I continue to make my way through an archive of “satirical magazines” from the time of Russia’s First Revolution (1905—1907). Here is a feverish story from the first issue of Heat Lightings for the year 1906.
Translation is mine, proofread by Daniel Hojnacki.
They were about to finish a late lunch in a separate room of a chic restaurant.
The fine smell of cigars floated in the air and mixed with the exquisite aroma of the coffee boiling in a fanciful silver device.
It was the moment that happens to even the most careless and cheerful of gatherings, when a new, uninvited, invisible guest joins the group—melancholy. Nobody can point to the unwanted newcomer, but everyone feels his presence near them. And everyone suddenly wants to share something innermost, closely held, something they’ve been hiding deeply within their soul for a very long time.
The oldest member of the group slowly poured the coffee into small blue cups and said:
— Olga Nikolayevna — you know her — asked me yesterday if our little circle was going to gather today. When I told her we had never missed a Monday in the 10 years we’ve been meeting for lunch in this room, she exclaimed: “A feast in time of plague!” I kept thinking about her words for the rest of the day, and I couldn’t understand them. What did she mean? The plague hasn’t reached St. Petersburg yet, has it?
The youngest member of the circle responded excitedly:
— The plague? No, the plague and the constitution both remain in Persia. We’ve got something different—a revolution. But you are a Russian government minister, you would not be expected know.
The minister gave this some thought.
— Are you being serious? We weren’t notified. The note must have gotten stuck at the clerk’s office. Are you a revolutionary?
— Yes! He is a revolutionary indeed! — another member of the group proclaimed. — Last Monday, he was drinking red wine almost ice-cold.
A gasp passed through the room.
— Young man! — the minister said disapprovingly. — Ice-cold? You’re raising your fist against the very foundations of civilization. This is unheard of! I don’t recognize you!
And though the minister said this half-jokingly, he suddenly felt something drop in his heart. Yes, indeed, he does not recognize this man. Or rather, he recognizes him all too well.
Ah! This is him. He has just put on a disguise of Isktitsky—a third-generation ballet aficionado, and a member of their circle of friends—and is imitating him masterfully, but it is actually him—the mysterious, enigmatic, elusive one, the one being chased by the entire police force, because he came from Switzerland to carry out the sentence of a secret tribunal… It’s him… He has twelve heads… because he’s twelve people rather than one. They came here with one shared goal, bound by a terrible pledge. And even if eleven are caught and hanged, the twelfth will carry out the sentence. But which one is he? Is he the first, or the twelfth?
The minister’s heart grows cold and almost stops beating. He looks at the young man, and a strange, irrational thought is pounding in his brain:
— Which one is he? Is he one of those that were hanged, or one of those who escaped?
The minister quickly looks around the room, trying not to be obvious. He’s in a reclined position on a couch, the exit is far away, the bell is under Iskritsky’s hands, who’s sitting on the opposite side of the table and is blocking the door. No, no, there’s no getting away. His only chance is to hide his anxiety and fool the enemy by displaying a lack of concern. If he feels even a shadow of suspicion, it will all be over in an instant…
The minister smiles and says cheerfully:
— No, no! Ice-cold red wine! Young man, you’re virtually dead to us now.
He blushes and loses the tone of his voice. This word, “dead,” was completely inappropriate. It might bring up associations and give him an impulse to act. Dead… Oh God, how stupid, how pointlessly stupid. He needs to correct himself, whatever it takes.
The minister says, laughing as if he has no care in the world:
— Ha-ha! Red wine should always be served warm. This is an ancient custom. Pliny the Younger says this way wine resembles blood. And no matter what we’d like to think about ourselves, in the end, humans are nothing but animals, thirsty for blood…
Once more, terror seizes the minister’s voice and strikes through his heart. Iskritsky—how masterfully he is playing Iskritsky, he’s a genius actor—is drumming his little blue cup with the fingers of his left hand, and his right hand is hidden inside his tuxedo. Oh!.. The minister knows very well what he’s looking for there. And he will find it, no doubt, and soon… soon… But the minister can’t hold himself back anymore. Against his own will, against his feelings and his entire self, mad, strange, and irrevocable phrases leap off his tongue:
— Yes, yes, my young friend. Thirsty for blood! Consciously or subconsciously, we all want blood. We bathe in it. The only question is who does it more. Today it is us, tomorrow it will be them. Are you expecting a golden age? It will never come! I, for one, don’t believe in it, because I don’t believe in anything. Today, the power is ours, and so we get to enjoy ourselves, we conquer, we strangle, and we suck people dry. Peoples exist for the enjoyment of their rulers. And for those who think differently, we have prisons and gallows. One gesture, and the issue is sorted… They shoot each other themselves… They… Could you ring that bell, please?.. I want some Narzan1.
Iskritsky is pale, his eyes are sparkling. He puts his left hand over the bell but doesn’t ring it, and then he quickly pulls his right one out of his pocket. He’s holding a Browning. The minister instinctively pushes back in his seat and closes his eyes. Gunshots follow quickly one after another…
The minister knows he’s been killed, and a pleasant weariness spreads through his body. He’s lying there, unable to move. It’s a novel and sweet feeling.
— His skull has cracked open! — one of his drinking buddies whispers in a hoarse voice. — What a terrible crack. You can see his brain.
— A minister with a brain! — yells Iskritsky in astonishment and throws the Browning onto the table — Brain! Brain!
This the minister cannot bear. He yanks himself out of his stupor, gets up on his feet and starts shouting:
— A brain? You wretches! You can kill me, but you do not dare slander the minister! You do not dare! Yes, yes, you do not…
He smashes his fist on the table and wakes up.
It’s eleven. A pale sun is shining through the curtains. Francois peeks his head into the room.
— What a load of nonsense, — thinks the minister. — I have no habit of launching in restaurants. I don’t organize Monday gatherings. And I don’t know any Iskritsky, I’m positive—no Iskritsky… But what if this is a sign? This could be our salvation!.. Yes, yes! This is just splendid! I’ll order everybody whose name starts with an “I” to be arrested. Everybody, in the entire country! This is positively a sign from above!