The Secret Agent
Part 1 out of 6
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
Scanned and proofed by David Price
The Secret Agent
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, and practically none at all
before the evening. Mr Verloc cared but little about his
ostensible business. And, moreover, his wife was in charge of his
The shop was small, and so was the house. It was one of those
grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era
of reconstruction dawned upon London. The shop was a square box of
a place, with the front glazed in small panes. In the daytime the
door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but
The window contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing
girls; nondescript packages in wrappers like patent medicines;
closed yellow paper envelopes, very flimsy, and marked two-and-six
in heavy black figures; a few numbers of ancient French comic
publications hung across a string 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 titles hinting at impropriety; a few
apparently old copies of obscure newspapers, badly printed, with
titles like THE TORCH, THE GONG - rousing titles. And the two gas
jets inside the panes were always turned 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 for a time before slipping in suddenly; or men of a more
mature age, but looking generally as if they were not in funds.
Some of that last kind had the collars of their overcoats turned
right up to their moustaches, and traces of mud on the bottom of
their nether garments, which had the appearance of being much worn
and not very valuable. And the legs inside them did not, as a
general rule, seem of much account either. With their hands
plunged deep in the side pockets of their coats, they dodged in
sideways, 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,
was difficult to circumvent. It was hopelessly cracked; but of an
evening, at the slightest provocation, it clattered behind the
customer with impudent virulence.
It clattered; and at that signal, through the dusty glass door
behind the painted deal counter, Mr Verloc would issue hastily from
the parlour at the back. His eyes were naturally heavy; he had an
air of having wallowed, fully dressed, all day on an unmade bed.
Another man would have felt such an appearance a distinct
disadvantage. In a commercial transaction of the retail order much
depends on the seller's engaging and amiable aspect. But Mr Verloc
knew his business, and remained undisturbed by any sort of
aesthetic doubt about his appearance. With a firm, steady-eyed
impudence, which seemed to hold back the threat of some abominable
menace, he would proceed to sell over the counter some object
looking obviously and scandalously not worth the money which passed
in the 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 then it happened that one of the faded,
yellow dancing girls would get sold to an amateur, as though she
had been alive and young.
Sometimes it was Mrs Verloc who would appear at the call of the
cracked bell. Winnie Verloc was a young woman with a full bust, in
a tight bodice, and with broad hips. Her hair was very tidy.
Steady-eyed like her husband, she preserved an air of unfathomable
indifference behind the rampart of the counter. Then the customer
of comparatively tender years would get suddenly disconcerted at
having to deal with a woman, and with rage 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
rammed down - 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 the back parlour, which gave access to a passage and to a
steep flight of stairs. The door of the shop was the only means of
entrance to the house in which Mr Verloc carried on his business of
a seller of shady wares, exercised his vocation of a protector of
society, and cultivated his domestic virtues. These last were
pronounced. He was thoroughly domesticated. Neither his
spiritual, nor his mental, nor his physical needs were of the kind
to take him much abroad. He found at home the ease of his body and
the peace of his conscience, together with Mrs Verloc's wifely
attentions and Mrs Verloc's mother's deferential regard.
Winnie's mother was a stout, wheezy woman, with a large brown face.
She wore a black wig under a white cap. Her swollen legs rendered
her inactive. She considered herself to be of French descent,
which might have been true; and after a good many years of married
life with a licensed victualler of the more common sort, she
provided for the years of widowhood by letting furnished apartments
for gentlemen near Vauxhall Bridge Road in a square once of some
splendour and still included in the district of Belgravia. This
topographical fact was of some advantage in advertising her rooms;
but the patrons of the worthy widow were not exactly of the
fashionable kind. Such as they were, her daughter Winnie helped to
look after them. Traces of the French descent which the widow
boasted of were apparent in Winnie too. They were apparent in the
extremely neat and artistic arrangement of her glossy dark hair.
Winnie had also other charms: her youth; her full, rounded form;
her clear complexion; the provocation of her unfathomable reserve,
which never went so far as to prevent conversation, carried on on
the lodgers' part with animation, and on hers with an equable
amiability. It must be that Mr Verloc was susceptible to these
fascinations. Mr Verloc was an intermittent 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 with great
severity. He breakfasted in bed, and remained wallowing there with
an air of quiet enjoyment till noon every day - and sometimes even
to a later hour. But when he went out he seemed to experience a
great difficulty in finding his way back to his temporary home in
the Belgravian square. He left it late, and returned to it early -
as early as three or four in the morning; and on waking up at ten
addressed Winnie, bringing in the breakfast tray, with jocular,
exhausted civility, in the hoarse, failing tones of a man who had
been talking vehemently for many hours together. His prominent,
heavy-lidded eyes rolled sideways amorously and languidly, the
bedclothes were pulled up to his chin, and his dark smooth
moustache covered his thick lips capable of much honeyed banter.
In Winnie's mother's opinion Mr Verloc was a very nice gentleman.
From her life's experience gathered in various "business houses"
the good woman had taken into her retirement an ideal of
gentlemanliness as exhibited by the patrons of private-saloon bars.
Mr Verloc approached that ideal; he attained it, in fact.
"Of course, we'll take over your furniture, mother," Winnie had
The lodging-house was to be given up. It seems it would not answer
to carry it on. It would have been too much trouble for Mr Verloc.
It would not have been convenient for his other business. What his
business was he did not say; but after his engagement to Winnie he
took the trouble to get up before noon, and descending the basement
stairs, make himself pleasant to Winnie's mother in the breakfast-
room downstairs where she had her motionless being. He stroked the
cat, poked the fire, had his lunch served to him there. He left
its slightly stuffy cosiness with evident reluctance, but, all the
same, remained out till the night was far advanced. He never
offered to take Winnie to theatres, as such a nice gentleman ought
to have done. His evenings were occupied. His work was in a way
political, he told Winnie once. She would have, he warned her, to
be very nice to his political friends.
And with her straight, unfathomable glance she answered that she
would be so, of course.
How much more he told her as to his occupation it was impossible
for Winnie's mother to discover. The married couple took her over
with the furniture. The mean aspect of the shop surprised her.
The change from the Belgravian square to the narrow street in Soho
affected her legs adversely. They became of an enormous size. On
the other hand, she experienced a complete relief from material
cares. Her son-in-law's heavy good nature inspired her with a
sense of absolute safety. Her daughter's future was obviously
assured, and even as to her son Stevie she need have no anxiety.
She had not been able to conceal from herself that he was a
terrible encumbrance, that poor Stevie. But in view of Winnie's
fondness for her delicate brother, and of Mr Verloc's kind and
generous disposition, she felt that the poor boy was pretty safe in
this rough world. And in her heart of hearts she was not perhaps
displeased that the Verlocs had no children. As that circumstance
seemed perfectly indifferent to Mr Verloc, and as Winnie found an
object of quasi-maternal affection 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 a frail way, good-looking too, except for the vacant droop of
his lower lip. Under our excellent system of compulsory education
he had learned to read and write, notwithstanding the unfavourable
aspect of the lower lip. But as errand-boy he did not turn out a
great success. He forgot his messages; he was easily diverted from
the straight path of duty by the attractions of stray cats and
dogs, which he followed down narrow alleys into unsavoury courts;
by the comedies of the streets, which he contemplated open-mouthed,
to the detriment of his employer's interests; or by the dramas of
fallen horses, whose pathos and violence induced him sometimes to
shriek pierceingly in a crowd, which disliked to be disturbed by
sounds of distress in its quiet enjoyment of the national
spectacle. When led away by a grave and protecting policeman, it
would often become apparent that poor Stevie had forgotten his
address - at least for a time. A brusque question caused him to
stutter to the point of suffocation. When startled by anything
perplexing he used to squint horribly. However, he never had any
fits (which was encouraging); and before the natural outbursts of
impatience on the part of his father he could always, in his
childhood's days, run for protection behind the short skirts of his
sister Winnie. On the other hand, he might have been suspected of
hiding a fund of reckless naughtiness. When he had reached the age
of fourteen a friend of his late father, an agent for a foreign
preserved milk firm, having given him an opening as office-boy, he
was discovered one foggy afternoon, in his chief's absence, busy
letting off fireworks on the staircase. He touched off in quick
succession a set of fierce rockets, angry catherine wheels, loudly
exploding squibs - and the matter might have turned out very
serious. An awful panic spread through the whole building. Wild-
eyed, choking clerks stampeded through the passages full of smoke,
silk hats and elderly business men could be seen rolling
independently down the stairs. Stevie did not seem to derive any
personal gratification from what he had done. His motives for this
stroke of originality were difficult to discover. It was only
later on that Winnie obtained from him a misty and confused
confession. It seems that two other office-boys in the building
had worked upon his feelings by tales of injustice and oppression
till they had wrought his compassion to the pitch of that frenzy.
But his father's friend, of course, dismissed him summarily as
likely to ruin his business. After that altruistic exploit Stevie
was put to help wash the dishes in the basement kitchen, and to
black the boots of the gentlemen patronising the Belgravian
mansion. There was obviously no future in such work. The
gentlemen tipped him a shilling now and then. Mr Verloc showed
himself the most generous of lodgers. But altogether all that did
not amount to much either in the way of gain or prospects; so that
when Winnie announced her engagement to Mr Verloc her mother could
not help wondering, with a sigh and a glance towards the scullery,
what would become of poor Stephen now.
It appeared that Mr Verloc was ready to take him over together with
his wife's mother and with the furniture, which was the whole
visible fortune of the family. Mr Verloc gathered everything as it
came to his broad, good-natured breast. The furniture was disposed
to the best advantage all over the house, but Mrs Verloc's mother
was confined to two back rooms on the first floor. The luckless
Stevie slept in one of them. By this time a growth of thin fluffy
hair had come to blur, like a golden mist, the sharp line of his
small lower jaw. He helped his sister with blind love and docility
in her household duties. Mr Verloc thought that some occupation
would be good for him. His spare time he occupied by drawing
circles with compass and pencil on a piece of paper. He applied
himself to that pastime with great industry, with his elbows spread
out and bowed low over the kitchen table. Through the open door of
the parlour at the back of the shop Winnie, his sister, glanced at
him from time to time with maternal vigilance.
Such was the house, the household, and the business Mr Verloc left
behind him on his way westward at the hour of half-past ten in the
morning. It was unusually early for him; his whole person exhaled
the charm of almost dewy freshness; he wore his blue cloth overcoat
unbuttoned; his boots were shiny; his cheeks, freshly shaven, had a
sort of gloss; and even his heavy-lidded eyes, refreshed by a night
of peaceful slumber, sent out glances of comparative alertness.
