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The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale

Author:Joseph Conrad


Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law. It could be done, because there was very little business at any time..
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  Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge ofhis brother-in-law. It could be done, because there was very littlebusiness at any time, and practically none at all before the evening. MrVerloc cared but little about his ostensible business. And, moreover,his wife was in charge of his brother-in-law.

  The shop was small, and so was the house. It was one of those grimybrick houses which existed in large quantities before the era ofreconstruction dawned upon London. The shop was a square box of a place,with the front glazed in small panes. In the daytime the door remainedclosed; in the evening it stood discreetly but suspiciously ajar.

  The window contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls;nondescript packages in wrappers like patent medicines; closed yellowpaper envelopes, very flimsy, and marked two-and-six in heavy blackfigures; a few numbers of ancient French comic publications hung across astring as if to dry; a dingy blue china bowl, a casket of black wood,bottles of marking ink, and rubber stamps; a few books, with titleshinting at impropriety; a few apparently old copies of obscurenewspapers, badly printed, with titles like _The Torch_, _TheGong_—rousing titles. And the two gas jets inside the panes were alwaysturned low, either for economy’s sake or for the sake of the customers.

  These customers were either very young men, who hung about the window fora time before slipping in suddenly; or men of a more mature age, butlooking generally as if they were not in funds. Some of that last kindhad the collars of their overcoats turned right up to their moustaches,and traces of mud on the bottom of their nether garments, which had theappearance of being much worn and not very valuable. And the legs insidethem did not, as a general rule, seem of much account either. With theirhands plunged deep in the side pockets of their coats, they dodged insideways, one shoulder first, as if afraid to start the bell going.

  The bell, hung on the door by means of a curved ribbon of steel, wasdifficult to circumvent. It was hopelessly cracked; but of an evening,at the slightest provocation, it clattered behind the customer withimpudent virulence.

  It clattered; and at that signal, through the dusty glass door behind thepainted deal counter, Mr Verloc would issue hastily from the parlour atthe back. His eyes were naturally heavy; he had an air of havingwallowed, fully dressed, all day on an unmade bed. Another man wouldhave felt such an appearance a distinct disadvantage. In a commercialtransaction of the retail order much depends on the seller’s engaging andamiable aspect. But Mr Verloc knew his business, and remainedundisturbed by any sort of æsthetic doubt about his appearance. With afirm, steady-eyed impudence, which seemed to hold back the threat of someabominable menace, he would proceed to sell over the counter some objectlooking obviously and scandalously not worth the money which passed inthe transaction: a small cardboard box with apparently nothing inside,for instance, or one of those carefully closed yellow flimsy envelopes,or a soiled volume in paper covers with a promising title. Now and thenit happened that one of the faded, yellow dancing girls would get sold toan amateur, as though she had been alive and young.

  Sometimes it was Mrs Verloc who would appear at the call of the crackedbell. Winnie Verloc was a young woman with a full bust, in a tightbodice, and with broad hips. Her hair was very tidy. Steady-eyed likeher husband, she preserved an air of unfathomable indifference behind therampart of the counter. Then the customer of comparatively tender yearswould get suddenly disconcerted at having to deal with a woman, and withrage in his heart would proffer a request for a bottle of marking ink,retail value sixpence

price in Verloc’s shop one-and-sixpence

, which,once outside, he would drop stealthily into the gutter.

  The evening visitors—the men with collars turned up and soft hats rammeddown—nodded familiarly to Mrs Verloc, and with a muttered greeting,lifted up the flap at the end of the counter in order to pass into theback parlour, which gave access to a passage and to a steep flight ofstairs. The door of the shop was the only means of entrance to the housein which Mr Verloc carried on his business of a seller of shady wares,exercised his vocation of a protector of society, and cultivated hisdomestic virtues. These last were pronounced. He was thoroughlydomesticated. Neither his spiritual, nor his mental, nor his physicalneeds were of the kind to take him much abroad. He found at home theease of his body and the peace of his conscience, together with MrsVerloc’s wifely attentions and Mrs Verloc’s mother’s deferential regard.

