor switched on the frosted ceiling light and looked around him. This ill-fated evening must be regarded as marking the beginning of the appalling catastrophe, just as Professor Vladimir Ipatievich Persikov must be seen as the prime cause of the said catastrophe.
He was fifty-eight years old. With a splendid bald head, like a pestle, and tufts of yellowish hair sticking out at the sides. His face was clean-shaven, with a slightly protruding lower lip which gave it a slightly cantankerous expression. Tall and round-shouldered, he had small bright eyes and tiny old-fashioned spectacles in silver frames on a red nose. He spoke in a grating, high, croaking voice and one of his many idiosyncrasies was to crook the index finger of his right hand and screw up his eyes, whenever he was saying something weighty and authoritative. And since he always spoke authoritatively, because his knowledge in his field was quite phenomenal, the crooked finger was frequently pointed at those with whom the Professor was conversing. Outside his field, that is, zoology, embriology, anatomy, botany and geography, however, Professor Persikov said almost nothing at all.
Professor Persikov did not read the newspapers or go to the theatre. His wife had run away with a tenor from the Zimin opera in 1913, leaving him a note which read as follows:
"Your frogs make me shudder with intolerable loathing. I shall be unhappy all my life because of them."
The Professor did not marry again and had no children. He was short-tempered, but did not bear grudges, liked cloudberry tea and lived in Prechistenka Street in a flat with five rooms, one of which was occupied by the old housekeeper, Maria Stepanovna, who looked after the Professor like a nanny.
In 1919 three of the Professor's five rooms were taken away. Whereupon he announced to Maria Stepanovna:
"If they don't stop this outrageous behaviour, I shall leave the country, Maria Stepanovna."
Had the Professor carried out this plan, he would have experienced no difficulty in obtaining a place in the zoology department of any university in the world, for he was a really first-class scholar, and in the particular field which deals with amphibians had no equal, with the exception of professors William Weckle in Cambridge and Giacomo Bartolomeo Beccari in Rome. The Professor could read four languages, as Mvell as Russian, and spoke French and German like a native. Persikov did not carry out his intention of going abroad, and 1920 was even worse than 1919. All sorts of things happened, one after the other. Bolshaya Nikitskaya was renamed Herzen Street. Then the clock on the wall of the corner building in Herzen Street and Mokhovaya stopped at a quarter past eleven and, finally, unable to endure the perturbations of this remarkable year, eight magnificent specimens of tree-frogs died in the Institute's terrariums, followed by fifteen ordinary toads and an exceptional specimen of the Surinam toad.
Immediately after the demise of the toads which devastated that first order of amphibians rightly called tailless, old Vlas, the Institute's caretaker of many years' standing, who did not belong to any order of amphibians, also passed on to a better world. The cause of his death, incidentally, was the same as that of the unfortunate amphibians, and Persikov diagnosed it at once:
The scientist was perfectly right. Vlas should have been fed with flour and the toads with flour weevils, but the disappearance of the former determined that of the latter likewise, and Persikov tried to shift the twenty surviving specimens of tree-frogs onto a diet of cockroaches, but then the cockroaches disappeared too, thereby demonstrating their hostile attitude to war communism. Consequently, these last remaining specimens also had to be thrown into the rubbish pits in the Institute yard.
The effect of these deaths on Persikov, particularly that of the Surinam toad, is quite indescribable. For some reason he blamed them entirely on the People's Commissar for Education.
Standing in his fur cap and galoshes in the corridor of the freezing Institute, Persikov said to his assistant Ivanov, an elegant gentleman with a fair pointed beard:
"Hanging's too good for him, Pyotr Stepanovich! What do they think they're doing! They'll ruin the whole Institute! Eh? An exceptionally rare male specimen of Pipa americana, thirteen centimetres long..."
Things went from bad to worse. When Vlas died the Institute windows froze so hard that there were icy scrolls on the inside of the panes. The rabbits, foxes, wolves and fish died, as well as every single grass-snake. Persikov brooded silently for days on end, then caught pneumonia, but did not die. When he recovered, he started coming to the Institute twice a week and in the round hall, where for some reason it was always five degrees below freezing point irrespective of the temperature outside, he delivered a cycle of lectures on "The Reptiles of the Torrid Zone" in galoshes, a fur cap with ear-flaps and a scarf, breathing out white steam, to an audience of eight. The rest of the time he lay under a rug on the divan in Prechistenka, in a room with books piled up to the ceiling, coughing, gazing into the jaws of the fiery stove which Maria Stepanov-na stoked with gilt chairs, and remembering the Surinam toad.
But all things come to an end. So it was with 'twenty and 'twenty-one, and in 'twenty-two a kind of reverse process began. Firstly, in place of the dear departed Vlas there appeared Pankrat, a young, but most promising zoological caretaker, and the Institute began to be heated again a little. Then in the summer with Pankrat's help Persikov caught fourteen common toads. The terrariums came to life again... In 'twenty-three Persikov gave eight lectures a week, three at the Institute and five at the University, in 'twenty-four thirteen a week, not including the ones at workers' schools, and in the spring of 'twenty-five distinguished himself by failing no less than seventy-six students, all on amphibians.