Through the park railings these glances beheld men and women riding
in the Row, couples cantering past harmoniously, others advancing
sedately at a walk, loitering groups of three or four, solitary
horsemen looking unsociable, and solitary women followed at a long
distance by a groom with a cockade to his hat and a leather belt
over his tight-fitting coat. Carriages went bowling by, mostly
two-horse broughams, with here and there a victoria with the skin
of some wild beast inside and a woman's face and hat emerging above
the folded hood. And a peculiarly London sun - against which
nothing could be said except that it looked bloodshot - glorified
all this by its stare. It hung at a moderate elevation above Hyde
Park Corner with an air of punctual and benign vigilance. The very
pavement under Mr Verloc's feet had an old-gold tinge in that
diffused light, in which neither wall, nor tree, nor beast, nor man
cast a shadow. Mr Verloc was going westward through a town without
shadows in an atmosphere of powdered old gold. There were red,
coppery gleams on the roofs of houses, on the corners of walls, on
the panels of carriages, on the very coats of the horses, and on
the broad back of Mr Verloc's overcoat, where they produced a dull
effect of rustiness. But Mr Verloc was not in the least conscious
of having got rusty. He surveyed through the park railings the
evidences of the town's opulence and luxury with an approving eye.
All these people had to be protected. Protection is the first
necessity of opulence and luxury. They had to be protected; and
their horses, carriages, houses, servants had to be protected; and
the source of their wealth had to be protected in the heart of the
city and the heart of the country; the whole social order
favourable to their hygienic idleness had to be protected against
the shallow enviousness of unhygienic labour. It had to - and Mr
Verloc would have rubbed his hands with satisfaction had he not
been constitutionally averse from every superfluous exertion. His
idleness was not hygienic, but it suited him very well. He was in
a manner devoted to it with a sort of inert fanaticism, or perhaps
rather with a fanatical inertness. Born of industrious parents for
a life of toil, he had embraced indolence from an impulse as
profound as inexplicable and as imperious as the impulse which
directs a man's preference for one particular woman in a given
thousand. He was too lazy even for a mere demagogue, for a workman
orator, for a leader of labour. It was too much trouble. He
required a more perfect form of ease; or it might have been that he
was the victim of a philosophical unbelief in the effectiveness of
every human effort. Such a form of indolence requires, implies, a
certain amount of intelligence. Mr Verloc was not devoid of
intelligence - and at the notion of a menaced social order he would
perhaps have winked to himself if there had not been an effort to
make in that sign of scepticism. His big, prominent eyes were not
well adapted to winking. They were rather of the sort that closes
solemnly in slumber with majestic effect.
Undemonstrative and burly in a fat-pig style, Mr Verloc, without
either rubbing his hands with satisfaction or winking sceptically
at his thoughts, proceeded on his way. He trod the pavement
heavily with his shiny boots, and his general get-up was that of a
well-to-do mechanic in business for himself. He might have been
anything from a picture-frame maker to a lock-smith; an employer of
labour in a small way. But there was also about him an
indescribable air which no mechanic could have acquired in the
practice of his handicraft however dishonestly exercised: the air
common to men who live on the vices, the follies, or the baser
fears of mankind; the air of moral nihilism common to keepers of
gambling hells and disorderly houses; to private detectives and
inquiry agents; to drink sellers and, I should say, to the sellers
of invigorating electric belts and to the inventors of patent
medicines. But of that last I am not sure, not having carried my
investigations so far into the depths. For all I know, the
expression of these last may be perfectly diabolic. I shouldn't be
surprised. What I want to affirm is that Mr Verloc's expression
was by no means diabolic.
Before reaching Knightsbridge, Mr Verloc took a turn to the left
out of the busy main thoroughfare, uproarious with the traffic of
swaying omnibuses and trotting vans, in the almost silent, swift
flow of hansoms. Under his hat, worn with a slight backward tilt,
his hair had been carefully brushed into respectful sleekness; for
his business was with an Embassy. And Mr Verloc, steady like a
rock - a soft kind of rock - marched now along a street which could
with every propriety be described as private. In its breadth,
emptiness, and extent it had the majesty of inorganic nature, of
matter that never dies. The only reminder of mortality was a
doctor's brougham arrested in august solitude close to the
curbstone. The polished knockers of the doors gleamed as far as
the eye could reach, the clean windows shone with a dark opaque
lustre. And all was still. But a milk cart rattled noisily across
the distant perspective; a butcher boy, driving with the noble
recklessness of a charioteer at Olympic Games, dashed round the
corner sitting high above a pair of red wheels. A guilty-looking
cat issuing from under the stones ran for a while in front of Mr
Verloc, then dived into another basement; and a thick police
constable, looking a stranger to every emotion, as if he too were
part of inorganic nature, surging apparently out of a lamp-post,
took not the slightest notice of Mr Verloc. With a turn to the
left Mr Verloc pursued his way along a narrow street by the side of
a yellow wall which, for some inscrutable reason, had No. 1 Chesham
Square written on it in black letters. Chesham Square was at least
sixty yards away, and Mr Verloc, cosmopolitan enough not to be
deceived by London's topographical mysteries, held on steadily,
without a sign of surprise or indignation. At last, with business-
like persistency, he reached the Square, and made diagonally for
the number 10. This belonged to an imposing carriage gate in a
high, clean wall between two houses, of which one rationally enough
bore the number 9 and the other was numbered 37; but the fact that
this last belonged to Porthill Street, a street well known in the
neighbourhood, was proclaimed by an inscription placed above the
ground-floor windows by whatever highly efficient authority is
charged with the duty of keeping track of London's strayed houses.
Why powers are not asked of Parliament (a short act would do) for
compelling those edifices to return where they belong is one of the
mysteries of municipal administration. Mr Verloc did not trouble
his head about it, his mission in life being the protection of the
social mechanism, not its perfectionment or even its criticism.
It was so early that the porter of the Embassy issued hurriedly out
of his lodge still struggling with the left sleeve of his livery
coat. His waistcoat was red, and he wore knee-breeches, but his
aspect was flustered. Mr Verloc, aware of the rush on his flank,
drove it off by simply holding out an envelope stamped with the
arms of the Embassy, and passed on. He produced the same talisman
also to the footman who opened the door, and stood back to let him
enter the hall.
A clear fire burned in a tall fireplace, and an elderly man
standing with his back to it, in evening dress and with a chain
round his neck, glanced up from the newspaper he was holding spread
out in both hands before his calm and severe face. He didn't move;
but another lackey, in brown trousers and claw-hammer coat edged
with thin yellow cord, approaching Mr Verloc listened to the murmur
of his name, and turning round on his heel in silence, began to
walk, without looking back once. Mr Verloc, thus led along a
ground-floor passage to the left of the great carpeted staircase,
was suddenly motioned to enter a quite small room furnished with a
heavy writing-table and a few chairs. The servant shut the door,
and Mr Verloc remained alone. He did not take a seat. With his
hat and stick held in one hand he glanced about, passing his other
podgy hand over his uncovered sleek head.
Another door opened noiselessly, and Mr Verloc immobilising his
glance in that direction saw at first only black clothes, the bald
top of a head, and a drooping dark grey whisker on each side of a
pair of wrinkled hands. The person who had entered was holding a
batch of papers before his eyes and walked up to the table with a
rather mincing step, turning the papers over the while. Privy
Councillor Wurmt, Chancelier d'Ambassade, was rather short-sighted.
This meritorious official laying the papers on the table, disclosed
a face of pasty complexion and of melancholy ugliness surrounded by
a lot of fine, long dark grey hairs, barred heavily by thick and
bushy eyebrows. He put on a black-framed pince-nez upon a blunt
and shapeless nose, and seemed struck by Mr Verloc's appearance.
Under the enormous eyebrows his weak eyes blinked pathetically
through the glasses.
He made no sign of greeting; neither did Mr Verloc, who certainly
knew his place; but a subtle change about the general outlines of
his shoulders and back suggested a slight bending of Mr Verloc's
spine under the vast surface of his overcoat. The effect was of
"I have here some of your reports," said the bureaucrat in an
unexpectedly soft and weary voice, and pressing the tip of his
forefinger on the papers with force. He paused; and Mr Verloc, who
had recognised his own handwriting very well, waited in an almost
breathless silence. "We are not very satisfied with the attitude
of the police here," the other continued, with every appearance of
The shoulders of Mr Verloc, without actually moving, suggested a
shrug. And for the first time since he left his home that morning
his lips opened.
"Every country has its police," he said philosophically. But as
the official of the Embassy went on blinking at him steadily he
felt constrained to add: "Allow me to observe that I have no means
of action upon the police here."
"What is desired," said the man of papers, "is the occurrence of
something definite which should stimulate their vigilance. That is
within your province - is it not so?"
Mr Verloc made no answer except by a sigh, which escaped him
involuntarily, for instantly he tried to give his face a cheerful
expression. The official blinked doubtfully, as if affected by the
dim light of the room. He repeated vaguely.
"The vigilance of the police - and the severity of the magistrates.
The general leniency of the judicial procedure here, and the utter
absence of all repressive measures, are a scandal to Europe. What
is wished for just now is the accentuation of the unrest - of the
fermentation which undoubtedly exists - "
"Undoubtedly, undoubtedly," broke in Mr Verloc in a deep
deferential bass of an oratorical quality, so utterly different
from the tone in which he had spoken before that his interlocutor
remained profoundly surprised. "It exists to a dangerous degree.
My reports for the last twelve months make it sufficiently clear."
"Your reports for the last twelve months," State Councillor Wurmt
began in his gentle and dispassionate tone, "have been read by me.
I failed to discover why you wrote them at all."
A sad silence reigned for a time. Mr Verloc seemed to have
swallowed his tongue, and the other gazed at the papers on the
table fixedly. At last he gave them a slight push.
"The state of affairs you expose there is assumed to exist as the
first condition of your employment. What is required at present is
not writing, but the bringing to light of a distinct, significant
fact - I would almost say of an alarming fact."
"I need not say that all my endeavours shall be directed to that
end," Mr Verloc said, with convinced modulations in his
conversational husky tone. But the sense of being blinked at
watchfully behind the blind glitter of these eye-glasses on the
other side of the table disconcerted him. He stopped short with a
gesture of absolute devotion. The useful, hard-working, if obscure
member of the Embassy had an air of being impressed by some newly-
"You are very corpulent," he said.
