A Night Among the Nihilists
by A. Conan Doyle
"Robinson, the boss wants you!"
"The dickens he does!" thought I; for Mr.
Dickson, Odessa agent of Bailey & Co., corn
merchants, was a bit of a Tartar, as I had learned
to my cost. "What's the row now?" I demanded
of my fellow-clerk; "has he got scent of our
Nicolaieff escapade, or what is it?"
"No idea," said Gregory: "the old boy seems
in a good enough humour; some business matter,
probably. But don't keep him waiting." So summoning
up an air of injured innocence, to be
ready for all contingencies, I marched into the
Mr. Dickson was standing before the fire in
a Briton's time-honoured attitude, and motioned
me into a chair in front of him. "Mr. Robinson,"
he said, "I have great confidence in your discretion
and common sense. The follies of youth
will break out, but I think that you have a sterling
foundation to your character underlying any
"I believe," he continued, "that you can speak
Russian pretty fluently."
I bowed again.
"I have, then," he proceeded, "a mission which
I wish you to undertake, and on the success of
which your promotion may depend. I would
not trust it to a subordinate, were it not that duty
ties me to my post at present."
"You may depend upon my doing my best,
sir," I replied.
"Right, sir; quite right! What I wish you to
do is briefly this: The line of railway has just
been opened to Solteff, some hundred miles up
the country. Now, I wish to get the start of
the other Odessa firms in securing the produce of
that district, which I have reason to believe may
be had at very low prices. You will proceed by
rail to Solteff, and interview a Mr. Dimidoff, who
is the largest landed proprietor in the town.
Make as favourable terms as you can with him.
Both Mr. Dimidoff and I wish the whole thing
to be done as quietly and secretly as possible—in
fact, that nothing should be known about the
matter until the grain appears in Odessa. I desire
it for the interests of the firm, and Mr. Dimidoff
on account of the prejudice his peasantry entertain
against exportation. You will find yourself expected
at the end of your journey, and will start
to-night. Money shall be ready for your expenses.
Good-morning, Mr. Robinson; I hope you won't
fail to realise the good opinion I have of your
"Gregory," I said, as I strutted into the office,
"I'm off on a mission—a secret mission, my boy;
an affair of thousands of pounds. Lend me your
little portmanteau—mine's too imposing—and tell
Ivan to pack it. A Russian millionaire expects
me at the end of my journey. Don't breathe a
word of it to any of Simpkins's people, or the
whole game will be up. Keep it dark!"
I was so charmed at being, as it were, behind
the scenes, that I crept about the office all day
in a sort of cloak-and-bloody-dagger style, with
responsibility and brooding care marked upon
every feature; and when at night I stepped out
and stole down to the station, the unprejudiced
observer would certainly have guessed, from my
general behaviour, that I had emptied the contents
of the strong-box before starting into that
little valise of Gregory's. It was imprudent of
him, by the way, to leave English labels pasted
all over it. However, I could only hope that
the "Londons" and "Birminghams" would attract
no attention, or at least that no rival corn-merchant
might deduce from them who I was
and what my errand might be.
Having paid the necessary roubles and got my
ticket, I ensconced myself in the corner of a
snug Russian car, and pondered over my extraordinary
good fortune. Dickson was growing old
now, and if I could make my mark in this matter
it might be a great thing for me. Dreams arose
of a partnership in the firm. The noisy wheels
seemed to clank out "Bailey, Robinson & Co.,"
"Bailey, Robinson & Co.," in a monotonous
refrain, which gradually sank into a hum, and
finally ceased as I dropped into a deep sleep.
Had I known the experience which awaited me
at the end of my journey it would hardly have
been so peaceable.
I awoke with an uneasy feeling that some one
was watching me closely; nor was I mistaken.
A tall dark man had taken up his position on
the seat opposite, and his black sinister eyes
seemed to look through me and beyond me, as
if he wished to read my very soul. Then I saw
him glance down at my little trunk.
"Good heavens!" thought I, "here's Simpkins's
agent, I suppose. It was careless of Gregory
to leave those confounded labels on the valise."
I closed my eyes for a time, but on reopening
them I again caught the stranger's earnest
"From England, I see," he said in Russian,
showing a row of white teeth in what was meant
to be an amiable smile.
"Yes," I replied, trying to look unconcerned,
but painfully aware of my failure.
"Travelling for pleasure, perhaps?" said he.
"Yes," I answered eagerly. "Certainly for
pleasure; nothing else."
