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The Secret Agent by Conrad, Joseph - Chapter 1

The Secret Agent




CHAPTER I



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
brother-in-law.

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
suspiciously ajar.

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
remarked.

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.