This observation, really of a psychological nature, and advanced
with the modest hesitation of an officeman more familiar with ink
and paper than with the requirements of active life, stung Mr
Verloc in the manner of a rude personal remark. He stepped back a
"Eh? What were you pleased to say?" he exclaimed, with husky
The Chancelier d'Ambassade entrusted with the conduct of this
interview seemed to find it too much for him.
"I think," he said, "that you had better see Mr Vladimir. Yes,
decidedly I think you ought to see Mr Vladimir. Be good enough to
wait here," he added, and went out with mincing steps.
At once Mr Verloc passed his hand over his hair. A slight
perspiration had broken out on his forehead. He let the air escape
from his pursed-up lips like a man blowing at a spoonful of hot
soup. But when the servant in brown appeared at the door silently,
Mr Verloc had not moved an inch from the place he had occupied
throughout the interview. He had remained motionless, as if
feeling himself surrounded by pitfalls.
He walked along a passage lighted by a lonely gas-jet, then up a
flight of winding stairs, and through a glazed and cheerful
corridor on the first floor. The footman threw open a door, and
stood aside. The feet of Mr Verloc felt a thick carpet. The room
was large, with three windows; and a young man with a shaven, big
face, sitting in a roomy arm-chair before a vast mahogany writing-
table, said in French to the Chancelier d'Ambassade, who was going
out with, the papers in his hand:
"You are quite right, mon cher. He's fat - the animal."
Mr Vladimir, First Secretary, had a drawing-room reputation as an
agreeable and entertaining man. He was something of a favourite in
society. His wit consisted in discovering droll connections
between incongruous ideas; and when talking in that strain he sat
well forward of his seat, with his left hand raised, as if
exhibiting his funny demonstrations between the thumb and
forefinger, while his round and clean-shaven face wore an
expression of merry perplexity.
But there was no trace of merriment or perplexity in the way he
looked at Mr Verloc. Lying far back in the deep arm-chair, with
squarely spread elbows, and throwing one leg over a thick knee, he
had with his smooth and rosy countenance the air of a
preternaturally thriving baby that will not stand nonsense from
"You understand French, I suppose?" he said.
Mr Verloc stated huskily that he did. His whole vast bulk had a
forward inclination. He stood on the carpet in the middle of the
room, clutching his hat and stick in one hand; the other hung
lifelessly by his side. He muttered unobtrusively somewhere deep
down in his throat something about having done his military service
in the French artillery. At once, with contemptuous perversity, Mr
Vladimir changed the language, and began to speak idiomatic English
without the slightest trace of a foreign accent.
"Ah! Yes. Of course. Let's see. How much did you get for
obtaining the design of the improved breech-block of their new
"Five years' rigorous confinement in a fortress," Mr Verloc
answered unexpectedly, but without any sign of feeling.
"You got off easily," was Mr Vladimir's comment. "And, anyhow, it
served you right for letting yourself get caught. What made you go
in for that sort of thing - eh?"
Mr Verloc's husky conversational voice was heard speaking of youth,
of a fatal infatuation for an unworthy -
"Aha! Cherchez la femme," Mr Vladimir deigned to interrupt,
unbending, but without affability; there was, on the contrary, a
touch of grimness in his condescension. "How long have you been
employed by the Embassy here?" he asked.
"Ever since the time of the late Baron Stott-Wartenheim," Mr Verloc
answered in subdued tones, and protruding his lips sadly, in sign
of sorrow for the deceased diplomat. The First Secretary observed
this play of physiognomy steadily.
"Ah! ever since. Well! What have you got to say for yourself?" he
Mr Verloc answered with some surprise that he was not aware of
having anything special to say. He had been summoned by a letter -
And he plunged his hand busily into the side pocket of his
overcoat, but before the mocking, cynical watchfulness of Mr
Vladimir, concluded to leave it there.
"Bah!" said that latter. "What do you mean by getting out of
condition like this? You haven't got even the physique of your
profession. You - a member of a starving proletariat - never! You
- a desperate socialist or anarchist - which is it?"
"Anarchist," stated Mr Verloc in a deadened tone.
"Bosh!" went on Mr Vladimir, without raising his voice. "You
startled old Wurmt himself. You wouldn't deceive an idiot. They
all are that by-the-by, but you seem to me simply impossible. So
you began your connection with us by stealing the French gun
designs. And you got yourself caught. That must have been very
disagreeable to our Government. You don't seem to be very smart."
Mr Verloc tried to exculpate himself huskily.
"As I've had occasion to observe before, a fatal infatuation for an
unworthy - "
Mr Vladimir raised a large white, plump hand. "Ah, yes. The
unlucky attachment - of your youth. She got hold of the money, and
then sold you to the police - eh?"
The doleful change in Mr Verloc's physiognomy, the momentary
drooping of his whole person, confessed that such was the
regrettable case. Mr Vladimir's hand clasped the ankle reposing on
his knee. The sock was of dark blue silk.
"You see, that was not very clever of you. Perhaps you are too
Mr Verloc intimated in a throaty, veiled murmur that he was no
"Oh! That's a failing which age does not cure," Mr Vladimir
remarked, with sinister familiarity. "But no! You are too fat for
that. You could not have come to look like this if you had been at
all susceptible. I'll tell you what I think is the matter: you are
a lazy fellow. How long have you been drawing pay from this
"Eleven years," was the answer, after a moment of sulky hesitation.
"I've been charged with several missions to London while His
Excellency Baron Stott-Wartenheim was still Ambassador in Paris.
Then by his Excellency's instructions I settled down in London. I
"You are! Are you? Eh?"
"A natural-born British subject," Mr Verloc said stolidly. "But my
father was French, and so - "
"Never mind explaining," interrupted the other. "I daresay you
could have been legally a Marshal of France and a Member of
Parliament in England - and then, indeed, you would have been of
some use to our Embassy."
This flight of fancy provoked something like a faint smile on Mr
Verloc's face. Mr Vladimir retained an imperturbable gravity.
"But, as I've said, you are a lazy fellow; you don't use your
opportunities. In the time of Baron Stott-Wartenheim we had a lot
of soft-headed people running this Embassy. They caused fellows of
your sort to form a false conception of the nature of a secret
service fund. It is my business to correct this misapprehension by
telling you what the secret service is not. It is not a
philanthropic institution. I've had you called here on purpose to
tell you this."
Mr Vladimir observed the forced expression of bewilderment on
Verloc's face, and smiled sarcastically.
"I see that you understand me perfectly. I daresay you are
intelligent enough for your work. What we want now is activity -
On repeating this last word Mr Vladimir laid a long white
forefinger on the edge of the desk. Every trace of huskiness
disappeared from Verloc's voice. The nape of his gross neck became
crimson above the velvet collar of his overcoat. His lips quivered
before they came widely open.
"If you'll only be good enough to look up my record," he boomed out
in his great, clear oratorical bass, "you'll see I gave a warning
only three months ago, on the occasion of the Grand Duke Romuald's
visit to Paris, which was telegraphed from here to the French
police, and - "
"Tut, tut!" broke out Mr Vladimir, with a frowning grimace. "The
French police had no use for your warning. Don't roar like this.
What the devil do you mean?"
With a note of proud humility Mr Verloc apologised for forgetting
himself. His voice, - famous for years at open-air meetings and at
workmen's assemblies in large halls, had contributed, he said, to
his reputation of a good and trustworthy comrade. It was,
therefore, a part of his usefulness. It had inspired confidence in
his principles. "I was always put up to speak by the leaders at a
critical moment," Mr Verloc declared, with obvious satisfaction.
There was no uproar above which he could not make himself heard, he
added; and suddenly he made a demonstration.
"Allow me," he said. With lowered forehead, without looking up,
swiftly and ponderously he crossed the room to one of the French
windows. As if giving way to an uncontrollable impulse, he opened
it a little. Mr Vladimir, jumping up amazed from the depths of the
arm-chair, looked over his shoulder; and below, across the
courtyard of the Embassy, well beyond the open gate, could be seen
the broad back of a policeman watching idly the gorgeous
perambulator of a wealthy baby being wheeled in state across the
"Constable!" said Mr Verloc, with no more effort than if he were
whispering; and Mr Vladimir burst into a laugh on seeing the
policeman spin round as if prodded by a sharp instrument. Mr
Verloc shut the window quietly, and returned to the middle of the
"With a voice like that," he said, putting on the husky
conversational pedal, "I was naturally trusted. And I knew what to
Mr Vladimir, arranging his cravat, observed him in the glass over
"I daresay you have the social revolutionary jargon by heart well
enough," he said contemptuously. "Vox et. . . You haven't ever
studied Latin - have you?"
"No," growled Mr Verloc. "You did not expect me to know it. I
belong to the million. Who knows Latin? Only a few hundred
imbeciles who aren't fit to take care of themselves."
For some thirty seconds longer Mr Vladimir studied in the mirror
the fleshy profile, the gross bulk, of the man behind him. And at
the same time he had the advantage of seeing his own face, clean-
shaved and round, rosy about the gills, and with the thin sensitive
lips formed exactly for the utterance of those delicate witticisms
which had made him such a favourite in the very highest society.
Then he turned, and advanced into the room with such determination
that the very ends of his quaintly old-fashioned bow necktie seemed
to bristle with unspeakable menaces. The movement was so swift and
fierce that Mr Verloc, casting an oblique glance, quailed inwardly.
"Aha! You dare be impudent," Mr Vladimir began, with an amazingly
guttural intonation not only utterly un-English, but absolutely un-
European, and startling even to Mr Verloc's experience of
cosmopolitan slums. "You dare! Well, I am going to speak plain
English to you. Voice won't do. We have no use for your voice.
We don't want a voice. We want facts - startling facts - damn
you," he added, with a sort of ferocious discretion, right into Mr
"Don't you try to come over me with your Hyperborean manners," Mr
Verloc defended himself huskily, looking at the carpet. At this
his interlocutor, smiling mockingly above the bristling bow of his
necktie, switched the conversation into French.
"You give yourself for an `agent provocateur.' The proper business
of an `agent provocateur' is to provoke. As far as I can judge
from your record kept here, you have done nothing to earn your
money for the last three years."
"Nothing!" exclaimed Verloc, stirring not a limb, and not raising
his eyes, but with the note of sincere feeling in his tone. "I
have several times prevented what might have been - "
"There is a proverb in this country which says prevention is better
than cure," interrupted Mr Vladimir, throwing himself into the arm-
chair. "It is stupid in a general way. There is no end to
prevention. But it is characteristic. They dislike finality in
this country. Don't you be too English. And in this particular
instance, don't be absurd. The evil is already here. We don't
want prevention - we want cure."
