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
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
“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 mental fatigue.
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
“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, 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-born thought.
“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 pace.
“Eh? What were you pleased to say?” he exclaimed, with husky resentment.
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 anybody.
“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 field-gun?”
“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 asked
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
“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
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 longer
“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 Embassy?”
“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 am English.”
“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
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—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
“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
“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 room.
“With a voice like that,” he said, putting on the husky conversational
pedal, “I was naturally trusted. And I knew what to say, too.”
Mr Vladimir, arranging his cravat, observed him in the glass over the
“I daresay you have the social revolutionary jargon by heart well
enough,” he said contemptuously. “Vox et. . . You haven’t ever studied
“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 Verloc’s face.
“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
“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 Verloc.
“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 indolence.
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
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 backyard here.”
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 levity.
“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 the word:
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
“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
“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 country.”
“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
“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 tones.
“My wife.” Mr Verloc raised his husky voice slightly. “I am married.”
“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 usefulness.”
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,
“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 closed.
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
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 the grate.
“Yes! I had the time to think things out a little,” he added without
emphasis. “Society has given me plenty of time for meditation.”
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
“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 added:
“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
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
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 socially drowned.
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,
“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 Verloc.
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 that time.
“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 shoulders.
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
He paused, then added with modest firmness:
“I am speaking now to you scientifically—scientifically—Eh? What did you
“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 heard.
“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
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 revolutionists 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 insufficient.
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 existence.
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
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 her.
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
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 moist
“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
“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
“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
“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 mediæval 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
“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 him.
Ossipon had a vision of these round black-rimmed spectacles progressing
along the streets on the top of an omnibus, their self-confident glitter
falling here and there on the walls of houses or lowered upon the heads
of the unconscious stream of people on the pavements. The ghost of a
sickly smile altered the set of Ossipon’s thick lips at the thought of
the walls nodding, of people running for life at the sight of those
spectacles. If they had only known! What a panic! He murmured
interrogatively: “Been sitting long here?”
“An hour or more,” answered the other negligently, and took a pull at the
dark beer. All his movements—the way he grasped the mug, the act of
drinking, the way he set the heavy glass down and folded his arms—had a
firmness, an assured precision which made the big and muscular Ossipon,
leaning forward with staring eyes and protruding lips, look the picture
of eager indecision.
“An hour,” he said. “Then it may be you haven’t heard yet the news I’ve
heard just now—in the street. Have you?”
The little man shook his head negatively the least bit. But as he gave
no indication of curiosity Ossipon ventured to add that he had heard it
just outside the place. A newspaper boy had yelled the thing under his
very nose, and not being prepared for anything of that sort, he was very
much startled and upset. He had to come in there with a dry mouth. “I
never thought of finding you here,” he added, murmuring steadily, with
his elbows planted on the table.
“I come here sometimes,” said the other, preserving his provoking
coolness of demeanour.
“It’s wonderful that you of all people should have heard nothing of it,”
the big Ossipon continued. His eyelids snapped nervously upon the
shining eyes. “You of all people,” he repeated tentatively. This
obvious restraint argued an incredible and inexplicable timidity of the
big fellow before the calm little man, who again lifted the glass mug,
drank, and put it down with brusque and assured movements. And that was
Ossipon after waiting for something, word or sign, that did not come,
made an effort to assume a sort of indifference.
“Do you,” he said, deadening his voice still more, “give your stuff to
anybody who’s up to asking you for it?”
“My absolute rule is never to refuse anybody—as long as I have a pinch by
me,” answered the little man with decision.
“That’s a principle?” commented Ossipon.
“It’s a principle.”
“And you think it’s sound?”
The large round spectacles, which gave a look of staring self-confidence
to the sallow face, confronted Ossipon like sleepless, unwinking orbs
flashing a cold fire.
“Perfectly. Always. Under every circumstance. What could stop me? Why
should I not? Why should I think twice about it?”
Ossipon gasped, as it were, discreetly.
“Do you mean to say you would hand it over to a ‘teck’ if one came to ask
you for your wares?”
The other smiled faintly.
“Let them come and try it on, and you will see,” he said. “They know me,
but I know also every one of them. They won’t come near me—not they.”
His thin livid lips snapped together firmly. Ossipon began to argue.
“But they could send someone—rig a plant on you. Don’t you see? Get the
stuff from you in that way, and then arrest you with the proof in their
“Proof of what? Dealing in explosives without a licence perhaps.” This
was meant for a contemptuous jeer, though the expression of the thin,
sickly face remained unchanged, and the utterance was negligent. “I
don’t think there’s one of them anxious to make that arrest. I don’t
think they could get one of them to apply for a warrant. I mean one of
the best. Not one.”
“Why?” Ossipon asked.
“Because they know very well I take care never to part with the last
handful of my wares. I’ve it always by me.” He touched the breast of
his coat lightly. “In a thick glass flask,” he added.
“So I have been told,” said Ossipon, with a shade of wonder in his voice.
“But I didn’t know if—”
“They know,” interrupted the little man crisply, leaning against the
straight chair back, which rose higher than his fragile head. “I shall
never be arrested. The game isn’t good enough for any policeman of them
all. To deal with a man like me you require sheer, naked, inglorious
heroism.” Again his lips closed with a self-confident snap. Ossipon
repressed a movement of impatience.
“Or recklessness—or simply ignorance,” he retorted. “They’ve only to get
somebody for the job who does not know you carry enough stuff in your
pocket to blow yourself and everything within sixty yards of you to
“I never affirmed I could not be eliminated,” rejoined the other. “But
that wouldn’t be an arrest. Moreover, it’s not so easy as it looks.”
“Bah!” Ossipon contradicted. “Don’t be too sure of that. What’s to
prevent half-a-dozen of them jumping upon you from behind in the street?
With your arms pinned to your sides you could do nothing—could you?”
“Yes; I could. I am seldom out in the streets after dark,” said the
little man impassively, “and never very late. I walk always with my
right hand closed round the india-rubber ball which I have in my trouser
pocket. The pressing of this ball actuates a detonator inside the flask
I carry in my pocket. It’s the principle of the pneumatic instantaneous
shutter for a camera lens. The tube leads up—”
With a swift disclosing gesture he gave Ossipon a glimpse of an
india-rubber tube, resembling a slender brown worm, issuing from the
armhole of his waistcoat and plunging into the inner breast pocket of his
jacket. His clothes, of a nondescript brown mixture, were threadbare and
marked with stains, dusty in the folds, with ragged button-holes. “The
detonator is partly mechanical, partly chemical,” he explained, with
“It is instantaneous, of course?” murmured Ossipon, with a slight
“Far from it,” confessed the other, with a reluctance which seemed to
twist his mouth dolorously. “A full twenty seconds must elapse from the
moment I press the ball till the explosion takes place.”
“Phew!” whistled Ossipon, completely appalled. “Twenty seconds!
Horrors! You mean to say that you could face that? I should go crazy—”
“Wouldn’t matter if you did. Of course, it’s the weak point of this
special system, which is only for my own use. The worst is that the
manner of exploding is always the weak point with us. I am trying to
invent a detonator that would adjust itself to all conditions of action,
and even to unexpected changes of conditions. A variable and yet
perfectly precise mechanism. A really intelligent detonator.”
“Twenty seconds,” muttered Ossipon again. “Ough! And then—”
With a slight turn of the head the glitter of the spectacles seemed to
gauge the size of the beer saloon in the basement of the renowned Silenus
“Nobody in this room could hope to escape,” was the verdict of that
survey. “Nor yet this couple going up the stairs now.”
The piano at the foot of the staircase clanged through a mazurka with
brazen impetuosity, as though a vulgar and impudent ghost were showing
off. The keys sank and rose mysteriously. Then all became still. For a
moment Ossipon imagined the overlighted place changed into a dreadful
black hole belching horrible fumes choked with ghastly rubbish of smashed
brickwork and mutilated corpses. He had such a distinct perception of
ruin and death that he shuddered again. The other observed, with an air
of calm sufficiency:
“In the last instance it is character alone that makes for one’s safety.
There are very few people in the world whose character is as well
established as mine.”
“I wonder how you managed it,” growled Ossipon.
“Force of personality,” said the other, without raising his voice; and
coming from the mouth of that obviously miserable organism the assertion
caused the robust Ossipon to bite his lower lip. “Force of personality,”
he repeated, with ostentatious calm. “I have the means to make myself
deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the
way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in
my will to use the means. That’s their impression. It is absolute.
Therefore I am deadly.”
“There are individuals of character amongst that lot too,” muttered
“Possibly. But it is a matter of degree obviously, since, for instance,
I am not impressed by them. Therefore they are inferior. They cannot be
otherwise. Their character is built upon conventional morality. It
leans on the social order. Mine stands free from everything artificial.
They are bound in all sorts of conventions. They depend on life, which,
in this connection, is a historical fact surrounded by all sorts of
restraints and considerations, a complex organised fact open to attack at
every point; whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and
cannot be attacked. My superiority is evident.”
“This is a transcendental way of putting it,” said Ossipon, watching the
cold glitter of the round spectacles. “I’ve heard Karl Yundt say much
the same thing not very long ago.”
“Karl Yundt,” mumbled the other contemptuously, “the delegate of the
International Red Committee, has been a posturing shadow all his life.
There are three of you delegates, aren’t there? I won’t define the other
two, as you are one of them. But what you say means nothing. You are
the worthy delegates for revolutionary propaganda, but the trouble is not
only that you are as unable to think independently as any respectable
grocer or journalist of them all, but that you have no character
Ossipon could not restrain a start of indignation.
“But what do you want from us?” he exclaimed in a deadened voice. “What
is it you are after yourself?”
“A perfect detonator,” was the peremptory answer. “What are you making
that face for? You see, you can’t even bear the mention of something
“I am not making a face,” growled the annoyed Ossipon bearishly.
“You revolutionists,” the other continued, with leisurely
self-confidence, “are the slaves of the social convention, which is
afraid of you; slaves of it as much as the very police that stands up in
the defence of that convention. Clearly you are, since you want to
revolutionise it. It governs your thought, of course, and your action
too, and thus neither your thought nor your action can ever be
conclusive.” He paused, tranquil, with that air of close, endless
silence, then almost immediately went on. “You are not a bit better than
the forces arrayed against you—than the police, for instance. The other
day I came suddenly upon Chief Inspector Heat at the corner of Tottenham
Court Road. He looked at me very steadily. But I did not look at him.
Why should I give him more than a glance? He was thinking of many
things—of his superiors, of his reputation, of the law courts, of his
salary, of newspapers—of a hundred things. But I was thinking of my
perfect detonator only. He meant nothing to me. He was as insignificant
as—I can’t call to mind anything insignificant enough to compare him
with—except Karl Yundt perhaps. Like to like. The terrorist and the
policeman both come from the same basket. Revolution, legality—counter
moves in the same game; forms of idleness at bottom identical. He plays
his little game—so do you propagandists. But I don’t play; I work
fourteen hours a day, and go hungry sometimes. My experiments cost money
now and again, and then I must do without food for a day or two. You’re
looking at my beer. Yes. I have had two glasses already, and shall have
another presently. This is a little holiday, and I celebrate it alone.
Why not? I’ve the grit to work alone, quite alone, absolutely alone.
I’ve worked alone for years.”
Ossipon’s face had turned dusky red.
“At the perfect detonator—eh?” he sneered, very low.
“Yes,” retorted the other. “It is a good definition. You couldn’t find
anything half so precise to define the nature of your activity with all
your committees and delegations. It is I who am the true propagandist.”
“We won’t discuss that point,” said Ossipon, with an air of rising above
personal considerations. “I am afraid I’ll have to spoil your holiday
for you, though. There’s a man blown up in Greenwich Park this morning.”
“How do you know?”
“They have been yelling the news in the streets since two o’clock. I
bought the paper, and just ran in here. Then I saw you sitting at this
table. I’ve got it in my pocket now.”
He pulled the newspaper out. It was a good-sized rosy sheet, as if
flushed by the warmth of its own convictions, which were optimistic. He
scanned the pages rapidly.
“Ah! Here it is. Bomb in Greenwich Park. There isn’t much so far.
Half-past eleven. Foggy morning. Effects of explosion felt as far as
Romney Road and Park Place. Enormous hole in the ground under a tree
filled with smashed roots and broken branches. All round fragments of a
man’s body blown to pieces. That’s all. The rest’s mere newspaper gup.
No doubt a wicked attempt to blow up the Observatory, they say. H’m.
That’s hardly credible.”
He looked at the paper for a while longer in silence, then passed it to
the other, who after gazing abstractedly at the print laid it down
It was Ossipon who spoke first—still resentful.
“The fragments of only _one_ man, you note. Ergo: blew _himself_ up.
That spoils your day off for you—don’t it? Were you expecting that sort
of move? I hadn’t the slightest idea—not the ghost of a notion of
anything of the sort being planned to come off here—in this country.
Under the present circumstances it’s nothing short of criminal.”
The little man lifted his thin black eyebrows with dispassionate scorn.
“Criminal! What is that? What _is_ crime? What can be the meaning of
such an assertion?”
“How am I to express myself? One must use the current words,” said
Ossipon impatiently. “The meaning of this assertion is that this
business may affect our position very adversely in this country. Isn’t
that crime enough for you? I am convinced you have been giving away some
of your stuff lately.”
Ossipon stared hard. The other, without flinching, lowered and raised
his head slowly.
“You have!” burst out the editor of the F. P. leaflets in an intense
whisper. “No! And are you really handing it over at large like this,
for the asking, to the first fool that comes along?”
“Just so! The condemned social order has not been built up on paper and
ink, and I don’t fancy that a combination of paper and ink will ever put
an end to it, whatever you may think. Yes, I would give the stuff with
both hands to every man, woman, or fool that likes to come along. I know
what you are thinking about. But I am not taking my cue from the Red
Committee. I would see you all hounded out of here, or arrested—or
beheaded for that matter—without turning a hair. What happens to us as
individuals is not of the least consequence.”
He spoke carelessly, without heat, almost without feeling, and Ossipon,
secretly much affected, tried to copy this detachment.
“If the police here knew their business they would shoot you full of
holes with revolvers, or else try to sand-bag you from behind in broad
The little man seemed already to have considered that point of view in
his dispassionate self-confident manner.
“Yes,” he assented with the utmost readiness. “But for that they would
have to face their own institutions. Do you see? That requires uncommon
grit. Grit of a special kind.”
“I fancy that’s exactly what would happen to you if you were to set up
your laboratory in the States. They don’t stand on ceremony with their
“I am not likely to go and see. Otherwise your remark is just,” admitted
the other. “They have more character over there, and their character is
essentially anarchistic. Fertile ground for us, the States—very good
ground. The great Republic has the root of the destructive matter in
her. The collective temperament is lawless. Excellent. They may shoot
us down, but—”
“You are too transcendental for me,” growled Ossipon, with moody concern.
“Logical,” protested the other. “There are several kinds of logic. This
is the enlightened kind. America is all right. It is this country that
is dangerous, with her idealistic conception of legality. The social
spirit of this people is wrapped up in scrupulous prejudices, and that is
fatal to our work. You talk of England being our only refuge! So much
the worse. Capua! What do we want with refuges? Here you talk, print,
plot, and do nothing. I daresay it’s very convenient for such Karl
He shrugged his shoulders slightly, then added with the same leisurely
assurance: “To break up the superstition and worship of legality should
be our aim. Nothing would please me more than to see Inspector Heat and
his likes take to shooting us down in broad daylight with the approval of
the public. Half our battle would be won then; the disintegration of the
old morality would have set in in its very temple. That is what you
ought to aim at. But you revolutionists will never understand that. You
plan the future, you lose yourselves in reveries of economical systems
derived from what is; whereas what’s wanted is a clean sweep and a clear
start for a new conception of life. That sort of future will take care
of itself if you will only make room for it. Therefore I would shovel my
stuff in heaps at the corners of the streets if I had enough for that;
and as I haven’t, I do my best by perfecting a really dependable
Ossipon, who had been mentally swimming in deep waters, seized upon the
last word as if it were a saving plank.
“Yes. Your detonators. I shouldn’t wonder if it weren’t one of your
detonators that made a clean sweep of the man in the park.”
A shade of vexation darkened the determined sallow face confronting
“My difficulty consists precisely in experimenting practically with the
various kinds. They must be tried after all. Besides—”
“Who could that fellow be? I assure you that we in London had no
knowledge—Couldn’t you describe the person you gave the stuff to?”
The other turned his spectacles upon Ossipon like a pair of searchlights.
“Describe him,” he repeated slowly. “I don’t think there can be the
slightest objection now. I will describe him to you in one word—Verloc.”
Ossipon, whom curiosity had lifted a few inches off his seat, dropped
back, as if hit in the face.
The self-possessed little man nodded slightly once.
“Yes. He’s the person. You can’t say that in this case I was giving my
stuff to the first fool that came along. He was a prominent member of
the group as far as I understand.”
“Yes,” said Ossipon. “Prominent. No, not exactly. He was the centre
for general intelligence, and usually received comrades coming over here.
More useful than important. Man of no ideas. Years ago he used to speak
at meetings—in France, I believe. Not very well, though. He was trusted
by such men as Latorre, Moser and all that old lot. The only talent he
showed really was his ability to elude the attentions of the police
somehow. Here, for instance, he did not seem to be looked after very
closely. He was regularly married, you know. I suppose it’s with her
money that he started that shop. Seemed to make it pay, too.”
Ossipon paused abruptly, muttered to himself “I wonder what that woman
will do now?” and fell into thought.
The other waited with ostentatious indifference. His parentage was
obscure, and he was generally known only by his nickname of Professor.
His title to that designation consisted in his having been once assistant
demonstrator in chemistry at some technical institute. He quarrelled
with the authorities upon a question of unfair treatment. Afterwards he
obtained a post in the laboratory of a manufactory of dyes. There too he
had been treated with revolting injustice. His struggles, his
privations, his hard work to raise himself in the social scale, had
filled him with such an exalted conviction of his merits that it was
extremely difficult for the world to treat him with justice—the standard
of that notion depending so much upon the patience of the individual.
The Professor had genius, but lacked the great social virtue of
“Intellectually a nonentity,” Ossipon pronounced aloud, abandoning
suddenly the inward contemplation of Mrs Verloc’s bereaved person and
business. “Quite an ordinary personality. You are wrong in not keeping
more in touch with the comrades, Professor,” he added in a reproving
tone. “Did he say anything to you—give you some idea of his intentions?
I hadn’t seen him for a month. It seems impossible that he should be
“He told me it was going to be a demonstration against a building,” said
the Professor. “I had to know that much to prepare the missile. I
pointed out to him that I had hardly a sufficient quantity for a
completely destructive result, but he pressed me very earnestly to do my
best. As he wanted something that could be carried openly in the hand, I
proposed to make use of an old one-gallon copal varnish can I happened to
have by me. He was pleased at the idea. It gave me some trouble,
because I had to cut out the bottom first and solder it on again
afterwards. When prepared for use, the can enclosed a wide-mouthed,
well-corked jar of thick glass packed around with some wet clay and
containing sixteen ounces of X2 green powder. The detonator was
connected with the screw top of the can. It was ingenious—a combination
of time and shock. I explained the system to him. It was a thin tube of
tin enclosing a—”
Ossipon’s attention had wandered.
“What do you think has happened?” he interrupted.
“Can’t tell. Screwed the top on tight, which would make the connection,
and then forgot the time. It was set for twenty minutes. On the other
hand, the time contact being made, a sharp shock would bring about the
explosion at once. He either ran the time too close, or simply let the
thing fall. The contact was made all right—that’s clear to me at any
rate. The system’s worked perfectly. And yet you would think that a
common fool in a hurry would be much more likely to forget to make the
contact altogether. I was worrying myself about that sort of failure
mostly. But there are more kinds of fools than one can guard against.
You can’t expect a detonator to be absolutely fool-proof.”
He beckoned to a waiter. Ossipon sat rigid, with the abstracted gaze of
mental travail. After the man had gone away with the money he roused
himself, with an air of profound dissatisfaction.
“It’s extremely unpleasant for me,” he mused. “Karl has been in bed with
bronchitis for a week. There’s an even chance that he will never get up
again. Michaelis’s luxuriating in the country somewhere. A fashionable
publisher has offered him five hundred pounds for a book. It will be a
ghastly failure. He has lost the habit of consecutive thinking in
prison, you know.”
The Professor on his feet, now buttoning his coat, looked about him with
“What are you going to do?” asked Ossipon wearily. He dreaded the blame
of the Central Red Committee, a body which had no permanent place of
abode, and of whose membership he was not exactly informed. If this
affair eventuated in the stoppage of the modest subsidy allotted to the
publication of the F. P. pamphlets, then indeed he would have to regret
Verloc’s inexplicable folly.
“Solidarity with the extremest form of action is one thing, and silly
recklessness is another,” he said, with a sort of moody brutality. “I
don’t know what came to Verloc. There’s some mystery there. However,
he’s gone. You may take it as you like, but under the circumstances the
only policy for the militant revolutionary group is to disclaim all
connection with this damned freak of yours. How to make the disclaimer
convincing enough is what bothers me.”
The little man on his feet, buttoned up and ready to go, was no taller
than the seated Ossipon. He levelled his spectacles at the latter’s face
“You might ask the police for a testimonial of good conduct. They know
where every one of you slept last night. Perhaps if you asked them they
would consent to publish some sort of official statement.”
“No doubt they are aware well enough that we had nothing to do with
this,” mumbled Ossipon bitterly. “What they will say is another thing.”
He remained thoughtful, disregarding the short, owlish, shabby figure
standing by his side. “I must lay hands on Michaelis at once, and get
him to speak from his heart at one of our gatherings. The public has a
sort of sentimental regard for that fellow. His name is known. And I am
in touch with a few reporters on the big dailies. What he would say
would be utter bosh, but he has a turn of talk that makes it go down all
“Like treacle,” interjected the Professor, rather low, keeping an
The perplexed Ossipon went on communing with himself half audibly, after
the manner of a man reflecting in perfect solitude.
“Confounded ass! To leave such an imbecile business on my hands. And I
don’t even know if—”
He sat with compressed lips. The idea of going for news straight to the
shop lacked charm. His notion was that Verloc’s shop might have been
turned already into a police trap. They will be bound to make some
arrests, he thought, with something resembling virtuous indignation, for
the even tenor of his revolutionary life was menaced by no fault of his.
And yet unless he went there he ran the risk of remaining in ignorance of
what perhaps it would be very material for him to know. Then he
reflected that, if the man in the park had been so very much blown to
pieces as the evening papers said, he could not have been identified.