"Of course not," said he, with a shade of irony
in his voice. "Englishmen always travel for
pleasure, don't they? Oh, no; nothing else."
His conduct was mysterious, to say the least
of it. It was only explainable upon two hypotheses—he
was either a madman, or he was the
agent of some firm bound upon the same errand
as myself, and determined to show me that he
guessed my little game. They were about equally
unpleasant, and, on the whole, I was relieved
when the train pulled up in the tumble-down
shed which does duty for a station in the rising
town of Solteff—Solteff, whose resources I was
about to open out, and whose commerce I was
to direct into the great world channels. I almost
expected to see a triumphal arch as I stepped
on to the platform.
I was to be expected at the end of my journey,
so Mr. Dickson had informed me. I looked about
among the motley crowd, but saw no Mr. Dimidoff.
Suddenly a slovenly, unshaved man passed me
rapidly, and glanced first at me and then at my
trunk—that wretched trunk, the cause of all my
woes. He disappeared in the crowd; but in a
little time came strolling past me again, and
contrived to whisper as he did so, "Follow me,
but at some distance," immediately setting off
out of the station and down the street at a rapid
pace. Here was mystery with a vengeance!
I trotted along in his rear with my valise, and
on turning the corner found a rough droschky
waiting for me. My unshaven friend opened the
door, and I stepped in.
"Is Mr. Dim——" I was beginning.
"Hush!" he cried. "No names, no names; the
very walls have ears. You will hear all to-night;"
and with that assurance he closed the door, and,
seizing the reins, we drove off at a rapid pace—so
rapid that I saw my black-eyed acquaintance of
the railway carriage gazing after us in surprise
until we were out of sight.
I thought over the whole matter as we jogged
along in that abominable springless conveyance.
"They say the nobles are tyrants in Russia," I
mused; "but it seems to me to be the other way
about, for here's this poor Mr. Dimidoff, who
evidently thinks his ex-serfs will rise and murder
him if he raises the price of grain in the district
by exporting some out of it. Fancy being obliged
to have recourse to all this mystery and deception
in order to sell one's own property! Why, it's worse
than an Irish landlord. It is monstrous! Well, he
doesn't seem to live in a very aristocratic quarter
either," I soliloquised, as I gazed out at the narrow
crooked streets and the unkempt dirty Muscovites
whom we passed. "I wish Gregory or some one
was with me, for it's a cut-throat-looking shop!
By Jove, he's pulling up; we must be there!"
We were there, to all appearance; for the
droschky stopped, and my driver's shaggy head
appeared through the aperture.
"It is here, most honoured master," he said, as
he helped me to alight.
"Is Mr. Dimi——" I commenced; but he interrupted
"Anything but names," he whispered; "anything
but that. You are too used to a land that is free.
Caution, oh sacred one!" and he ushered me down
a stone-flagged passage, and up a stair at the end
of it. "Sit for a few minutes in this room," he
said, opening a door, "and a repast will be served
for you;" and with that he left me to my own
"Well," thought I, "whatever Mr. Dimidoff's
house may be like, his servants are undoubtedly
well trained. 'Oh sacred one!' and 'revered
master!' I wonder what he'd call old Dickson
himself, if he is so polite to the clerk! I suppose
it wouldn't be the thing to smoke in this little
crib; but I could do a pipe nicely. By the way,
how confoundedly like a cell it looks!"
It certainly did look like a cell. The door was
an iron one, and enormously strong, while the
single window was closely barred. The floor was
of wood, and sounded hollow and insecure as I
strode across it. Both floor and walls were thickly
splashed with coffee or some other dark liquid.
On the whole, it was far from being a place where
one would be likely to become unreasonably
I had hardly concluded my survey when I heard
steps approaching down the corridor, and the door
was opened by my old friend of the droschky. He
announced that my dinner was ready, and, with
many bows and apologies for leaving me in what
he called the "dismissal room," he led me down
the passage, and into a large and beautifully
furnished apartment. A table was spread for two
in the centre of it, and by the fire was standing a
man very little older than myself. He turned as I
came in, and stepped forward to meet me with
every symptom of profound respect.
"So young and yet so honoured!" he exclaimed;
and then seeming to recollect himself, he continued,
"Pray sit at the head of the table. You
must be fatigued by your long and arduousjourney. We dine tête-à-tête; but the others
"Mr. Dimidoff, I presume?" said I.