He paused, turned to the desk, and turning over some papers lying
there, spoke in a changed business-like tone, without looking at Mr
"You know, of course, of the International Conference assembled in
Mr Verloc intimated hoarsely that he was in the habit of reading
the daily papers. To a further question his answer was that, of
course, he understood what he read. At this Mr Vladimir, smiling
faintly at the documents he was still scanning one after another,
murmured "As long as it is not written in Latin, I suppose."
"Or Chinese," added Mr Verloc stolidly.
"H'm. Some of your revolutionary friends' effusions are written in
a CHARABIA every bit as incomprehensible as Chinese - " Mr
Vladimir let fall disdainfully a grey sheet of printed matter.
"What are all these leaflets headed F. P., with a hammer, pen, and
torch crossed? What does it mean, this F. P.?" Mr Verloc
approached the imposing writing-table.
"The Future of the Proletariat. It's a society," he explained,
standing ponderously by the side of the arm-chair, "not anarchist
in principle, but open to all shades of revolutionary opinion."
"Are you in it?"
"One of the Vice-Presidents," Mr Verloc breathed out heavily; and
the First Secretary of the Embassy raised his head to look at him.
"Then you ought to be ashamed of yourself," he said incisively.
"Isn't your society capable of anything else but printing this
prophetic bosh in blunt type on this filthy paper eh? Why don't
you do something? Look here. I've this matter in hand now, and I
tell you plainly that you will have to earn your money. The good
old Stott-Wartenheim times are over. No work, no pay."
Mr Verloc felt a queer sensation of faintness in his stout legs.
He stepped back one pace, and blew his nose loudly.
He was, in truth, startled and alarmed. The rusty London sunshine
struggling clear of the London mist shed a lukewarm brightness into
the First Secretary's private room; and in the silence Mr Verloc
heard against a window-pane the faint buzzing of a fly - his first
fly of the year - heralding better than any number of swallows the
approach of spring. The useless fussing of that tiny energetic
organism affected unpleasantly this big man threatened in his
In the pause Mr Vladimir formulated in his mind a series of
disparaging remarks concerning Mr Verloc's face and figure. The
fellow was unexpectedly vulgar, heavy, and impudently
unintelligent. He looked uncommonly like a master plumber come to
present his bill. The First Secretary of the Embassy, from his
occasional excursions into the field of American humour, had formed
a special notion of that class of mechanic as the embodiment of
fraudulent laziness and incompetency.
This was then the famous and trusty secret agent, so secret that he
was never designated otherwise but by the symbol [delta] in the
late Baron Stott-Wartenheim's official, semi-official, and
confidential correspondence; the celebrated agent [delta], whose
warnings had the power to change the schemes and the dates of
royal, imperial, grand ducal journeys, and sometimes caused them to
be put off altogether! This fellow! And Mr Vladimir indulged
mentally in an enormous and derisive fit of merriment, partly at
his own astonishment, which he judged naive, but mostly at the
expense of the universally regretted Baron Stott-Wartenheim. His
late Excellency, whom the august favour of his Imperial master had
imposed as Ambassador upon several reluctant Ministers of Foreign
Affairs, had enjoyed in his lifetime a fame for an owlish,
pessimistic gullibility. His Excellency had the social revolution
on the brain. He imagined himself to be a diplomatist set apart by
a special dispensation to watch the end of diplomacy, and pretty
nearly the end of the world, in a horrid democratic upheaval. His
prophetic and doleful despatches had been for years the joke of
Foreign Offices. He was said to have exclaimed on his deathbed
(visited by his Imperial friend and master): "Unhappy Europe! Thou
shalt perish by the moral insanity of thy children!" He was fated
to be the victim of the first humbugging rascal that came along,
thought Mr Vladimir, smiling vaguely at Mr Verloc.
"You ought to venerate the memory of Baron Stott-Wartenheim," he
The lowered physiognomy of Mr Verloc expressed a sombre and weary
"Permit me to observe to you," he said, "that I came here because I
was summoned by a peremptory letter. I have been here only twice
before in the last eleven years, and certainly never at eleven in
the morning. It isn't very wise to call me up like this. There is
just a chance of being seen. And that would be no joke for me."
Mr Vladimir shrugged his shoulders.
"It would destroy my usefulness," continued the other hotly.
"That's your affair," murmured Mr Vladimir, with soft brutality.
"When you cease to be useful you shall cease to be employed. Yes.
Right off. Cut short. You shall - " Mr Vladimir, frowning,
paused, at a loss for a sufficiently idiomatic expression, and
instantly brightened up, with a grin of beautifully white teeth.
"You shall be chucked," he brought out ferociously.
Once more Mr Verloc had to react with all the force of his will
against that sensation of faintness running down one's legs which
once upon a time had inspired some poor devil with the felicitous
expression: "My heart went down into my boots." Mr Verloc, aware
of the sensation, raised his head bravely.
Mr Vladimir bore the look of heavy inquiry with perfect serenity.
"What we want is to administer a tonic to the Conference in Milan,"
he said airily. "Its deliberations upon international action for
the suppression of political crime don't seem to get anywhere.
England lags. This country is absurd with its sentimental regard
for individual liberty. It's intolerable to think that all your
friends have got only to come over to - "
"In that way I have them all under my eye," Mr Verloc interrupted
"It would be much more to the point to have them all under lock and
key. England must be brought into line. The imbecile bourgeoisie
of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people
whose aim is to drive them out of their houses to starve in
ditches. And they have the political power still, if they only had
the sense to use it for their preservation. I suppose you agree
that the middle classes are stupid?"
Mr Verloc agreed hoarsely.
"They have no imagination. They are blinded by an idiotic vanity.
What they want just now is a jolly good scare. This is the
psychological moment to set your friends to work. I have had you
called here to develop to you my idea."
And Mr Vladimir developed his idea from on high, with scorn and
condescension, displaying at the same time an amount of ignorance
as to the real aims, thoughts, and methods of the revolutionary
world which filled the silent Mr Verloc with inward consternation.
He confounded causes with effects more than was excusable; the most
distinguished propagandists with impulsive bomb throwers; assumed
organisation where in the nature of things it could not exist;
spoke of the social revolutionary party one moment as of a
perfectly disciplined army, where the word of chiefs was supreme,
and at another as if it had been the loosest association of
desperate brigands that ever camped in a mountain gorge. Once Mr
Verloc had opened his mouth for a protest, but the raising of a
shapely, large white hand arrested him. Very soon he became too
appalled to even try to protest. He listened in a stillness of
dread which resembled the immobility of profound attention.
"A series of outrages," Mr Vladimir continued calmly, "executed
here in this country; not only PLANNED here - that would not do -
they would not mind. Your friends could set half the Continent on
fire without influencing the public opinion here in favour of a
universal repressive legislation. They will not look outside their
Mr Verloc cleared his throat, but his heart failed him, and he said
"These outrages need not be especially sanguinary," Mr Vladimir
went on, as if delivering a scientific lecture, "but they must be
sufficiently startling - effective. Let them be directed against
buildings, for instance. What is the fetish of the hour that all
the bourgeoisie recognise - eh, Mr Verloc?"
Mr Verloc opened his hands and shrugged his shoulders slightly.
"You are too lazy to think," was Mr Vladimir's comment upon that
gesture. "Pay attention to what I say. The fetish of to-day is
neither royalty nor religion. Therefore the palace and the church
should be left alone. You understand what I mean, Mr Verloc?"
The dismay and the scorn of Mr Verloc found vent in an attempt at
"Perfectly. But what of the Embassies? A series of attacks on the
various Embassies," he began; but he could not withstand the cold,
watchful stare of the First Secretary.
"You can be facetious, I see," the latter observed carelessly.
"That's all right. It may enliven your oratory at socialistic
congresses. But this room is no place for it. It would be
infinitely safer for you to follow carefully what I am saying. As
you are being called upon to furnish facts instead of cock-and-bull
stories, you had better try to make your profit off what I am
taking the trouble to explain to you. The sacrosanct fetish of to-
day is science. Why don't you get some of your friends to go for
that wooden-faced panjandrum - eh? Is it not part of these
institutions which must be swept away before the F. P. comes
Mr Verloc said nothing. He was afraid to open his lips lest a
groan should escape him.
"This is what you should try for. An attempt upon a crowned head
or on a president is sensational enough in a way, but not so much
as it used to be. It has entered into the general conception of
the existence of all chiefs of state. It's almost conventional -
especially since so many presidents have been assassinated. Now
let us take an outrage upon - say a church. Horrible enough at
first sight, no doubt, and yet not so effective as a person of an
ordinary mind might think. No matter how revolutionary and
anarchist in inception, there would be fools enough to give such an
outrage the character of a religious manifestation. And that would
detract from the especial alarming significance we wish to give to
the act. A murderous attempt on a restaurant or a theatre would
suffer in the same way from the suggestion of non-political
passion: the exasperation of a hungry man, an act of social
revenge. All this is used up; it is no longer instructive as an
object lesson in revolutionary anarchism. Every newspaper has
ready-made phrases to explain such manifestations away. I am about
to give you the philosophy of bomb throwing from my point of view;
from the point of view you pretend to have been serving for the
last eleven years. I will try not to talk above your head. The
sensibilities of the class you are attacking are soon blunted.
Property seems to them an indestructible thing. You can't count
upon their emotions either of pity or fear for very long. A bomb
outrage to have any influence on public opinion now must go beyond
the intention of vengeance or terrorism. It must be purely
destructive. It must be that, and only that, beyond the faintest
suspicion of any other object. You anarchists should make it clear
that you are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the
whole social creation. But how to get that appallingly absurd
notion into the heads of the middle classes so that there should be
no mistake? That's the question. By directing your blows at
something outside the ordinary passions of humanity is the answer.
Of course, there is art. A bomb in the National Gallery would make
some noise. But it would not be serious enough. Art has never
been their fetish. It's like breaking a few back windows in a
man's house; whereas, if you want to make him really sit up, you
must try at least to raise the roof. There would be some screaming
of course, but from whom? Artists - art critics and such like -
people of no account. Nobody minds what they say. But there is
learning - science. Any imbecile that has got an income believes
in that. He does not know why, but he believes it matters somehow.
It is the sacrosanct fetish. All the damned professors are
radicals at heart. Let them know that their great panjandrum has
got to go too, to make room for the Future of the Proletariat. A
howl from all these intellectual idiots is bound to help forward
the labours of the Milan Conference. They will be writing to the
papers. Their indignation would be above suspicion, no material
interests being openly at stake, and it will alarm every
selfishness of the class which should be impressed. They believe
that in some mysterious way science is at the source of their
material prosperity. They do. And the absurd ferocity of such a
demonstration will affect them more profoundly than the mangling of
a whole street - or theatre - full of their own kind. To that last
they can always say: `Oh! it's mere class hate.' But what is one
to say to an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be
incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable; in fact, mad?
Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate
it either by threats, persuasion, or bribes. Moreover, I am a
civilised man. I would never dream of directing you to organise a
mere butchery, even if I expected the best results from it. But I
wouldn't expect from a butchery the result I want. Murder is
always with us. It is almost an institution. The demonstration
must be against learning - science. But not every science will
do. The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of
gratuitous blasphemy. Since bombs are your means of expression, it
would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure
mathematics. But that is impossible. I have been trying to
educate you; I have expounded to you the higher philosophy of your
usefulness, and suggested to you some serviceable arguments. The
practical application of my teaching interests YOU mostly. But
from the moment I have undertaken to interview you I have also
given some attention to the practical aspect of the question. What
do you think of having a go at astronomy?"
For sometime already Mr Verloc's immobility by the side of the arm-
chair resembled a state of collapsed coma - a sort of passive
insensibility interrupted by slight convulsive starts, such as may
be observed in the domestic dog having a nightmare on the
hearthrug. And it was in an uneasy doglike growl that he repeated
He had not recovered thoroughly as yet from that state of
bewilderment brought about by the effort to follow Mr Vladimir's
rapid incisive utterance. It had overcome his power of
assimilation. It had made him angry. This anger was complicated
by incredulity. And suddenly it dawned upon him that all this was
an elaborate joke. Mr Vladimir exhibited his white teeth in a
smile, with dimples on his round, full face posed with a complacent
inclination above the bristling bow of his neck-tie. The favourite
of intelligent society women had assumed his drawing-room attitude
accompanying the delivery of delicate witticisms. Sitting well
forward, his white hand upraised, he seemed to hold delicately
between his thumb and forefinger the subtlety of his suggestion.
"There could be nothing better. Such an outrage combines the
greatest possible regard for humanity with the most alarming
display of ferocious imbecility. I defy the ingenuity of
journalists to persuade their public that any given member of the
proletariat can have a personal grievance against astronomy.
Starvation itself could hardly be dragged in there - eh? And there
are other advantages. The whole civilised world has heard of
Greenwich. The very boot-blacks in the basement of Charing Cross
Station know something of it. See?"
The features of Mr Vladimir, so well known in the best society by
their humorous urbanity, beamed with cynical self-satisfaction,
which would have astonished the intelligent women his wit
entertained so exquisitely. "Yes," he continued, with a
contemptuous smile, "the blowing up of the first meridian is bound
to raise a howl of execration."
"A difficult business," Mr Verloc mumbled, feeling that this was
the only safe thing to say.
"What is the matter? Haven't you the whole gang under your hand?
The very pick of the basket? That old terrorist Yundt is here. I
see him walking about Piccadilly in his green havelock almost every
day. And Michaelis, the ticket-of-leave apostle - you don't mean
to say you don't know where he is? Because if you don't, I can
tell you," Mr Vladimir went on menacingly. "If you imagine that
you are the only one on the secret fund list, you are mistaken."
This perfectly gratuitous suggestion caused Mr Verloc to shuffle
his feet slightly.
"And the whole Lausanne lot - eh? Haven't they been flocking over
here at the first hint of the Milan Conference? This is an absurd
"It will cost money," Mr Verloc said, by a sort of instinct.
"That cock won't fight," Mr Vladimir retorted, with an amazingly
genuine English accent. "You'll get your screw every month, and no
more till something happens. And if nothing happens very soon you
won't get even that. What's your ostensible occupation? What are
you supposed to live by?"
"I keep a shop," answered Mr Verloc.
"A shop! What sort of shop?"
"Stationery, newspapers. My wife - "
"Your what?" interrupted Mr Vladimir in his guttural Central Asian
"My wife." Mr Verloc raised his husky voice slightly. "I am
"That be damned for a yarn," exclaimed the other in unfeigned
astonishment. "Married! And you a professed anarchist, too! What
is this confounded nonsense? But I suppose it's merely a manner of
speaking. Anarchists don't marry. It's well known. They can't.
It would be apostasy."
"My wife isn't one," Mr Verloc mumbled sulkily. "Moreover, it's no
concern of yours."
"Oh yes, it is," snapped Mr Vladimir. "I am beginning to be
convinced that you are not at all the man for the work you've been
employed on. Why, you must have discredited yourself completely in
your own world by your marriage. Couldn't you have managed
without? This is your virtuous attachment - eh? What with one
sort of attachment and another you are doing away with your
Mr Verloc, puffing out his cheeks, let the air escape violently,
and that was all. He had armed himself with patience. It was not
to be tried much longer. The First Secretary became suddenly very
curt, detached, final.
"You may go now," he said. "A dynamite outrage must be provoked.
I give you a month. The sittings of the Conference are suspended.
Before it reassembles again something must have happened here, or
your connection with us ceases."
He changed the note once more with an unprincipled versatility.
"Think over my philosophy, Mr - Mr - Verloc," he said, with a sort
of chaffing condescension, waving his hand towards the door. "Go
for the first meridian. You don't know the middle classes as well
as I do. Their sensibilities are jaded. The first meridian.
Nothing better, and nothing easier, I should think."
He had got up, and with his thin sensitive lips twitching
humorously, watched in the glass over the mantelpiece Mr Verloc
backing out of the room heavily, hat and stick in hand. The door
The footman in trousers, appearing suddenly in the corridor, let Mr
Verloc another way out and through a small door in the corner of
the courtyard. The porter standing at the gate ignored his exit
completely; and Mr Verloc retraced the path of his morning's
pilgrimage as if in a dream - an angry dream. This detachment from
the material world was so complete that, though the mortal envelope
of Mr Verloc had not hastened unduly along the streets, that part
of him to which it would be unwarrantably rude to refuse
immortality, found itself at the shop door all at once, as if borne
from west to east on the wings of a great wind. He walked straight
behind the counter, and sat down on a wooden chair that stood
there. No one appeared to disturb his solitude. Stevie, put into
a green baize apron, was now sweeping and dusting upstairs, intent
and conscientious, as though he were playing at it; and Mrs Verloc,
warned in the kitchen by the clatter of the cracked bell, had
merely come to the glazed door of the parlour, and putting the
curtain aside a little, had peered into the dim shop. Seeing her
husband sitting there shadowy and bulky, with his hat tilted far
back on his head, she had at once returned to her stove. An hour
or more later she took the green baize apron off her brother
Stevie, and instructed him to wash his hands and face in the
peremptory tone she had used in that connection for fifteen years
or so - ever since she had, in fact, ceased to attend to the boy's
hands and face herself. She spared presently a glance away from
her dishing-up for the inspection of that face and those hands
which Stevie, approaching the kitchen table, offered for her
approval with an air of self-assurance hiding a perpetual residue
of anxiety. Formerly the anger of the father was the supremely
effective sanction of these rites, but Mr Verloc's placidity in
domestic life would have made all mention of anger incredible even
to poor Stevie's nervousness. The theory was that Mr Verloc would
have been inexpressibly pained and shocked by any deficiency of
cleanliness at meal times. Winnie after the death of her father
found considerable consolation in the feeling that she need no
longer tremble for poor Stevie. She could not bear to see the boy
hurt. It maddened her. As a little girl she had often faced with
blazing eyes the irascible licensed victualler in defence of her
brother. Nothing now in Mrs Verloc's appearance could lead one to
suppose that she was capable of a passionate demonstration.
She finished her dishing-up. The table was laid in the parlour.
Going to the foot of the stairs, she screamed out "Mother!" Then
opening the glazed door leading to the shop, she said quietly
"Adolf!" Mr Verloc had not changed his position; he had not
apparently stirred a limb for an hour and a half. He got up
heavily, and came to his dinner in his overcoat and with his hat
on, without uttering a word. His silence in itself had nothing
startlingly unusual in this household, hidden in the shades of the
sordid street seldom touched by the sun, behind the dim shop with
its wares of disreputable rubbish. Only that day Mr Verloc's
taciturnity was so obviously thoughtful that the two women were
impressed by it. They sat silent themselves, keeping a watchful
eye on poor Stevie, lest he should break out into one of his fits
of loquacity. He faced Mr Verloc across the table, and remained
very good and quiet, staring vacantly. The endeavour to keep him
from making himself objectionable in any way to the master of the
house put no inconsiderable anxiety into these two women's lives.
"That boy," as they alluded to him softly between themselves, had
been a source of that sort of anxiety almost from the very day of
his birth. The late licensed victualler's humiliation at having
such a very peculiar boy for a son manifested itself by a
propensity to brutal treatment; for he was a person of fine
sensibilities, and his sufferings as a man and a father were
perfectly genuine. Afterwards Stevie had to be kept from making
himself a nuisance to the single gentlemen lodgers, who are
themselves a queer lot, and are easily aggrieved. And there was
always the anxiety of his mere existence to face. Visions of a
workhouse infirmary for her child had haunted the old woman in the
basement breakfast-room of the decayed Belgravian house. "If you
had not found such a good husband, my dear," she used to say to her
daughter, "I don't know what would have become of that poor boy."
Mr Verloc extended as much recognition to Stevie as a man not
particularly fond of animals may give to his wife's beloved cat;
and this recognition, benevolent and perfunctory, was essentially
of the same quality. Both women admitted to themselves that not
much more could be reasonably expected. It was enough to earn for
Mr Verloc the old woman's reverential gratitude. In the early
days, made sceptical by the trials of friendless life, she used
sometimes to ask anxiously: "You don't think, my dear, that Mr
Verloc is getting tired of seeing Stevie about?" To this Winnie
replied habitually by a slight toss of her head. Once, however,
she retorted, with a rather grim pertness: "He'll have to get tired
of me first." A long silence ensued. The mother, with her feet
propped up on a stool, seemed to be trying to get to the bottom of
that answer, whose feminine profundity had struck her all of a
heap. She had never really understood why Winnie had married Mr
Verloc. It was very sensible of her, and evidently had turned out
for the best, but her girl might have naturally hoped to find
somebody of a more suitable age. There had been a steady young
fellow, only son of a butcher in the next street, helping his
father in business, with whom Winnie had been walking out with
obvious gusto. He was dependent on his father, it is true; but the
business was good, and his prospects excellent. He took her girl
to the theatre on several evenings. Then just as she began to
dread to hear of their engagement (for what could she have done
with that big house alone, with Stevie on her hands), that romance
came to an abrupt end, and Winnie went about looking very dull.