And if so, the police could have no special reason for watching Verloc’s
shop more closely than any other place known to be frequented by marked
anarchists—no more reason, in fact, than for watching the doors of the
Silenus. There would be a lot of watching all round, no matter where he
“I wonder what I had better do now?” he muttered, taking counsel with
A rasping voice at his elbow said, with sedate scorn:
“Fasten yourself upon the woman for all she’s worth.”
After uttering these words the Professor walked away from the table.
Ossipon, whom that piece of insight had taken unawares, gave one
ineffectual start, and remained still, with a helpless gaze, as though
nailed fast to the seat of his chair. The lonely piano, without as much
as a music stool to help it, struck a few chords courageously, and
beginning a selection of national airs, played him out at last to the
tune of “Blue Bells of Scotland.” The painfully detached notes grew
faint behind his back while he went slowly upstairs, across the hall, and
into the street.
In front of the great doorway a dismal row of newspaper sellers standing
clear of the pavement dealt out their wares from the gutter. It was a
raw, gloomy day of the early spring; and the grimy sky, the mud of the
streets, the rags of the dirty men, harmonised excellently with the
eruption of the damp, rubbishy sheets of paper soiled with printers’ ink.
The posters, maculated with filth, garnished like tapestry the sweep of
the curbstone. The trade in afternoon papers was brisk, yet, in
comparison with the swift, constant march of foot traffic, the effect was
of indifference, of a disregarded distribution. Ossipon looked hurriedly
both ways before stepping out into the cross-currents, but the Professor
was already out of sight.
The Professor had turned into a street to the left, and walked along,
with his head carried rigidly erect, in a crowd whose every individual
almost overtopped his stunted stature. It was vain to pretend to himself
that he was not disappointed. But that was mere feeling; the stoicism of
his thought could not be disturbed by this or any other failure. Next
time, or the time after next, a telling stroke would be
delivered—something really startling—a blow fit to open the first crack
in the imposing front of the great edifice of legal conceptions
sheltering the atrocious injustice of society. Of humble origin, and
with an appearance really so mean as to stand in the way of his
considerable natural abilities, his imagination had been fired early by
the tales of men rising from the depths of poverty to positions of
authority and affluence. The extreme, almost ascetic purity of his
thought, combined with an astounding ignorance of worldly conditions, had
set before him a goal of power and prestige to be attained without the
medium of arts, graces, tact, wealth—by sheer weight of merit alone. On
that view he considered himself entitled to undisputed success. His
father, a delicate dark enthusiast with a sloping forehead, had been an
itinerant and rousing preacher of some obscure but rigid Christian sect—a
man supremely confident in the privileges of his righteousness. In the
son, individualist by temperament, once the science of colleges had
replaced thoroughly the faith of conventicles, this moral attitude
translated itself into a frenzied puritanism of ambition. He nursed it
as something secularly holy. To see it thwarted opened his eyes to the
true nature of the world, whose morality was artificial, corrupt, and
blasphemous. The way of even the most justifiable revolutions is
prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds. The Professor’s
indignation found in itself a final cause that absolved him from the sin
of turning to destruction as the agent of his ambition. To destroy
public faith in legality was the imperfect formula of his pedantic
fanaticism; but the subconscious conviction that the framework of an
established social order cannot be effectually shattered except by some
form of collective or individual violence was precise and correct. He
was a moral agent—that was settled in his mind. By exercising his agency
with ruthless defiance he procured for himself the appearances of power
and personal prestige. That was undeniable to his vengeful bitterness.
It pacified its unrest; and in their own way the most ardent of
revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common
with the rest of mankind—the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied
appetites, or perhaps of appeased conscience.
Lost in the crowd, miserable and undersized, he meditated confidently on
his power, keeping his hand in the left pocket of his trousers, grasping
lightly the india-rubber ball, the supreme guarantee of his sinister
freedom; but after a while he became disagreeably affected by the sight
of the roadway thronged with vehicles and of the pavement crowded with
men and women. He was in a long, straight street, peopled by a mere
fraction of an immense multitude; but all round him, on and on, even to
the limits of the horizon hidden by the enormous piles of bricks, he felt
the mass of mankind mighty in its numbers. They swarmed numerous like
locusts, industrious like ants, thoughtless like a natural force, pushing
on blind and orderly and absorbed, impervious to sentiment, to logic, to
terror too perhaps.
That was the form of doubt he feared most. Impervious to fear! Often
while walking abroad, when he happened also to come out of himself, he
had such moments of dreadful and sane mistrust of mankind. What if
nothing could move them? Such moments come to all men whose ambition
aims at a direct grasp upon humanity—to artists, politicians, thinkers,
reformers, or saints. A despicable emotional state this, against which
solitude fortifies a superior character; and with severe exultation the
Professor thought of the refuge of his room, with its padlocked cupboard,
lost in a wilderness of poor houses, the hermitage of the perfect
anarchist. In order to reach sooner the point where he could take his
omnibus, he turned brusquely out of the populous street into a narrow and
dusky alley paved with flagstones. On one side the low brick houses had
in their dusty windows the sightless, moribund look of incurable
decay—empty shells awaiting demolition. From the other side life had not
departed wholly as yet. Facing the only gas-lamp yawned the cavern of a
second-hand furniture dealer, where, deep in the gloom of a sort of
narrow avenue winding through a bizarre forest of wardrobes, with an
undergrowth tangle of table legs, a tall pier-glass glimmered like a pool
of water in a wood. An unhappy, homeless couch, accompanied by two
unrelated chairs, stood in the open. The only human being making use of
the alley besides the Professor, coming stalwart and erect from the
opposite direction, checked his swinging pace suddenly.
“Hallo!” he said, and stood a little on one side watchfully.
The Professor had already stopped, with a ready half turn which brought
his shoulders very near the other wall. His right hand fell lightly on
the back of the outcast couch, the left remained purposefully plunged
deep in the trousers pocket, and the roundness of the heavy rimmed
spectacles imparted an owlish character to his moody, unperturbed face.
It was like a meeting in a side corridor of a mansion full of life. The
stalwart man was buttoned up in a dark overcoat, and carried an umbrella.
His hat, tilted back, uncovered a good deal of forehead, which appeared
very white in the dusk. In the dark patches of the orbits the eyeballs
glimmered piercingly. Long, drooping moustaches, the colour of ripe
corn, framed with their points the square block of his shaved chin.
“I am not looking for you,” he said curtly.
The Professor did not stir an inch. The blended noises of the enormous
town sank down to an inarticulate low murmur. Chief Inspector Heat of
the Special Crimes Department changed his tone.
“Not in a hurry to get home?” he asked, with mocking simplicity.
The unwholesome-looking little moral agent of destruction exulted
silently in the possession of personal prestige, keeping in check this
man armed with the defensive mandate of a menaced society. More
fortunate than Caligula, who wished that the Roman Senate had only one
head for the better satisfaction of his cruel lust, he beheld in that one
man all the forces he had set at defiance: the force of law, property,
oppression, and injustice. He beheld all his enemies, and fearlessly
confronted them all in a supreme satisfaction of his vanity. They stood
perplexed before him as if before a dreadful portent. He gloated
inwardly over the chance of this meeting affirming his superiority over
all the multitude of mankind.
It was in reality a chance meeting. Chief Inspector Heat had had a
disagreeably busy day since his department received the first telegram
from Greenwich a little before eleven in the morning. First of all, the
fact of the outrage being attempted less than a week after he had assured
a high official that no outbreak of anarchist activity was to be
apprehended was sufficiently annoying. If he ever thought himself safe
in making a statement, it was then. He had made that statement with
infinite satisfaction to himself, because it was clear that the high
official desired greatly to hear that very thing. He had affirmed that
nothing of the sort could even be thought of without the department being
aware of it within twenty-four hours; and he had spoken thus in his
consciousness of being the great expert of his department. He had gone
even so far as to utter words which true wisdom would have kept back.
But Chief Inspector Heat was not very wise—at least not truly so. True
wisdom, which is not certain of anything in this world of contradictions,
would have prevented him from attaining his present position. It would
have alarmed his superiors, and done away with his chances of promotion.
His promotion had been very rapid.
“There isn’t one of them, sir, that we couldn’t lay our hands on at any
time of night and day. We know what each of them is doing hour by hour,”
he had declared. And the high official had deigned to smile. This was
so obviously the right thing to say for an officer of Chief Inspector
Heat’s reputation that it was perfectly delightful. The high official
believed the declaration, which chimed in with his idea of the fitness of
things. His wisdom was of an official kind, or else he might have
reflected upon a matter not of theory but of experience that in the
close-woven stuff of relations between conspirator and police there occur
unexpected solutions of continuity, sudden holes in space and time. A
given anarchist may be watched inch by inch and minute by minute, but a
moment always comes when somehow all sight and touch of him are lost for
a few hours, during which something (generally an explosion) more or less
deplorable does happen. But the high official, carried away by his sense
of the fitness of things, had smiled, and now the recollection of that
smile was very annoying to Chief Inspector Heat, principal expert in
This was not the only circumstance whose recollection depressed the usual
serenity of the eminent specialist. There was another dating back only
to that very morning. The thought that when called urgently to his
Assistant Commissioner’s private room he had been unable to conceal his
astonishment was distinctly vexing. His instinct of a successful man had
taught him long ago that, as a general rule, a reputation is built on
manner as much as on achievement. And he felt that his manner when
confronted with the telegram had not been impressive. He had opened his
eyes widely, and had exclaimed “Impossible!” exposing himself thereby to
the unanswerable retort of a finger-tip laid forcibly on the telegram
which the Assistant Commissioner, after reading it aloud, had flung on
the desk. To be crushed, as it were, under the tip of a forefinger was
an unpleasant experience. Very damaging, too! Furthermore, Chief
Inspector Heat was conscious of not having mended matters by allowing
himself to express a conviction.
“One thing I can tell you at once: none of our lot had anything to do
He was strong in his integrity of a good detective, but he saw now that
an impenetrably attentive reserve towards this incident would have served
his reputation better. On the other hand, he admitted to himself that it
was difficult to preserve one’s reputation if rank outsiders were going
to take a hand in the business. Outsiders are the bane of the police as
of other professions. The tone of the Assistant Commissioner’s remarks
had been sour enough to set one’s teeth on edge.
And since breakfast Chief Inspector Heat had not managed to get anything
Starting immediately to begin his investigation on the spot, he had
swallowed a good deal of raw, unwholesome fog in the park. Then he had
walked over to the hospital; and when the investigation in Greenwich was
concluded at last he had lost his inclination for food. Not accustomed,
as the doctors are, to examine closely the mangled remains of human
beings, he had been shocked by the sight disclosed to his view when a
waterproof sheet had been lifted off a table in a certain apartment of
Another waterproof sheet was spread over that table in the manner of a
table-cloth, with the corners turned up over a sort of mound—a heap of
rags, scorched and bloodstained, half concealing what might have been an
accumulation of raw material for a cannibal feast. It required
considerable firmness of mind not to recoil before that sight. Chief
Inspector Heat, an efficient officer of his department, stood his ground,
but for a whole minute he did not advance. A local constable in uniform
cast a sidelong glance, and said, with stolid simplicity:
“He’s all there. Every bit of him. It was a job.”
He had been the first man on the spot after the explosion. He mentioned
the fact again. He had seen something like a heavy flash of lightning in
the fog. At that time he was standing at the door of the King William
Street Lodge talking to the keeper. The concussion made him tingle all
over. He ran between the trees towards the Observatory. “As fast as my
legs would carry me,” he repeated twice.
Chief Inspector Heat, bending forward over the table in a gingerly and
horrified manner, let him run on. The hospital porter and another man
turned down the corners of the cloth, and stepped aside. The Chief
Inspector’s eyes searched the gruesome detail of that heap of mixed
things, which seemed to have been collected in shambles and rag shops.
“You used a shovel,” he remarked, observing a sprinkling of small gravel,
tiny brown bits of bark, and particles of splintered wood as fine as
“Had to in one place,” said the stolid constable. “I sent a keeper to
fetch a spade. When he heard me scraping the ground with it he leaned
his forehead against a tree, and was as sick as a dog.”
The Chief Inspector, stooping guardedly over the table, fought down the
unpleasant sensation in his throat. The shattering violence of
destruction which had made of that body a heap of nameless fragments
affected his feelings with a sense of ruthless cruelty, though his reason
told him the effect must have been as swift as a flash of lightning. The
man, whoever he was, had died instantaneously; and yet it seemed
impossible to believe that a human body could have reached that state of
disintegration without passing through the pangs of inconceivable agony.
No physiologist, and still less of a metaphysician, Chief Inspector Heat
rose by the force of sympathy, which is a form of fear, above the vulgar
conception of time. Instantaneous! He remembered all he had ever read
in popular publications of long and terrifying dreams dreamed in the
instant of waking; of the whole past life lived with frightful intensity
by a drowning man as his doomed head bobs up, streaming, for the last
time. The inexplicable mysteries of conscious existence beset Chief
Inspector Heat till he evolved a horrible notion that ages of atrocious
pain and mental torture could be contained between two successive winks
of an eye. And meantime the Chief Inspector went on, peering at the
table with a calm face and the slightly anxious attention of an indigent
customer bending over what may be called the by-products of a butcher’s
shop with a view to an inexpensive Sunday dinner. All the time his
trained faculties of an excellent investigator, who scorns no chance of
information, followed the self-satisfied, disjointed loquacity of the
“A fair-haired fellow,” the last observed in a placid tone, and paused.
“The old woman who spoke to the sergeant noticed a fair-haired fellow
coming out of Maze Hill Station.” He paused. “And he was a fair-haired
fellow. She noticed two men coming out of the station after the uptrain
had gone on,” he continued slowly. “She couldn’t tell if they were
together. She took no particular notice of the big one, but the other
was a fair, slight chap, carrying a tin varnish can in one hand.” The
“Know the woman?” muttered the Chief Inspector, with his eyes fixed on
the table, and a vague notion in his mind of an inquest to be held
presently upon a person likely to remain for ever unknown.
“Yes. She’s housekeeper to a retired publican, and attends the chapel in
Park Place sometimes,” the constable uttered weightily, and paused, with
another oblique glance at the table.
Then suddenly: “Well, here he is—all of him I could see. Fair.
Slight—slight enough. Look at that foot there. I picked up the legs
first, one after another. He was that scattered you didn’t know where to
The constable paused; the least flicker of an innocent self-laudatory
smile invested his round face with an infantile expression.
“Stumbled,” he announced positively. “I stumbled once myself, and
pitched on my head too, while running up. Them roots do stick out all
about the place. Stumbled against the root of a tree and fell, and that
thing he was carrying must have gone off right under his chest, I
The echo of the words “Person unknown” repeating itself in his inner
consciousness bothered the Chief Inspector considerably. He would have
liked to trace this affair back to its mysterious origin for his own
information. He was professionally curious. Before the public he would
have liked to vindicate the efficiency of his department by establishing
the identity of that man. He was a loyal servant. That, however,
appeared impossible. The first term of the problem was unreadable—lacked
all suggestion but that of atrocious cruelty.
Overcoming his physical repugnance, Chief Inspector Heat stretched out
his hand without conviction for the salving of his conscience, and took
up the least soiled of the rags. It was a narrow strip of velvet with a
larger triangular piece of dark blue cloth hanging from it. He held it
up to his eyes; and the police constable spoke.
“Velvet collar. Funny the old woman should have noticed the velvet
collar. Dark blue overcoat with a velvet collar, she has told us. He
was the chap she saw, and no mistake. And here he is all complete,
velvet collar and all. I don’t think I missed a single piece as big as a
At this point the trained faculties of the Chief Inspector ceased to hear
the voice of the constable. He moved to one of the windows for better
light. His face, averted from the room, expressed a startled intense
interest while he examined closely the triangular piece of broad-cloth.
By a sudden jerk he detached it, and _only_ after stuffing it into his
pocket turned round to the room, and flung the velvet collar back on the
“Cover up,” he directed the attendants curtly, without another look, and,
saluted by the constable, carried off his spoil hastily.
A convenient train whirled him up to town, alone and pondering deeply, in
a third-class compartment. That singed piece of cloth was incredibly
valuable, and he could not defend himself from astonishment at the casual
manner it had come into his possession. It was as if Fate had thrust
that clue into his hands. And after the manner of the average man, whose
ambition is to command events, he began to mistrust such a gratuitous and
accidental success—just because it seemed forced upon him. The practical
value of success depends not a little on the way you look at it. But
Fate looks at nothing. It has no discretion. He no longer considered it
eminently desirable all round to establish publicly the identity of the
man who had blown himself up that morning with such horrible
completeness. But he was not certain of the view his department would
take. A department is to those it employs a complex personality with
ideas and even fads of its own. It depends on the loyal devotion of its
servants, and the devoted loyalty of trusted servants is associated with
a certain amount of affectionate contempt, which keeps it sweet, as it
were. By a benevolent provision of Nature no man is a hero to his valet,
or else the heroes would have to brush their own clothes. Likewise no
department appears perfectly wise to the intimacy of its workers. A
department does not know so much as some of its servants. Being a
dispassionate organism, it can never be perfectly informed. It would not
be good for its efficiency to know too much. Chief Inspector Heat got
out of the train in a state of thoughtfulness entirely untainted with
disloyalty, but not quite free of that jealous mistrust which so often
springs on the ground of perfect devotion, whether to women or to
It was in this mental disposition, physically very empty, but still
nauseated by what he had seen, that he had come upon the Professor.
Under these conditions which make for irascibility in a sound, normal
man, this meeting was specially unwelcome to Chief Inspector Heat. He
had not been thinking of the Professor; he had not been thinking of any
individual anarchist at all. The complexion of that case had somehow
forced upon him the general idea of the absurdity of things human, which
in the abstract is sufficiently annoying to an unphilosophical
temperament, and in concrete instances becomes exasperating beyond
endurance. At the beginning of his career Chief Inspector Heat had been
concerned with the more energetic forms of thieving. He had gained his
spurs in that sphere, and naturally enough had kept for it, after his
promotion to another department, a feeling not very far removed from
affection. Thieving was not a sheer absurdity. It was a form of human
industry, perverse indeed, but still an industry exercised in an
industrious world; it was work undertaken for the same reason as the work
in potteries, in coal mines, in fields, in tool-grinding shops. It was
labour, whose practical difference from the other forms of labour
consisted in the nature of its risk, which did not lie in ankylosis, or
lead poisoning, or fire-damp, or gritty dust, but in what may be briefly
defined in its own special phraseology as “Seven years hard.” Chief
Inspector Heat was, of course, not insensible to the gravity of moral
differences. But neither were the thieves he had been looking after.
They submitted to the severe sanctions of a morality familiar to Chief
Inspector Heat with a certain resignation.
They were his fellow-citizens gone wrong because of imperfect education,
Chief Inspector Heat believed; but allowing for that difference, he could
understand the mind of a burglar, because, as a matter of fact, the mind
and the instincts of a burglar are of the same kind as the mind and the
instincts of a police officer. Both recognise the same conventions, and
have a working knowledge of each other’s methods and of the routine of
their respective trades. They understand each other, which is
advantageous to both, and establishes a sort of amenity in their
relations. Products of the same machine, one classed as useful and the
other as noxious, they take the machine for granted in different ways,
but with a seriousness essentially the same. The mind of Chief Inspector
Heat was inaccessible to ideas of revolt. But his thieves were not
rebels. His bodily vigour, his cool inflexible manner, his courage and
his fairness, had secured for him much respect and some adulation in the
sphere of his early successes. He had felt himself revered and admired.
And Chief Inspector Heat, arrested within six paces of the anarchist
nick-named the Professor, gave a thought of regret to the world of
thieves—sane, without morbid ideals, working by routine, respectful of
constituted authorities, free from all taint of hate and despair.
After paying this tribute to what is normal in the constitution of
society (for the idea of thieving appeared to his instinct as normal as
the idea of property), Chief Inspector Heat felt very angry with himself
for having stopped, for having spoken, for having taken that way at all
on the ground of it being a short cut from the station to the
headquarters. And he spoke again in his big authoritative voice, which,
being moderated, had a threatening character.
“You are not wanted, I tell you,” he repeated.
The anarchist did not stir. An inward laugh of derision uncovered not
only his teeth but his gums as well, shook him all over, without the
slightest sound. Chief Inspector Heat was led to add, against his better
“Not yet. When I want you I will know where to find you.”
Those were perfectly proper words, within the tradition and suitable to
his character of a police officer addressing one of his special flock.
But the reception they got departed from tradition and propriety. It was
outrageous. The stunted, weakly figure before him spoke at last.
“I’ve no doubt the papers would give you an obituary notice then. You
know best what that would be worth to you. I should think you can
imagine easily the sort of stuff that would be printed. But you may be
exposed to the unpleasantness of being buried together with me, though I
suppose your friends would make an effort to sort us out as much as
With all his healthy contempt for the spirit dictating such speeches, the
atrocious allusiveness of the words had its effect on Chief Inspector
Heat. He had too much insight, and too much exact information as well,
to dismiss them as rot. The dusk of this narrow lane took on a sinister
tint from the dark, frail little figure, its back to the wall, and
speaking with a weak, self-confident voice. To the vigorous, tenacious
vitality of the Chief Inspector, the physical wretchedness of that being,
so obviously not fit to live, was ominous; for it seemed to him that if
he had the misfortune to be such a miserable object he would not have
cared how soon he died. Life had such a strong hold upon him that a
fresh wave of nausea broke out in slight perspiration upon his brow. The
murmur of town life, the subdued rumble of wheels in the two invisible
streets to the right and left, came through the curve of the sordid lane
to his ears with a precious familiarity and an appealing sweetness. He
was human. But Chief Inspector Heat was also a man, and he could not let
such words pass.
“All this is good to frighten children with,” he said. “I’ll have you
It was very well said, without scorn, with an almost austere quietness.
“Doubtless,” was the answer; “but there’s no time like the present,
believe me. For a man of real convictions this is a fine opportunity of
self-sacrifice. You may not find another so favourable, so humane.
There isn’t even a cat near us, and these condemned old houses would make
a good heap of bricks where you stand. You’ll never get me at so little
cost to life and property, which you are paid to protect.”
“You don’t know who you’re speaking to,” said Chief Inspector Heat
firmly. “If I were to lay my hands on you now I would be no better than
“Ah! The game!’
“You may be sure our side will win in the end. It may yet be necessary
to make people believe that some of you ought to be shot at sight like
mad dogs. Then that will be the game. But I’ll be damned if I know what
yours is. I don’t believe you know yourselves. You’ll never get
anything by it.”
“Meantime it’s you who get something from it—so far. And you get it
easily, too. I won’t speak of your salary, but haven’t you made your
name simply by not understanding what we are after?”
“What are you after, then?” asked Chief Inspector Heat, with scornful
haste, like a man in a hurry who perceives he is wasting his time.
