Verbitzsky's Stratagem by Edward William Thomson

What had Alexander Verbitzsky and I done that the secret service of our father, the Czar, should dog us for five months, and in the end drive us to Siberia, whence we have, by the goodness of God, escaped from Holy Russia, our mother? They called us Nihilists—as if all Nihilists were of one way of thinking!

We did not belong to the Terrorists,—the section that believes in killing the tyrant or his agents in hope that the hearts of the mighty may be shaken as Pharaoh's was in Egypt long ago. No; we were two students of nineteen years old, belonging to the section of "peasantists," or of Peaceful Education. Its members solemnly devote all their lives to teaching the poor people to read, think, save, avoid vodka, and seek quietly for such liberty with order as here in America all enjoy. Was that work a crime in Verbitzsky and me?

Was it a crime for us to steal to the freight-shed of the Moscow and St. Petersburg Railway that night in December two years ago? We sat in the superintendent's dark office, and talked to the eight trainmen that were brought in by the guard of the eastern gate, who had belonged to all the sections, but was no longer "active."

We were there to prevent a crime. At the risk of our lives, we two went to save the Czar of all the Russias, though well we knew that Dmitry Nolenki, chief of the secret police, had offered a reward on our capture.

Boris Kojukhov and the other seven trainmen who came with him had been chosen, with ten others who were not Nihilists, to operate the train that was to bear His Imperial Majesty next day to St. Petersburg. Now Boris was one of the Section of Terror, and most terrible was his scheme. Kojukhov was not really his name I may tell you. Little did the Czar's railway agents suspect that Boris was a noble, and brother to the gentle girl that had been sent to Siberia. No wonder the heart of Boris was hot and his brain partly crazed when he learned of Zina's death in the starvation strike at the Olek Mines.

Verbitzsky was cousin to Zina and Boris, and as his young head was a wise one, Boris wished to consult him. We both went, hoping to persuade him out of the crime he meditated.

"No," said Boris, "my mind is made up. I may never have such another chance. I will fling these two bombs under the foremost car at the middle of the Volga Bridge. The tyrant and his staff shall all plunge with us down to death in the river."

"The bombs—have you them here?" asked Verbitzsky in the dark.

"I have them in my hands," said Boris, tapping them lightly together. "I have carried them in my inner clothing for a week. They give me warmth at my heart as I think how they shall free Holy Russia."

There was a stir of dismay in the dark office. The comrades, though willing to risk death at the Volga Bridge, were horrified by Kojukhov's tapping of the iron bombs together, and all rose in fear of their explosion, all except Verbitzsky and me.

"For God's sake, be more careful, Boris!" said my friend.

"Oh, you're afraid, too?" said Kojukhov. "Pah! you cowards of the Peace Section!" He tapped the bombs together again.

"I am afraid," said Verbitzsky. "Why should I die for your reckless folly? Will any good happen if you explode the bombs here? You will but destroy all of us, and our friends the watchmen, and the freight-sheds containing the property of many worthy people."

"You are a fool, Verbitzsky!" said his cousin. "Come here. Whisper."

Something Boris then whispered in my comrade's ear. When Verbitzsky spoke again his voice seemed calmer.

"Let me feel the shape," he said.

"Here," said Boris, as if handing something to Verbitzsky.

At that moment the outer door of the freight-shed resounded with a heavy blow. The next blow, as from a heavy maul, pounded the door open.

"The police!" shouted Boris. "They must have dogged you, Alexander, for they don't suspect me." He dashed out of the dark office into the great dark shed.

As we all ran forth, glancing at the main door about seventy feet distant, we saw a squad of police outlined against the moonlit sky beyond the great open space of railway yard. My eyes were dazzled by a headlight that one of them carried. By that lamp they must have seen us clearly; for as we started to run away down the long shed they opened fire, and I stumbled over Boris Kojukhov, as he fell with a shriek.

Rising, I dodged aside, thinking to avoid bullets, and then dashed against a bale of wool, one of a long row. Clambering over it, I dropped beside a man crouching on the other side.

"Michael, is it you?" whispered Verbitzsky.

"Yes. We're lost, of course?"

"No. Keep still. Let them pass."

The police ran past us down the middle aisle left between high walls of wool bales. They did not notice the narrow side lane in which we were crouching.

"Come. I know a way out," said Verbitzsky. "I was all over here this morning, looking round, in case we should be surprised to-night."

"What's this?" I whispered, groping, and touching something in his hand.

"Kojukhov's bombs. I have them both. Come. Ah, poor Boris, he's with Zina now!"

The bomb was a section of iron pipe about two inches in diameter and eighteen inches long. Its ends were closed with iron caps. Filled with nitroglycerine, such pipes are terrible shells, which explode by concussion. I was amazed to think of the recklessness of Boris in tapping them together.