"What, you don't know the difference between amphibians and reptilia?"Persikov asked. "That's quite ridiculous, young man. Amphibia have no kidneys. None at all. So there. You should be ashamed of yourself. I expect you're a Marxist, aren't you?"
"Yes," replied the devastated student, faintly.
"Well, kindly retake the exam in the autumn," Persikov said politely and shouted cheerfully to Pankrat: "Send in the next one!"
Just as amphibians come to life after a long drought, with the first heavy shower of rain, so Professor Persikov revived in 1926 when a joint Americano-Russian company built fifteen fifteen-storey apartment blocks in the centre of Moscow, beginning at the corner of Gazetny Lane and Tverskaya, and 300 workers' cottages on the outskirts, each with eight apartments, thereby putting an- end once and for all to the terrible and ridiculous accommodation shortage which made life such a misery for Muscovites from 1919 to 1925.
In fact, it was a marvellous summer in Persikov's life, and occasionally he would rub his hands with' a quiet, satisfied giggle, remembering how he and Maria Stepanovna had been cooped up in two rooms. Now the Professor had received all five back, spread himself, arranged his two-and-a-half thousand books, stuffed animals, diagrams and specimens, and lit the green lamp on the desk in his study.
You would not have recognised the Institute either. They painted it cream, equipped the amphibian room with a special water supply system, replaced all the plate glass with mirrors and donated five new microscopes, glass laboratory tables, some 2,000-amp. arc lights, reflectors and museum cases.
Persikov came to life again, and the whole world suddenly learnt of this when a brochure appeared in December 1926 entitled "More About the Reproduction of Polyplacophora or Chitons", 126 pp, Proceedings of the Fourth University.
And in the autumn of 1927 he published a definitive work of 350 pages, subsequently translated into six languages, including Japanese. It was entitled "The Embryology of Pipae, Spadefoots and Frogs", price 3 roubles. State Publishing House.
But in the summer of 1928 something quite appalling happened...
So, the Professor switched on the light and looked around. Then he turned on the reflector on the long experimental table, donned his white coat, and fingered some instruments on the table...
Of the thirty thousand mechanical carriages that raced" around Moscow in 'twenty-eight many whizzed down Herzen Street, swishing over the smooth paving-stones, and every few minutes a 16,22, 48 or 53 tram would career round the corner from Herzen Street to Mokhovaya with much grinding and clanging. A pale and misty crescent moon cast reflections of coloured lights through the laboratory windows and was visible far away and high up beside the dark and heavy dome of the Church of Christ the Saviour.
But neither the moon nor the Moscow spring bustle were of the slightest concern to the Professor. He sat on his three-legged revolving stool turning with tobacco-stained fingers the knob of a splendid Zeiss microscope, in which there was an ordinary unstained specimen of fresh amoebas. At the very moment when Persikov was changing the magnification from five to ten thousand, the door opened slightly, a pointed beard and leather bib appeared, and his assistant called:
"I've set up the mesentery, Vladimir Ipatych. Would you care to take a look?"
Persikov slid quickly down from the stool, letting go of the knob midway, and went into his assistant's room, twirling a cigarette slowly in his fingers. There, on the glass table, a half-suffocated frog stiff with fright and pain lay crucified on a cork mat, its transparent micaceous intestines pulled out of the bleeding abdomen under the microscope. "Very good," said Persikov, peering down the eye-piece of the microscope.
He could obviously detect something very interesting in the frog's mesentery, where live drops of blood were racing merrily along the vessels as clear as daylight. Persikov quite forgot about his amoebas. He and Ivanov spent the next hour-and-a-half taking turns at the microscope and exchanging animated remarks, quite incomprehensible to ordinary mortals.
At last Persikov dragged himself away, announcing:
"The blood's coagulating, it can't be helped."
The frog's head twitched painfully and its dimming eyes said clearly: "Bastards, that's what you are..."
Stretching his stiff legs, Persikov got up, returned to his laboratory, yawned, rubbed his permanently inflamed eyelids, sat down on the stool and looked into the microscope, his fingers about to move the knob. But move it he did not. With his right eye Persikov saw the cloudy white plate and blurred pale amoebas on it, but in the middle of the plate sat a coloured tendril, like a female curl. Persikov himself and hundreds of his students had seen this tendril many times before but taken no interest in it, and rightly so. The coloured streak of light merely got in the way and indicated that the specimen was out of focus. For this reason it was ruthlessly eliminated with a single turn of the knob, which spread an even white light over the plate. The zoologist's long fingers had already tightened on the knob, when suddenly they trembled and let go. The reason for this was Persikov's right eye. It tensed, stared in amazement and filled with alarm. No mediocre mind to burden the Republic sat by the microscope. No, this was Professor Persikov! All his mental powers were now concentrated in his right eye. For five minutes or so in petrified silence the higher being observed the lower one, peering hard at the out-of-focus specimen. There was complete silence all around. Pankrat had gone to sleep in his cubby-hole in thes vestibule, and only once there came a far-off gentle and musical tinkling of glass in cupboards-that was Ivanov going out and locking his laboratory. The entrance door groaned behind him. Then came the Professor's voice. To whom his question was addressed no one knows.