But Mr Verloc, turning up providentially to occupy the first-floor
front bedroom, there had been no more question of the young
butcher. It was clearly providential.
" . . . All idealisation makes life poorer. To beautify it is to
take away its character of complexity - it is to destroy it. Leave
that to the moralists, my boy. History is made by men, but they do
not make it in their heads. The ideas that are born in their
consciousness play an insignificant part in the march of events.
History is dominated and determined by the tool and the production
- by the force of economic conditions. Capitalism has made
socialism, and the laws made by the capitalism for the protection
of property are responsible for anarchism. No one can tell what
form the social organisation may take in the future. Then why
indulge in prophetic phantasies? At best they can only interpret
the mind of the prophet, and can have no objective value. Leave
that pastime to the moralists, my boy."
Michaelis, the ticket-of-leave apostle, was speaking in an even
voice, a voice that wheezed as if deadened and oppressed by the
layer of fat on his chest. He had come out of a highly hygienic
prison round like a tub, with an enormous stomach and distended
cheeks of a pale, semi-transparent complexion, as though for
fifteen years the servants of an outraged society had made a point
of stuffing him with fattening foods in a damp and lightless
cellar. And ever since he had never managed to get his weight down
as much as an ounce.
It was said that for three seasons running a very wealthy old lady
had sent him for a cure to Marienbad - where he was about to share
the public curiosity once with a crowned head - but the police on
that occasion ordered him to leave within twelve hours. His
martyrdom was continued by forbidding him all access to the healing
waters. But he was resigned now.
With his elbow presenting no appearance of a joint, but more like a
bend in a dummy's limb, thrown over the back of a chair, he leaned
forward slightly over his short and enormous thighs to spit into
"Yes! I had the time to think things out a little," he added
without emphasis. "Society has given me plenty of time for
On the other side of the fireplace, in the horse-hair arm-chair
where Mrs Verloc's mother was generally privileged to sit, Karl
Yundt giggled grimly, with a faint black grimace of a toothless
mouth. The terrorist, as he called himself, was old and bald, with
a narrow, snow-white wisp of a goatee hanging limply from his chin.
An extraordinary expression of underhand malevolence survived in
his extinguished eyes. When he rose painfully the thrusting
forward of a skinny groping hand deformed by gouty swellings
suggested the effort of a moribund murderer summoning all his
remaining strength for a last stab. He leaned on a thick stick,
which trembled under his other hand.
"I have always dreamed," he mouthed fiercely, "of a band of men
absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of
means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of
destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism
which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including
themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of
humanity - that's what I would have liked to see."
His little bald head quivered, imparting a comical vibration to the
wisp of white goatee. His enunciation would have been almost
totally unintelligible to a stranger. His worn-out passion,
resembling in its impotent fierceness the excitement of a senile
sensualist, was badly served by a dried throat and toothless gums
which seemed to catch the tip of his tongue. Mr Verloc,
established in the corner of the sofa at the other end of the room,
emitted two hearty grunts of assent.
The old terrorist turned slowly his head on his skinny neck from
side to side.
"And I could never get as many as three such men together. So much
for your rotten pessimism," he snarled at Michaelis, who uncrossed
his thick legs, similar to bolsters, and slid his feet abruptly
under his chair in sign of exasperation.
He a pessimist! Preposterous! He cried out that the charge was
outrageous. He was so far from pessimism that he saw already the
end of all private property coming along logically, unavoidably, by
the mere development of its inherent viciousness. The possessors
of property had not only to face the awakened proletariat, but they
had also to fight amongst themselves. Yes. Struggle, warfare, was
the condition of private ownership. It was fatal. Ah! he did not
depend upon emotional excitement to keep up his belief, no
declamations, no anger, no visions of blood-red flags waving, or
metaphorical lurid suns of vengeance rising above the horizon of a
doomed society. Not he! Cold reason, he boasted, was the basis of
his optimism. Yes, optimism -
His laborious wheezing stopped, then, after a gasp or two, he
"Don't you think that, if I had not been the optimist I am, I could
not have found in fifteen years some means to cut my throat? And,
in the last instance, there were always the walls of my cell to
dash my head against."
The shortness of breath took all fire, all animation out of his
voice; his great, pale cheeks hung like filled pouches, motionless,
without a quiver; but in his blue eyes, narrowed as if peering,
there was the same look of confident shrewdness, a little crazy in
its fixity, they must have had while the indomitable optimist sat
thinking at night in his cell. Before him, Karl Yundt remained
standing, one wing of his faded greenish havelock thrown back
cavalierly over his shoulder. Seated in front of the fireplace,
Comrade Ossipon, ex-medical student, the principal writer of the F.
P. leaflets, stretched out his robust legs, keeping the soles of
his boots turned up to the glow in the grate. A bush of crinkly
yellow hair topped his red, freckled face, with a flattened nose
and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the negro type. His
almond-shaped eyes leered languidly over the high cheek-bones. He
wore a grey flannel shirt, the loose ends of a black silk tie hung
down the buttoned breast of his serge coat; and his head resting on
the back of his chair, his throat largely exposed, he raised to his
lips a cigarette in a long wooden tube, puffing jets of smoke
straight up at the ceiling.
Michaelis pursued his idea - THE idea of his solitary reclusion -
the thought vouchsafed to his captivity and growing like a faith
revealed in visions. He talked to himself, indifferent to the
sympathy or hostility of his hearers, indifferent indeed to their
presence, from the habit he had acquired of thinking aloud
hopefully in the solitude of the four whitewashed walls of his
cell, in the sepulchral silence of the great blind pile of bricks
near a river, sinister and ugly like a colossal mortuary for the
He was no good in discussion, not because any amount of argument
could shake his faith, but because the mere fact of hearing another
voice disconcerted him painfully, confusing his thoughts at once -
these thoughts that for so many years, in a mental solitude more
barren than a waterless desert, no living voice had ever combatted,
commented, or approved.
No one interrupted him now, and he made again the confession of his
faith, mastering him irresistible and complete like an act of
grace: the secret of fate discovered in the material side of life;
the economic condition of the world responsible for the past and
shaping the future; the source of all history, of all ideas,
guiding the mental development of mankind and the very impulses of
their passion -
A harsh laugh from Comrade Ossipon cut the tirade dead short in a
sudden faltering of the tongue and a bewildered unsteadiness of the
apostle's mildly exalted eyes. He closed them slowly for a moment,
as if to collect his routed thoughts. A silence fell; but what
with the two gas-jets over the table and the glowing grate the
little parlour behind Mr Verloc's shop had become frightfully hot.
Mr Verloc, getting off the sofa with ponderous reluctance, opened
the door leading into the kitchen to get more air, and thus
disclosed the innocent Stevie, seated very good and quiet at a deal
table, drawing circles, circles, circles; innumerable circles,
concentric, eccentric; a coruscating whirl of circles that by their
tangled multitude of repeated curves, uniformity of form, and
confusion of intersecting lines suggested a rendering of cosmic
chaos, the symbolism of a mad art attempting the inconceivable.
The artist never turned his head; and in all his soul's application
to the task his back quivered, his thin neck, sunk into a deep
hollow at the base of the skull, seemed ready to snap.
Mr Verloc, after a grunt of disapproving surprise, returned to the
sofa. Alexander Ossipon got up, tall in his threadbare blue serge
suit under the low ceiling, shook off the stiffness of long
immobility, and strolled away into the kitchen (down two steps) to
look over Stevie's shoulder. He came back, pronouncing oracularly:
"Very good. Very characteristic, perfectly typical."
"What's very good?" grunted inquiringly Mr Verloc, settled again in
the corner of the sofa. The other explained his meaning
negligently, with a shade of condescension and a toss of his head
towards the kitchen:
"Typical of this form of degeneracy - these drawings, I mean."
"You would call that lad a degenerate, would you?" mumbled Mr
Comrade Alexander Ossipon - nicknamed the Doctor, ex-medical
student without a degree; afterwards wandering lecturer to working-
men's associations upon the socialistic aspects of hygiene; author
of a popular quasi-medical study (in the form of a cheap pamphlet
seized promptly by the police) entitled "The Corroding Vices of the
Middle Classes"; special delegate of the more or less mysterious
Red Committee, together with Karl Yundt and Michaelis for the work
of literary propaganda - turned upon the obscure familiar of at
least two Embassies that glance of insufferable, hopelessly dense
sufficiency which nothing but the frequentation of science can give
to the dulness of common mortals.
"That's what he may be called scientifically. Very good type too,
altogether, of that sort of degenerate. It's enough to glance at
the lobes of his ears. If you read Lombroso - "
Mr Verloc, moody and spread largely on the sofa, continued to look
down the row of his waistcoat buttons; but his cheeks became tinged
by a faint blush. Of late even the merest derivative of the word
science (a term in itself inoffensive and of indefinite meaning)
had the curious power of evoking a definitely offensive mental
vision of Mr Vladimir, in his body as he lived, with an almost
supernatural clearness. And this phenomenon, deserving justly to
be classed amongst the marvels of science, induced in Mr Verloc an
emotional state of dread and exasperation tending to express itself
in violent swearing. But he said nothing. It was Karl Yundt who
was heard, implacable to his last breath.
"Lombroso is an ass."
Comrade Ossipon met the shock of this blasphemy by an awful, vacant
stare. And the other, his extinguished eyes without gleams
blackening the deep shadows under the great, bony forehead,
mumbled, catching the tip of his tongue between his lips at every
second word as though he were chewing it angrily:
"Did you ever see such an idiot? For him the criminal is the
prisoner. Simple, is it not? What about those who shut him up
there - forced him in there? Exactly. Forced him in there. And
what is crime? Does he know that, this imbecile who has made his
way in this world of gorged fools by looking at the ears and teeth
of a lot of poor, luckless devils? Teeth and ears mark the
criminal? Do they? And what about the law that marks him still
better - the pretty branding instrument invented by the overfed to
protect themselves against the hungry? Red-hot applications on
their vile skins - hey? Can't you smell and hear from here the
thick hide of the people burn and sizzle? That's how criminals are
made for your Lombrosos to write their silly stuff about."
The knob of his stick and his legs shook together with passion,
whilst the trunk, draped in the wings of the havelock, preserved
his historic attitude of defiance. He seemed to sniff the tainted
air of social cruelty, to strain his ear for its atrocious sounds.
There was an extraordinary force of suggestion in this posturing.