"Put them down, Verbitzsky!" I whispered, as we groped our way between high walls of bales.

"No, no, they're weapons!" he whispered. "We may need them."

"Then for the love of the saints, be careful!"

"Don't be afraid," he said, as we neared a small side door.

Meantime, we heard the police run after the Terrorists, who brought up against the great door at the south end. As they tore away the bar and opened the door they shouted with dismay. They had been confronted by another squad of police! For a few moments a confusion of sounds came to us, all somewhat muffled by passing up and over the high walls of baled wool.

"Boris! Where are you?" cried one.

"He's killed!" cried another.

"Oh, if we had the bombs!"

"He gave them to Verbitzsky."

"Verbitzsky, where are you? Throw them! Let us all die together!"

"Yes, it's death to be taken!"

Then we heard shots, blows, and shrieks, all in confusion. After a little there was clatter of grounded arms, and then no sound but the heavy breathing of men who had been struggling hard. That silence was a bad thing for Verbitzsky and me, because the police heard the opening of the small side door through which Alexander next moment led. In a moment we dashed out into the clear night, over the tracks, toward the Petrovsky Gardens.

As we reached the railway yard the police ran round their end of the wool-shed in pursuit—ten of them. The others stayed with the prisoners.

"Don't fire! Don't shoot!" cried a voice we knew well,—the voice of Dmitry Nolenki, chief of the secret police.

"One of them is Verbitzsky!" he cried to his men. "The conspirator I've been after for four months. A hundred roubles for him who first seizes him! He must be taken alive!"

That offer, I suppose, was what pushed them to such eagerness that they all soon felt themselves at our mercy. And that offer was what caused them to follow so silently, lest other police should overhear a tumult and run to head us off.

Verbitzsky, though encumbered by the bombs, kept the lead, for he was a very swift runner. I followed close at his heels. We could hear nothing in the great walled-in railway yard except the clack of feet on gravel, and sometimes on the network of steel tracks that shone silvery as the hard snow under the round moon.

My comrade ran like a man who knows exactly where he means to go. Indeed, he had already determined to follow a plan that had long before occurred to him. It was a vision of what one or two desperate men with bombs might do at close quarters against a number with pistols.

As Verbitzsky approached the south end of the yard, which is excavated deeply and walled in from the surrounding streets, he turned, to my amazement, away from the line that led into the suburbs, and ran along four tracks that led under a street bridge.

This bridge was fully thirty feet overhead, and flanked by wings of masonry. The four tracks led into a small yard, almost surrounded by high stone warehouses; a yard devoted solely to turn-tables for locomotives. There was no exit from it except under the bridge that we passed beneath.

"Good!" we heard Nolenki cry, fifty yards behind. "We have them now in a trap!"

At that, Verbitzsky, still in the moonlight, slackened speed, half-turned as if in hesitation, then ran on more slowly, with zigzag steps, as if desperately looking for a way out. But he said to me in a low, panting voice:—

"We shall escape. Do exactly as I do."

When the police were not fifty feet behind us, Verbitzsky jumped down about seven feet into a wide pit. I jumped to his side. We were now standing in the walled-in excavation for a new locomotive turn-table. This pit was still free from its machinery and platform.

"We are done now!" I said, staring around as Verbitzsky stopped in the middle of the circular pit, which was some forty feet wide.

Just as the police came crowding to the edge, Verbitzsky fell on his knees as if in surrender. In their eagerness to lay first hands, on him, all the police jumped down except the chief, Dmitry Nolenki. Some fell. As those who kept their feet rushed toward us, Verbitzsky sprang up and ran to the opposite wall, with me at his heels.

Three seconds later the foremost police were within fifteen feet of us. Then Verbitzsky raised his terrible bombs.

From high above the roofs of the warehouses the full moon so clearly illuminated the yard that we could see every button on our assailants' coats, and even the puffs of fat Nolenki's breath. He stood panting on the opposite wall of the excavation.

"Halt, or die!" cried Verbitzsky, in a terrible voice.

The bombs were clearly to be seen in his hands. Every policeman in Moscow knew of the destruction done, only six days before, by just such weapons. The foremost men halted instantly. The impetus of those behind brought all together in a bunch—nine expectants of instant death. Verbitzsky spoke again:—

"If any man moves hand or foot, I'll throw these," he cried. "Listen!"

"Why, you fool," said Nolenki, a rather slow-witted man, "you can't escape. Surrender instantly."

He drew his revolver and pointed it at us.

"Michael," said Verbitzsky to me, in that steely voice which I had never before heard from my gentle comrade; "Michael, Nolenki can shoot but one of us before he dies. Take this bomb. Now if he hits me you throw your bomb at him. If he hits you I will throw mine."

"Infernal villains!" gasped the chief; but we could see his pistol wavering.