The perfect anarchist answered by a smile which did not part his thin
colourless lips; and the celebrated Chief Inspector felt a sense of
superiority which induced him to raise a warning finger.
“Give it up—whatever it is,” he said in an admonishing tone, but not so
kindly as if he were condescending to give good advice to a cracksman of
repute. “Give it up. You’ll find we are too many for you.”
The fixed smile on the Professor’s lips wavered, as if the mocking spirit
within had lost its assurance. Chief Inspector Heat went on:
“Don’t you believe me eh? Well, you’ve only got to look about you. We
are. And anyway, you’re not doing it well. You’re always making a mess
of it. Why, if the thieves didn’t know their work better they would
The hint of an invincible multitude behind that man’s back roused a
sombre indignation in the breast of the Professor. He smiled no longer
his enigmatic and mocking smile. The resisting power of numbers, the
unattackable stolidity of a great multitude, was the haunting fear of his
sinister loneliness. His lips trembled for some time before he managed
to say in a strangled voice:
“I am doing my work better than you’re doing yours.”
“That’ll do now,” interrupted Chief Inspector Heat hurriedly; and the
Professor laughed right out this time. While still laughing he moved on;
but he did not laugh long. It was a sad-faced, miserable little man who
emerged from the narrow passage into the bustle of the broad
thoroughfare. He walked with the nerveless gait of a tramp going on,
still going on, indifferent to rain or sun in a sinister detachment from
the aspects of sky and earth. Chief Inspector Heat, on the other hand,
after watching him for a while, stepped out with the purposeful briskness
of a man disregarding indeed the inclemencies of the weather, but
conscious of having an authorised mission on this earth and the moral
support of his kind. All the inhabitants of the immense town, the
population of the whole country, and even the teeming millions struggling
upon the planet, were with him—down to the very thieves and mendicants.
Yes, the thieves themselves were sure to be with him in his present work.
The consciousness of universal support in his general activity heartened
him to grapple with the particular problem.
The problem immediately before the Chief Inspector was that of managing
the Assistant Commissioner of his department, his immediate superior.
This is the perennial problem of trusty and loyal servants; anarchism
gave it its particular complexion, but nothing more. Truth to say, Chief
Inspector Heat thought but little of anarchism. He did not attach undue
importance to it, and could never bring himself to consider it seriously.
It had more the character of disorderly conduct; disorderly without the
human excuse of drunkenness, which at any rate implies good feeling and
an amiable leaning towards festivity. As criminals, anarchists were
distinctly no class—no class at all. And recalling the Professor, Chief
Inspector Heat, without checking his swinging pace, muttered through his
Catching thieves was another matter altogether. It had that quality of
seriousness belonging to every form of open sport where the best man wins
under perfectly comprehensible rules. There were no rules for dealing
with anarchists. And that was distasteful to the Chief Inspector. It
was all foolishness, but that foolishness excited the public mind,
affected persons in high places, and touched upon international
relations. A hard, merciless contempt settled rigidly on the Chief
Inspector’s face as he walked on. His mind ran over all the anarchists
of his flock. Not one of them had half the spunk of this or that burglar
he had known. Not half—not one-tenth.
At headquarters the Chief Inspector was admitted at once to the Assistant
Commissioner’s private room. He found him, pen in hand, bent over a
great table bestrewn with papers, as if worshipping an enormous double
inkstand of bronze and crystal. Speaking tubes resembling snakes were
tied by the heads to the back of the Assistant Commissioner’s wooden
arm-chair, and their gaping mouths seemed ready to bite his elbows. And
in this attitude he raised only his eyes, whose lids were darker than his
face and very much creased. The reports had come in: every anarchist had
been exactly accounted for.
After saying this he lowered his eyes, signed rapidly two single sheets
of paper, and only then laid down his pen, and sat well back, directing
an inquiring gaze at his renowned subordinate. The Chief Inspector stood
it well, deferential but inscrutable.
“I daresay you were right,” said the Assistant Commissioner, “in telling
me at first that the London anarchists had nothing to do with this. I
quite appreciate the excellent watch kept on them by your men. On the
other hand, this, for the public, does not amount to more than a
confession of ignorance.”
The Assistant Commissioner’s delivery was leisurely, as it were cautious.
His thought seemed to rest poised on a word before passing to another, as
though words had been the stepping-stones for his intellect picking its
way across the waters of error. “Unless you have brought something
useful from Greenwich,” he added.
The Chief Inspector began at once the account of his investigation in a
clear matter-of-fact manner. His superior turning his chair a little,
and crossing his thin legs, leaned sideways on his elbow, with one hand
shading his eyes. His listening attitude had a sort of angular and
sorrowful grace. Gleams as of highly burnished silver played on the
sides of his ebony black head when he inclined it slowly at the end.
Chief Inspector Heat waited with the appearance of turning over in his
mind all he had just said, but, as a matter of fact, considering the
advisability of saying something more. The Assistant Commissioner cut
his hesitation short.
“You believe there were two men?” he asked, without uncovering his eyes.
The Chief Inspector thought it more than probable. In his opinion, the
two men had parted from each other within a hundred yards from the
Observatory walls. He explained also how the other man could have got
out of the park speedily without being observed. The fog, though not
very dense, was in his favour. He seemed to have escorted the other to
the spot, and then to have left him there to do the job single-handed.
Taking the time those two were seen coming out of Maze Hill Station by
the old woman, and the time when the explosion was heard, the Chief
Inspector thought that the other man might have been actually at the
Greenwich Park Station, ready to catch the next train up, at the moment
his comrade was destroying himself so thoroughly.
“Very thoroughly—eh?” murmured the Assistant Commissioner from under the
shadow of his hand.
The Chief Inspector in a few vigorous words described the aspect of the
remains. “The coroner’s jury will have a treat,” he added grimly.
The Assistant Commissioner uncovered his eyes.
“We shall have nothing to tell them,” he remarked languidly.
He looked up, and for a time watched the markedly non-committal attitude
of his Chief Inspector. His nature was one that is not easily accessible
to illusions. He knew that a department is at the mercy of its
subordinate officers, who have their own conceptions of loyalty. His
career had begun in a tropical colony. He had liked his work there. It
was police work. He had been very successful in tracking and breaking up
certain nefarious secret societies amongst the natives. Then he took his
long leave, and got married rather impulsively. It was a good match from
a worldly point of view, but his wife formed an unfavourable opinion of
the colonial climate on hearsay evidence. On the other hand, she had
influential connections. It was an excellent match. But he did not like
the work he had to do now. He felt himself dependent on too many
subordinates and too many masters. The near presence of that strange
emotional phenomenon called public opinion weighed upon his spirits, and
alarmed him by its irrational nature. No doubt that from ignorance he
exaggerated to himself its power for good and evil—especially for evil;
and the rough east winds of the English spring (which agreed with his
wife) augmented his general mistrust of men’s motives and of the
efficiency of their organisation. The futility of office work especially
appalled him on those days so trying to his sensitive liver.
He got up, unfolding himself to his full height, and with a heaviness of
step remarkable in so slender a man, moved across the room to the window.
The panes streamed with rain, and the short street he looked down into
lay wet and empty, as if swept clear suddenly by a great flood. It was a
very trying day, choked in raw fog to begin with, and now drowned in cold
rain. The flickering, blurred flames of gas-lamps seemed to be
dissolving in a watery atmosphere. And the lofty pretensions of a
mankind oppressed by the miserable indignities of the weather appeared as
a colossal and hopeless vanity deserving of scorn, wonder, and
“Horrible, horrible!” thought the Assistant Commissioner to himself, with
his face near the window-pane. “We have been having this sort of thing
now for ten days; no, a fortnight—a fortnight.” He ceased to think
completely for a time. That utter stillness of his brain lasted about
three seconds. Then he said perfunctorily: “You have set inquiries on
foot for tracing that other man up and down the line?”
He had no doubt that everything needful had been done. Chief Inspector
Heat knew, of course, thoroughly the business of man-hunting. And these
were the routine steps, too, that would be taken as a matter of course by
the merest beginner. A few inquiries amongst the ticket collectors and
the porters of the two small railway stations would give additional
details as to the appearance of the two men; the inspection of the
collected tickets would show at once where they came from that morning.
It was elementary, and could not have been neglected. Accordingly the
Chief Inspector answered that all this had been done directly the old
woman had come forward with her deposition. And he mentioned the name of
a station. “That’s where they came from, sir,” he went on. “The porter
who took the tickets at Maze Hill remembers two chaps answering to the
description passing the barrier. They seemed to him two respectable
working men of a superior sort—sign painters or house decorators. The
big man got out of a third-class compartment backward, with a bright tin
can in his hand. On the platform he gave it to carry to the fair young
fellow who followed him. All this agrees exactly with what the old woman
told the police sergeant in Greenwich.”
The Assistant Commissioner, still with his face turned to the window,
expressed his doubt as to these two men having had anything to do with
the outrage. All this theory rested upon the utterances of an old
charwoman who had been nearly knocked down by a man in a hurry. Not a
very substantial authority indeed, unless on the ground of sudden
inspiration, which was hardly tenable.
“Frankly now, could she have been really inspired?” he queried, with
grave irony, keeping his back to the room, as if entranced by the
contemplation of the town’s colossal forms half lost in the night. He
did not even look round when he heard the mutter of the word
“Providential” from the principal subordinate of his department, whose
name, printed sometimes in the papers, was familiar to the great public
as that of one of its zealous and hard-working protectors. Chief
Inspector Heat raised his voice a little.
“Strips and bits of bright tin were quite visible to me,” he said.
“That’s a pretty good corroboration.”
“And these men came from that little country station,” the Assistant
Commissioner mused aloud, wondering. He was told that such was the name
on two tickets out of three given up out of that train at Maze Hill. The
third person who got out was a hawker from Gravesend well known to the
porters. The Chief Inspector imparted that information in a tone of
finality with some ill humour, as loyal servants will do in the
consciousness of their fidelity and with the sense of the value of their
loyal exertions. And still the Assistant Commissioner did not turn away
from the darkness outside, as vast as a sea.
“Two foreign anarchists coming from that place,” he said, apparently to
the window-pane. “It’s rather unaccountable.”’
“Yes, sir. But it would be still more unaccountable if that Michaelis
weren’t staying in a cottage in the neighbourhood.”
At the sound of that name, falling unexpectedly into this annoying
affair, the Assistant Commissioner dismissed brusquely the vague
remembrance of his daily whist party at his club. It was the most
comforting habit of his life, in a mainly successful display of his skill
without the assistance of any subordinate. He entered his club to play
from five to seven, before going home to dinner, forgetting for those two
hours whatever was distasteful in his life, as though the game were a
beneficent drug for allaying the pangs of moral discontent. His partners
were the gloomily humorous editor of a celebrated magazine; a silent,
elderly barrister with malicious little eyes; and a highly martial,
simple-minded old Colonel with nervous brown hands. They were his club
acquaintances merely. He never met them elsewhere except at the
card-table. But they all seemed to approach the game in the spirit of
co-sufferers, as if it were indeed a drug against the secret ills of
existence; and every day as the sun declined over the countless roofs of
the town, a mellow, pleasurable impatience, resembling the impulse of a
sure and profound friendship, lightened his professional labours. And
now this pleasurable sensation went out of him with something resembling
a physical shock, and was replaced by a special kind of interest in his
work of social protection—an improper sort of interest, which may be
defined best as a sudden and alert mistrust of the weapon in his hand.
The lady patroness of Michaelis, the ticket-of-leave apostle of
humanitarian hopes, was one of the most influential and distinguished
connections of the Assistant Commissioner’s wife, whom she called Annie,
and treated still rather as a not very wise and utterly inexperienced
young girl. But she had consented to accept him on a friendly footing,
which was by no means the case with all of his wife’s influential
connections. Married young and splendidly at some remote epoch of the
past, she had had for a time a close view of great affairs and even of
some great men. She herself was a great lady. Old now in the number of
her years, she had that sort of exceptional temperament which defies time
with scornful disregard, as if it were a rather vulgar convention
submitted to by the mass of inferior mankind. Many other conventions
easier to set aside, alas! failed to obtain her recognition, also on
temperamental grounds—either because they bored her, or else because they
stood in the way of her scorns and sympathies. Admiration was a
sentiment unknown to her (it was one of the secret griefs of her most
noble husband against her)—first, as always more or less tainted with
mediocrity, and next as being in a way an admission of inferiority. And
both were frankly inconceivable to her nature. To be fearlessly
outspoken in her opinions came easily to her, since she judged solely
from the standpoint of her social position. She was equally untrammelled
in her actions; and as her tactfulness proceeded from genuine humanity,
her bodily vigour remained remarkable and her superiority was serene and
cordial, three generations had admired her infinitely, and the last she
was likely to see had pronounced her a wonderful woman. Meantime
intelligent, with a sort of lofty simplicity, and curious at heart, but
not like many women merely of social gossip, she amused her age by
attracting within her ken through the power of her great, almost
historical, social prestige everything that rose above the dead level of
mankind, lawfully or unlawfully, by position, wit, audacity, fortune or
misfortune. Royal Highnesses, artists, men of science, young statesmen,
and charlatans of all ages and conditions, who, unsubstantial and light,
bobbing up like corks, show best the direction of the surface currents,
had been welcomed in that house, listened to, penetrated, understood,
appraised, for her own edification. In her own words, she liked to watch
what the world was coming to. And as she had a practical mind her
judgment of men and things, though based on special prejudices, was
seldom totally wrong, and almost never wrong-headed. Her drawing-room
was probably the only place in the wide world where an Assistant
Commissioner of Police could meet a convict liberated on a
ticket-of-leave on other than professional and official ground. Who had
brought Michaelis there one afternoon the Assistant Commissioner did not
remember very well. He had a notion it must have been a certain Member
of Parliament of illustrious parentage and unconventional sympathies,
which were the standing joke of the comic papers. The notabilities and
even the simple notorieties of the day brought each other freely to that
temple of an old woman’s not ignoble curiosity. You never could guess
whom you were likely to come upon being received in semi-privacy within
the faded blue silk and gilt frame screen, making a cosy nook for a couch
and a few arm-chairs in the great drawing-room, with its hum of voices
and the groups of people seated or standing in the light of six tall
Michaelis had been the object of a revulsion of popular sentiment, the
same sentiment which years ago had applauded the ferocity of the life
sentence passed upon him for complicity in a rather mad attempt to rescue
some prisoners from a police van. The plan of the conspirators had been
to shoot down the horses and overpower the escort. Unfortunately, one of
the police constables got shot too. He left a wife and three small
children, and the death of that man aroused through the length and
breadth of a realm for whose defence, welfare, and glory men die every
day as matter of duty, an outburst of furious indignation, of a raging
implacable pity for the victim. Three ring-leaders got hanged.
Michaelis, young and slim, locksmith by trade, and great frequenter of
evening schools, did not even know that anybody had been killed, his part
with a few others being to force open the door at the back of the special
conveyance. When arrested he had a bunch of skeleton keys in one pocket,
a heavy chisel in another, and a short crowbar in his hand: neither more
nor less than a burglar. But no burglar would have received such a heavy
sentence. The death of the constable had made him miserable at heart,
but the failure of the plot also. He did not conceal either of these
sentiments from his empanelled countrymen, and that sort of compunction
appeared shockingly imperfect to the crammed court. The judge on passing
sentence commented feelingly upon the depravity and callousness of the
That made the groundless fame of his condemnation; the fame of his
release was made for him on no better grounds by people who wished to
exploit the sentimental aspect of his imprisonment either for purposes of
their own or for no intelligible purpose. He let them do so in the
innocence of his heart and the simplicity of his mind. Nothing that
happened to him individually had any importance. He was like those
saintly men whose personality is lost in the contemplation of their
faith. His ideas were not in the nature of convictions. They were
inaccessible to reasoning. They formed in all their contradictions and
obscurities an invincible and humanitarian creed, which he confessed
rather than preached, with an obstinate gentleness, a smile of pacific
assurance on his lips, and his candid blue eyes cast down because the
sight of faces troubled his inspiration developed in solitude. In that
characteristic attitude, pathetic in his grotesque and incurable obesity
which he had to drag like a galley slave’s bullet to the end of his days,
the Assistant Commissioner of Police beheld the ticket-of-leave apostle
filling a privileged arm-chair within the screen. He sat there by the
head of the old lady’s couch, mild-voiced and quiet, with no more
self-consciousness than a very small child, and with something of a
child’s charm—the appealing charm of trustfulness. Confident of the
future, whose secret ways had been revealed to him within the four walls
of a well-known penitentiary, he had no reason to look with suspicion
upon anybody. If he could not give the great and curious lady a very
definite idea as to what the world was coming to, he had managed without
effort to impress her by his unembittered faith, by the sterling quality
of his optimism.
A certain simplicity of thought is common to serene souls at both ends of
the social scale. The great lady was simple in her own way. His views
and beliefs had nothing in them to shock or startle her, since she judged
them from the standpoint of her lofty position. Indeed, her sympathies
were easily accessible to a man of that sort. She was not an exploiting
capitalist herself; she was, as it were, above the play of economic
conditions. And she had a great capacity of pity for the more obvious
forms of common human miseries, precisely because she was such a complete
stranger to them that she had to translate her conception into terms of
mental suffering before she could grasp the notion of their cruelty. The
Assistant Commissioner remembered very well the conversation between
these two. He had listened in silence. It was something as exciting in
a way, and even touching in its foredoomed futility, as the efforts at
moral intercourse between the inhabitants of remote planets. But this
grotesque incarnation of humanitarian passion appealed somehow, to one’s
imagination. At last Michaelis rose, and taking the great lady’s
extended hand, shook it, retained it for a moment in his great cushioned
palm with unembarrassed friendliness, and turned upon the semi-private
nook of the drawing-room his back, vast and square, and as if distended
under the short tweed jacket. Glancing about in serene benevolence, he
waddled along to the distant door between the knots of other visitors.
The murmur of conversations paused on his passage. He smiled innocently
at a tall, brilliant girl, whose eyes met his accidentally, and went out
unconscious of the glances following him across the room. Michaelis’
first appearance in the world was a success—a success of esteem unmarred
by a single murmur of derision. The interrupted conversations were
resumed in their proper tone, grave or light. Only a well-set-up,
long-limbed, active-looking man of forty talking with two ladies near a
window remarked aloud, with an unexpected depth of feeling: “Eighteen
stone, I should say, and not five foot six. Poor fellow! It’s
The lady of the house, gazing absently at the Assistant Commissioner,
left alone with her on the private side of the screen, seemed to be
rearranging her mental impressions behind her thoughtful immobility of a
handsome old face. Men with grey moustaches and full, healthy, vaguely
smiling countenances approached, circling round the screen; two mature
women with a matronly air of gracious resolution; a clean-shaved
individual with sunken cheeks, and dangling a gold-mounted eyeglass on a
broad black ribbon with an old-world, dandified effect. A silence
deferential, but full of reserves, reigned for a moment, and then the
great lady exclaimed, not with resentment, but with a sort of protesting
“And that officially is supposed to be a revolutionist! What nonsense.”
She looked hard at the Assistant Commissioner, who murmured
“Not a dangerous one perhaps.”
“Not dangerous—I should think not indeed. He is a mere believer. It’s
the temperament of a saint,” declared the great lady in a firm tone.
“And they kept him shut up for twenty years. One shudders at the
stupidity of it. And now they have let him out everybody belonging to
him is gone away somewhere or dead. His parents are dead; the girl he
was to marry has died while he was in prison; he has lost the skill
necessary for his manual occupation. He told me all this himself with
the sweetest patience; but then, he said, he had had plenty of time to
think out things for himself. A pretty compensation! If that’s the
stuff revolutionists are made of some of us may well go on their knees to
them,” she continued in a slightly bantering voice, while the banal
society smiles hardened on the worldly faces turned towards her with
conventional deference. “The poor creature is obviously no longer in a
position to take care of himself. Somebody will have to look after him a
“He should be recommended to follow a treatment of some sort,” the
soldierly voice of the active-looking man was heard advising earnestly
from a distance. He was in the pink of condition for his age, and even
the texture of his long frock coat had a character of elastic soundness,
as if it were a living tissue. “The man is virtually a cripple,” he
added with unmistakable feeling.
Other voices, as if glad of the opening, murmured hasty compassion.
“Quite startling,” “Monstrous,” “Most painful to see.” The lank man,
with the eyeglass on a broad ribbon, pronounced mincingly the word
“Grotesque,” whose justness was appreciated by those standing near him.
They smiled at each other.
The Assistant Commissioner had expressed no opinion either then or later,
his position making it impossible for him to ventilate any independent
view of a ticket-of-leave convict. But, in truth, he shared the view of
his wife’s friend and patron that Michaelis was a humanitarian
sentimentalist, a little mad, but upon the whole incapable of hurting a
fly intentionally. So when that name cropped up suddenly in this vexing
bomb affair he realised all the danger of it for the ticket-of-leave
apostle, and his mind reverted at once to the old lady’s well-established
infatuation. Her arbitrary kindness would not brook patiently any
interference with Michaelis’ freedom. It was a deep, calm, convinced
infatuation. She had not only felt him to be inoffensive, but she had
said so, which last by a confusion of her absolutist mind became a sort
of incontrovertible demonstration. It was as if the monstrosity of the
man, with his candid infant’s eyes and a fat angelic smile, had
fascinated her. She had come to believe almost his theory of the future,
since it was not repugnant to her prejudices. She disliked the new
element of plutocracy in the social compound, and industrialism as a
method of human development appeared to her singularly repulsive in its
mechanical and unfeeling character. The humanitarian hopes of the mild
Michaelis tended not towards utter destruction, but merely towards the
complete economic ruin of the system. And she did not really see where
was the moral harm of it. It would do away with all the multitude of the
“parvenus,” whom she disliked and mistrusted, not because they had
arrived anywhere (she denied that), but because of their profound
unintelligence of the world, which was the primary cause of the crudity
of their perceptions and the aridity of their hearts. With the
annihilation of all capital they would vanish too; but universal ruin
(providing it was universal, as it was revealed to Michaelis) would leave
the social values untouched. The disappearance of the last piece of
money could not affect people of position. She could not conceive how it
could affect her position, for instance. She had developed these
discoveries to the Assistant Commissioner with all the serene
fearlessness of an old woman who had escaped the blight of indifference.
He had made for himself the rule to receive everything of that sort in a
silence which he took care from policy and inclination not to make
offensive. He had an affection for the aged disciple of Michaelis, a
complex sentiment depending a little on her prestige, on her personality,
but most of all on the instinct of flattered gratitude. He felt himself
really liked in her house. She was kindness personified. And she was
practically wise too, after the manner of experienced women. She made
his married life much easier than it would have been without her
generously full recognition of his rights as Annie’s husband. Her
influence upon his wife, a woman devoured by all sorts of small
selfishnesses, small envies, small jealousies, was excellent.
