(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The Don Cossack Platov sets the tone for this whimsical tale by keeping the English off balance from the beginning. Alexander I’s faithful but grumbling companion, in London with the czar, refuses to acknowledge English superiority in anything. When the czar exults over a gun in a museum, Platov pulls out a small tool, disassembles the gun, and proves that the mechanism was fashioned in Tula by a Russian craftsman. While the Englishmen stay up late endeavoring to come up with something the Russians cannot surpass, Platov sleeps soundly. In fact, each of the first two chapters ends with the Englishmen unable to sleep and Platov slumbering contentedly. When in need of guidance, the czar’s man quotes a Russian proverb, and when in need of sleep, he prays in the Orthodox manner, downs a shot of vodka, and drops off forthwith. However, the result of his behavior is that the English hosts are frustrated, and the czar is embarrassed. Thus, Alexander is pleased when the Englishmen present him with the gift of a miraculous steel flea. There could be nothing finer than this, he says; his own workmen could make nothing like it. The flea is wondrous in its workmanship, for, despite its exquisite daintiness, it has a key that winds up a motor within. Activated by the key, the mechanical insect executes kicks and dance steps and twitches its minuscule mustache. When Alexander praises the object lavishly, Platov must retreat for a time and accompanies the czar home in obstinate silence.

In a short time, Alexander dies and is succeeded on the throne by his brother Nicholas I. After settling in to the job of being czar, Nicholas one day notices the flea, which has been passed on to him, and wonders what it is. None of his courtiers can tell him, but Platov soon appears and explains the matter to him. He also suggests to Nicholas that it would be a fine idea to allow the czar’s craftsmen in Tula to examine the piece and determine whether they might be able to design something better and outdo the English. Nicholas agrees, expressing faith in his men of Tula, and puts Platov in charge of the undertaking.

Wasting no time, Platov whirls into Tula with Cossack aides and negotiates with the workmen there, charging them with upholding the honor of Russia. Lefty and two other workmen promise to do their best but are vague about what they will do and how. As Platov’s warnings not to bring shame to their native land still hover in the air, the three craftsmen set off for a nearby workshop. They take a few belongings with them because they will be sequestered there for days on end. Once they are locked in and hard at work, their complete secrecy begins to intrigue those outside, who can hear them laboring but can see nothing. The...

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