"Michael," resumed Verbitzsky, "we will give Nolenki a chance for his life. Obey me exactly! Listen! If Dmitry Nolenki does not jump down into this pit before I say five, throw your bomb straight at him! I will, at the moment I say five, throw mine at these rascals."

"Madman!" cried Nolenki. "Do you think to—"

He stopped as if paralyzed. I suppose he had suddenly understood that the explosion of a bomb in that small, high-walled yard would kill every man in it.

"One!" cried Verbitzsky.

"But I may not hit him!" said I.

"No matter. If it explodes within thirty feet of him he will move no more."

I took one step forward and raised the bomb. Did I mean to throw it? I do not know. I think not. But I knew we must make the threat or be captured and hung. And I felt certain that the bomb would be exploded anyway when Verbitzsky should say "Five." He would then throw his, and mine would explode by the concussion.

"Two!" said Verbitzsky.

Dmitry Nolenki had lowered his pistol. He glanced behind him uneasily.

"If he runs, throw it!" said Verbitzsky, loudly. "THREE!"

The chief of the Moscow secret police was reputed a brave man, but he was only a cruel one. Now his knees trembled so that we could see them shake, and his teeth chattered in the still cold night. Verbitzsky told me afterward that he feared the man's slow brain had become so paralyzed by fright that he might not be able to think and obey and jump down. That would have placed my comrade and me in a dreadful dilemma, but quite a different one from what you may suppose.

As if to make Nolenki reflect, Verbitzsky spoke more slowly:—

"If Dmitry Nolenki jumps down into this pit before I say five, do not throw the bomb at him. You understand, Michael, do not throw if he jumps down instantly. Four!"

Nolenki's legs were so weak that he could not walk to the edge. In trying to do so he stumbled, fell, crawled, and came in head first, a mere heap.

"Wise Nolenki!" said my comrade, with a laugh. Then in his tone of desperate resolution, "Nolenki, get down on your hands and knees, and put your head against that wall. Don't move now—if you wish to live."

"Now, men," he cried to the others in military fashion, "right about, face!"

They hesitated, perhaps fearful that he would throw at them when they turned.

"About! instantly!" he cried. They all turned.

"Now, men, you see your chief. At the word 'March,' go and kneel in a row beside him, your heads against that wall. Hump your backs as high as you can. If any man moves to get out, all will suffer together. You understand?"

"Yes! yes! yes!" came in an agony of abasement from their lips.


When they were all kneeling in a row, Verbitzsky said to me clearly:—

"Michael, you can easily get to the top of that wall from any one of their backs. No man will dare to move. Go! Wait on the edge! Take your bomb with you!"

I obeyed. I stood on a man's back. I laid my bomb with utmost care on the wall, over which I could then see. Then I easily lifted myself out by my hands and elbows.

"Good!" said Verbitzsky. "Now, Michael, stand there till I come. If they try to seize me, throw your bomb. We can all die together."

In half a minute he had stepped on Nolenki's back. Nolenki groaned with abasement. Next moment Verbitzsky was beside me.

"Give me your bomb. Now, Michael," he said loudly, "I will stand guard over these wretches till I see you beyond the freight-sheds. Walk at an ordinary pace, lest you be seen and suspected."

"But you? They'll rise and fire at you as you run," I said.

"Of course they will. But you will escape. Here! Good-bye!"

He embraced me, and whispered in my ear:

"Go the opposite way from the freight-sheds. Go out toward the Petrovsky Gardens. There are few police there. Run hard after you've walked out under the bridge and around the abutments. You will then be out of hearing."

"Go, dear friend," he said aloud, in a mournful voice. "I may never see you again. Possibly I may have to destroy myself and all here. Go!"

I obeyed precisely, and had not fairly reached the yard's end when Verbitzsky, running very silently, came up beside me.

"I think they must be still fancying that I'm standing over them," he chuckled. "No, they are shooting! Now, out they come!"

From where we now stood in shadow we could see Nolenki and his men rush furiously out from under the bridge. They ran away from us toward the freight-sheds, shouting the alarm, while we calmly walked home to our unsuspected lodgings.

Not till then did I think of the bombs.

"Where are they?" I asked in alarm.

"I left them for the police. They will ruin Nolenki—it was he who sent poor Zina to Siberia and her death."

"Ruin him?" I said, wondering.



"They were not loaded."

"Not loaded!"

"That's what Boris whispered to me in the wool-shed office. He meant to load them to-morrow before going to His Imperial Majesty's train. Nolenki will be laughed to death in Moscow, if not sent to Siberia."

Verbitzsky was right. Nolenki, after being laughed nearly to death, was sent to Siberia in disgrace, and we both worked in the same gang with him for eight months before we escaped from the Ural Mines. No doubt he is working there yet.