Unfortunately, both her kindness and her wisdom were of unreasonable
complexion, distinctly feminine, and difficult to deal with. She
remained a perfect woman all along her full tale of years, and not as
some of them do become—a sort of slippery, pestilential old man in
petticoats. And it was as of a woman that he thought of her—the
specially choice incarnation of the feminine, wherein is recruited the
tender, ingenuous, and fierce bodyguard for all sorts of men who talk
under the influence of an emotion, true or fraudulent; for preachers,
seers, prophets, or reformers.
Appreciating the distinguished and good friend of his wife, and himself,
in that way, the Assistant Commissioner became alarmed at the convict
Michaelis’ possible fate. Once arrested on suspicion of being in some
way, however remote, a party to this outrage, the man could hardly escape
being sent back to finish his sentence at least. And that would kill
him; he would never come out alive. The Assistant Commissioner made a
reflection extremely unbecoming his official position without being
really creditable to his humanity.
“If the fellow is laid hold of again,” he thought, “she will never
The frankness of such a secretly outspoken thought could not go without
some derisive self-criticism. No man engaged in a work he does not like
can preserve many saving illusions about himself. The distaste, the
absence of glamour, extend from the occupation to the personality. It is
only when our appointed activities seem by a lucky accident to obey the
particular earnestness of our temperament that we can taste the comfort
of complete self-deception. The Assistant Commissioner did not like his
work at home. The police work he had been engaged on in a distant part
of the globe had the saving character of an irregular sort of warfare or
at least the risk and excitement of open-air sport. His real abilities,
which were mainly of an administrative order, were combined with an
adventurous disposition. Chained to a desk in the thick of four millions
of men, he considered himself the victim of an ironic fate—the same, no
doubt, which had brought about his marriage with a woman exceptionally
sensitive in the matter of colonial climate, besides other limitations
testifying to the delicacy of her nature—and her tastes. Though he
judged his alarm sardonically he did not dismiss the improper thought
from his mind. The instinct of self-preservation was strong within him.
On the contrary, he repeated it mentally with profane emphasis and a
fuller precision: “Damn it! If that infernal Heat has his way the
fellow’ll die in prison smothered in his fat, and she’ll never forgive
His black, narrow figure, with the white band of the collar under the
silvery gleams on the close-cropped hair at the back of the head,
remained motionless. The silence had lasted such a long time that Chief
Inspector Heat ventured to clear his throat. This noise produced its
effect. The zealous and intelligent officer was asked by his superior,
whose back remained turned to him immovably:
“You connect Michaelis with this affair?”
Chief Inspector Heat was very positive, but cautious.
“Well, sir,” he said, “we have enough to go upon. A man like that has no
business to be at large, anyhow.”
“You will want some conclusive evidence,” came the observation in a
Chief Inspector Heat raised his eyebrows at the black, narrow back, which
remained obstinately presented to his intelligence and his zeal.
“There will be no difficulty in getting up sufficient evidence against
_him_,” he said, with virtuous complacency. “You may trust me for that,
sir,” he added, quite unnecessarily, out of the fulness of his heart; for
it seemed to him an excellent thing to have that man in hand to be thrown
down to the public should it think fit to roar with any special
indignation in this case. It was impossible to say yet whether it would
roar or not. That in the last instance depended, of course, on the
newspaper press. But in any case, Chief Inspector Heat, purveyor of
prisons by trade, and a man of legal instincts, did logically believe
that incarceration was the proper fate for every declared enemy of the
law. In the strength of that conviction he committed a fault of tact.
He allowed himself a little conceited laugh, and repeated:
“Trust me for that, sir.”
This was too much for the forced calmness under which the Assistant
Commissioner had for upwards of eighteen months concealed his irritation
with the system and the subordinates of his office. A square peg forced
into a round hole, he had felt like a daily outrage that long established
smooth roundness into which a man of less sharply angular shape would
have fitted himself, with voluptuous acquiescence, after a shrug or two.
What he resented most was just the necessity of taking so much on trust.
At the little laugh of Chief Inspector Heat’s he spun swiftly on his
heels, as if whirled away from the window-pane by an electric shock. He
caught on the latter’s face not only the complacency proper to the
occasion lurking under the moustache, but the vestiges of experimental
watchfulness in the round eyes, which had been, no doubt, fastened on his
back, and now met his glance for a second before the intent character of
their stare had the time to change to a merely startled appearance.
The Assistant Commissioner of Police had really some qualifications for
his post. Suddenly his suspicion was awakened. It is but fair to say
that his suspicions of the police methods (unless the police happened to
be a semi-military body organised by himself) was not difficult to
arouse. If it ever slumbered from sheer weariness, it was but lightly;
and his appreciation of Chief Inspector Heat’s zeal and ability, moderate
in itself, excluded all notion of moral confidence. “He’s up to
something,” he exclaimed mentally, and at once became angry. Crossing
over to his desk with headlong strides, he sat down violently. “Here I
am stuck in a litter of paper,” he reflected, with unreasonable
resentment, “supposed to hold all the threads in my hands, and yet I can
but hold what is put in my hand, and nothing else. And they can fasten
the other ends of the threads where they please.”
He raised his head, and turned towards his subordinate a long, meagre
face with the accentuated features of an energetic Don Quixote.
“Now what is it you’ve got up your sleeve?”
The other stared. He stared without winking in a perfect immobility of
his round eyes, as he was used to stare at the various members of the
criminal class when, after being duly cautioned, they made their
statements in the tones of injured innocence, or false simplicity, or
sullen resignation. But behind that professional and stony fixity there
was some surprise too, for in such a tone, combining nicely the note of
contempt and impatience, Chief Inspector Heat, the right-hand man of the
department, was not used to be addressed. He began in a procrastinating
manner, like a man taken unawares by a new and unexpected experience.
“What I’ve got against that man Michaelis you mean, sir?”
The Assistant Commissioner watched the bullet head; the points of that
Norse rover’s moustache, falling below the line of the heavy jaw; the
whole full and pale physiognomy, whose determined character was marred by
too much flesh; at the cunning wrinkles radiating from the outer corners
of the eyes—and in that purposeful contemplation of the valuable and
trusted officer he drew a conviction so sudden that it moved him like an
“I have reason to think that when you came into this room,” he said in
measured tones, “it was not Michaelis who was in your mind; not
principally—perhaps not at all.”
“You have reason to think, sir?” muttered Chief Inspector Heat, with
every appearance of astonishment, which up to a certain point was genuine
enough. He had discovered in this affair a delicate and perplexing side,
forcing upon the discoverer a certain amount of insincerity—that sort of
insincerity which, under the names of skill, prudence, discretion, turns
up at one point or another in most human affairs. He felt at the moment
like a tight-rope artist might feel if suddenly, in the middle of the
performance, the manager of the Music Hall were to rush out of the proper
managerial seclusion and begin to shake the rope. Indignation, the sense
of moral insecurity engendered by such a treacherous proceeding joined to
the immediate apprehension of a broken neck, would, in the colloquial
phrase, put him in a state. And there would be also some scandalised
concern for his art too, since a man must identify himself with something
more tangible than his own personality, and establish his pride
somewhere, either in his social position, or in the quality of the work
he is obliged to do, or simply in the superiority of the idleness he may
be fortunate enough to enjoy.
“Yes,” said the Assistant Commissioner; “I have. I do not mean to say
that you have not thought of Michaelis at all. But you are giving the
fact you’ve mentioned a prominence which strikes me as not quite candid,
Inspector Heat. If that is really the track of discovery, why haven’t
you followed it up at once, either personally or by sending one of your
men to that village?”
“Do you think, sir, I have failed in my duty there?” the Chief Inspector
asked, in a tone which he sought to make simply reflective. Forced
unexpectedly to concentrate his faculties upon the task of preserving his
balance, he had seized upon that point, and exposed himself to a rebuke;
for, the Assistant Commissioner frowning slightly, observed that this was
a very improper remark to make.
“But since you’ve made it,” he continued coldly, “I’ll tell you that this
is not my meaning.”
He paused, with a straight glance of his sunken eyes which was a full
equivalent of the unspoken termination “and you know it.” The head of
the so-called Special Crimes Department debarred by his position from
going out of doors personally in quest of secrets locked up in guilty
breasts, had a propensity to exercise his considerable gifts for the
detection of incriminating truth upon his own subordinates. That
peculiar instinct could hardly be called a weakness. It was natural. He
was a born detective. It had unconsciously governed his choice of a
career, and if it ever failed him in life it was perhaps in the one
exceptional circumstance of his marriage—which was also natural. It fed,
since it could not roam abroad, upon the human material which was brought
to it in its official seclusion. We can never cease to be ourselves.
His elbow on the desk, his thin legs crossed, and nursing his cheek in
the palm of his meagre hand, the Assistant Commissioner in charge of the
Special Crimes branch was getting hold of the case with growing interest.
His Chief Inspector, if not an absolutely worthy foeman of his
penetration, was at any rate the most worthy of all within his reach. A
mistrust of established reputations was strictly in character with the
Assistant Commissioner’s ability as detector. His memory evoked a
certain old fat and wealthy native chief in the distant colony whom it
was a tradition for the successive Colonial Governors to trust and make
much of as a firm friend and supporter of the order and legality
established by white men; whereas, when examined sceptically, he was
found out to be principally his own good friend, and nobody else’s. Not
precisely a traitor, but still a man of many dangerous reservations in
his fidelity, caused by a due regard for his own advantage, comfort, and
safety. A fellow of some innocence in his naive duplicity, but none the
less dangerous. He took some finding out. He was physically a big man,
too, and (allowing for the difference of colour, of course) Chief
Inspector Heat’s appearance recalled him to the memory of his superior.
It was not the eyes nor yet the lips exactly. It was bizarre. But does
not Alfred Wallace relate in his famous book on the Malay Archipelago
how, amongst the Aru Islanders, he discovered in an old and naked savage
with a sooty skin a peculiar resemblance to a dear friend at home?
For the first time since he took up his appointment the Assistant
Commissioner felt as if he were going to do some real work for his
salary. And that was a pleasurable sensation. “I’ll turn him inside out
like an old glove,” thought the Assistant Commissioner, with his eyes
resting pensively upon Chief Inspector Heat.
“No, that was not my thought,” he began again. “There is no doubt about
you knowing your business—no doubt at all; and that’s precisely why I—”
He stopped short, and changing his tone: “What could you bring up against
Michaelis of a definite nature? I mean apart from the fact that the two
men under suspicion—you’re certain there were two of them—came last from
a railway station within three miles of the village where Michaelis is
“This by itself is enough for us to go upon, sir, with that sort of man,”
said the Chief Inspector, with returning composure. The slight approving
movement of the Assistant Commissioner’s head went far to pacify the
resentful astonishment of the renowned officer. For Chief Inspector Heat
was a kind man, an excellent husband, a devoted father; and the public
and departmental confidence he enjoyed acting favourably upon an amiable
nature, disposed him to feel friendly towards the successive Assistant
Commissioners he had seen pass through that very room. There had been
three in his time. The first one, a soldierly, abrupt, red-faced person,
with white eyebrows and an explosive temper, could be managed with a
silken thread. He left on reaching the age limit. The second, a perfect
gentleman, knowing his own and everybody else’s place to a nicety, on
resigning to take up a higher appointment out of England got decorated
for (really) Inspector Heat’s services. To work with him had been a
pride and a pleasure. The third, a bit of a dark horse from the first,
was at the end of eighteen months something of a dark horse still to the
department. Upon the whole Chief Inspector Heat believed him to be in
the main harmless—odd-looking, but harmless. He was speaking now, and
the Chief Inspector listened with outward deference (which means nothing,
being a matter of duty) and inwardly with benevolent toleration.
“Michaelis reported himself before leaving London for the country?”
“Yes, sir. He did.”
“And what may he be doing there?” continued the Assistant Commissioner,
who was perfectly informed on that point. Fitted with painful tightness
into an old wooden arm-chair, before a worm-eaten oak table in an
upstairs room of a four-roomed cottage with a roof of moss-grown tiles,
Michaelis was writing night and day in a shaky, slanting hand that
“Autobiography of a Prisoner” which was to be like a book of Revelation
in the history of mankind. The conditions of confined space, seclusion,
and solitude in a small four-roomed cottage were favourable to his
inspiration. It was like being in prison, except that one was never
disturbed for the odious purpose of taking exercise according to the
tyrannical regulations of his old home in the penitentiary. He could not
tell whether the sun still shone on the earth or not. The perspiration
of the literary labour dropped from his brow. A delightful enthusiasm
urged him on. It was the liberation of his inner life, the letting out
of his soul into the wide world. And the zeal of his guileless vanity
(first awakened by the offer of five hundred pounds from a publisher)
seemed something predestined and holy.
“It would be, of course, most desirable to be informed exactly,” insisted
the Assistant Commissioner uncandidly.
Chief Inspector Heat, conscious of renewed irritation at this display of
scrupulousness, said that the county police had been notified from the
first of Michaelis’ arrival, and that a full report could be obtained in
a few hours. A wire to the superintendent—
Thus he spoke, rather slowly, while his mind seemed already to be
weighing the consequences. A slight knitting of the brow was the outward
sign of this. But he was interrupted by a question.
“You’ve sent that wire already?”
“No, sir,” he answered, as if surprised.
The Assistant Commissioner uncrossed his legs suddenly. The briskness of
that movement contrasted with the casual way in which he threw out a
“Would you think that Michaelis had anything to do with the preparation
of that bomb, for instance?”
The Chief Inspector assumed a reflective manner.
“I wouldn’t say so. There’s no necessity to say anything at present. He
associates with men who are classed as dangerous. He was made a delegate
of the Red Committee less than a year after his release on licence. A
sort of compliment, I suppose.”
And the Chief Inspector laughed a little angrily, a little scornfully.
With a man of that sort scrupulousness was a misplaced and even an
illegal sentiment. The celebrity bestowed upon Michaelis on his release
two years ago by some emotional journalists in want of special copy had
rankled ever since in his breast. It was perfectly legal to arrest that
man on the barest suspicion. It was legal and expedient on the face of
it. His two former chiefs would have seen the point at once; whereas
this one, without saying either yes or no, sat there, as if lost in a
dream. Moreover, besides being legal and expedient, the arrest of
Michaelis solved a little personal difficulty which worried Chief
Inspector Heat somewhat. This difficulty had its bearing upon his
reputation, upon his comfort, and even upon the efficient performance of
his duties. For, if Michaelis no doubt knew something about this
outrage, the Chief Inspector was fairly certain that he did not know too
much. This was just as well. He knew much less—the Chief Inspector was
positive—than certain other individuals he had in his mind, but whose
arrest seemed to him inexpedient, besides being a more complicated
matter, on account of the rules of the game. The rules of the game did
not protect so much Michaelis, who was an ex-convict. It would be stupid
not to take advantage of legal facilities, and the journalists who had
written him up with emotional gush would be ready to write him down with
This prospect, viewed with confidence, had the attraction of a personal
triumph for Chief Inspector Heat. And deep down in his blameless bosom
of an average married citizen, almost unconscious but potent
nevertheless, the dislike of being compelled by events to meddle with the
desperate ferocity of the Professor had its say. This dislike had been
strengthened by the chance meeting in the lane. The encounter did not
leave behind with Chief Inspector Heat that satisfactory sense of
superiority the members of the police force get from the unofficial but
intimate side of their intercourse with the criminal classes, by which
the vanity of power is soothed, and the vulgar love of domination over
our fellow-creatures is flattered as worthily as it deserves.
The perfect anarchist was not recognised as a fellow-creature by Chief
Inspector Heat. He was impossible—a mad dog to be left alone. Not that
the Chief Inspector was afraid of him; on the contrary, he meant to have
him some day. But not yet; he meant to get hold of him in his own time,
properly and effectively according to the rules of the game. The present
was not the right time for attempting that feat, not the right time for
many reasons, personal and of public service. This being the strong
feeling of Inspector Heat, it appeared to him just and proper that this
affair should be shunted off its obscure and inconvenient track, leading
goodness knows where, into a quiet (and lawful) siding called Michaelis.
And he repeated, as if reconsidering the suggestion conscientiously:
“The bomb. No, I would not say that exactly. We may never find that
out. But it’s clear that he is connected with this in some way, which we
can find out without much trouble.”
His countenance had that look of grave, overbearing indifference once
well known and much dreaded by the better sort of thieves. Chief
Inspector Heat, though what is called a man, was not a smiling animal.
But his inward state was that of satisfaction at the passively receptive
attitude of the Assistant Commissioner, who murmured gently:
“And you really think that the investigation should be made in that
“I do, sir.”
“I am, sir. That’s the true line for us to take.”
The Assistant Commissioner withdrew the support of his hand from his
reclining head with a suddenness that, considering his languid attitude,
seemed to menace his whole person with collapse. But, on the contrary,
he sat up, extremely alert, behind the great writing-table on which his
hand had fallen with the sound of a sharp blow.
“What I want to know is what put it out of your head till now.”
“Put it out of my head,” repeated the Chief Inspector very slowly.
“Yes. Till you were called into this room—you know.”
The Chief Inspector felt as if the air between his clothing and his skin
had become unpleasantly hot. It was the sensation of an unprecedented
and incredible experience.
“Of course,” he said, exaggerating the deliberation of his utterance to
the utmost limits of possibility, “if there is a reason, of which I know
nothing, for not interfering with the convict Michaelis, perhaps it’s
just as well I didn’t start the county police after him.”
This took such a long time to say that the unflagging attention of the
Assistant Commissioner seemed a wonderful feat of endurance. His retort
came without delay.
“No reason whatever that I know of. Come, Chief Inspector, this
finessing with me is highly improper on your part—highly improper. And
it’s also unfair, you know. You shouldn’t leave me to puzzle things out
for myself like this. Really, I am surprised.”
He paused, then added smoothly: “I need scarcely tell you that this
conversation is altogether unofficial.”
These words were far from pacifying the Chief Inspector. The indignation
of a betrayed tight-rope performer was strong within him. In his pride
of a trusted servant he was affected by the assurance that the rope was
not shaken for the purpose of breaking his neck, as by an exhibition of
impudence. As if anybody were afraid! Assistant Commissioners come and
go, but a valuable Chief Inspector is not an ephemeral office phenomenon.
He was not afraid of getting a broken neck. To have his performance
spoiled was more than enough to account for the glow of honest
indignation. And as thought is no respecter of persons, the thought of
Chief Inspector Heat took a threatening and prophetic shape. “You, my
boy,” he said to himself, keeping his round and habitually roving eyes
fastened upon the Assistant Commissioner’s face—“you, my boy, you don’t
know your place, and your place won’t know you very long either, I bet.”
As if in provoking answer to that thought, something like the ghost of an
amiable smile passed on the lips of the Assistant Commissioner. His
manner was easy and business-like while he persisted in administering
another shake to the tight rope.
“Let us come now to what you have discovered on the spot, Chief
Inspector,” he said.
“A fool and his job are soon parted,” went on the train of prophetic
thought in Chief Inspector Heat’s head. But it was immediately followed
by the reflection that a higher official, even when “fired out” (this was
the precise image), has still the time as he flies through the door to
launch a nasty kick at the shin-bones of a subordinate. Without
softening very much the basilisk nature of his stare, he said
“We are coming to that part of my investigation, sir.”
“That’s right. Well, what have you brought away from it?”
The Chief Inspector, who had made up his mind to jump off the rope, came
to the ground with gloomy frankness.
“I’ve brought away an address,” he said, pulling out of his pocket
without haste a singed rag of dark blue cloth. “This belongs to the
overcoat the fellow who got himself blown to pieces was wearing. Of
course, the overcoat may not have been his, and may even have been
stolen. But that’s not at all probable if you look at this.”
The Chief Inspector, stepping up to the table, smoothed out carefully the
rag of blue cloth. He had picked it up from the repulsive heap in the
mortuary, because a tailor’s name is found sometimes under the collar.
It is not often of much use, but still—He only half expected to find
anything useful, but certainly he did not expect to find—not under the
collar at all, but stitched carefully on the under side of the lapel—a
square piece of calico with an address written on it in marking ink.
The Chief Inspector removed his smoothing hand.
“I carried it off with me without anybody taking notice,” he said. “I
thought it best. It can always be produced if required.”
The Assistant Commissioner, rising a little in his chair, pulled the
cloth over to his side of the table. He sat looking at it in silence.
Only the number 32 and the name of Brett Street were written in marking
ink on a piece of calico slightly larger than an ordinary cigarette
paper. He was genuinely surprised.
“Can’t understand why he should have gone about labelled like this,” he
said, looking up at Chief Inspector Heat. “It’s a most extraordinary
“I met once in the smoking-room of a hotel an old gentleman who went
about with his name and address sewn on in all his coats in case of an
accident or sudden illness,” said the Chief Inspector. “He professed to
be eighty-four years old, but he didn’t look his age. He told me he was
also afraid of losing his memory suddenly, like those people he has been
reading of in the papers.”
A question from the Assistant Commissioner, who wanted to know what was
No. 32 Brett Street, interrupted that reminiscence abruptly. The Chief
Inspector, driven down to the ground by unfair artifices, had elected to
walk the path of unreserved openness. If he believed firmly that to know
too much was not good for the department, the judicious holding back of
knowledge was as far as his loyalty dared to go for the good of the
service. If the Assistant Commissioner wanted to mismanage this affair
nothing, of course, could prevent him. But, on his own part, he now saw
no reason for a display of alacrity. So he answered concisely:
“It’s a shop, sir.”
The Assistant Commissioner, with his eyes lowered on the rag of blue
cloth, waited for more information. As that did not come he proceeded to
obtain it by a series of questions propounded with gentle patience. Thus
he acquired an idea of the nature of Mr Verloc’s commerce, of his
personal appearance, and heard at last his name. In a pause the
Assistant Commissioner raised his eyes, and discovered some animation on
the Chief Inspector’s face. They looked at each other in silence.
“Of course,” said the latter, “the department has no record of that man.”
“Did any of my predecessors have any knowledge of what you have told me
now?” asked the Assistant Commissioner, putting his elbows on the table
and raising his joined hands before his face, as if about to offer
prayer, only that his eyes had not a pious expression.
“No, sir; certainly not. What would have been the object? That sort of
man could never be produced publicly to any good purpose. It was
sufficient for me to know who he was, and to make use of him in a way
that could be used publicly.”
“And do you think that sort of private knowledge consistent with the
official position you occupy?”
“Perfectly, sir. I think it’s quite proper. I will take the liberty to
tell you, sir, that it makes me what I am—and I am looked upon as a man
who knows his work. It’s a private affair of my own. A personal friend
of mine in the French police gave me the hint that the fellow was an
Embassy spy. Private friendship, private information, private use of
it—that’s how I look upon it.”