The all but moribund veteran of dynamite wars had been a great
actor in his time - actor on platforms, in secret assemblies, in
private interviews. The famous terrorist had never in his life
raised personally as much as his little finger against the social
edifice. He was no man of action; he was not even an orator of
torrential eloquence, sweeping the masses along in the rushing
noise and foam of a great enthusiasm. With a more subtle
intention, he took the part of an insolent and venomous evoker of
sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated
vanity of ignorance, in the suffering and misery of poverty, in all
the hopeful and noble illusions of righteous anger, pity, and
revolt. The shadow of his evil gift clung to him yet like the
smell of a deadly drug in an old vial of poison, emptied now,
useless, ready to be thrown away upon the rubbish-heap of things
that had served their time.
Michaelis, the ticket-of-leave apostle, smiled vaguely with his
glued lips; his pasty moon face drooped under the weight of
melancholy assent. He had been a prisoner himself. His own skin
had sizzled under the red-hot brand, he murmured softly. But
Comrade Ossipon, nicknamed the Doctor, had got over the shock by
"You don't understand," he began disdainfully, but stopped short,
intimidated by the dead blackness of the cavernous eyes in the face
turned slowly towards him with a blind stare, as if guided only by
the sound. He gave the discussion up, with a slight shrug of the
Stevie, accustomed to move about disregarded, had got up from the
kitchen table, carrying off his drawing to bed with him. He had
reached the parlour door in time to receive in full the shock of
Karl Yundt's eloquent imagery. The sheet of paper covered with
circles dropped out of his fingers, and he remained staring at the
old terrorist, as if rooted suddenly to the spot by his morbid
horror and dread of physical pain. Stevie knew very well that hot
iron applied to one's skin hurt very much. His scared eyes blazed
with indignation: it would hurt terribly. His mouth dropped open.
Michaelis by staring unwinkingly at the fire had regained that
sentiment of isolation necessary for the continuity of his thought.
His optimism had begun to flow from his lips. He saw Capitalism
doomed in its cradle, born with the poison of the principle of
competition in its system. The great capitalists devouring the
little capitalists, concentrating the power and the tools of
production in great masses, perfecting industrial processes, and in
the madness of self-aggrandisement only preparing, organising,
enriching, making ready the lawful inheritance of the suffering
proletariat. Michaelis pronounced the great word "Patience" - and
his clear blue glance, raised to the low ceiling of Mr Verloc's
parlour, had a character of seraphic trustfulness. In the doorway
Stevie, calmed, seemed sunk in hebetude.
Comrade Ossipon's face twitched with exasperation.
"Then it's no use doing anything - no use whatever."
"I don't say that," protested Michaelis gently. His vision of
truth had grown so intense that the sound of a strange voice failed
to rout it this time. He continued to look down at the red coals.
Preparation for the future was necessary, and he was willing to
admit that the great change would perhaps come in the upheaval of a
revolution. But he argued that revolutionary propaganda was a
delicate work of high conscience. It was the education of the
masters of the world. It should be as careful as the education
given to kings. He would have it advance its tenets cautiously,
even timidly, in our ignorance of the effect that may be produced
by any given economic change upon the happiness, the morals, the
intellect, the history of mankind. For history is made with tools,
not with ideas; and everything is changed by economic conditions -
art, philosophy, love, virtue - truth itself!
The coals in the grate settled down with a slight crash; and
Michaelis, the hermit of visions in the desert of a penitentiary,
got up impetuously. Round like a distended balloon, he opened his
short, thick arms, as if in a pathetically hopeless attempt to
embrace and hug to his breast a self-regenerated universe. He
gasped with ardour.
"The future is as certain as the past - slavery, feudalism,
individualism, collectivism. This is the statement of a law, not
an empty prophecy."
The disdainful pout of Comrade Ossipon's thick lips accentuated the
negro type of his face.
"Nonsense," he said calmly enough. "There is no law and no
certainty. The teaching propaganda be hanged. What the people
knows does not matter, were its knowledge ever so accurate. The
only thing that matters to us is the emotional state of the masses.
Without emotion there is no action."
He paused, then added with modest firmness:
"I am speaking now to you scientifically - scientifically - Eh?
What did you say, Verloc?"
"Nothing," growled from the sofa Mr Verloc, who, provoked by the
abhorrent sound, had merely muttered a "Damn."
The venomous spluttering of the old terrorist without teeth was
"Do you know how I would call the nature of the present economic
conditions? I would call it cannibalistic. That's what it is!
They are nourishing their greed on the quivering flesh and the warm
blood of the people - nothing else."
Stevie swallowed the terrifying statement with an audible gulp, and
at once, as though it had been swift poison, sank limply in a
sitting posture on the steps of the kitchen door.
Michaelis gave no sign of having heard anything. His lips seemed
glued together for good; not a quiver passed over his heavy cheeks.
With troubled eyes he looked for his round, hard hat, and put it on
his round head. His round and obese body seemed to float low
between the chairs under the sharp elbow of Karl Yundt. The old
terrorist, raising an uncertain and clawlike hand, gave a
swaggering tilt to a black felt sombrero shading the hollows and
ridges of his wasted face. He got in motion slowly, striking the
floor with his stick at every step. It was rather an affair to get
him out of the house because, now and then, he would stop, as if to
think, and did not offer to move again till impelled forward by
Michaelis. The gentle apostle grasped his arm with brotherly care;
and behind them, his hands in his pockets, the robust Ossipon
yawned vaguely. A blue cap with a patent leather peak set well at
the back of his yellow bush of hair gave him the aspect of a
Norwegian sailor bored with the world after a thundering spree. Mr
Verloc saw his guests off the premises, attending them bareheaded,
his heavy overcoat hanging open, his eyes on the ground.
He closed the door behind their backs with restrained violence,
turned the key, shot the bolt. He was not satisfied with his
friends. In the light of Mr Vladimir's philosophy of bomb throwing
they appeared hopelessly futile. The part of Mr Verloc in
revolutionary politics having been to observe, he could not all at
once, either in his own home or in larger assemblies, take the
initiative of action. He had to be cautious. Moved by the just
indignation of a man well over forty, menaced in what is dearest to
him - his repose and his security - he asked himself scornfully
what else could have been expected from such a lot, this Karl
Yundt, this Michaelis - this Ossipon.
Pausing in his intention to turn off the gas burning in the middle
of the shop, Mr Verloc descended into the abyss of moral
reflections. With the insight of a kindred temperament he
pronounced his verdict. A lazy lot - this Karl Yundt, nursed by a
blear-eyed old woman, a woman he had years ago enticed away from a
friend, and afterwards had tried more than once to shake off into
the gutter. Jolly lucky for Yundt that she had persisted in coming
up time after time, or else there would have been no one now to
help him out of the `bus by the Green Park railings, where that
spectre took its constitutional crawl every fine morning. When
that indomitable snarling old witch died the swaggering spectre
would have to vanish too - there would be an end to fiery Karl
Yundt. And Mr Verloc's morality was offended also by the optimism
of Michaelis, annexed by his wealthy old lady, who had taken lately
to sending him to a cottage she had in the country. The ex-
prisoner could moon about the shady lanes for days together in a
delicious and humanitarian idleness. As to Ossipon, that beggar
was sure to want for nothing as long as there were silly girls with
savings-bank books in the world. And Mr Verloc, temperamentally
identical with his associates, drew fine distinctions in his mind
on the strength of insignificant differences. He drew them with a
certain complacency, because the instinct of conventional
respectability was strong within him, being only overcome by his
dislike of all kinds of recognised labour - a temperamental defect
which he shared with a large proportion of revolutionary reformers
of a given social state. For obviously one does not revolt against
the advantages and opportunities of that state, but against the
price which must be paid for the same in the coin of accepted
morality, self-restraint, and toil. The majority of revolutionises
are the enemies of discipline and fatigue mostly. There are
natures too, to whose sense of justice the price exacted looms up
monstrously enormous, odious, oppressive, worrying, humiliating,
extortionate, intolerable. Those are the fanatics. The remaining
portion of social rebels is accounted for by vanity, the mother of
all noble and vile illusions, the companion of poets, reformers,
charlatans, prophets, and incendiaries.
Lost for a whole minute in the abyss of meditation, Mr Verloc did
not reach the depth of these abstract considerations. Perhaps he
was not able. In any case he had not the time. He was pulled up
painfully by the sudden recollection of Mr Vladimir, another of his
associates, whom in virtue of subtle moral affinities he was
capable of judging correctly. He considered him as dangerous. A
shade of envy crept into his thoughts. Loafing was all very well
for these fellows, who knew not Mr Vladimir, and had women to fall
back upon; whereas he had a woman to provide for -
At this point, by a simple association of ideas, Mr Verloc was
brought face to face with the necessity of going to bed some time
or other that evening. Then why not go now - at once? He sighed.
The necessity was not so normally pleasurable as it ought to have
been for a man of his age and temperament. He dreaded the demon of
sleeplessness, which he felt had marked him for its own. He raised
his arm, and turned off the flaring gas-jet above his head.
A bright band of light fell through the parlour door into the part
of the shop behind the counter. It enabled Mr Verloc to ascertain
at a glance the number of silver coins in the till. These were but
few; and for the first time since he opened his shop he took a
commercial survey of its value. This survey was unfavourable. He
had gone into trade for no commercial reasons. He had been guided
in the selection of this peculiar line of business by an
instinctive leaning towards shady transactions, where money is
picked up easily. Moreover, it did not take him out of his own
sphere - the sphere which is watched by the police. On the
contrary, it gave him a publicly confessed standing in that sphere,
and as Mr Verloc had unconfessed relations which made him familiar
with yet careless of the police, there was a distinct advantage in
such a situation. But as a means of livelihood it was by itself
He took the cash-box out of the drawer, and turning to leave the
shop, became aware that Stevie was still downstairs.
What on earth is he doing there? Mr Verloc asked himself. What's
the meaning of these antics? He looked dubiously at his brother-
in-law, but he did not ask him for information. Mr Verloc's
intercourse with Stevie was limited to the casual mutter of a
morning, after breakfast, "My boots," and even that was more a
communication at large of a need than a direct order or request.
Mr Verloc perceived with some surprise that he did not know really
what to say to Stevie. He stood still in the middle of the
parlour, and looked into the kitchen in silence. Nor yet did he
know what would happen if he did say anything. And this appeared
very queer to Mr Verloc in view of the fact, borne upon him
suddenly, that he had to provide for this fellow too. He had never
given a moment's thought till then to that aspect of Stevie's
Positively he did not know how to speak to the lad. He watched him
gesticulating and murmuring in the kitchen. Stevie prowled round
the table like an excited animal in a cage. A tentative "Hadn't
you better go to bed now?" produced no effect whatever; and Mr
Verloc, abandoning the stony contemplation of his brother-in-law's
behaviour, crossed the parlour wearily, cash-box in hand. The
cause of the general lassitude he felt while climbing the stairs
being purely mental, he became alarmed by its inexplicable
character. He hoped he was not sickening for anything. He stopped
on the dark landing to examine his sensations. But a slight and
continuous sound of snoring pervading the obscurity interfered with
their clearness. The sound came from his mother-in-law's room.
