The Secret Agent
Joseph Conrad

Part 6 out of 6

me. Then when you came. . . . "

She paused. Then in a gust of confidence and gratitude, "I will
live all my days for you, Tom!" she sobbed out.

"Go over into the other corner of the carriage, away from the
platform," said Ossipon solicitously. She let her saviour settle
her comfortably, and he watched the coming on of another crisis of
weeping, still more violent than the first. He watched the
symptoms with a sort of medical air, as if counting seconds. He
heard the guard's whistle at last. An involuntary contraction of
the upper lip bared his teeth with all the aspect of savage
resolution as he felt the train beginning to move. Mrs Verloc
heard and felt nothing, and Ossipon, her saviour, stood still. He
felt the train roll quicker, rumbling heavily to the sound of the
woman's loud sobs, and then crossing the carriage in two long
strides he opened the door deliberately, and leaped out.

He had leaped out at the very end of the platform; and such was his
determination in sticking to his desperate plan that he managed by
a sort of miracle, performed almost in the air, to slam to the door
of the carriage. Only then did he find himself rolling head over
heels like a shot rabbit. He was bruised, shaken, pale as death,
and out of breath when he got up. But he was calm, and perfectly
able to meet the excited crowd of railway men who had gathered
round him in a moment. He explained, in gentle and convincing
tones, that his wife had started at a moment's notice for Brittany
to her dying mother; that, of course, she was greatly up-set, and
he considerably concerned at her state; that he was trying to cheer
her up, and had absolutely failed to notice at first that the train
was moving out. To the general exclamation, "Why didn't you go on
to Southampton, then, sir?" he objected the inexperience of a young
sister-in-law left alone in the house with three small children,
and her alarm at his absence, the telegraph offices being closed.
He had acted on impulse. "But I don't think I'll ever try that
again," he concluded; smiled all round; distributed some small
change, and marched without a limp out of the station.

Outside, Comrade Ossipon, flush of safe banknotes as never before
in his life, refused the offer of a cab.

"I can walk," he said, with a little friendly laugh to the civil

He could walk. He walked. He crossed the bridge. Later on the
towers of the Abbey saw in their massive immobility the yellow bush
of his hair passing under the lamps. The lights of Victoria saw
him too, and Sloane Square, and the railings of the park. And
Comrade Ossipon once more found himself on a bridge. The river, a
sinister marvel of still shadows and flowing gleams mingling below
in a black silence, arrested his attention. He stood looking over
the parapet for a long time. The clock tower boomed a brazen blast
above his drooping head. He looked up at the dial. . . . Half-past
twelve of a wild night in the Channel.

And again Comrade Ossipon walked. His robust form was seen that
night in distant parts of the enormous town slumbering monstrously
on a carpet of mud under a veil of raw mist. It was seen crossing
the streets without life and sound, or diminishing in the
interminable straight perspectives of shadowy houses bordering
empty roadways lined by strings of gas lamps. He walked through
Squares, Places, Ovals, Commons, through monotonous streets with
unknown names where the dust of humanity settles inert and hopeless
out of the stream of life. He walked. And suddenly turning into a
strip of a front garden with a mangy grass plot, he let himself
into a small grimy house with a latch-key he took out of his

He threw himself down on his bed all dressed, and lay still for a
whole quarter of an hour. Then he sat up suddenly, drawing up his
knees, and clasping his legs. The first dawn found him open-eyed,
in that same posture. This man who could walk so long, so far, so
aimlessly, without showing a sign of fatigue, could also remain
sitting still for hours without stirring a limb or an eyelid. But
when the late sun sent its rays into the room he unclasped his
hands, and fell back on the pillow. His eyes stared at the
ceiling. And suddenly they closed. Comrade Ossipon slept in the


The enormous iron padlock on the doors of the wall cupboard was the
only object in the room on which the eye could rest without
becoming afflicted by the miserable unloveliness of forms and the
poverty of material. Unsaleable in the ordinary course of business
on account of its noble proportions, it had been ceded to the
Professor for a few pence by a marine dealer in the east of London.
The room was large, clean, respectable, and poor with that poverty
suggesting the starvation of every human need except mere bread.
There was nothing on the walls but the paper, an expanse of
arsenical green, soiled with indelible smudges here and there, and
with stains resembling faded maps of uninhabited continents.