The Assistant Commissioner after remarking to himself that the mental
state of the renowned Chief Inspector seemed to affect the outline of his
lower jaw, as if the lively sense of his high professional distinction
had been located in that part of his anatomy, dismissed the point for the
moment with a calm “I see.” Then leaning his cheek on his joined hands:
“Well then—speaking privately if you like—how long have you been in
private touch with this Embassy spy?”
To this inquiry the private answer of the Chief Inspector, so private
that it was never shaped into audible words, was:
“Long before you were even thought of for your place here.”
The so-to-speak public utterance was much more precise.
“I saw him for the first time in my life a little more than seven years
ago, when two Imperial Highnesses and the Imperial Chancellor were on a
visit here. I was put in charge of all the arrangements for looking
after them. Baron Stott-Wartenheim was Ambassador then. He was a very
nervous old gentleman. One evening, three days before the Guildhall
Banquet, he sent word that he wanted to see me for a moment. I was
downstairs, and the carriages were at the door to take the Imperial
Highnesses and the Chancellor to the opera. I went up at once. I found
the Baron walking up and down his bedroom in a pitiable state of
distress, squeezing his hands together. He assured me he had the fullest
confidence in our police and in my abilities, but he had there a man just
come over from Paris whose information could be trusted implicity. He
wanted me to hear what that man had to say. He took me at once into a
dressing-room next door, where I saw a big fellow in a heavy overcoat
sitting all alone on a chair, and holding his hat and stick in one hand.
The Baron said to him in French ‘Speak, my friend.’ The light in that
room was not very good. I talked with him for some five minutes perhaps.
He certainly gave me a piece of very startling news. Then the Baron took
me aside nervously to praise him up to me, and when I turned round again
I discovered that the fellow had vanished like a ghost. Got up and
sneaked out down some back stairs, I suppose. There was no time to run
after him, as I had to hurry off after the Ambassador down the great
staircase, and see the party started safe for the opera. However, I
acted upon the information that very night. Whether it was perfectly
correct or not, it did look serious enough. Very likely it saved us from
an ugly trouble on the day of the Imperial visit to the City.
“Some time later, a month or so after my promotion to Chief Inspector, my
attention was attracted to a big burly man, I thought I had seen
somewhere before, coming out in a hurry from a jeweller’s shop in the
Strand. I went after him, as it was on my way towards Charing Cross, and
there seeing one of our detectives across the road, I beckoned him over,
and pointed out the fellow to him, with instructions to watch his
movements for a couple of days, and then report to me. No later than
next afternoon my man turned up to tell me that the fellow had married
his landlady’s daughter at a registrar’s office that very day at 11.30
a.m., and had gone off with her to Margate for a week. Our man had seen
the luggage being put on the cab. There were some old Paris labels on
one of the bags. Somehow I couldn’t get the fellow out of my head, and
the very next time I had to go to Paris on service I spoke about him to
that friend of mine in the Paris police. My friend said: ‘From what you
tell me I think you must mean a rather well-known hanger-on and emissary
of the Revolutionary Red Committee. He says he is an Englishman by
birth. We have an idea that he has been for a good few years now a
secret agent of one of the foreign Embassies in London.’ This woke up my
memory completely. He was the vanishing fellow I saw sitting on a chair
in Baron Stott-Wartenheim’s bathroom. I told my friend that he was quite
right. The fellow was a secret agent to my certain knowledge.
Afterwards my friend took the trouble to ferret out the complete record
of that man for me. I thought I had better know all there was to know;
but I don’t suppose you want to hear his history now, sir?”
The Assistant Commissioner shook his supported head. “The history of
your relations with that useful personage is the only thing that matters
just now,” he said, closing slowly his weary, deep-set eyes, and then
opening them swiftly with a greatly refreshed glance.
“There’s nothing official about them,” said the Chief Inspector bitterly.
“I went into his shop one evening, told him who I was, and reminded him
of our first meeting. He didn’t as much as twitch an eyebrow. He said
that he was married and settled now, and that all he wanted was not to be
interfered in his little business. I took it upon myself to promise him
that, as long as he didn’t go in for anything obviously outrageous, he
would be left alone by the police. That was worth something to him,
because a word from us to the Custom-House people would have been enough
to get some of these packages he gets from Paris and Brussels opened in
Dover, with confiscation to follow for certain, and perhaps a prosecution
as well at the end of it.”
“That’s a very precarious trade,” murmured the Assistant Commissioner.
“Why did he go in for that?”
The Chief Inspector raised scornful eyebrows dispassionately.
“Most likely got a connection—friends on the Continent—amongst people who
deal in such wares. They would be just the sort he would consort with.
He’s a lazy dog, too—like the rest of them.”
“What do you get from him in exchange for your protection?”
The Chief Inspector was not inclined to enlarge on the value of Mr
“He would not be much good to anybody but myself. One has got to know a
good deal beforehand to make use of a man like that. I can understand
the sort of hint he can give. And when I want a hint he can generally
furnish it to me.”
The Chief Inspector lost himself suddenly in a discreet reflective mood;
and the Assistant Commissioner repressed a smile at the fleeting thought
that the reputation of Chief Inspector Heat might possibly have been made
in a great part by the Secret Agent Verloc.
“In a more general way of being of use, all our men of the Special Crimes
section on duty at Charing Cross and Victoria have orders to take careful
notice of anybody they may see with him. He meets the new arrivals
frequently, and afterwards keeps track of them. He seems to have been
told off for that sort of duty. When I want an address in a hurry, I can
always get it from him. Of course, I know how to manage our relations.
I haven’t seen him to speak to three times in the last two years. I drop
him a line, unsigned, and he answers me in the same way at my private
From time to time the Assistant Commissioner gave an almost imperceptible
nod. The Chief Inspector added that he did not suppose Mr Verloc to be
deep in the confidence of the prominent members of the Revolutionary
International Council, but that he was generally trusted of that there
could be no doubt. “Whenever I’ve had reason to think there was
something in the wind,” he concluded, “I’ve always found he could tell me
something worth knowing.”
The Assistant Commissioner made a significant remark.
“He failed you this time.”
“Neither had I wind of anything in any other way,” retorted Chief
Inspector Heat. “I asked him nothing, so he could tell me nothing. He
isn’t one of our men. It isn’t as if he were in our pay.”
“No,” muttered the Assistant Commissioner. “He’s a spy in the pay of a
foreign government. We could never confess to him.”
“I must do my work in my own way,” declared the Chief Inspector. “When
it comes to that I would deal with the devil himself, and take the
consequences. There are things not fit for everybody to know.”
“Your idea of secrecy seems to consist in keeping the chief of your
department in the dark. That’s stretching it perhaps a little too far,
isn’t it? He lives over his shop?”
“Who—Verloc? Oh yes. He lives over his shop. The wife’s mother, I
fancy, lives with them.”
“Is the house watched?”
“Oh dear, no. It wouldn’t do. Certain people who come there are
watched. My opinion is that he knows nothing of this affair.”
“How do you account for this?” The Assistant Commissioner nodded at the
cloth rag lying before him on the table.
“I don’t account for it at all, sir. It’s simply unaccountable. It
can’t be explained by what I know.” The Chief Inspector made those
admissions with the frankness of a man whose reputation is established as
if on a rock. “At any rate not at this present moment. I think that the
man who had most to do with it will turn out to be Michaelis.”
“Yes, sir; because I can answer for all the others.”
“What about that other man supposed to have escaped from the park?”
“I should think he’s far away by this time,” opined the Chief Inspector.
The Assistant Commissioner looked hard at him, and rose suddenly, as
though having made up his mind to some course of action. As a matter of
fact, he had that very moment succumbed to a fascinating temptation. The
Chief Inspector heard himself dismissed with instructions to meet his
superior early next morning for further consultation upon the case. He
listened with an impenetrable face, and walked out of the room with
Whatever might have been the plans of the Assistant Commissioner they had
nothing to do with that desk work, which was the bane of his existence
because of its confined nature and apparent lack of reality. It could
not have had, or else the general air of alacrity that came upon the
Assistant Commissioner would have been inexplicable. As soon as he was
left alone he looked for his hat impulsively, and put it on his head.
Having done that, he sat down again to reconsider the whole matter. But
as his mind was already made up, this did not take long. And before
Chief Inspector Heat had gone very far on the way home, he also left the
The Assistant Commissioner walked along a short and narrow street like a
wet, muddy trench, then crossing a very broad thoroughfare entered a
public edifice, and sought speech with a young private secretary (unpaid)
of a great personage.
This fair, smooth-faced young man, whose symmetrically arranged hair gave
him the air of a large and neat schoolboy, met the Assistant
Commissioner’s request with a doubtful look, and spoke with bated breath.
“Would he see you? I don’t know about that. He has walked over from the
House an hour ago to talk with the permanent Under-Secretary, and now
he’s ready to walk back again. He might have sent for him; but he does
it for the sake of a little exercise, I suppose. It’s all the exercise
he can find time for while this session lasts. I don’t complain; I
rather enjoy these little strolls. He leans on my arm, and doesn’t open
his lips. But, I say, he’s very tired, and—well—not in the sweetest of
tempers just now.”
“It’s in connection with that Greenwich affair.”
“Oh! I say! He’s very bitter against you people. But I will go and
see, if you insist.”
“Do. That’s a good fellow,” said the Assistant Commissioner.
The unpaid secretary admired this pluck. Composing for himself an
innocent face, he opened a door, and went in with the assurance of a nice
and privileged child. And presently he reappeared, with a nod to the
Assistant Commissioner, who passing through the same door left open for
him, found himself with the great personage in a large room.
Vast in bulk and stature, with a long white face, which, broadened at the
base by a big double chin, appeared egg-shaped in the fringe of thin
greyish whisker, the great personage seemed an expanding man.
Unfortunate from a tailoring point of view, the cross-folds in the middle
of a buttoned black coat added to the impression, as if the fastenings of
the garment were tried to the utmost. From the head, set upward on a
thick neck, the eyes, with puffy lower lids, stared with a haughty droop
on each side of a hooked aggressive nose, nobly salient in the vast pale
circumference of the face. A shiny silk hat and a pair of worn gloves
lying ready on the end of a long table looked expanded too, enormous.
He stood on the hearthrug in big, roomy boots, and uttered no word of
“I would like to know if this is the beginning of another dynamite
campaign,” he asked at once in a deep, very smooth voice. “Don’t go into
details. I have no time for that.”
The Assistant Commissioner’s figure before this big and rustic Presence
had the frail slenderness of a reed addressing an oak. And indeed the
unbroken record of that man’s descent surpassed in the number of
centuries the age of the oldest oak in the country.
“No. As far as one can be positive about anything I can assure you that
it is not.”
“Yes. But your idea of assurances over there,” said the great man, with
a contemptuous wave of his hand towards a window giving on the broad
thoroughfare, “seems to consist mainly in making the Secretary of State
look a fool. I have been told positively in this very room less than a
month ago that nothing of the sort was even possible.”
The Assistant Commissioner glanced in the direction of the window calmly.
“You will allow me to remark, Sir Ethelred, that so far I have had no
opportunity to give you assurances of any kind.”
The haughty droop of the eyes was focussed now upon the Assistant
“True,” confessed the deep, smooth voice. “I sent for Heat. You are
still rather a novice in your new berth. And how are you getting on over
“I believe I am learning something every day.”
“Of course, of course. I hope you will get on.”
“Thank you, Sir Ethelred. I’ve learned something to-day, and even within
the last hour or so. There is much in this affair of a kind that does
not meet the eye in a usual anarchist outrage, even if one looked into it
as deep as can be. That’s why I am here.”
The great man put his arms akimbo, the backs of his big hands resting on
“Very well. Go on. Only no details, pray. Spare me the details.”
“You shall not be troubled with them, Sir Ethelred,” the Assistant
Commissioner began, with a calm and untroubled assurance. While he was
speaking the hands on the face of the clock behind the great man’s back—a
heavy, glistening affair of massive scrolls in the same dark marble as
the mantelpiece, and with a ghostly, evanescent tick—had moved through
the space of seven minutes. He spoke with a studious fidelity to a
parenthetical manner, into which every little fact—that is, every
detail—fitted with delightful ease. Not a murmur nor even a movement
hinted at interruption. The great Personage might have been the statue
of one of his own princely ancestors stripped of a crusader’s war
harness, and put into an ill-fitting frock coat. The Assistant
Commissioner felt as though he were at liberty to talk for an hour. But
he kept his head, and at the end of the time mentioned above he broke off
with a sudden conclusion, which, reproducing the opening statement,
pleasantly surprised Sir Ethelred by its apparent swiftness and force.
“The kind of thing which meets us under the surface of this affair,
otherwise without gravity, is unusual—in this precise form at least—and
requires special treatment.”
The tone of Sir Ethelred was deepened, full of conviction.
“I should think so—involving the Ambassador of a foreign power!”
“Oh! The Ambassador!” protested the other, erect and slender, allowing
himself a mere half smile. “It would be stupid of me to advance anything
of the kind. And it is absolutely unnecessary, because if I am right in
my surmises, whether ambassador or hall porter it’s a mere detail.”
Sir Ethelred opened a wide mouth, like a cavern, into which the hooked
nose seemed anxious to peer; there came from it a subdued rolling sound,
as from a distant organ with the scornful indignation stop.
“No! These people are too impossible. What do they mean by importing
their methods of Crim-Tartary here? A Turk would have more decency.”
“You forget, Sir Ethelred, that strictly speaking we know nothing
“No! But how would you define it? Shortly?”
“Barefaced audacity amounting to childishness of a peculiar sort.”
“We can’t put up with the innocence of nasty little children,” said the
great and expanded personage, expanding a little more, as it were. The
haughty drooping glance struck crushingly the carpet at the Assistant
Commissioner’s feet. “They’ll have to get a hard rap on the knuckles
over this affair. We must be in a position to—What is your general idea,
stated shortly? No need to go into details.”
“No, Sir Ethelred. In principle, I should lay it down that the existence
of secret agents should not be tolerated, as tending to augment the
positive dangers of the evil against which they are used. That the spy
will fabricate his information is a mere commonplace. But in the sphere
of political and revolutionary action, relying partly on violence, the
professional spy has every facility to fabricate the very facts
themselves, and will spread the double evil of emulation in one
direction, and of panic, hasty legislation, unreflecting hate, on the
other. However, this is an imperfect world—”
The deep-voiced Presence on the hearthrug, motionless, with big elbows
stuck out, said hastily:
“Be lucid, please.”
“Yes, Sir Ethelred—An imperfect world. Therefore directly the character
of this affair suggested itself to me, I thought it should be dealt with
with special secrecy, and ventured to come over here.”
“That’s right,” approved the great Personage, glancing down complacently
over his double chin. “I am glad there’s somebody over at your shop who
thinks that the Secretary of State may be trusted now and then.”
The Assistant Commissioner had an amused smile.
“I was really thinking that it might be better at this stage for Heat to
be replaced by—”
“What! Heat? An ass—eh?” exclaimed the great man, with distinct
“Not at all. Pray, Sir Ethelred, don’t put that unjust interpretation on
“Then what? Too clever by half?”
“Neither—at least not as a rule. All the grounds of my surmises I have
from him. The only thing I’ve discovered by myself is that he has been
making use of that man privately. Who could blame him? He’s an old
police hand. He told me virtually that he must have tools to work with.
It occurred to me that this tool should be surrendered to the Special
Crimes division as a whole, instead of remaining the private property of
Chief Inspector Heat. I extend my conception of our departmental duties
to the suppression of the secret agent. But Chief Inspector Heat is an
old departmental hand. He would accuse me of perverting its morality and
attacking its efficiency. He would define it bitterly as protection
extended to the criminal class of revolutionists. It would mean just
that to him.”
“Yes. But what do you mean?”
“I mean to say, first, that there’s but poor comfort in being able to
declare that any given act of violence—damaging property or destroying
life—is not the work of anarchism at all, but of something else
altogether—some species of authorised scoundrelism. This, I fancy, is
much more frequent than we suppose. Next, it’s obvious that the
existence of these people in the pay of foreign governments destroys in a
measure the efficiency of our supervision. A spy of that sort can afford
to be more reckless than the most reckless of conspirators. His
occupation is free from all restraint. He’s without as much faith as is
necessary for complete negation, and without that much law as is implied
in lawlessness. Thirdly, the existence of these spies amongst the
revolutionary groups, which we are reproached for harbouring here, does
away with all certitude. You have received a reassuring statement from
Chief Inspector Heat some time ago. It was by no means groundless—and
yet this episode happens. I call it an episode, because this affair, I
make bold to say, is episodic; it is no part of any general scheme,
however wild. The very peculiarities which surprise and perplex Chief
Inspector Heat establish its character in my eyes. I am keeping clear of
details, Sir Ethelred.”
The Personage on the hearthrug had been listening with profound
“Just so. Be as concise as you can.”
The Assistant Commissioner intimated by an earnest deferential gesture
that he was anxious to be concise.
“There is a peculiar stupidity and feebleness in the conduct of this
affair which gives me excellent hopes of getting behind it and finding
there something else than an individual freak of fanaticism. For it is a
planned thing, undoubtedly. The actual perpetrator seems to have been
led by the hand to the spot, and then abandoned hurriedly to his own
devices. The inference is that he was imported from abroad for the
purpose of committing this outrage. At the same time one is forced to
the conclusion that he did not know enough English to ask his way, unless
one were to accept the fantastic theory that he was a deaf mute. I
wonder now—But this is idle. He has destroyed himself by an accident,
obviously. Not an extraordinary accident. But an extraordinary little
fact remains: the address on his clothing discovered by the merest
accident, too. It is an incredible little fact, so incredible that the
explanation which will account for it is bound to touch the bottom of
this affair. Instead of instructing Heat to go on with this case, my
intention is to seek this explanation personally—by myself, I mean—where
it may be picked up. That is in a certain shop in Brett Street, and on
the lips of a certain secret agent once upon a time the confidential and
trusted spy of the late Baron Stott-Wartenheim, Ambassador of a Great
Power to the Court of St James.”
The Assistant Commissioner paused, then added: “Those fellows are a
perfect pest.” In order to raise his drooping glance to the speaker’s
face, the Personage on the hearthrug had gradually tilted his head
farther back, which gave him an aspect of extraordinary haughtiness.
“Why not leave it to Heat?”
“Because he is an old departmental hand. They have their own morality.
My line of inquiry would appear to him an awful perversion of duty. For
him the plain duty is to fasten the guilt upon as many prominent
anarchists as he can on some slight indications he had picked up in the
course of his investigation on the spot; whereas I, he would say, am bent
upon vindicating their innocence. I am trying to be as lucid as I can in
presenting this obscure matter to you without details.”
“He would, would he?” muttered the proud head of Sir Ethelred from its
“I am afraid so—with an indignation and disgust of which you or I can
have no idea. He’s an excellent servant. We must not put an undue
strain on his loyalty. That’s always a mistake. Besides, I want a free
hand—a freer hand than it would be perhaps advisable to give Chief
Inspector Heat. I haven’t the slightest wish to spare this man Verloc.
He will, I imagine, be extremely startled to find his connection with
this affair, whatever it may be, brought home to him so quickly.
Frightening him will not be very difficult. But our true objective lies
behind him somewhere. I want your authority to give him such assurances
of personal safety as I may think proper.”
“Certainly,” said the Personage on the hearthrug. “Find out as much as
you can; find it out in your own way.”
“I must set about it without loss of time, this very evening,” said the
Sir Ethelred shifted one hand under his coat tails, and tilting back his
head, looked at him steadily.
“We’ll have a late sitting to-night,” he said. “Come to the House with
your discoveries if we are not gone home. I’ll warn Toodles to look out
for you. He’ll take you into my room.”
The numerous family and the wide connections of the youthful-looking
Private Secretary cherished for him the hope of an austere and exalted
destiny. Meantime the social sphere he adorned in his hours of idleness
chose to pet him under the above nickname. And Sir Ethelred, hearing it
on the lips of his wife and girls every day (mostly at breakfast-time),
had conferred upon it the dignity of unsmiling adoption.
The Assistant Commissioner was surprised and gratified extremely.
“I shall certainly bring my discoveries to the House on the chance of you
having the time to—”
“I won’t have the time,” interrupted the great Personage. “But I will
see you. I haven’t the time now—And you are going yourself?”
“Yes, Sir Ethelred. I think it the best way.”
The Personage had tilted his head so far back that, in order to keep the
Assistant Commissioner under his observation, he had to nearly close his
“H’m. Ha! And how do you propose—Will you assume a disguise?”
“Hardly a disguise! I’ll change my clothes, of course.”
“Of course,” repeated the great man, with a sort of absent-minded
loftiness. He turned his big head slowly, and over his shoulder gave a
haughty oblique stare to the ponderous marble timepiece with the sly,
feeble tick. The gilt hands had taken the opportunity to steal through
no less than five and twenty minutes behind his back.
The Assistant Commissioner, who could not see them, grew a little nervous
in the interval. But the great man presented to him a calm and
“Very well,” he said, and paused, as if in deliberate contempt of the
official clock. “But what first put you in motion in this direction?”
“I have been always of opinion,” began the Assistant Commissioner.
“Ah. Yes! Opinion. That’s of course. But the immediate motive?”
“What shall I say, Sir Ethelred? A new man’s antagonism to old methods.
A desire to know something at first hand. Some impatience. It’s my old
work, but the harness is different. It has been chafing me a little in
one or two tender places.”
“I hope you’ll get on over there,” said the great man kindly, extending
his hand, soft to the touch, but broad and powerful like the hand of a
glorified farmer. The Assistant Commissioner shook it, and withdrew.
In the outer room Toodles, who had been waiting perched on the edge of a
table, advanced to meet him, subduing his natural buoyancy.
“Well? Satisfactory?” he asked, with airy importance.
“Perfectly. You’ve earned my undying gratitude,” answered the Assistant
Commissioner, whose long face looked wooden in contrast with the peculiar
character of the other’s gravity, which seemed perpetually ready to break
into ripples and chuckles.
“That’s all right. But seriously, you can’t imagine how irritated he is
by the attacks on his Bill for the Nationalisation of Fisheries. They
call it the beginning of social revolution. Of course, it is a
revolutionary measure. But these fellows have no decency. The personal
“I read the papers,” remarked the Assistant Commissioner.
“Odious? Eh? And you have no notion what a mass of work he has got to
get through every day. He does it all himself. Seems unable to trust
anyone with these Fisheries.”
“And yet he’s given a whole half hour to the consideration of my very
small sprat,” interjected the Assistant Commissioner.