"No, sir," said he, turning his keen grey eyes
upon me. "My name is Petrokine; you mistake
me perhaps for one of the others. But now, not
a word of business until the council meets. Try
your chef's soup; you will find it excellent, I
Who Mr. Petrokine or the others might be I
could not conceive. Land stewards of Dimidoff's,
perhaps; though the name did not seem familiar
to my companion. However, as he appeared to
shun any business questions at present, I gave in
to his humour, and we conversed on social life in
England—a subject in which he displayed considerable
knowledge and acuteness. His remarks,
too, on Malthus and the laws of population were
wonderfully good, though savouring somewhat of
"By the way," he remarked, as we smoked a
cigar over our wine, "we should never have
known you but for the English labels on your
luggage; it was the luckiest thing in the world
that Alexander noticed them. We had had no
personal description of you; indeed we were
prepared to expect a somewhat older man. You
are young indeed, sir, to be entrusted with such
"My employer trusts me," I replied; "and we
have learned in our trade that youth and shrewdness
are not incompatible."
"Your remark is true, sir," returned my newly-made
friend; "but I am surprised to hear you call
our glorious association a trade! Such a term is
gross indeed to apply to a body of men banded
together to supply the world with that which it is
yearning for, but which, without our exertions, it
can never hope to attain. A spiritual brotherhood
would be a more fitting term."
"By Jove!" thought I, "how pleased the boss
would be to hear him! He must have been in the
business himself, whoever he is."
"Now, sir," said Mr. Petrokine, "the clock points
to eight, and the council must be already sitting.
Let us go up together, and I will introduce you.
I need hardly say that the greatest secrecy is
observed, and that your appearance is anxiously
I turned over in my mind as I followed him how
I might best fulfil my mission and secure the most
advantageous terms. They seemed as anxious as
I was in the matter, and there appeared to be no
opposition, so perhaps the best thing would be to
wait and see what they would propose.
I had hardly come to this conclusion when my
guide swung open a large door at the end of a
passage, and I found myself in a room larger and
even more gorgeously fitted up than the one in
which I had dined. A long table, covered with
green baize and strewn with papers, ran down the
middle, and round it were sitting fourteen or
fifteen men conversing earnestly. The whole
scene reminded me forcibly of a gambling hell I
had visited some time before.
Upon our entrance the company rose and
bowed. I could not but remark that my companion
attracted no attention, while every eye was
turned upon me with a strange mixture of surprise
and almost servile respect. A man at the head of
the table, who was remarkable for the extreme
pallor of his face as contrasted with his blue-black
hair and moustache, waved his hand to a seat
beside him, and I sat down.
"I need hardly say," said Mr. Petrokine, "that
Gustave Berger, the English agent, is now honouring
us with his presence. He is young, indeed,
Alexis," he continued to my pale-faced neighbour,
"and yet he is of European reputation."
"Come, draw it mild!" thought I, adding aloud,
"If you refer to me, sir, though I am indeed acting
as English agent, my name is not Berger, but
Robinson—Mr. Tom Robinson, at your service."
A laugh ran round the table.
"So be it, so be it," said the man they called
Alexis. "I commend your discretion, most honoured
sir. One cannot be too careful. Preserve
your English sobriquet by all means. I regret that
any painful duty should be performed upon this
auspicious evening; but the rules of our association
must be preserved at any cost to our feelings,
and a dismissal is inevitable to-night."
"What the deuce is the fellow driving at?"
thought I. "What is it to me if he does give his
servant the sack? This Dimidoff, wherever he is,
seems to keep a private lunatic asylum."
"Take out the gag!" The words fairly shot
through me, and I started in my chair. It was
Petrokine who spoke. For the first time I noticed
that a burly stout man, sitting at the other end of
the table, had his arms tied behind his chair and
a handkerchief round his mouth. A horrible
suspicion began to creep into my heart. Where
was I? Was I in Mr. Dimidoff's? Who were
these men, with their strange words?
"Take out the gag!" repeated Petrokine; and
the handkerchief was removed.
"Now, Paul Ivanovitch," said he, "what have
you to say before you go?"
"Not a dismissal, sirs," he pleaded; "not a dismissal:
anything but that! I will go into some
distant land, and my mouth shall be closed for
ever. I will do anything that the society asks;
but pray, pray do not dismiss me."
"You know our laws, and you know your
crime," said Alexis, in a cold, harsh voice. "Who
drove us from Odessa by his false tongue and his
double face? Who wrote the anonymous letter to
the Governor? Who cut the wire that would have
destroyed the arch-tyrant? You did, Paul Ivanovitch;
and you must die."
I leaned back in my chair and fairly gasped.
