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The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad
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The Secret Agent
by Joseph Conrad
July, 1997 [Etext #974]
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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 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
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
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.

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 unobtrusive deference.

Document Outline

  • The Secret Agent