The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale

Transcribed from the 1907 Methuen & Co edition by David Price, email ccx074@pglaf.org

the
SECRET AGENT
a simple tale

by
JOSEPH CONRAD

second edition

methuen & co.,
36 essex street w c.
london

First Published . . . September 1907

Second Edition . . . October 1907

TO
H. G. WELLS

the chronicler of mr lewisham’s love
the biographer of kipps and the
historian of the ages to come

this simple tale of the xix century
is affectionately offered

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 æsthetic 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.

CHAPTER II

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.

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