"What on earth is that? I don't understand..."
A late lorry rumbled down Herzen Street, making the old walls of the Institute shake. The shallow glass bowl with pipettes tinkled on the table. The Professor turned pale and put his hands over the microscope, like a mother whose child is threatened by danger. There could now be no question of Persikov turning the knob. Oh no, now he was afraid that some external force might push what he had seen out of his field of vision.
It was a full white morning with a strip of gold which cut across the Institute's cream porch when the Professor left the microscope and walked over to the window on stiff legs. With trembling fingers he pressed a button, dense black shutters blotted out the morning and a wise scholarly night descended on the room. Sallow and inspired, Persikov placed his feet apart, staring at the parquet floor with his watering eyes, and exclaimed: "But how can it be? It's monstrous! Quite monstrous, gentlemen," he repeated, addressing the toads in the terrarium, who were asleep and made no reply.
He paused, then went over to the button, raised the shutters, turned out all the lights and looked into the microscope. His face grew tense and he raised his bushy yellow eyebrows.
"Aha, aha," he muttered. "It's gone. I see. I understand," he drawled, staring with crazed and inspired eyes at the extinguished light overhead. "It's simple."
Again he let down the hissing shutters and put on the light. Then looked into the microscope and grinned happily, almost greedily.
"I'll catch it," he said solemnly and gravely, crooking his finger. "I'll catch it. Perhaps the sun will do it too."
The shutters shot up once more. Now you could see the sun. It was shining on the walls of the Institute and slanting down onto the pavements of Herzen Street. The Professor looked through the window, working out where the sun would be in the afternoon. He kept stepping back and forwards, doing a little dance, and eventually lay stomach down on the window-sill.
After that he got down to some important and mysterious work. He covered the microscope with a bell glass. Then he melted a piece of sealing-wax in the bluish flame of the Bun-sen burner, sealed the edge of the glass to the table and made a thumb print on the blobs of wax. Finally he turned off the gas and went out, locking the laboratory door firmly behind him.
There was semi-darkness in the Institute corridors.
The Professor reached Pankrat's door and knocked for a long time to no effect. At last something inside growled like a watchdog, coughed and snorted and Pankrat appeared in the lighted doorway wearing long striped underpants tied at the ankles. His eyes glared wildly at the scientist and he whimpered softly with sleep.
"I must apologise for waking you up, Pankrat," said the Professor, peering at him over his spectacles. "But please don't go into my laboratory this morning, dear chap. I've left some work there that must on no account be moved. Understand?"
"Grrr, yessir," Pankrat replied, not understanding a thing.
He staggered a bit and growled.
"Now listen here, Pankrat, you just wake up," the zoologist ordered, prodding him lightly in the ribs, which produced a look of fright on Pankrat's face and a glimmer of comprehension in his eyes. "I've locked the laboratory," Persikov went on, "so you need not clean it until I come back. Understand?"
"Yessir," Pankrat croaked.
"That's fine then, go back to bed."
Pankrat turned round, disappeared inside and collapsed onto the bed.
The Professor went into the vestibule. Putting on his grey summer coat and soft hat, he remembered what he had observed in the microscope and stared at his galoshes for a few seconds, as if seeing them for the first time. Then he put on the left galosh and tried to put the right one over it, but it wouldn't go on.
"What an incredible coincidence that he called me away," said the scientist. "Otherwise I would never have noticed it. But what does it mean? The devil only knows!.."
The Professor smiled, squinted at his galoshes, took off the left one and put on the right. "Good heavens! One can't even imagine all the consequences..." The Professor prodded off the left galosh, which had irritated him by not going on top of the right, and walked to the front door wearing one galosh only. He also lost his handkerchief and went out, slamming the heavy door. On the porch he searched in his pockets for some matches, patting his sides, found them eventually and set off down the street with an unlit cigarette in his mouth.
The scientist did not meet a soul all the way to the church. There he threw back his head and stared at the golden dome. The sun was licking it avidly on one side.
"Why didn't I notice it before? What a coincidence! Well, I never! Silly ass!" The Professor looked down and stared pensively at his strangely shod feet. "Hm, what shall I do? Go back to Pankrat? No, there's no waking him. It's a pity to throw the wretched thing away. I'll have to carry it."
He removed the galosh and set off carrying it distastefully.
An old car drove out of Prechistenka with three passengers. Two men, slightly tipsy, with a garishly made-up woman in those baggy silk trousers that were all the rage in 1928 sitting on their lap.
"Hey, Dad!" she shouted in a low husky voice. "Did you sell the other galosh for booze?"
"The old boy got sozzled at the Alcazar," howled the man on the left, while the one on the right leaned out of the car and shouted:
"Is the night-club in Volkhonka still open, Dad? That's where we're making for!"
The Professor looked at them sternly over the top of his glasses, let the cigarette fall out of his mouth and then immediately forgot they existed. A beam was cutting its way through Prechistensky Boulevard, and the dome of Christ the Saviour had begun to burn. The sun had come out.