"Remove him!" said Petrokine; and the man
of the droschky, with two others, forced him out.
I heard the footsteps pass down the passage, and
then a door open and shut. Then came a sound
as of a struggle, ended by a heavy, crunching blow
and a dull thud.
"So perish all who are false to their oath," said
Alexis solemnly; and a hoarse "Amen" went up
from his companions.
"Death alone can dismiss us from our order,"
said another man further down; "but Mr. Berg—Mr.
Robinson is pale. The scene has been
too much for him after his long journey from
"Oh, Tom, Tom," thought I, "if ever you get out
of this scrape you'll turn over a new leaf. You're
not fit to die, and that's a fact." It was only too
evident to me now that by some strange misconception
I had got in among a gang of cold-blooded
Nihilists, who mistook me for one of their order.
I felt, after what I had witnessed, that my only
chance of life was to try to play the rôle thus
forced upon me until an opportunity for escape
should present itself; so I tried hard to regain my
air of self-possession, which had been so rudely
"I am indeed fatigued," I replied; "but I feel
stronger now. Excuse my momentary weakness."
"It was but natural," said a man with a thick
beard at my right hand. "And now, most
honoured sir, how goes the cause in England?"
"Remarkably well," I answered.
"Has the great commissioner condescended to
send a missive to the Solteff branch?" asked
"Nothing in writing," I replied.
"But he has spoken of it?"
"Yes: he said he had watched it with feelings
of the liveliest satisfaction," I returned.
"'Tis well! 'tis well!" ran round the table.
I felt giddy and sick from the critical nature of
my position. Any moment a question might be
asked which would show me in my true colours.
I rose and helped myself from a decanter of
brandy which stood on a side table. The potent
liquor flew to my excited brain, and as I sat
down I felt reckless enough to be half amused
at my position, and inclined to play with my
tormentors. I still, however, had all my wits
"You have been to Birmingham?" asked the
man with the beard.
"Many times," said I.
"Then you have of course seen the private
workshop and arsenal?"
"I have been over them both more than once."
"It is still, I suppose, entirely unsuspected by
the police?" continued my interrogator.
"Entirely," I replied.
"Can you tell us how it is that so large a concern
is kept so completely secret?"
Here was a poser; but my native impudence
and the brandy seemed to come to my aid.
"That is information," I replied, "which I do
not feel justified in divulging even here. In withholding
it I am acting under the direction of the
"You are right—perfectly right," said my
original friend Petrokine. "You will no doubt
make your report to the central office at Moscow
before entering into such details."
"Exactly so," I replied, only too happy to get a
lift out of my difficulty.
"We have heard," said Alexis, "that you were
sent to inspect the Livadia. Can you give us any
particulars about it?"
"Anything you ask I will endeavour to answer,"
I replied, in desperation.
"Have any orders been made in Birmingham
"None when I left England."
"Well, well, there's plenty of time yet," said the
man with the beard—"many months. Will the
bottom be of wood or iron?"
"Of wood," I answered at random.
"'Tis well!" said another voice. "And what is
the breadth of the Clyde below Greenock?"
"It varies much," I replied; "on an average
about eighty yards."
"How many men does she carry?" asked an
anæmic-looking youth at the foot of the table, who
seemed more fit for a public school than this den
"About three hundred," said I.
"A floating coffin!" said the young Nihilist, in
a sepulchral voice.
"Are the store-rooms on a level with or underneath
the state-cabins?" asked Petrokine.
"Underneath," said I decisively, though I need
hardly say I had not the smallest conception.
"And now, most honoured sir," said Alexis,
"tell us what was the reply of Bauer, the German
socialist, to Ravinsky's proclamation."
Here was a deadlock with a vengeance.
Whether my cunning would have extricated me
from it or not was never decided, for Providence
hurried me from one dilemma into another and a
A door slammed downstairs, and rapid footsteps
were heard approaching. Then came a loud tap
outside, followed by two smaller ones.
"The sign of the society!" said Petrokine; "and
yet we are all present; who can it be?"
The door was thrown open, and a man entered,
dusty and travel-stained, but with an air of authority
and power stamped on every feature of his harsh
but expressive face. He glanced round the table,
scanning each countenance carefully. There was a
start of surprise in the room. He was evidently a
stranger to them all.
"What means this intrusion, sir?" said my
friend with the beard.
"Intrusion!" said the stranger. "I was given
to understand that I was expected, and had looked
forward to a warmer welcome from my fellow-associates.