Another one to provide for, he thought - and on this thought walked
into the bedroom.
Mrs Verloc had fallen asleep with the lamp (no gas was laid
upstairs) turned up full on the table by the side of the bed. The
light thrown down by the shade fell dazzlingly on the white pillow
sunk by the weight of her head reposing with closed eyes and dark
hair done up in several plaits for the night. She woke up with the
sound of her name in her ears, and saw her husband standing over
At first she did not stir, lying very quiet and looking at the
cash-box in Mr Verloc's hand. But when she understood that her
brother was "capering all over the place downstairs" she swung out
in one sudden movement on to the edge of the bed. Her bare feet,
as if poked through the bottom of an unadorned, sleeved calico sack
buttoned tightly at neck and wrists, felt over the rug for the
slippers while she looked upward into her husband's face.
"I don't know how to manage him," Mr Verloc explained peevishly.
"Won't do to leave him downstairs alone with the lights."
She said nothing, glided across the room swiftly, and the door
closed upon her white form.
Mr Verloc deposited the cash-box on the night table, and began the
operation of undressing by flinging his overcoat on to a distant
chair. His coat and waistcoat followed. He walked about the room
in his stockinged feet, and his burly figure, with the hands
worrying nervously at his throat, passed and repassed across the
long strip of looking-glass in the door of his wife's wardrobe.
Then after slipping his braces off his shoulders he pulled up
violently the venetian blind, and leaned his forehead against the
cold window-pane - a fragile film of glass stretched between him
and the enormity of cold, black, wet, muddy, inhospitable
accumulation of bricks, slates, and stones, things in themselves
unlovely and unfriendly to man.
Mr Verloc felt the latent unfriendliness of all out of doors with a
force approaching to positive bodily anguish. There is no
occupation that fails a man more completely than that of a secret
agent of police. It's like your horse suddenly falling dead under
you in the midst of an uninhabited and thirsty plain. The
comparison occurred to Mr Verloc because he had sat astride various
army horses in his time, and had now the sensation of an incipient
fall. The prospect was as black as the window-pane against which
he was leaning his forehead. And suddenly the face of Mr Vladimir,
clean-shaved and witty, appeared enhaloed in the glow of its rosy
complexion like a sort of pink seal, impressed on the fatal
This luminous and mutilated vision was so ghastly physically that
Mr Verloc started away from the window, letting down the venetian
blind with a great rattle. Discomposed and speechless with the
apprehension of more such visions, he beheld his wife re-enter the
room and get into bed in a calm business-like manner which made him
feel hopelessly lonely in the world. Mrs Verloc expressed her
surprise at seeing him up yet.
"I don't feel very well," he muttered, passing his hands over his
"Yes. Not at all well."
Mrs Verloc, with all the placidity of an experienced wife,
expressed a confident opinion as to the cause, and suggested the
usual remedies; but her husband, rooted in the middle of the room,
shook his lowered head sadly.
"You'll catch cold standing there," she observed.
Mr Verloc made an effort, finished undressing, and got into bed.
Down below in the quiet, narrow street measured footsteps
approached the house, then died away unhurried and firm, as if the
passer-by had started to pace out all eternity, from gas-lamp to
gas-lamp in a night without end; and the drowsy ticking of the old
clock on the landing became distinctly audible in the bedroom.
Mrs Verloc, on her back, and staring at the ceiling, made a remark.
"Takings very small to-day."
Mr Verloc, in the same position, cleared his throat as if for an
important statement, but merely inquired:
"Did you turn off the gas downstairs?"
"Yes; I did," answered Mrs Verloc conscientiously. "That poor boy
is in a very excited state to-night," she murmured, after a pause
which lasted for three ticks of the clock.
Mr Verloc cared nothing for Stevie's excitement, but he felt
horribly wakeful, and dreaded facing the darkness and silence that
would follow the extinguishing of the lamp. This dread led him to
make the remark that Stevie had disregarded his suggestion to go to
bed. Mrs Verloc, falling into the trap, started to demonstrate at
length to her husband that this was not "impudence" of any sort,
but simply "excitement." There was no young man of his age in
London more willing and docile than Stephen, she affirmed; none
more affectionate and ready to please, and even useful, as long as
people did not upset his poor head. Mrs Verloc, turning towards
her recumbent husband, raised herself on her elbow, and hung over
him in her anxiety that he should believe Stevie to be a useful
member of the family. That ardour of protecting compassion exalted
morbidly in her childhood by the misery of another child tinged her
sallow cheeks with a faint dusky blush, made her big eyes gleam
under the dark lids. Mrs Verloc then looked younger; she looked as
young as Winnie used to look, and much more animated than the
Winnie of the Belgravian mansion days had ever allowed herself to
appear to gentlemen lodgers. Mr Verloc's anxieties had prevented
him from attaching any sense to what his wife was saying. It was
as if her voice were talking on the other side of a very thick
wall. It was her aspect that recalled him to himself.
He appreciated this woman, and the sentiment of this appreciation,
stirred by a display of something resembling emotion, only added
another pang to his mental anguish. When her voice ceased he moved
uneasily, and said:
"I haven't been feeling well for the last few days."
He might have meant this as an opening to a complete confidence;
but Mrs Verloc laid her head on the pillow again, and staring
upward, went on:
"That boy hears too much of what is talked about here. If I had
known they were coming to-night I would have seen to it that he
went to bed at the same time I did. He was out of his mind with
something he overheard about eating people's flesh and drinking
blood. What's the good of talking like that?"
There was a note of indignant scorn in her voice. Mr Verloc was
fully responsive now.
"Ask Karl Yundt," he growled savagely.
Mrs Verloc, with great decision, pronounced Karl Yundt "a
disgusting old man." She declared openly her affection for
Michaelis. Of the robust Ossipon, in whose presence she always
felt uneasy behind an attitude of stony reserve, she said nothing
whatever. And continuing to talk of that brother, who had been for
so many years an object of care and fears:
"He isn't fit to hear what's said here. He believes it's all true.
He knows no better. He gets into his passions over it."
Mr Verloc made no comment.
"He glared at me, as if he didn't know who I was, when I went
downstairs. His heart was going like a hammer. He can't help
being excitable. I woke mother up, and asked her to sit with him
till he went to sleep. It isn't his fault. He's no trouble when
he's left alone."
Mr Verloc made no comment.
"I wish he had never been to school," Mrs Verloc began again
brusquely. "He's always taking away those newspapers from the
window to read. He gets a red face poring over them. We don't get
rid of a dozen numbers in a month. They only take up room in the
front window. And Mr Ossipon brings every week a pile of these F.
P. tracts to sell at a halfpenny each. I wouldn't give a halfpenny
for the whole lot. It's silly reading - that's what it is.
There's no sale for it. The other day Stevie got hold of one, and
there was a story in it of a German soldier officer tearing half-
off the ear of a recruit, and nothing was done to him for it. The
brute! I couldn't do anything with Stevie that afternoon. The
story was enough, too, to make one's blood boil. But what's the
use of printing things like that? We aren't German slaves here,
thank God. It's not our business - is it?"
Mr Verloc made no reply.
"I had to take the carving knife from the boy," Mrs Verloc
continued, a little sleepily now. "He was shouting and stamping
and sobbing. He can't stand the notion of any cruelty. He would
have stuck that officer like a pig if he had seen him then. It's
true, too! Some people don't deserve much mercy." Mrs Verloc's
voice ceased, and the expression of her motionless eyes became more
and more contemplative and veiled during the long pause.
"Comfortable, dear?" she asked in a faint, far-away voice. "Shall
I put out the light now?"
The dreary conviction that there was no sleep for him held Mr
Verloc mute and hopelessly inert in his fear of darkness. He made
a great effort.
"Yes. Put it out," he said at last in a hollow tone.
Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a
white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown
wainscoting of the underground hall. Bronze chandeliers with many
globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the
fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without
windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in
mediaeval costumes. Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting
knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer.
"Unless I am very much mistaken, you are the man who would know the
inside of this confounded affair," said the robust Ossipon, leaning
over, his elbows far out on the table and his feet tucked back
completely under his chair. His eyes stared with wild eagerness.
An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in
pots, executed suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive
virtuosity. The din it raised was deafening. When it ceased, as
abruptly as it had started, the be-spectacled, dingy little man who
faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly
what had the sound of a general proposition.
"In principle what one of us may or may not know as to any given
fact can't be a matter for inquiry to the others."
"Certainly not," Comrade Ossipon agreed in a quiet undertone. "In
With his big florid face held between his hands he continued to
stare hard, while the dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a
drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table. His flat,
large ears departed widely from the sides of his skull, which
looked frail enough for Ossipon to crush between thumb and
forefinger; the dome of the forehead seemed to rest on the rim of
the spectacles; the flat cheeks, of a greasy, unhealthy complexion,
were merely smudged by the miserable poverty of a thin dark
whisker. The lamentable inferiority of the whole physique was made
ludicrous by the supremely self-confident bearing of the
individual. His speech was curt, and he had a particularly
impressive manner of keeping silent.
Ossipon spoke again from between his hands in a mutter.
"Have you been out much to-day?"
"No. I stayed in bed all the morning," answered the other. "Why?"
"Oh! Nothing," said Ossipon, gazing earnestly and quivering
inwardly with the desire to find out something, but obviously
intimidated by the little man's overwhelming air of unconcern.
When talking with this comrade - which happened but rarely - the
big Ossipon suffered from a sense of moral and even physical
insignificance. However, he ventured another question. "Did you
walk down here?"
"No; omnibus," the little man answered readily enough. He lived
far away in Islington, in a small house down a shabby street,
littered with straw and dirty paper, where out of school hours a
troop of assorted children ran and squabbled with a shrill,
joyless, rowdy clamour. His single back room, remarkable for
having an extremely large cupboard, he rented furnished from two
elderly spinsters, dressmakers in a humble way with a clientele of
servant girls mostly. He had a heavy padlock put on the cupboard,
but otherwise he was a model lodger, giving no trouble, and
requiring practically no attendance. His oddities were that he
insisted on being present when his room was being swept, and that
when he went out he locked his door, and took the key away with
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