  Winnie’s mother was a stout, wheezy woman, with a large brown face. Shewore a black wig under a white cap. Her swollen legs rendered herinactive. She considered herself to be of French descent, which mighthave been true; and after a good many years of married life with alicensed victualler of the more common sort, she provided for the yearsof widowhood by letting furnished apartments for gentlemen near VauxhallBridge Road in a square once of some splendour and still included in thedistrict of Belgravia. This topographical fact was of some advantage inadvertising her rooms; but the patrons of the worthy widow were notexactly of the fashionable kind. Such as they were, her daughter Winniehelped to look after them. Traces of the French descent which the widowboasted of were apparent in Winnie too. They were apparent in theextremely neat and artistic arrangement of her glossy dark hair. Winniehad also other charms: her youth; her full, rounded form; her clearcomplexion; the provocation of her unfathomable reserve, which never wentso far as to prevent conversation, carried on on the lodgers’ part withanimation, and on hers with an equable amiability. It must be that MrVerloc was susceptible to these fascinations. Mr Verloc was anintermittent patron. He came and went without any very apparent reason.He generally arrived in London

like the influenza

from the Continent,only he arrived unheralded by the Press; and his visitations set in withgreat severity. He breakfasted in bed, and remained wallowing there withan air of quiet enjoyment till noon every day—and sometimes even to alater hour. But when he went out he seemed to experience a greatdifficulty in finding his way back to his temporary home in theBelgravian square. He left it late, and returned to it early—as early asthree or four in the morning; and on waking up at ten addressed Winnie,bringing in the breakfast tray, with jocular, exhausted civility, in thehoarse, failing tones of a man who had been talking vehemently for manyhours together. His prominent, heavy-lidded eyes rolled sidewaysamorously and languidly, the bedclothes were pulled up to his chin, andhis dark smooth moustache covered his thick lips capable of much honeyedbanter.

  In Winnie’s mother’s opinion Mr Verloc was a very nice gentleman. Fromher life’s experience gathered in various “business houses” the goodwoman had taken into her retirement an ideal of gentlemanliness asexhibited by the patrons of private-saloon bars. Mr Verloc approachedthat ideal; he attained it, in fact.

  “Of course, we’ll take over your furniture, mother,” Winnie had remarked.

  The lodging-house was to be given up. It seems it would not answer tocarry it on. It would have been too much trouble for Mr Verloc. Itwould not have been convenient for his other business. What his businesswas he did not say; but after his engagement to Winnie he took thetrouble to get up before noon, and descending the basement stairs, makehimself pleasant to Winnie’s mother in the breakfast-room downstairswhere she had her motionless being. He stroked the cat, poked the fire,had his lunch served to him there. He left its slightly stuffy cosinesswith evident reluctance, but, all the same, remained out till the nightwas far advanced. He never offered to take Winnie to theatres, as such anice gentleman ought to have done. His evenings were occupied. His workwas in a way political, he told Winnie once. She would have, he warnedher, to be very nice to his political friends.

  And with her straight, unfathomable glance she answered that she would beso, of course.

  How much more he told her as to his occupation it was impossible forWinnie’s mother to discover. The married couple took her over with thefurniture. The mean aspect of the shop surprised her. The change fromthe Belgravian square to the narrow street in Soho affected her legsadversely. They became of an enormous size. On the other hand, sheexperienced a complete relief from material cares. Her son-in-law’sheavy good nature inspired her with a sense of absolute safety. Herdaughter’s future was obviously assured, and even as to her son Stevieshe need have no anxiety. She had not been able to conceal from herselfthat he was a terrible encumbrance, that poor Stevie. But in view ofWinnie’s fondness for her delicate brother, and of Mr Verloc’s kind andgenerous disposition, she felt that the poor boy was pretty safe in thisrough world. And in her heart of hearts she was not perhaps displeasedthat the Verlocs had no children. As that circumstance seemed perfectlyindifferent to Mr Verloc, and as Winnie found an object of quasi-maternalaffection in her brother, perhaps this was just as well for poor Stevie.