I am personally unknown to you,
gentlemen, but I am proud to think that my name
should command some respect among you. I am
Gustave Berger, the agent from England, bearing
letters from the chief commissioner to his well-beloved
brothers of Solteff."
One of their own bombs could hardly have
created greater surprise had it been fired in the
midst of them. Every eye was fixed alternately
on me and upon the newly-arrived agent.
"If you are indeed Gustave Berger," said
Petrokine, "who is this?"
"That I am Gustave Berger these credentials
will show," said the stranger, as he threw a packet
upon the table. "Who that man may be I know
not; but if he has intruded himself upon the lodge
under false pretences, it is clear that he must never
carry out of the room what he has learned. Speak,
sir," he added, addressing me: "who and what are
I felt that my time had come. My revolver was
in my hip-pocket; but what was that against so
many desperate men? I grasped the butt of it,
however, as a drowning man clings to a straw, and
I tried to preserve my coolness as I glanced round
at the cold, vindictive faces turned towards me.
"Gentlemen," I said, "the rôle I have played
to-night has been a purely involuntary one on my
part. I am no police spy, as you seem to suspect;
nor, on the other hand, have I the honour to be a
member of your association. I am an inoffensive
corn-dealer, who by an extraordinary mistake has
been forced into this unpleasant and awkward
I paused for a moment. Was it my fancy that
there was a peculiar noise in the street—a noise
as of many feet treading softly? No, it had
died away; it was but the throbbing of my own
"I need hardly say," I continued, "that anything
I may have heard to-night will be safe in my
keeping. I pledge my solemn honour as a
gentleman that not one word of it shall transpire
The senses of men in great physical danger
become strangely acute, or their imagination plays
them curious tricks. My back was towards the
door as I sat, but I could have sworn that I heard
heavy breathing behind it. Was it the three
minions whom I had seen before in the performance
of their hateful functions, and who, like
vultures, had sniffed another victim?
I looked round the table. Still the same hard,
cruel faces. Not one glance of sympathy. I
cocked the revolver in my pocket.
There was a painful silence, which was broken
by the harsh, grating voice of Petrokine.
"Promises are easily made and easily broken,"
he said. "There is but one way of securing eternal
silence. It is our lives or yours. Let the highest
among us speak."
"You are right, sir," said the English agent;
"there is but one course open. He must be
I knew what that meant in their confounded
jargon, and sprang to my feet.
"By Heaven," I shouted, putting my back
against the door, "you shan't butcher a free
Englishman like a sheep! The first among you
who stirs, drops!"
A man sprang at me. I saw along the sights of
my Derringer the gleam of a knife and the demoniacal
face of Gustave Berger. Then I pulled the
trigger, and, with his hoarse scream sounding in my
ears, I was felled to the ground by a crashing blow
from behind. Half unconscious, and pressed down
by some heavy weight, I heard the noise of shouts
and blows above me, and then I fainted away.
When I came to myself I was lying among the
débris of the door, which had been beaten in on the
top of me. Opposite were a dozen of the men who
had lately sat in judgment upon me, tied two and
two, and guarded by a score of Russian soldiers.
Beside me was the corpse of the ill-fated English
agent, the whole face blown in by the force of the
explosion. Alexis and Petrokine were both lying
on the floor like myself, bleeding profusely.
"Well, young fellow, you've had a narrow
escape," said a hearty voice in my ear.
I looked up, and recognised my black-eyed
acquaintance of the railway carriage.
"Stand up," he continued: "you're only a bit
stunned; no bones broken. It's no wonder I mistook
you for the Nihilist agent, when the very lodge
itself was taken in. Well, you're the only stranger
who ever came out of this den alive. Come downstairs
with me. I know who you are, and what
you are after now; I'll take you to Mr. Dimidoff.
Nay, don't go in there," he cried, as I walked
towards the door of the cell into which I had been
originally ushered. "Keep out of that: you've
seen evil sights enough for one day. Come down
and have a glass of liquor."
He explained as we walked back to the hotel
that the police of Solteff, of which he was the chief,
had had warning and been on the look-out during
some time for this Nihilist emissary. My arrival
in so unfrequented a place, coupled with my air
of secrecy and the English labels on that confounded
portmanteau of Gregory's, had completed
I have little more to tell. My Socialistic
acquaintances were all either transported to Siberia
or executed. My mission was performed to the
satisfaction of my employers. My conduct during
the whole business has won me promotion, and my
prospects for life have been improved since that
horrible night, the remembrance of which still
makes me shiver.