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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"Halt, or die!" cried Verbitzsky, in a terrible
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
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
"Madman!" cried Nolenki. "Do you
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,
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
"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
"But you? They'll rise and fire at you as
you run," I said.
"Of course they will. But you will escape.
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
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
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."
"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