  For he was difficult to dispose of, that boy. He was delicate and, in afrail way, good-looking too, except for the vacant droop of his lowerlip. Under our excellent system of compulsory education he had learnedto read and write, notwithstanding the unfavourable aspect of the lowerlip. But as errand-boy he did not turn out a great success. He forgothis messages; he was easily diverted from the straight path of duty bythe attractions of stray cats and dogs, which he followed down narrowalleys into unsavoury courts; by the comedies of the streets, which hecontemplated open-mouthed, to the detriment of his employer’s interests;or by the dramas of fallen horses, whose pathos and violence induced himsometimes to shriek pierceingly in a crowd, which disliked to bedisturbed by sounds of distress in its quiet enjoyment of the nationalspectacle. When led away by a grave and protecting policeman, it wouldoften become apparent that poor Stevie had forgotten his address—at leastfor a time. A brusque question caused him to stutter to the point ofsuffocation. When startled by anything perplexing he used to squinthorribly. However, he never had any fits

which was encouraging

; andbefore the natural outbursts of impatience on the part of his father hecould always, in his childhood’s days, run for protection behind theshort skirts of his sister Winnie. On the other hand, he might have beensuspected of hiding a fund of reckless naughtiness. When he had reachedthe age of fourteen a friend of his late father, an agent for a foreignpreserved milk firm, having given him an opening as office-boy, he wasdiscovered one foggy afternoon, in his chief’s absence, busy letting offfireworks on the staircase. He touched off in quick succession a set offierce rockets, angry catherine wheels, loudly exploding squibs—and thematter might have turned out very serious. An awful panic spread throughthe whole building. Wild-eyed, choking clerks stampeded through thepassages full of smoke, silk hats and elderly business men could be seenrolling independently down the stairs. Stevie did not seem to derive anypersonal gratification from what he had done. His motives for thisstroke of originality were difficult to discover. It was only later onthat Winnie obtained from him a misty and confused confession. It seemsthat two other office-boys in the building had worked upon his feelingsby tales of injustice and oppression till they had wrought his compassionto the pitch of that frenzy. But his father’s friend, of course,dismissed him summarily as likely to ruin his business. After thataltruistic exploit Stevie was put to help wash the dishes in the basementkitchen, and to black the boots of the gentlemen patronising theBelgravian mansion. There was obviously no future in such work. Thegentlemen tipped him a shilling now and then. Mr Verloc showed himselfthe most generous of lodgers. But altogether all that did not amount tomuch either in the way of gain or prospects; so that when Winnieannounced her engagement to Mr Verloc her mother could not helpwondering, with a sigh and a glance towards the scullery, what wouldbecome of poor Stephen now.

  It appeared that Mr Verloc was ready to take him over together with hiswife’s mother and with the furniture, which was the whole visible fortuneof the family. Mr Verloc gathered everything as it came to his broad,good-natured breast. The furniture was disposed to the best advantageall over the house, but Mrs Verloc’s mother was confined to two backrooms on the first floor. The luckless Stevie slept in one of them. Bythis time a growth of thin fluffy hair had come to blur, like a goldenmist, the sharp line of his small lower jaw. He helped his sister withblind love and docility in her household duties. Mr Verloc thought thatsome occupation would be good for him. His spare time he occupied bydrawing circles with compass and pencil on a piece of paper. He appliedhimself to that pastime with great industry, with his elbows spread outand bowed low over the kitchen table. Through the open door of theparlour at the back of the shop Winnie, his sister, glanced at him fromtime to time with maternal vigilance.