At a deal table near a window sat Comrade Ossipon, holding his head
between his fists. The Professor, dressed in his only suit of
shoddy tweeds, but flapping to and fro on the bare boards a pair of
incredibly dilapidated slippers, had thrust his hands deep into the
overstrained pockets of his jacket. He was relating to his robust
guest a visit he had lately been paying to the Apostle Michaelis.
The Perfect Anarchist had even been unbending a little.

"The fellow didn't know anything of Verloc's death. Of course! He
never looks at the newspapers. They make him too sad, he says.
But never mind. I walked into his cottage. Not a soul anywhere.
I had to shout half-a-dozen times before he answered me. I thought
he was fast asleep yet, in bed. But not at all. He had been
writing his book for four hours already. He sat in that tiny cage
in a litter of manuscript. There was a half-eaten raw carrot on
the table near him. His breakfast. He lives on a diet of raw
carrots and a little milk now."

"How does he look on it?" asked Comrade Ossipon listlessly.

"Angelic. . . . I picked up a handful of his pages from the floor.
The poverty of reasoning is astonishing. He has no logic. He
can't think consecutively. But that's nothing. He has divided his
biography into three parts, entitled - `Faith, Hope, Charity.' He
is elaborating now the idea of a world planned out like an immense
and nice hospital, with gardens and flowers, in which the strong
are to devote themselves to the nursing of the weak."

The Professor paused.

"Conceive you this folly, Ossipon? The weak! The source of all
evil on this earth!" he continued with his grim assurance. "I told
him that I dreamt of a world like shambles, where the weak would be
taken in hand for utter extermination."

"Do you understand, Ossipon? The source of all evil! They are our
sinister masters - the weak, the flabby, the silly, the cowardly,
the faint of heart, and the slavish of mind. They have power.
They are the multitude. Theirs is the kingdom of the earth.
Exterminate, exterminate! That is the only way of progress. It
is! Follow me, Ossipon. First the great multitude of the weak
must go, then the only relatively strong. You see? First the
blind, then the deaf and the dumb, then the halt and the lame - and
so on. Every taint, every vice, every prejudice, every convention
must meet its doom."

"And what remains?" asked Ossipon in a stifled voice.

"I remain - if I am strong enough," asserted the sallow little
Professor, whose large ears, thin like membranes, and standing far
out from the sides of his frail skull, took on suddenly a deep red

"Haven't I suffered enough from this oppression of the weak?" he
continued forcibly. Then tapping the breast-pocket of his jacket:
"And yet I AM the force," he went on. "But the time! The time!
Give me time! Ah! that multitude, too stupid to feel either pity
or fear. Sometimes I think they have everything on their side.
Everything - even death - my own weapon."

"Come and drink some beer with me at the Silenus," said the robust
Ossipon after an interval of silence pervaded by the rapid flap,
flap of the slippers on the feet of the Perfect Anarchist. This
last accepted. He was jovial that day in his own peculiar way. He
slapped Ossipon's shoulder.

"Beer! So be it! Let us drink and he merry, for we are strong,
and to-morrow we die."

He busied himself with putting on his boots, and talked meanwhile
in his curt, resolute tones.

"What's the matter with you, Ossipon? You look glum and seek even
my company. I hear that you are seen constantly in places where
men utter foolish things over glasses of liquor. Why? Have you
abandoned your collection of women? They are the weak who feed the
strong - eh?"

He stamped one foot, and picked up his other laced boot, heavy,
thick-soled, unblacked, mended many times. He smiled to himself

"Tell me, Ossipon, terrible man, has ever one of your victims
killed herself for you - or are your triumphs so far incomplete -
for blood alone puts a seal on greatness? Blood. Death. Look at

"You be damned," said Ossipon, without turning his head.

"Why? Let that be the hope of the weak, whose theology has
invented hell for the strong. Ossipon, my feeling for you is
amicable contempt. You couldn't kill a fly."

But rolling to the feast on the top of the omnibus the Professor
lost his high spirits. The contemplation of the multitudes
thronging the pavements extinguished his assurance under a load of
doubt and uneasiness which he could only shake off after a period
of seclusion in the room with the large cupboard closed by an
enormous padlock.

"And so," said over his shoulder Comrade Ossipon, who sat on the
seat behind. "And so Michaelis dreams of a world like a beautiful
and cheery hospital."

"Just so. An immense charity for the healing of the weak,"
assented the Professor sardonically.

"That's silly," admitted Ossipon. "You can't heal weakness. But
after all Michaelis may not be so far wrong. In two hundred years
doctors will rule the world. Science reigns already. It reigns in
the shade maybe - but it reigns. And all science must culminate at
last in the science of healing - not the weak, but the strong.
Mankind wants to live - to live."