“Small! Is it? I’m glad to hear that. But it’s a pity you didn’t keep
away, then. This fight takes it out of him frightfully. The man’s
getting exhausted. I feel it by the way he leans on my arm as we walk
over. And, I say, is he safe in the streets? Mullins has been marching
his men up here this afternoon. There’s a constable stuck by every
lamp-post, and every second person we meet between this and Palace Yard
is an obvious ‘tec.’ It will get on his nerves presently. I say, these
foreign scoundrels aren’t likely to throw something at him—are they? It
would be a national calamity. The country can’t spare him.”
“Not to mention yourself. He leans on your arm,” suggested the Assistant
Commissioner soberly. “You would both go.”
“It would be an easy way for a young man to go down into history? Not so
many British Ministers have been assassinated as to make it a minor
incident. But seriously now—”
“I am afraid that if you want to go down into history you’ll have to do
something for it. Seriously, there’s no danger whatever for both of you
but from overwork.”
The sympathetic Toodles welcomed this opening for a chuckle.
“The Fisheries won’t kill me. I am used to late hours,” he declared,
with ingenuous levity. But, feeling an instant compunction, he began to
assume an air of statesman-like moodiness, as one draws on a glove. “His
massive intellect will stand any amount of work. It’s his nerves that I
am afraid of. The reactionary gang, with that abusive brute Cheeseman at
their head, insult him every night.”
“If he will insist on beginning a revolution!” murmured the Assistant
“The time has come, and he is the only man great enough for the work,”
protested the revolutionary Toodles, flaring up under the calm,
speculative gaze of the Assistant Commissioner. Somewhere in a corridor
a distant bell tinkled urgently, and with devoted vigilance the young man
pricked up his ears at the sound. “He’s ready to go now,” he exclaimed
in a whisper, snatched up his hat, and vanished from the room.
The Assistant Commissioner went out by another door in a less elastic
manner. Again he crossed the wide thoroughfare, walked along a narrow
street, and re-entered hastily his own departmental buildings. He kept
up this accelerated pace to the door of his private room. Before he had
closed it fairly his eyes sought his desk. He stood still for a moment,
then walked up, looked all round on the floor, sat down in his chair,
rang a bell, and waited.
“Chief Inspector Heat gone yet?”
“Yes, sir. Went away half-an-hour ago.”
He nodded. “That will do.” And sitting still, with his hat pushed off
his forehead, he thought that it was just like Heat’s confounded cheek to
carry off quietly the only piece of material evidence. But he thought
this without animosity. Old and valued servants will take liberties.
The piece of overcoat with the address sewn on was certainly not a thing
to leave about. Dismissing from his mind this manifestation of Chief
Inspector Heat’s mistrust, he wrote and despatched a note to his wife,
charging her to make his apologies to Michaelis’ great lady, with whom
they were engaged to dine that evening.
The short jacket and the low, round hat he assumed in a sort of curtained
alcove containing a washstand, a row of wooden pegs and a shelf, brought
out wonderfully the length of his grave, brown face. He stepped back
into the full light of the room, looking like the vision of a cool,
reflective Don Quixote, with the sunken eyes of a dark enthusiast and a
very deliberate manner. He left the scene of his daily labours quickly
like an unobtrusive shadow. His descent into the street was like the
descent into a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off. A
murky, gloomy dampness enveloped him. The walls of the houses were wet,
the mud of the roadway glistened with an effect of phosphorescence, and
when he emerged into the Strand out of a narrow street by the side of
Charing Cross Station the genius of the locality assimilated him. He
might have been but one more of the queer foreign fish that can be seen
of an evening about there flitting round the dark corners.
He came to a stand on the very edge of the pavement, and waited. His
exercised eyes had made out in the confused movements of lights and
shadows thronging the roadway the crawling approach of a hansom. He gave
no sign; but when the low step gliding along the curbstone came to his
feet he dodged in skilfully in front of the big turning wheel, and spoke
up through the little trap door almost before the man gazing supinely
ahead from his perch was aware of having been boarded by a fare.
It was not a long drive. It ended by signal abruptly, nowhere in
particular, between two lamp-posts before a large drapery establishment—a
long range of shops already lapped up in sheets of corrugated iron for
the night. Tendering a coin through the trap door the fare slipped out
and away, leaving an effect of uncanny, eccentric ghastliness upon the
driver’s mind. But the size of the coin was satisfactory to his touch,
and his education not being literary, he remained untroubled by the fear
of finding it presently turned to a dead leaf in his pocket. Raised
above the world of fares by the nature of his calling, he contemplated
their actions with a limited interest. The sharp pulling of his horse
right round expressed his philosophy.
Meantime the Assistant Commissioner was already giving his order to a
waiter in a little Italian restaurant round the corner—one of those traps
for the hungry, long and narrow, baited with a perspective of mirrors and
white napery; without air, but with an atmosphere of their own—an
atmosphere of fraudulent cookery mocking an abject mankind in the most
pressing of its miserable necessities. In this immoral atmosphere the
Assistant Commissioner, reflecting upon his enterprise, seemed to lose
some more of his identity. He had a sense of loneliness, of evil
freedom. It was rather pleasant. When, after paying for his short meal,
he stood up and waited for his change, he saw himself in the sheet of
glass, and was struck by his foreign appearance. He contemplated his own
image with a melancholy and inquisitive gaze, then by sudden inspiration
raised the collar of his jacket. This arrangement appeared to him
commendable, and he completed it by giving an upward twist to the ends of
his black moustache. He was satisfied by the subtle modification of his
personal aspect caused by these small changes. “That’ll do very well,”
he thought. “I’ll get a little wet, a little splashed—”
He became aware of the waiter at his elbow and of a small pile of silver
coins on the edge of the table before him. The waiter kept one eye on
it, while his other eye followed the long back of a tall, not very young
girl, who passed up to a distant table looking perfectly sightless and
altogether unapproachable. She seemed to be a habitual customer.
On going out the Assistant Commissioner made to himself the observation
that the patrons of the place had lost in the frequentation of fraudulent
cookery all their national and private characteristics. And this was
strange, since the Italian restaurant is such a peculiarly British
institution. But these people were as denationalised as the dishes set
before them with every circumstance of unstamped respectability. Neither
was their personality stamped in any way, professionally, socially or
racially. They seemed created for the Italian restaurant, unless the
Italian restaurant had been perchance created for them. But that last
hypothesis was unthinkable, since one could not place them anywhere
outside those special establishments. One never met these enigmatical
persons elsewhere. It was impossible to form a precise idea what
occupations they followed by day and where they went to bed at night.
And he himself had become unplaced. It would have been impossible for
anybody to guess his occupation. As to going to bed, there was a doubt
even in his own mind. Not indeed in regard to his domicile itself, but
very much so in respect of the time when he would be able to return
there. A pleasurable feeling of independence possessed him when he heard
the glass doors swing to behind his back with a sort of imperfect baffled
thud. He advanced at once into an immensity of greasy slime and damp
plaster interspersed with lamps, and enveloped, oppressed, penetrated,
choked, and suffocated by the blackness of a wet London night, which is
composed of soot and drops of water.
Brett Street was not very far away. It branched off, narrow, from the
side of an open triangular space surrounded by dark and mysterious
houses, temples of petty commerce emptied of traders for the night. Only
a fruiterer’s stall at the corner made a violent blaze of light and
colour. Beyond all was black, and the few people passing in that
direction vanished at one stride beyond the glowing heaps of oranges and
lemons. No footsteps echoed. They would never be heard of again. The
adventurous head of the Special Crimes Department watched these
disappearances from a distance with an interested eye. He felt
light-hearted, as though he had been ambushed all alone in a jungle many
thousands of miles away from departmental desks and official inkstands.
This joyousness and dispersion of thought before a task of some
importance seems to prove that this world of ours is not such a very
serious affair after all. For the Assistant Commissioner was not
constitutionally inclined to levity.
The policeman on the beat projected his sombre and moving form against
the luminous glory of oranges and lemons, and entered Brett Street
without haste. The Assistant Commissioner, as though he were a member of
the criminal classes, lingered out of sight, awaiting his return. But
this constable seemed to be lost for ever to the force. He never
returned: must have gone out at the other end of Brett Street.
The Assistant Commissioner, reaching this conclusion, entered the street
in his turn, and came upon a large van arrested in front of the dimly lit
window-panes of a carter’s eating-house. The man was refreshing himself
inside, and the horses, their big heads lowered to the ground, fed out of
nose-bags steadily. Farther on, on the opposite side of the street,
another suspect patch of dim light issued from Mr Verloc’s shop front,
hung with papers, heaving with vague piles of cardboard boxes and the
shapes of books. The Assistant Commissioner stood observing it across
the roadway. There could be no mistake. By the side of the front
window, encumbered by the shadows of nondescript things, the door,
standing ajar, let escape on the pavement a narrow, clear streak of
Behind the Assistant Commissioner the van and horses, merged into one
mass, seemed something alive—a square-backed black monster blocking half
the street, with sudden iron-shod stampings, fierce jingles, and heavy,
blowing sighs. The harshly festive, ill-omened glare of a large and
prosperous public-house faced the other end of Brett Street across a wide
road. This barrier of blazing lights, opposing the shadows gathered
about the humble abode of Mr Verloc’s domestic happiness, seemed to drive
the obscurity of the street back upon itself, make it more sullen,
brooding, and sinister.
Having infused by persistent importunities some sort of heat into the
chilly interest of several licensed victuallers (the acquaintances once
upon a time of her late unlucky husband), Mrs Verloc’s mother had at last
secured her admission to certain almshouses founded by a wealthy
innkeeper for the destitute widows of the trade.
This end, conceived in the astuteness of her uneasy heart, the old woman
had pursued with secrecy and determination. That was the time when her
daughter Winnie could not help passing a remark to Mr Verloc that “mother
has been spending half-crowns and five shillings almost every day this
last week in cab fares.” But the remark was not made grudgingly. Winnie
respected her mother’s infirmities. She was only a little surprised at
this sudden mania for locomotion. Mr Verloc, who was sufficiently
magnificent in his way, had grunted the remark impatiently aside as
interfering with his meditations. These were frequent, deep, and
prolonged; they bore upon a matter more important than five shillings.
Distinctly more important, and beyond all comparison more difficult to
consider in all its aspects with philosophical serenity.
Her object attained in astute secrecy, the heroic old woman had made a
clean breast of it to Mrs Verloc. Her soul was triumphant and her heart
tremulous. Inwardly she quaked, because she dreaded and admired the
calm, self-contained character of her daughter Winnie, whose displeasure
was made redoubtable by a diversity of dreadful silences. But she did
not allow her inward apprehensions to rob her of the advantage of
venerable placidity conferred upon her outward person by her triple chin,
the floating ampleness of her ancient form, and the impotent condition of
The shock of the information was so unexpected that Mrs Verloc, against
her usual practice when addressed, interrupted the domestic occupation
she was engaged upon. It was the dusting of the furniture in the parlour
behind the shop. She turned her head towards her mother.
“Whatever did you want to do that for?” she exclaimed, in scandalised
The shock must have been severe to make her depart from that distant and
uninquiring acceptance of facts which was her force and her safeguard in
“Weren’t you made comfortable enough here?”
She had lapsed into these inquiries, but next moment she saved the
consistency of her conduct by resuming her dusting, while the old woman
sat scared and dumb under her dingy white cap and lustreless dark wig.
Winnie finished the chair, and ran the duster along the mahogany at the
back of the horse-hair sofa on which Mr Verloc loved to take his ease in
hat and overcoat. She was intent on her work, but presently she
permitted herself another question.
“How in the world did you manage it, mother?”
As not affecting the inwardness of things, which it was Mrs Verloc’s
principle to ignore, this curiosity was excusable. It bore merely on the
methods. The old woman welcomed it eagerly as bringing forward something
that could be talked about with much sincerity.
She favoured her daughter by an exhaustive answer, full of names and
enriched by side comments upon the ravages of time as observed in the
alteration of human countenances. The names were principally the names
of licensed victuallers—“poor daddy’s friends, my dear.” She enlarged
with special appreciation on the kindness and condescension of a large
brewer, a Baronet and an M. P., the Chairman of the Governors of the
Charity. She expressed herself thus warmly because she had been allowed
to interview by appointment his Private Secretary—“a very polite
gentleman, all in black, with a gentle, sad voice, but so very, very thin
and quiet. He was like a shadow, my dear.”
Winnie, prolonging her dusting operations till the tale was told to the
end, walked out of the parlour into the kitchen (down two steps) in her
usual manner, without the slightest comment.
Shedding a few tears in sign of rejoicing at her daughter’s mansuetude in
this terrible affair, Mrs Verloc’s mother gave play to her astuteness in
the direction of her furniture, because it was her own; and sometimes she
wished it hadn’t been. Heroism is all very well, but there are
circumstances when the disposal of a few tables and chairs, brass
bedsteads, and so on, may be big with remote and disastrous consequences.
She required a few pieces herself, the Foundation which, after many
importunities, had gathered her to its charitable breast, giving nothing
but bare planks and cheaply papered bricks to the objects of its
solicitude. The delicacy guiding her choice to the least valuable and
most dilapidated articles passed unacknowledged, because Winnie’s
philosophy consisted in not taking notice of the inside of facts; she
assumed that mother took what suited her best. As to Mr Verloc, his
intense meditation, like a sort of Chinese wall, isolated him completely
from the phenomena of this world of vain effort and illusory appearances.
Her selection made, the disposal of the rest became a perplexing question
in a particular way. She was leaving it in Brett Street, of course. But
she had two children. Winnie was provided for by her sensible union with
that excellent husband, Mr Verloc. Stevie was destitute—and a little
peculiar. His position had to be considered before the claims of legal
justice and even the promptings of partiality. The possession of the
furniture would not be in any sense a provision. He ought to have it—the
poor boy. But to give it to him would be like tampering with his
position of complete dependence. It was a sort of claim which she feared
to weaken. Moreover, the susceptibilities of Mr Verloc would perhaps not
brook being beholden to his brother-in-law for the chairs he sat on. In
a long experience of gentlemen lodgers, Mrs Verloc’s mother had acquired
a dismal but resigned notion of the fantastic side of human nature. What
if Mr Verloc suddenly took it into his head to tell Stevie to take his
blessed sticks somewhere out of that? A division, on the other hand,
however carefully made, might give some cause of offence to Winnie. No,
Stevie must remain destitute and dependent. And at the moment of leaving
Brett Street she had said to her daughter: “No use waiting till I am
dead, is there? Everything I leave here is altogether your own now, my
Winnie, with her hat on, silent behind her mother’s back, went on
arranging the collar of the old woman’s cloak. She got her hand-bag, an
umbrella, with an impassive face. The time had come for the expenditure
of the sum of three-and-sixpence on what might well be supposed the last
cab drive of Mrs Verloc’s mother’s life. They went out at the shop door.
The conveyance awaiting them would have illustrated the proverb that
“truth can be more cruel than caricature,” if such a proverb existed.
Crawling behind an infirm horse, a metropolitan hackney carriage drew up
on wobbly wheels and with a maimed driver on the box. This last
peculiarity caused some embarrassment. Catching sight of a hooked iron
contrivance protruding from the left sleeve of the man’s coat, Mrs
Verloc’s mother lost suddenly the heroic courage of these days. She
really couldn’t trust herself. “What do you think, Winnie?” She hung
back. The passionate expostulations of the big-faced cabman seemed to be
squeezed out of a blocked throat. Leaning over from his box, he
whispered with mysterious indignation. What was the matter now? Was it
possible to treat a man so? His enormous and unwashed countenance flamed
red in the muddy stretch of the street. Was it likely they would have
given him a licence, he inquired desperately, if—
The police constable of the locality quieted him by a friendly glance;
then addressing himself to the two women without marked consideration,
“He’s been driving a cab for twenty years. I never knew him to have an
“Accident!” shouted the driver in a scornful whisper.
The policeman’s testimony settled it. The modest assemblage of seven
people, mostly under age, dispersed. Winnie followed her mother into the
cab. Stevie climbed on the box. His vacant mouth and distressed eyes
depicted the state of his mind in regard to the transactions which were
taking place. In the narrow streets the progress of the journey was made
sensible to those within by the near fronts of the houses gliding past
slowly and shakily, with a great rattle and jingling of glass, as if
about to collapse behind the cab; and the infirm horse, with the harness
hung over his sharp backbone flapping very loose about his thighs,
appeared to be dancing mincingly on his toes with infinite patience.
Later on, in the wider space of Whitehall, all visual evidences of motion
became imperceptible. The rattle and jingle of glass went on
indefinitely in front of the long Treasury building—and time itself
seemed to stand still.
At last Winnie observed: “This isn’t a very good horse.”
Her eyes gleamed in the shadow of the cab straight ahead, immovable. On
the box, Stevie shut his vacant mouth first, in order to ejaculate
The driver, holding high the reins twisted around the hook, took no
notice. Perhaps he had not heard. Stevie’s breast heaved.
The man turned slowly his bloated and sodden face of many colours
bristling with white hairs. His little red eyes glistened with moisture.
His big lips had a violet tint. They remained closed. With the dirty
back of his whip-hand he rubbed the stubble sprouting on his enormous
“You mustn’t,” stammered out Stevie violently. “It hurts.”
“Mustn’t whip,” queried the other in a thoughtful whisper, and
immediately whipped. He did this, not because his soul was cruel and his
heart evil, but because he had to earn his fare. And for a time the
walls of St Stephen’s, with its towers and pinnacles, contemplated in
immobility and silence a cab that jingled. It rolled too, however. But
on the bridge there was a commotion. Stevie suddenly proceeded to get
down from the box. There were shouts on the pavement, people ran
forward, the driver pulled up, whispering curses of indignation and
astonishment. Winnie lowered the window, and put her head out, white as
a ghost. In the depths of the cab, her mother was exclaiming, in tones
of anguish: “Is that boy hurt? Is that boy hurt?”
Stevie was not hurt, he had not even fallen, but excitement as usual had
robbed him of the power of connected speech. He could do no more than
stammer at the window. “Too heavy. Too heavy.” Winnie put out her hand
on to his shoulder.
“Stevie! Get up on the box directly, and don’t try to get down again.”
“No. No. Walk. Must walk.”
In trying to state the nature of that necessity he stammered himself into
utter incoherence. No physical impossibility stood in the way of his
whim. Stevie could have managed easily to keep pace with the infirm,
dancing horse without getting out of breath. But his sister withheld her
consent decisively. “The idea! Whoever heard of such a thing! Run
after a cab!” Her mother, frightened and helpless in the depths of the
conveyance, entreated: “Oh, don’t let him, Winnie. He’ll get lost.
Don’t let him.”
“Certainly not. What next! Mr Verloc will be sorry to hear of this
nonsense, Stevie,—I can tell you. He won’t be happy at all.”
The idea of Mr Verloc’s grief and unhappiness acting as usual powerfully
upon Stevie’s fundamentally docile disposition, he abandoned all
resistance, and climbed up again on the box, with a face of despair.
The cabby turned at him his enormous and inflamed countenance
truculently. “Don’t you go for trying this silly game again, young
After delivering himself thus in a stern whisper, strained almost to
extinction, he drove on, ruminating solemnly. To his mind the incident
remained somewhat obscure. But his intellect, though it had lost its
pristine vivacity in the benumbing years of sedentary exposure to the
weather, lacked not independence or sanity. Gravely he dismissed the
hypothesis of Stevie being a drunken young nipper.
Inside the cab the spell of silence, in which the two women had endured
shoulder to shoulder the jolting, rattling, and jingling of the journey,
had been broken by Stevie’s outbreak. Winnie raised her voice.
“You’ve done what you wanted, mother. You’ll have only yourself to thank
for it if you aren’t happy afterwards. And I don’t think you’ll be.
That I don’t. Weren’t you comfortable enough in the house? Whatever
people’ll think of us—you throwing yourself like this on a Charity?”
“My dear,” screamed the old woman earnestly above the noise, “you’ve been
the best of daughters to me. As to Mr Verloc—there—”
Words failing her on the subject of Mr Verloc’s excellence, she turned
her old tearful eyes to the roof of the cab. Then she averted her head
on the pretence of looking out of the window, as if to judge of their
progress. It was insignificant, and went on close to the curbstone.
Night, the early dirty night, the sinister, noisy, hopeless and rowdy
night of South London, had overtaken her on her last cab drive. In the
gas-light of the low-fronted shops her big cheeks glowed with an orange
hue under a black and mauve bonnet.
Mrs Verloc’s mother’s complexion had become yellow by the effect of age
and from a natural predisposition to biliousness, favoured by the trials
of a difficult and worried existence, first as wife, then as widow. It
was a complexion, that under the influence of a blush would take on an
orange tint. And this woman, modest indeed but hardened in the fires of
adversity, of an age, moreover, when blushes are not expected, had
positively blushed before her daughter. In the privacy of a
four-wheeler, on her way to a charity cottage (one of a row) which by the
exiguity of its dimensions and the simplicity of its accommodation, might
well have been devised in kindness as a place of training for the still
more straitened circumstances of the grave, she was forced to hid from
her own child a blush of remorse and shame.
Whatever people will think? She knew very well what they did think, the
people Winnie had in her mind—the old friends of her husband, and others
too, whose interest she had solicited with such flattering success. She
had not known before what a good beggar she could be. But she guessed
very well what inference was drawn from her application. On account of
that shrinking delicacy, which exists side by side with aggressive
brutality in masculine nature, the inquiries into her circumstances had
not been pushed very far. She had checked them by a visible compression
of the lips and some display of an emotion determined to be eloquently
silent. And the men would become suddenly incurious, after the manner of
their kind. She congratulated herself more than once on having nothing
to do with women, who being naturally more callous and avid of details,
would have been anxious to be exactly informed by what sort of unkind
conduct her daughter and son-in-law had driven her to that sad extremity.
It was only before the Secretary of the great brewer M. P. and Chairman
of the Charity, who, acting for his principal, felt bound to be
conscientiously inquisitive as to the real circumstances of the
applicant, that she had burst into tears outright and aloud, as a
cornered woman will weep. The thin and polite gentleman, after
contemplating her with an air of being “struck all of a heap,” abandoned
his position under the cover of soothing remarks. She must not distress
herself. The deed of the Charity did not absolutely specify “childless
widows.” In fact, it did not by any means disqualify her. But the
discretion of the Committee must be an informed discretion. One could
understand very well her unwillingness to be a burden, etc. etc.
Thereupon, to his profound disappointment, Mrs Verloc’s mother wept some
more with an augmented vehemence.
