On the day when it becomes known that the Russian fleet was defeated by the Japanese, Captain Vasily Alexandrovich Rybnikov received a mysterious telegram from Irkutsk. He moved to a dingy station hotel and immediately begins to dash around all the places in St. Petersburg.
Everywhere: in the streets, in restaurants, in theaters, in wagon cars, at train stations, this little, nigger, lame officer appeared, strangely chatty, disheveled and not particularly sober.
Everywhere he declares that he was wounded in the leg at the Mukden retreat, he demands assistance and at the same time he learns the latest news from the Russo-Japanese war. Periodically, Rybnikov sends telegrams to Irkutsk from different post offices.
Vladimir Ivanovich Schavinsky, an employee of a large Petersburg newspaper, gets to know Rybnikov in a small dark restaurant where a cheerful company of St. Petersburg newspaper reporters gathers every day. The miserable and miserable staff captain speaks, thundering an inept command and extolling – with some affectation – a Russian soldier.
Everything he had was ordinary, purely army… But there was something very special about him, hidden, … some kind of inner, tense, nervous force.
After observing him, Schavinsky notices some duality in his appearance. His usual face, with a snub nose, looks mocking and clever in the profile, and in the front – even arrogant. Schavinsky also notes that Rybnikov is not drunk, but only pretends to be drunk. At this time the drunken poet Pestrukhin wakes up and looks with a dull look at the officer: “Ah, the Japanese muzzle, are you still here?”. “Japanese, that’s who he looks like,” Schavinsky decides. This idea grows stronger when Rybnikov tries to demonstrate his wounded leg: the underwear of an army infantry officer is made of fine silk.
Schavinsky, a collector of “rare and strange manifestations of the human spirit,” is interested in Rybnikov. The journalist begins to seriously suspect that under the battered outfit of the captain, a Japanese spy hides. A bold, cheeky face, constant obeisances and the manner of rubbing his hands – all this is not accidental.
What an unimaginable presence of the spirit this man must have, playing… in the capital of a hostile nation such an evil and faithful caricature...
Schavinsky wants to confirm his suspicions. Having seized the moment, he leans toward the captain and says that he is a Japanese military agent in Russia. But Rybnikov does not react at all. The journalist even begins to doubt: in fact among the Ural and Orenburg Cossacks there are many such Mongolian, with yellowish, faces. Shavinsky promises the captain to keep his secret, admires his self-control and admires Japanese contempt for death. Rybnikov does not take a compliment: the Russian soldier is no worse. The journalist tries to touch his patriotic feelings: the Japanese is still Asian, semi-feudal… Rybnikov readily agrees with this. Schavinsky again begins to doubt his conclusions.
In the morning they decided to continue the carousing of the “girls”, where Schavinsky, as a joke, calls Rybnikov the names of Japanese generals. Klotilda takes Rybnikov to the second floor.
The attraction to a woman, hitherto suppressed by austere ascetic life, constant physical fatigue, intense work of the mind and will, was suddenly ignited in him by an intolerable, intoxicating flame.
After a while, Rybnikov falls asleep with an alarming dream. From his lips break off the words of someone else’s speech. Frightened Clotilde descends and joins the company, which invariably forms around the mysterious client of Lenka, rumored to be linked to the police. Clotilde tells him about his strange guest, who speaks Japanese in a dream and reminds her of a mikado, about his “strange tenderness and passion.”
Lyonka examines the staff captain in the door click and decides to act. A minute later he was already standing on the porch and calling policemen with alarming whistles.
Waking up, Rybnikov hears heavy steps in the corridor. In the face of Clotilde, he realizes that he is in danger. The fake staff captain turns the key in the door, gently jumps to the window sill and opens the window. A woman grabs his hand with a cry. He struggles and jumps awkwardly. At the same instant, the door falls under the blows, and Lyonka jumps after him with a running start. Rybnikov does not resist when the pursuer leans on him. He only asks: “Do not press, I broke my leg.”