"Mankind," asserted the Professor with a self-confident glitter of
his iron-rimmed spectacles, "does not know what it wants."

"But you do," growled Ossipon. "Just now you've been crying for
time - time. Well. The doctors will serve you out your time - if
you are good. You profess yourself to be one of the strong -
because you carry in your pocket enough stuff to send yourself and,
say, twenty other people into eternity. But eternity is a damned
hole. It's time that you need. You - if you met a man who could
give you for certain ten years of time, you would call him your

"My device is: No God! No Master," said the Professor
sententiously as he rose to get off the `bus.

Ossipon followed. "Wait till you are lying flat on your back at
the end of your time," he retorted, jumping off the footboard after
the other. "Your scurvy, shabby, mangy little bit of time," he
continued across the street, and hopping on to the curbstone.

"Ossipon, I think that you are a humbug," the Professor said,
opening masterfully the doors of the renowned Silenus. And when
they had established themselves at a little table he developed
further this gracious thought. "You are not even a doctor. But
you are funny. Your notion of a humanity universally putting out
the tongue and taking the pill from pole to pole at the bidding of
a few solemn jokers is worthy of the prophet. Prophecy! What's
the good of thinking of what will be!" He raised his glass. "To
the destruction of what is," he said calmly.

He drank and relapsed into his peculiarly close manner of silence.
The thought of a mankind as numerous as the sands of the sea-shore,
as indestructible, as difficult to handle, oppressed him. The
sound of exploding bombs was lost in their immensity of passive
grains without an echo. For instance, this Verloc affair. Who
thought of it now?

Ossipon, as if suddenly compelled by some mysterious force, pulled
a much-folded newspaper out of is pocket. The Professor raised his
head at the rustle.

"What's that paper? Anything in it?" he asked.

Ossipon started like a scared somnambulist.

"Nothing. Nothing whatever. The thing's ten days old. I forgot
it in my pocket, I suppose."

But he did not throw the old thing away. Before returning it to
his pocket he stole a glance at the last lines of a paragraph.

Such were the end words of an item of news headed: "Suicide of Lady
Passenger from a cross-Channel Boat." Comrade Ossipon was familiar
with the beauties of its journalistic style. "AN IMPENETRABLE
by heart. "AN IMPENETRABLE MYSTERY. . . . "

And the robust anarchist, hanging his head on his breast, fell into
a long reverie.

He was menaced by this thing in the very sources of his existence.
He could not issue forth to meet his various conquests, those that
he courted on benches in Kensington Gardens, and those he met near
area railings, without the dread of beginning to talk to them of an
impenetrable mystery destined. . . . He was becoming scientifically
afraid of insanity lying in wait for him amongst these lines. "TO
HANG FOR EVER OVER." It was an obsession, a torture. He had
lately failed to keep several of these appointments, whose note
used to be an unbounded trustfulness in the language of sentiment
and manly tenderness. The confiding disposition of various classes
of women satisfied the needs of his self-love, and put some
material means into his hand. He needed it to live. It was there.
But if he could no longer make use of it, he ran the risk of
starving his ideals and his body . . . "THIS ACT OF MADNESS OR

"An impenetrable mystery" was sure "to hang for ever" as far as all
mankind was concerned. But what of that if he alone of all men
could never get rid of the cursed knowledge? And Comrade Ossipon's
knowledge was as precise as the newspaper man could make it - up to
the very threshold of the "MYSTERY DESTINED TO HANG FOR EVER. . .

Comrade Ossipon was well informed. He knew what the gangway man of
the steamer had seen: "A lady in a black dress and a black veil,
wandering at midnight alongside, on the quay. `Are you going by
the boat, ma'am,' he had asked her encouragingly. `This way.' She
seemed not to know what to do. He helped her on board. She seemed