The tears of that large female in a dark, dusty wig, and ancient silk
dress festooned with dingy white cotton lace, were the tears of genuine
distress. She had wept because she was heroic and unscrupulous and full
of love for both her children. Girls frequently get sacrificed to the
welfare of the boys. In this case she was sacrificing Winnie. By the
suppression of truth she was slandering her. Of course, Winnie was
independent, and need not care for the opinion of people that she would
never see and who would never see her; whereas poor Stevie had nothing in
the world he could call his own except his mother’s heroism and
The first sense of security following on Winnie’s marriage wore off in
time (for nothing lasts), and Mrs Verloc’s mother, in the seclusion of
the back bedroom, had recalled the teaching of that experience which the
world impresses upon a widowed woman. But she had recalled it without
vain bitterness; her store of resignation amounted almost to dignity.
She reflected stoically that everything decays, wears out, in this world;
that the way of kindness should be made easy to the well disposed; that
her daughter Winnie was a most devoted sister, and a very self-confident
wife indeed. As regards Winnie’s sisterly devotion, her stoicism
flinched. She excepted that sentiment from the rule of decay affecting
all things human and some things divine. She could not help it; not to
do so would have frightened her too much. But in considering the
conditions of her daughter’s married state, she rejected firmly all
flattering illusions. She took the cold and reasonable view that the
less strain put on Mr Verloc’s kindness the longer its effects were
likely to last. That excellent man loved his wife, of course, but he
would, no doubt, prefer to keep as few of her relations as was consistent
with the proper display of that sentiment. It would be better if its
whole effect were concentrated on poor Stevie. And the heroic old woman
resolved on going away from her children as an act of devotion and as a
move of deep policy.
The “virtue” of this policy consisted in this (Mrs Verloc’s mother was
subtle in her way), that Stevie’s moral claim would be strengthened. The
poor boy—a good, useful boy, if a little peculiar—had not a sufficient
standing. He had been taken over with his mother, somewhat in the same
way as the furniture of the Belgravian mansion had been taken over, as if
on the ground of belonging to her exclusively. What will happen, she
asked herself (for Mrs Verloc’s mother was in a measure imaginative),
when I die? And when she asked herself that question it was with dread.
It was also terrible to think that she would not then have the means of
knowing what happened to the poor boy. But by making him over to his
sister, by going thus away, she gave him the advantage of a directly
dependent position. This was the more subtle sanction of Mrs Verloc’s
mother’s heroism and unscrupulousness. Her act of abandonment was really
an arrangement for settling her son permanently in life. Other people
made material sacrifices for such an object, she in that way. It was the
only way. Moreover, she would be able to see how it worked. Ill or well
she would avoid the horrible incertitude on the death-bed. But it was
hard, hard, cruelly hard.
The cab rattled, jingled, jolted; in fact, the last was quite
extraordinary. By its disproportionate violence and magnitude it
obliterated every sensation of onward movement; and the effect was of
being shaken in a stationary apparatus like a mediæval device for the
punishment of crime, or some very newfangled invention for the cure of a
sluggish liver. It was extremely distressing; and the raising of Mrs
Verloc’s mother’s voice sounded like a wail of pain.
“I know, my dear, you’ll come to see me as often as you can spare the
time. Won’t you?”
“Of course,” answered Winnie shortly, staring straight before her.
And the cab jolted in front of a steamy, greasy shop in a blaze of gas
and in the smell of fried fish.
The old woman raised a wail again.
“And, my dear, I must see that poor boy every Sunday. He won’t mind
spending the day with his old mother—”
Winnie screamed out stolidly:
“Mind! I should think not. That poor boy will miss you something cruel.
I wish you had thought a little of that, mother.”
Not think of it! The heroic woman swallowed a playful and inconvenient
object like a billiard ball, which had tried to jump out of her throat.
Winnie sat mute for a while, pouting at the front of the cab, then
snapped out, which was an unusual tone with her:
“I expect I’ll have a job with him at first, he’ll be that restless—”
“Whatever you do, don’t let him worry your husband, my dear.”
Thus they discussed on familiar lines the bearings of a new situation.
And the cab jolted. Mrs Verloc’s mother expressed some misgivings.
Could Stevie be trusted to come all that way alone? Winnie maintained
that he was much less “absent-minded” now. They agreed as to that. It
could not be denied. Much less—hardly at all. They shouted at each
other in the jingle with comparative cheerfulness. But suddenly the
maternal anxiety broke out afresh. There were two omnibuses to take, and
a short walk between. It was too difficult! The old woman gave way to
grief and consternation.
Winnie stared forward.
“Don’t you upset yourself like this, mother. You must see him, of
“No, my dear. I’ll try not to.”
She mopped her streaming eyes.
“But you can’t spare the time to come with him, and if he should forget
himself and lose his way and somebody spoke to him sharply, his name and
address may slip his memory, and he’ll remain lost for days and days—”
The vision of a workhouse infirmary for poor Stevie—if only during
inquiries—wrung her heart. For she was a proud woman. Winnie’s stare
had grown hard, intent, inventive.
“I can’t bring him to you myself every week,” she cried. “But don’t you
worry, mother. I’ll see to it that he don’t get lost for long.”
They felt a peculiar bump; a vision of brick pillars lingered before the
rattling windows of the cab; a sudden cessation of atrocious jolting and
uproarious jingling dazed the two women. What had happened? They sat
motionless and scared in the profound stillness, till the door came open,
and a rough, strained whispering was heard:
“Here you are!”
A range of gabled little houses, each with one dim yellow window, on the
ground floor, surrounded the dark open space of a grass plot planted with
shrubs and railed off from the patchwork of lights and shadows in the
wide road, resounding with the dull rumble of traffic. Before the door
of one of these tiny houses—one without a light in the little downstairs
window—the cab had come to a standstill. Mrs Verloc’s mother got out
first, backwards, with a key in her hand. Winnie lingered on the
flagstone path to pay the cabman. Stevie, after helping to carry inside
a lot of small parcels, came out and stood under the light of a gas-lamp
belonging to the Charity. The cabman looked at the pieces of silver,
which, appearing very minute in his big, grimy palm, symbolised the
insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a
mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil.
He had been paid decently—four one-shilling pieces—and he contemplated
them in perfect stillness, as if they had been the surprising terms of a
melancholy problem. The slow transfer of that treasure to an inner
pocket demanded much laborious groping in the depths of decayed clothing.
His form was squat and without flexibility. Stevie, slender, his
shoulders a little up, and his hands thrust deep in the side pockets of
his warm overcoat, stood at the edge of the path, pouting.
The cabman, pausing in his deliberate movements, seemed struck by some
“Oh! ’Ere you are, young fellow,” he whispered. “You’ll know him
Stevie was staring at the horse, whose hind quarters appeared unduly
elevated by the effect of emaciation. The little stiff tail seemed to
have been fitted in for a heartless joke; and at the other end the thin,
flat neck, like a plank covered with old horse-hide, drooped to the
ground under the weight of an enormous bony head. The ears hung at
different angles, negligently; and the macabre figure of that mute
dweller on the earth steamed straight up from ribs and backbone in the
muggy stillness of the air.
The cabman struck lightly Stevie’s breast with the iron hook protruding
from a ragged, greasy sleeve.
“Look ’ere, young feller. ’Ow’d _you_ like to sit behind this ’oss up to
two o’clock in the morning p’raps?”
Stevie looked vacantly into the fierce little eyes with red-edged lids.
“He ain’t lame,” pursued the other, whispering with energy. “He ain’t
got no sore places on ’im. ’Ere he is. ’Ow would _you_ like—”
His strained, extinct voice invested his utterance with a character of
vehement secrecy. Stevie’s vacant gaze was changing slowly into dread.
“You may well look! Till three and four o’clock in the morning. Cold
and ’ungry. Looking for fares. Drunks.”
His jovial purple cheeks bristled with white hairs; and like Virgil’s
Silenus, who, his face smeared with the juice of berries, discoursed of
Olympian Gods to the innocent shepherds of Sicily, he talked to Stevie of
domestic matters and the affairs of men whose sufferings are great and
immortality by no means assured.
“I am a night cabby, I am,” he whispered, with a sort of boastful
exasperation. “I’ve got to take out what they will blooming well give me
at the yard. I’ve got my missus and four kids at ’ome.”
The monstrous nature of that declaration of paternity seemed to strike
the world dumb. A silence reigned during which the flanks of the old
horse, the steed of apocalyptic misery, smoked upwards in the light of
the charitable gas-lamp.
The cabman grunted, then added in his mysterious whisper:
“This ain’t an easy world.” Stevie’s face had been twitching for some
time, and at last his feelings burst out in their usual concise form.
His gaze remained fixed on the ribs of the horse, self-conscious and
sombre, as though he were afraid to look about him at the badness of the
world. And his slenderness, his rosy lips and pale, clear complexion,
gave him the aspect of a delicate boy, notwithstanding the fluffy growth
of golden hair on his cheeks. He pouted in a scared way like a child.
The cabman, short and broad, eyed him with his fierce little eyes that
seemed to smart in a clear and corroding liquid.
“’Ard on ’osses, but dam’ sight ’arder on poor chaps like me,” he wheezed
“Poor! Poor!” stammered out Stevie, pushing his hands deeper into his
pockets with convulsive sympathy. He could say nothing; for the
tenderness to all pain and all misery, the desire to make the horse happy
and the cabman happy, had reached the point of a bizarre longing to take
them to bed with him. And that, he knew, was impossible. For Stevie was
not mad. It was, as it were, a symbolic longing; and at the same time it
was very distinct, because springing from experience, the mother of
wisdom. Thus when as a child he cowered in a dark corner scared,
wretched, sore, and miserable with the black, black misery of the soul,
his sister Winnie used to come along, and carry him off to bed with her,
as into a heaven of consoling peace. Stevie, though apt to forget mere
facts, such as his name and address for instance, had a faithful memory
of sensations. To be taken into a bed of compassion was the supreme
remedy, with the only one disadvantage of being difficult of application
on a large scale. And looking at the cabman, Stevie perceived this
clearly, because he was reasonable.
The cabman went on with his leisurely preparations as if Stevie had not
existed. He made as if to hoist himself on the box, but at the last
moment from some obscure motive, perhaps merely from disgust with
carriage exercise, desisted. He approached instead the motionless
partner of his labours, and stooping to seize the bridle, lifted up the
big, weary head to the height of his shoulder with one effort of his
right arm, like a feat of strength.
“Come on,” he whispered secretly.
Limping, he led the cab away. There was an air of austerity in this
departure, the scrunched gravel of the drive crying out under the slowly
turning wheels, the horse’s lean thighs moving with ascetic deliberation
away from the light into the obscurity of the open space bordered dimly
by the pointed roofs and the feebly shining windows of the little
alms-houses. The plaint of the gravel travelled slowly all round the
drive. Between the lamps of the charitable gateway the slow cortege
reappeared, lighted up for a moment, the short, thick man limping busily,
with the horse’s head held aloft in his fist, the lank animal walking in
stiff and forlorn dignity, the dark, low box on wheels rolling behind
comically with an air of waddling. They turned to the left. There was a
pub down the street, within fifty yards of the gate.
Stevie left alone beside the private lamp-post of the Charity, his hands
thrust deep into his pockets, glared with vacant sulkiness. At the
bottom of his pockets his incapable weak hands were clinched hard into a
pair of angry fists. In the face of anything which affected directly or
indirectly his morbid dread of pain, Stevie ended by turning vicious. A
magnanimous indignation swelled his frail chest to bursting, and caused
his candid eyes to squint. Supremely wise in knowing his own
powerlessness, Stevie was not wise enough to restrain his passions. The
tenderness of his universal charity had two phases as indissolubly joined
and connected as the reverse and obverse sides of a medal. The anguish
of immoderate compassion was succeeded by the pain of an innocent but
pitiless rage. Those two states expressing themselves outwardly by the
same signs of futile bodily agitation, his sister Winnie soothed his
excitement without ever fathoming its twofold character. Mrs Verloc
wasted no portion of this transient life in seeking for fundamental
information. This is a sort of economy having all the appearances and
some of the advantages of prudence. Obviously it may be good for one not
to know too much. And such a view accords very well with constitutional
On that evening on which it may be said that Mrs Verloc’s mother having
parted for good from her children had also departed this life, Winnie
Verloc did not investigate her brother’s psychology. The poor boy was
excited, of course. After once more assuring the old woman on the
threshold that she would know how to guard against the risk of Stevie
losing himself for very long on his pilgrimages of filial piety, she took
her brother’s arm to walk away. Stevie did not even mutter to himself,
but with the special sense of sisterly devotion developed in her earliest
infancy, she felt that the boy was very much excited indeed. Holding
tight to his arm, under the appearance of leaning on it, she thought of
some words suitable to the occasion.
“Now, Stevie, you must look well after me at the crossings, and get first
into the ’bus, like a good brother.”
This appeal to manly protection was received by Stevie with his usual
docility. It flattered him. He raised his head and threw out his chest.
“Don’t be nervous, Winnie. Mustn’t be nervous! ’Bus all right,” he
answered in a brusque, slurring stammer partaking of the timorousness of
a child and the resolution of a man. He advanced fearlessly with the
woman on his arm, but his lower lip dropped. Nevertheless, on the
pavement of the squalid and wide thoroughfare, whose poverty in all the
amenities of life stood foolishly exposed by a mad profusion of
gas-lights, their resemblance to each other was so pronounced as to
strike the casual passers-by.
Before the doors of the public-house at the corner, where the profusion
of gas-light reached the height of positive wickedness, a four-wheeled
cab standing by the curbstone with no one on the box, seemed cast out
into the gutter on account of irremediable decay. Mrs Verloc recognised
the conveyance. Its aspect was so profoundly lamentable, with such a
perfection of grotesque misery and weirdness of macabre detail, as if it
were the Cab of Death itself, that Mrs Verloc, with that ready compassion
of a woman for a horse (when she is not sitting behind him), exclaimed
Hanging back suddenly, Stevie inflicted an arresting jerk upon his
“Poor! Poor!” he ejaculated appreciatively. “Cabman poor too. He told
The contemplation of the infirm and lonely steed overcame him. Jostled,
but obstinate, he would remain there, trying to express the view newly
opened to his sympathies of the human and equine misery in close
association. But it was very difficult. “Poor brute, poor people!” was
all he could repeat. It did not seem forcible enough, and he came to a
stop with an angry splutter: “Shame!” Stevie was no master of phrases,
and perhaps for that very reason his thoughts lacked clearness and
precision. But he felt with greater completeness and some profundity.
That little word contained all his sense of indignation and horror at one
sort of wretchedness having to feed upon the anguish of the other—at the
poor cabman beating the poor horse in the name, as it were, of his poor
kids at home. And Stevie knew what it was to be beaten. He knew it from
experience. It was a bad world. Bad! Bad!
Mrs Verloc, his only sister, guardian, and protector, could not pretend
to such depths of insight. Moreover, she had not experienced the magic
of the cabman’s eloquence. She was in the dark as to the inwardness of
the word “Shame.” And she said placidly:
“Come along, Stevie. You can’t help that.”
The docile Stevie went along; but now he went along without pride,
shamblingly, and muttering half words, and even words that would have
been whole if they had not been made up of halves that did not belong to
each other. It was as though he had been trying to fit all the words he
could remember to his sentiments in order to get some sort of
corresponding idea. And, as a matter of fact, he got it at last. He
hung back to utter it at once.
“Bad world for poor people.”
Directly he had expressed that thought he became aware that it was
familiar to him already in all its consequences. This circumstance
strengthened his conviction immensely, but also augmented his
indignation. Somebody, he felt, ought to be punished for it—punished
with great severity. Being no sceptic, but a moral creature, he was in a
manner at the mercy of his righteous passions.
“Beastly!” he added concisely.
It was clear to Mrs Verloc that he was greatly excited.
“Nobody can help that,” she said. “Do come along. Is that the way
you’re taking care of me?”
Stevie mended his pace obediently. He prided himself on being a good
brother. His morality, which was very complete, demanded that from him.
Yet he was pained at the information imparted by his sister Winnie who
was good. Nobody could help that! He came along gloomily, but presently
he brightened up. Like the rest of mankind, perplexed by the mystery of
the universe, he had his moments of consoling trust in the organised
powers of the earth.
“Police,” he suggested confidently.
“The police aren’t for that,” observed Mrs Verloc cursorily, hurrying on
Stevie’s face lengthened considerably. He was thinking. The more
intense his thinking, the slacker was the droop of his lower jaw.
And it was with an aspect of hopeless vacancy that he gave up his
“Not for that?” he mumbled, resigned but surprised. “Not for that?” He
had formed for himself an ideal conception of the metropolitan police as
a sort of benevolent institution for the suppression of evil. The notion
of benevolence especially was very closely associated with his sense of
the power of the men in blue. He had liked all police constables
tenderly, with a guileless trustfulness. And he was pained. He was
irritated, too, by a suspicion of duplicity in the members of the force.
For Stevie was frank and as open as the day himself. What did they mean
by pretending then? Unlike his sister, who put her trust in face values,
he wished to go to the bottom of the matter. He carried on his inquiry
by means of an angry challenge.
“What for are they then, Winn? What are they for? Tell me.”
Winnie disliked controversy. But fearing most a fit of black depression
consequent on Stevie missing his mother very much at first, she did not
altogether decline the discussion. Guiltless of all irony, she answered
yet in a form which was not perhaps unnatural in the wife of Mr Verloc,
Delegate of the Central Red Committee, personal friend of certain
anarchists, and a votary of social revolution.
“Don’t you know what the police are for, Stevie? They are there so that
them as have nothing shouldn’t take anything away from them who have.”
She avoided using the verb “to steal,” because it always made her brother
uncomfortable. For Stevie was delicately honest. Certain simple
principles had been instilled into him so anxiously (on account of his
“queerness”) that the mere names of certain transgressions filled him
with horror. He had been always easily impressed by speeches. He was
impressed and startled now, and his intelligence was very alert.
“What?” he asked at once anxiously. “Not even if they were hungry?
The two had paused in their walk.
“Not if they were ever so,” said Mrs Verloc, with the equanimity of a
person untroubled by the problem of the distribution of wealth, and
exploring the perspective of the roadway for an omnibus of the right
colour. “Certainly not. But what’s the use of talking about all that?
You aren’t ever hungry.”
She cast a swift glance at the boy, like a young man, by her side. She
saw him amiable, attractive, affectionate, and only a little, a very
little, peculiar. And she could not see him otherwise, for he was
connected with what there was of the salt of passion in her tasteless
life—the passion of indignation, of courage, of pity, and even of
self-sacrifice. She did not add: “And you aren’t likely ever to be as
long as I live.” But she might very well have done so, since she had
taken effectual steps to that end. Mr Verloc was a very good husband.
It was her honest impression that nobody could help liking the boy. She
cried out suddenly:
“Quick, Stevie. Stop that green ’bus.”
And Stevie, tremulous and important with his sister Winnie on his arm,
flung up the other high above his head at the approaching ’bus, with
An hour afterwards Mr Verloc raised his eyes from a newspaper he was
reading, or at any rate looking at, behind the counter, and in the
expiring clatter of the door-bell beheld Winnie, his wife, enter and
cross the shop on her way upstairs, followed by Stevie, his
brother-in-law. The sight of his wife was agreeable to Mr Verloc. It
was his idiosyncrasy. The figure of his brother-in-law remained
imperceptible to him because of the morose thoughtfulness that lately had
fallen like a veil between Mr Verloc and the appearances of the world of
senses. He looked after his wife fixedly, without a word, as though she
had been a phantom. His voice for home use was husky and placid, but now
it was heard not at all. It was not heard at supper, to which he was
called by his wife in the usual brief manner: “Adolf.” He sat down to
consume it without conviction, wearing his hat pushed far back on his
head. It was not devotion to an outdoor life, but the frequentation of
foreign cafés which was responsible for that habit, investing with a
character of unceremonious impermanency Mr Verloc’s steady fidelity to
his own fireside. Twice at the clatter of the cracked bell he arose
without a word, disappeared into the shop, and came back silently.
During these absences Mrs Verloc, becoming acutely aware of the vacant
place at her right hand, missed her mother very much, and stared stonily;
while Stevie, from the same reason, kept on shuffling his feet, as though
the floor under the table were uncomfortably hot. When Mr Verloc
returned to sit in his place, like the very embodiment of silence, the
character of Mrs Verloc’s stare underwent a subtle change, and Stevie
ceased to fidget with his feet, because of his great and awed regard for
his sister’s husband. He directed at him glances of respectful
compassion. Mr Verloc was sorry. His sister Winnie had impressed upon
him (in the omnibus) that Mr Verloc would be found at home in a state of
sorrow, and must not be worried. His father’s anger, the irritability of
gentlemen lodgers, and Mr Verloc’s predisposition to immoderate grief,
had been the main sanctions of Stevie’s self-restraint. Of these
sentiments, all easily provoked, but not always easy to understand, the
last had the greatest moral efficiency—because Mr Verloc was _good_. His
mother and his sister had established that ethical fact on an unshakable
foundation. They had established, erected, consecrated it behind Mr
Verloc’s back, for reasons that had nothing to do with abstract morality.
And Mr Verloc was not aware of it. It is but bare justice to him to say
that he had no notion of appearing good to Stevie. Yet so it was. He
was even the only man so qualified in Stevie’s knowledge, because the
gentlemen lodgers had been too transient and too remote to have anything
very distinct about them but perhaps their boots; and as regards the
disciplinary measures of his father, the desolation of his mother and
sister shrank from setting up a theory of goodness before the victim. It
would have been too cruel. And it was even possible that Stevie would
not have believed them. As far as Mr Verloc was concerned, nothing could
stand in the way of Stevie’s belief. Mr Verloc was obviously yet
mysteriously _good_. And the grief of a good man is august.
Stevie gave glances of reverential compassion to his brother-in-law. Mr
Verloc was sorry. The brother of Winnie had never before felt himself in
such close communion with the mystery of that man’s goodness. It was an
understandable sorrow. And Stevie himself was sorry. He was very sorry.
The same sort of sorrow. And his attention being drawn to this
unpleasant state, Stevie shuffled his feet. His feelings were habitually
manifested by the agitation of his limbs.
“Keep your feet quiet, dear,” said Mrs Verloc, with authority and
tenderness; then turning towards her husband in an indifferent voice, the
masterly achievement of instinctive tact: “Are you going out to-night?”