And he knew also what the stewardess had seen: A lady in black with
a white face standing in the middle of the empty ladies' cabin.
The stewardess induced her to lie down there. The lady seemed
quite unwilling to speak, and as if she were in some awful trouble.
The next the stewardess knew she was gone from the ladies' cabin.
The stewardess then went on deck to look for her, and Comrade
Ossipon was informed that the good woman found the unhappy lady
lying down in one of the hooded seats. Her eyes were open, but she
would not answer anything that was said to her. She seemed very
ill. The stewardess fetched the chief steward, and those two
people stood by the side of the hooded seat consulting over their
extraordinary and tragic passenger. They talked in audible
whispers (for she seemed past hearing) of St Malo and the Consul
there, of communicating with her people in England. Then they went
away to arrange for her removal down below, for indeed by what they
could see of her face she seemed to them to be dying. But Comrade
Ossipon knew that behind that white mask of despair there was
struggling against terror and despair a vigour of vitality, a love
of life that could resist the furious anguish which drives to
murder and the fear, the blind, mad fear of the gallows. He knew.
But the stewardess and the chief steward knew nothing, except that
when they came back for her in less than five minutes the lady in
black was no longer in the hooded seat. She was nowhere. She was
gone. It was then five o'clock in the morning, and it was no
accident either. An hour afterwards one of the steamer's hands
found a wedding ring left lying on the seat. It had stuck to the
wood in a bit of wet, and its glitter caught the man's eye. There
was a date, 24th June 1879, engraved inside. "AN IMPENETRABLE

And Comrade Ossipon raised his bowed head, beloved of various
humble women of these isles, Apollo-like in the sunniness of its
bush of hair.

The Professor had grown restless meantime. He rose.

"Stay," said Ossipon hurriedly. "Here, what do you know of madness
and despair?"

The Professor passed the tip of his tongue on his dry, thin lips,
and said doctorally:

"There are no such things. All passion is lost now. The world is
mediocre, limp, without force. And madness and despair are a
force. And force is a crime in the eyes of the fools, the weak and
the silly who rule the roost. You are mediocre. Verloc, whose
affair the police has managed to smother so nicely, was mediocre.
And the police murdered him. He was mediocre. Everybody is
mediocre. Madness and despair! Give me that for a lever, and I'll
move the world. Ossipon, you have my cordial scorn. You are
incapable of conceiving even what the fat-fed citizen would call a
crime. You have no force." He paused, smiling sardonically under
the fierce glitter of his thick glasses.

"And let me tell you that this little legacy they say you've come
into has not improved your intelligence. You sit at your beer like
a dummy. Good-bye."

"Will you have it?" said Ossipon, looking up with an idiotic grin.

"Have what?"

"The legacy. All of it."

The incorruptible Professor only smiled. His clothes were all but
falling off him, his boots, shapeless with repairs, heavy like
lead, let water in at every step. He said:

"I will send you by-and-by a small bill for certain chemicals which
I shall order to-morrow. I need them badly. Understood - eh?"

Ossipon lowered his head slowly. He was alone. "AN IMPENETRABLE
MYSTERY. . . . . " It seemed to him that suspended in the air
before him he saw his own brain pulsating to the rhythm of an
impenetrable mystery. It was diseased clearly. . . . "THIS ACT OF

The mechanical piano near the door played through a valse cheekily,
then fell silent all at once, as if gone grumpy.

Comrade Ossipon, nicknamed the Doctor, went out of the Silenus
beer-hall. At the door he hesitated, blinking at a not too
splendid sunlight - and the paper with the report of the suicide of
a lady was in his pocket. His heart was beating against it. The
suicide of a lady - THIS ACT OF MADNESS OR DESPAIR.

He walked along the street without looking where he put his feet;
and he walked in a direction which would not bring him to the place
of appointment with another lady (an elderly nursery governess
putting her trust in an Apollo-like ambrosial head). He was
walking away from it. He could face no woman. It was ruin. He
could neither think, work, sleep, nor eat. But he was beginning to
drink with pleasure, with anticipation, with hope. It was ruin.
His revolutionary career, sustained by the sentiment and
trustfulness of many women, was menaced by an impenetrable mystery
- the mystery of a human brain pulsating wrongfully to the rhythm
of journalistic phrases. " . . . WILL HANG FOR EVER OVER THIS ACT.
. . . It was inclining towards the gutter . . . OF MADNESS OR

"I am seriously ill," he muttered to himself with scientific
insight. Already his robust form, with an Embassy's secret-service
money (inherited from Mr Verloc) in his pockets, was marching in
the gutter as if in training for the task of an inevitable future.
Already he bowed his broad shoulders, his head of ambrosial locks,
as if ready to receive the leather yoke of the sandwich board. As
on that night, more than a week ago, Comrade Ossipon walked without
looking where he put his feet, feeling no fatigue, feeling nothing,
seeing nothing, hearing not a sound. "AN IMPENETRABLE MYSTERY. . .
." He walked disregarded. . . . "THIS ACT OF MADNESS OR DESPAIR."

And the incorruptible Professor walked too, averting his eyes from
the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future. He disdained
it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and
destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable -
and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and
despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him.
He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full
of men.


Back to Full Books