The mere suggestion seemed repugnant to Mr Verloc. He shook his head
moodily, and then sat still with downcast eyes, looking at the piece of
cheese on his plate for a whole minute. At the end of that time he got
up, and went out—went right out in the clatter of the shop-door bell. He
acted thus inconsistently, not from any desire to make himself
unpleasant, but because of an unconquerable restlessness. It was no
earthly good going out. He could not find anywhere in London what he
wanted. But he went out. He led a cortege of dismal thoughts along dark
streets, through lighted streets, in and out of two flash bars, as if in
a half-hearted attempt to make a night of it, and finally back again to
his menaced home, where he sat down fatigued behind the counter, and they
crowded urgently round him, like a pack of hungry black hounds. After
locking up the house and putting out the gas he took them upstairs with
him—a dreadful escort for a man going to bed. His wife had preceded him
some time before, and with her ample form defined vaguely under the
counterpane, her head on the pillow, and a hand under the cheek offered
to his distraction the view of early drowsiness arguing the possession of
an equable soul. Her big eyes stared wide open, inert and dark against
the snowy whiteness of the linen. She did not move.
She had an equable soul. She felt profoundly that things do not stand
much looking into. She made her force and her wisdom of that instinct.
But the taciturnity of Mr Verloc had been lying heavily upon her for a
good many days. It was, as a matter of fact, affecting her nerves.
Recumbent and motionless, she said placidly:
“You’ll catch cold walking about in your socks like this.”
This speech, becoming the solicitude of the wife and the prudence of the
woman, took Mr Verloc unawares. He had left his boots downstairs, but he
had forgotten to put on his slippers, and he had been turning about the
bedroom on noiseless pads like a bear in a cage. At the sound of his
wife’s voice he stopped and stared at her with a somnambulistic,
expressionless gaze so long that Mrs Verloc moved her limbs slightly
under the bed-clothes. But she did not move her black head sunk in the
white pillow one hand under her cheek and the big, dark, unwinking eyes.
Under her husband’s expressionless stare, and remembering her mother’s
empty room across the landing, she felt an acute pang of loneliness. She
had never been parted from her mother before. They had stood by each
other. She felt that they had, and she said to herself that now mother
was gone—gone for good. Mrs Verloc had no illusions. Stevie remained,
however. And she said:
“Mother’s done what she wanted to do. There’s no sense in it that I can
see. I’m sure she couldn’t have thought you had enough of her. It’s
perfectly wicked, leaving us like that.”
Mr Verloc was not a well-read person; his range of allusive phrases was
limited, but there was a peculiar aptness in circumstances which made him
think of rats leaving a doomed ship. He very nearly said so. He had
grown suspicious and embittered. Could it be that the old woman had such
an excellent nose? But the unreasonableness of such a suspicion was
patent, and Mr Verloc held his tongue. Not altogether, however. He
“Perhaps it’s just as well.”
He began to undress. Mrs Verloc kept very still, perfectly still, with
her eyes fixed in a dreamy, quiet stare. And her heart for the fraction
of a second seemed to stand still too. That night she was “not quite
herself,” as the saying is, and it was borne upon her with some force
that a simple sentence may hold several diverse meanings—mostly
disagreeable. How was it just as well? And why? But she did not allow
herself to fall into the idleness of barren speculation. She was rather
confirmed in her belief that things did not stand being looked into.
Practical and subtle in her way, she brought Stevie to the front without
loss of time, because in her the singleness of purpose had the unerring
nature and the force of an instinct.
“What I am going to do to cheer up that boy for the first few days I’m
sure I don’t know. He’ll be worrying himself from morning till night
before he gets used to mother being away. And he’s such a good boy. I
couldn’t do without him.”
Mr Verloc went on divesting himself of his clothing with the unnoticing
inward concentration of a man undressing in the solitude of a vast and
hopeless desert. For thus inhospitably did this fair earth, our common
inheritance, present itself to the mental vision of Mr Verloc. All was
so still without and within that the lonely ticking of the clock on the
landing stole into the room as if for the sake of company.
Mr Verloc, getting into bed on his own side, remained prone and mute
behind Mrs Verloc’s back. His thick arms rested abandoned on the outside
of the counterpane like dropped weapons, like discarded tools. At that
moment he was within a hair’s breadth of making a clean breast of it all
to his wife. The moment seemed propitious. Looking out of the corners
of his eyes, he saw her ample shoulders draped in white, the back of her
head, with the hair done for the night in three plaits tied up with black
tapes at the ends. And he forbore. Mr Verloc loved his wife as a wife
should be loved—that is, maritally, with the regard one has for one’s
chief possession. This head arranged for the night, those ample
shoulders, had an aspect of familiar sacredness—the sacredness of
domestic peace. She moved not, massive and shapeless like a recumbent
statue in the rough; he remembered her wide-open eyes looking into the
empty room. She was mysterious, with the mysteriousness of living
beings. The far-famed secret agent [delta] of the late Baron
Stott-Wartenheim’s alarmist despatches was not the man to break into such
mysteries. He was easily intimidated. And he was also indolent, with
the indolence which is so often the secret of good nature. He forbore
touching that mystery out of love, timidity, and indolence. There would
be always time enough. For several minutes he bore his sufferings
silently in the drowsy silence of the room. And then he disturbed it by
a resolute declaration.
“I am going on the Continent to-morrow.”
His wife might have fallen asleep already. He could not tell. As a
matter of fact, Mrs Verloc had heard him. Her eyes remained very wide
open, and she lay very still, confirmed in her instinctive conviction
that things don’t bear looking into very much. And yet it was nothing
very unusual for Mr Verloc to take such a trip. He renewed his stock
from Paris and Brussels. Often he went over to make his purchases
personally. A little select connection of amateurs was forming around
the shop in Brett Street, a secret connection eminently proper for any
business undertaken by Mr Verloc, who, by a mystic accord of temperament
and necessity, had been set apart to be a secret agent all his life.
He waited for a while, then added: “I’ll be away a week or perhaps a
fortnight. Get Mrs Neale to come for the day.”
Mrs Neale was the charwoman of Brett Street. Victim of her marriage with
a debauched joiner, she was oppressed by the needs of many infant
children. Red-armed, and aproned in coarse sacking up to the arm-pits,
she exhaled the anguish of the poor in a breath of soap-suds and rum, in
the uproar of scrubbing, in the clatter of tin pails.
Mrs Verloc, full of deep purpose, spoke in the tone of the shallowest
“There is no need to have the woman here all day. I shall do very well
She let the lonely clock on the landing count off fifteen ticks into the
abyss of eternity, and asked:
“Shall I put the light out?”
Mr Verloc snapped at his wife huskily.
“Put it out.”
Mr Verloc returning from the Continent at the end of ten days, brought
back a mind evidently unrefreshed by the wonders of foreign travel and a
countenance unlighted by the joys of home-coming. He entered in the
clatter of the shop bell with an air of sombre and vexed exhaustion. His
bag in hand, his head lowered, he strode straight behind the counter, and
let himself fall into the chair, as though he had tramped all the way
from Dover. It was early morning. Stevie, dusting various objects
displayed in the front windows, turned to gape at him with reverence and
“Here!” said Mr Verloc, giving a slight kick to the gladstone bag on the
floor; and Stevie flung himself upon it, seized it, bore it off with
triumphant devotion. He was so prompt that Mr Verloc was distinctly
Already at the clatter of the shop bell Mrs Neale, blackleading the
parlour grate, had looked through the door, and rising from her knees had
gone, aproned, and grimy with everlasting toil, to tell Mrs Verloc in the
kitchen that “there was the master come back.”
Winnie came no farther than the inner shop door.
“You’ll want some breakfast,” she said from a distance.
Mr Verloc moved his hands slightly, as if overcome by an impossible
suggestion. But once enticed into the parlour he did not reject the food
set before him. He ate as if in a public place, his hat pushed off his
forehead, the skirts of his heavy overcoat hanging in a triangle on each
side of the chair. And across the length of the table covered with brown
oil-cloth Winnie, his wife, talked evenly at him the wifely talk, as
artfully adapted, no doubt, to the circumstances of this return as the
talk of Penelope to the return of the wandering Odysseus. Mrs Verloc,
however, had done no weaving during her husband’s absence. But she had
had all the upstairs room cleaned thoroughly, had sold some wares, had
seen Mr Michaelis several times. He had told her the last time that he
was going away to live in a cottage in the country, somewhere on the
London, Chatham, and Dover line. Karl Yundt had come too, once, led
under the arm by that “wicked old housekeeper of his.” He was “a
disgusting old man.” Of Comrade Ossipon, whom she had received curtly,
entrenched behind the counter with a stony face and a faraway gaze, she
said nothing, her mental reference to the robust anarchist being marked
by a short pause, with the faintest possible blush. And bringing in her
brother Stevie as soon as she could into the current of domestic events,
she mentioned that the boy had moped a good deal.
“It’s all along of mother leaving us like this.”
Mr Verloc neither said, “Damn!” nor yet “Stevie be hanged!” And Mrs
Verloc, not let into the secret of his thoughts, failed to appreciate the
generosity of this restraint.
“It isn’t that he doesn’t work as well as ever,” she continued. “He’s
been making himself very useful. You’d think he couldn’t do enough for
Mr Verloc directed a casual and somnolent glance at Stevie, who sat on
his right, delicate, pale-faced, his rosy mouth open vacantly. It was
not a critical glance. It had no intention. And if Mr Verloc thought
for a moment that his wife’s brother looked uncommonly useless, it was
only a dull and fleeting thought, devoid of that force and durability
which enables sometimes a thought to move the world. Leaning back, Mr
Verloc uncovered his head. Before his extended arm could put down the
hat Stevie pounced upon it, and bore it off reverently into the kitchen.
And again Mr Verloc was surprised.
“You could do anything with that boy, Adolf,” Mrs Verloc said, with her
best air of inflexible calmness. “He would go through fire for you.
She paused attentive, her ear turned towards the door of the kitchen.
There Mrs Neale was scrubbing the floor. At Stevie’s appearance she
groaned lamentably, having observed that he could be induced easily to
bestow for the benefit of her infant children the shilling his sister
Winnie presented him with from time to time. On all fours amongst the
puddles, wet and begrimed, like a sort of amphibious and domestic animal
living in ash-bins and dirty water, she uttered the usual exordium: “It’s
all very well for you, kept doing nothing like a gentleman.” And she
followed it with the everlasting plaint of the poor, pathetically
mendacious, miserably authenticated by the horrible breath of cheap rum
and soap-suds. She scrubbed hard, snuffling all the time, and talking
volubly. And she was sincere. And on each side of her thin red nose her
bleared, misty eyes swam in tears, because she felt really the want of
some sort of stimulant in the morning.
In the parlour Mrs Verloc observed, with knowledge:
“There’s Mrs Neale at it again with her harrowing tales about her little
children. They can’t be all so little as she makes them out. Some of
them must be big enough by now to try to do something for themselves. It
only makes Stevie angry.”
These words were confirmed by a thud as of a fist striking the kitchen
table. In the normal evolution of his sympathy Stevie had become angry
on discovering that he had no shilling in his pocket. In his inability
to relieve at once Mrs Neale’s “little ’uns’” privations, he felt that
somebody should be made to suffer for it. Mrs Verloc rose, and went into
the kitchen to “stop that nonsense.” And she did it firmly but gently.
She was well aware that directly Mrs Neale received her money she went
round the corner to drink ardent spirits in a mean and musty
public-house—the unavoidable station on the _via dolorosa_ of her life.
Mrs Verloc’s comment upon this practice had an unexpected profundity, as
coming from a person disinclined to look under the surface of things.
“Of course, what is she to do to keep up? If I were like Mrs Neale I
expect I wouldn’t act any different.”
In the afternoon of the same day, as Mr Verloc, coming with a start out
of the last of a long series of dozes before the parlour fire, declared
his intention of going out for a walk, Winnie said from the shop:
“I wish you would take that boy out with you, Adolf.”
For the third time that day Mr Verloc was surprised. He stared stupidly
at his wife. She continued in her steady manner. The boy, whenever he
was not doing anything, moped in the house. It made her uneasy; it made
her nervous, she confessed. And that from the calm Winnie sounded like
exaggeration. But, in truth, Stevie moped in the striking fashion of an
unhappy domestic animal. He would go up on the dark landing, to sit on
the floor at the foot of the tall clock, with his knees drawn up and his
head in his hands. To come upon his pallid face, with its big eyes
gleaming in the dusk, was discomposing; to think of him up there was
Mr Verloc got used to the startling novelty of the idea. He was fond of
his wife as a man should be—that is, generously. But a weighty objection
presented itself to his mind, and he formulated it.
“He’ll lose sight of me perhaps, and get lost in the street,” he said.
Mrs Verloc shook her head competently.
“He won’t. You don’t know him. That boy just worships you. But if you
should miss him—”
Mrs Verloc paused for a moment, but only for a moment.
“You just go on, and have your walk out. Don’t worry. He’ll be all
right. He’s sure to turn up safe here before very long.”
This optimism procured for Mr Verloc his fourth surprise of the day.
“Is he?” he grunted doubtfully. But perhaps his brother-in-law was not
such an idiot as he looked. His wife would know best. He turned away
his heavy eyes, saying huskily: “Well, let him come along, then,” and
relapsed into the clutches of black care, that perhaps prefers to sit
behind a horseman, but knows also how to tread close on the heels of
people not sufficiently well off to keep horses—like Mr Verloc, for
Winnie, at the shop door, did not see this fatal attendant upon Mr
Verloc’s walks. She watched the two figures down the squalid street, one
tall and burly, the other slight and short, with a thin neck, and the
peaked shoulders raised slightly under the large semi-transparent ears.
The material of their overcoats was the same, their hats were black and
round in shape. Inspired by the similarity of wearing apparel, Mrs
Verloc gave rein to her fancy.
“Might be father and son,” she said to herself. She thought also that Mr
Verloc was as much of a father as poor Stevie ever had in his life. She
was aware also that it was her work. And with peaceful pride she
congratulated herself on a certain resolution she had taken a few years
before. It had cost her some effort, and even a few tears.
She congratulated herself still more on observing in the course of days
that Mr Verloc seemed to be taking kindly to Stevie’s companionship.
Now, when ready to go out for his walk, Mr Verloc called aloud to the
boy, in the spirit, no doubt, in which a man invites the attendance of
the household dog, though, of course, in a different manner. In the
house Mr Verloc could be detected staring curiously at Stevie a good
deal. His own demeanour had changed. Taciturn still, he was not so
listless. Mrs Verloc thought that he was rather jumpy at times. It
might have been regarded as an improvement. As to Stevie, he moped no
longer at the foot of the clock, but muttered to himself in corners
instead in a threatening tone. When asked “What is it you’re saying,
Stevie?” he merely opened his mouth, and squinted at his sister. At odd
times he clenched his fists without apparent cause, and when discovered
in solitude would be scowling at the wall, with the sheet of paper and
the pencil given him for drawing circles lying blank and idle on the
kitchen table. This was a change, but it was no improvement. Mrs Verloc
including all these vagaries under the general definition of excitement,
began to fear that Stevie was hearing more than was good for him of her
husband’s conversations with his friends. During his “walks” Mr Verloc,
of course, met and conversed with various persons. It could hardly be
otherwise. His walks were an integral part of his outdoor activities,
which his wife had never looked deeply into. Mrs Verloc felt that the
position was delicate, but she faced it with the same impenetrable
calmness which impressed and even astonished the customers of the shop
and made the other visitors keep their distance a little wonderingly.
No! She feared that there were things not good for Stevie to hear of,
she told her husband. It only excited the poor boy, because he could not
help them being so. Nobody could.
It was in the shop. Mr Verloc made no comment. He made no retort, and
yet the retort was obvious. But he refrained from pointing out to his
wife that the idea of making Stevie the companion of his walks was her
own, and nobody else’s. At that moment, to an impartial observer, Mr
Verloc would have appeared more than human in his magnanimity. He took
down a small cardboard box from a shelf, peeped in to see that the
contents were all right, and put it down gently on the counter. Not till
that was done did he break the silence, to the effect that most likely
Stevie would profit greatly by being sent out of town for a while; only
he supposed his wife could not get on without him.
“Could not get on without him!” repeated Mrs Verloc slowly. “I couldn’t
get on without him if it were for his good! The idea! Of course, I can
get on without him. But there’s nowhere for him to go.”
Mr Verloc got out some brown paper and a ball of string; and meanwhile he
muttered that Michaelis was living in a little cottage in the country.
Michaelis wouldn’t mind giving Stevie a room to sleep in. There were no
visitors and no talk there. Michaelis was writing a book.
Mrs Verloc declared her affection for Michaelis; mentioned her abhorrence
of Karl Yundt, “nasty old man”; and of Ossipon she said nothing. As to
Stevie, he could be no other than very pleased. Mr Michaelis was always
so nice and kind to him. He seemed to like the boy. Well, the boy was a
“You too seem to have grown quite fond of him of late,” she added, after
a pause, with her inflexible assurance.
Mr Verloc tying up the cardboard box into a parcel for the post, broke
the string by an injudicious jerk, and muttered several swear words
confidentially to himself. Then raising his tone to the usual husky
mutter, he announced his willingness to take Stevie into the country
himself, and leave him all safe with Michaelis.
He carried out this scheme on the very next day. Stevie offered no
objection. He seemed rather eager, in a bewildered sort of way. He
turned his candid gaze inquisitively to Mr Verloc’s heavy countenance at
frequent intervals, especially when his sister was not looking at him.
His expression was proud, apprehensive, and concentrated, like that of a
small child entrusted for the first time with a box of matches and the
permission to strike a light. But Mrs Verloc, gratified by her brother’s
docility, recommended him not to dirty his clothes unduly in the country.
At this Stevie gave his sister, guardian and protector a look, which for
the first time in his life seemed to lack the quality of perfect
childlike trustfulness. It was haughtily gloomy. Mrs Verloc smiled.
“Goodness me! You needn’t be offended. You know you do get yourself
very untidy when you get a chance, Stevie.”
Mr Verloc was already gone some way down the street.
Thus in consequence of her mother’s heroic proceedings, and of her
brother’s absence on this villegiature, Mrs Verloc found herself oftener
than usual all alone not only in the shop, but in the house. For Mr
Verloc had to take his walks. She was alone longer than usual on the day
of the attempted bomb outrage in Greenwich Park, because Mr Verloc went
out very early that morning and did not come back till nearly dusk. She
did not mind being alone. She had no desire to go out. The weather was
too bad, and the shop was cosier than the streets. Sitting behind the
counter with some sewing, she did not raise her eyes from her work when
Mr Verloc entered in the aggressive clatter of the bell. She had
recognised his step on the pavement outside.
She did not raise her eyes, but as Mr Verloc, silent, and with his hat
rammed down upon his forehead, made straight for the parlour door, she
“What a wretched day. You’ve been perhaps to see Stevie?”
“No! I haven’t,” said Mr Verloc softly, and slammed the glazed parlour
door behind him with unexpected energy.
For some time Mrs Verloc remained quiescent, with her work dropped in her
lap, before she put it away under the counter and got up to light the
gas. This done, she went into the parlour on her way to the kitchen. Mr
Verloc would want his tea presently. Confident of the power of her
charms, Winnie did not expect from her husband in the daily intercourse
of their married life a ceremonious amenity of address and courtliness of
manner; vain and antiquated forms at best, probably never very exactly
observed, discarded nowadays even in the highest spheres, and always
foreign to the standards of her class. She did not look for courtesies
from him. But he was a good husband, and she had a loyal respect for his
Mrs Verloc would have gone through the parlour and on to her domestic
duties in the kitchen with the perfect serenity of a woman sure of the
power of her charms. But a slight, very slight, and rapid rattling sound
grew upon her hearing. Bizarre and incomprehensible, it arrested Mrs
Verloc’s attention. Then as its character became plain to the ear she
stopped short, amazed and concerned. Striking a match on the box she
held in her hand, she turned on and lighted, above the parlour table, one
of the two gas-burners, which, being defective, first whistled as if
astonished, and then went on purring comfortably like a cat.
Mr Verloc, against his usual practice, had thrown off his overcoat. It
was lying on the sofa. His hat, which he must also have thrown off,
rested overturned under the edge of the sofa. He had dragged a chair in
front of the fireplace, and his feet planted inside the fender, his head
held between his hands, he was hanging low over the glowing grate. His
teeth rattled with an ungovernable violence, causing his whole enormous
back to tremble at the same rate. Mrs Verloc was startled.
“You’ve been getting wet,” she said.
“Not very,” Mr Verloc managed to falter out, in a profound shudder. By a
great effort he suppressed the rattling of his teeth.
“I’ll have you laid up on my hands,” she said, with genuine uneasiness.
“I don’t think so,” remarked Mr Verloc, snuffling huskily.
He had certainly contrived somehow to catch an abominable cold between
seven in the morning and five in the afternoon. Mrs Verloc looked at his
“Where have you been to-day?” she asked.
“Nowhere,” answered Mr Verloc in a low, choked nasal tone. His attitude
suggested aggrieved sulks or a severe headache. The unsufficiency and
uncandidness of his answer became painfully apparent in the dead silence
of the room. He snuffled apologetically, and added: “I’ve been to the
Mrs Verloc became attentive.
“You have!” she said dispassionately. “What for?”
Mr Verloc mumbled, with his nose over the grate, and with marked
“Draw the money out!”
“What do you mean? All of it?”
“Yes. All of it.”
Mrs Verloc spread out with care the scanty table-cloth, got two knives
and two forks out of the table drawer, and suddenly stopped in her
“What did you do that for?”
“May want it soon,” snuffled vaguely Mr Verloc, who was coming to the end
of his calculated indiscretions.
“I don’t know what you mean,” remarked his wife in a tone perfectly
casual, but standing stock still between the table and the cupboard.
“You know you can trust me,” Mr Verloc remarked to the grate, with hoarse
Mrs Verloc turned slowly towards the cupboard, saying with deliberation:
“Oh yes. I can trust you.”
And she went on with her methodical proceedings. She laid two plates,
got the bread, the butter, going to and fro quietly between the table and
the cupboard in the peace and silence of her home. On the point of
taking out the jam, she reflected practically: “He will be feeling
hungry, having been away all day,” and she returned to the cupboard once
more to get the cold beef. She set it under the purring gas-jet, and
with a passing glance at her motionless husband hugging the fire, she
went (down two steps) into the kitchen. It was only when coming back,
carving knife and fork in hand, that she spoke again.
“If I hadn’t trusted you I wouldn’t have married you.”
Bowed under the overmantel, Mr Verloc, holding his head in both hands,
seemed to have gone to sleep. Winnie made the tea, and called out in an
Mr Verloc got up at once, and staggered a little before he sat down at
the table. His wife examining the sharp edge of the carving knife,
placed it on the dish, and called his attention to the cold beef. He
remained insensible to the suggestion, with his chin on his breast.
“You should feed your cold,” Mrs Verloc said dogmatically.
He looked up, and shook his head. His eyes were bloodshot and his face
red. His fingers had ruffled his hair into a dissipated untidiness.
Altogether he had a disreputable aspect, expressive of the discomfort,
the irritation and the gloom following a heavy debauch. But Mr Verloc
was not a debauched man. In his conduct he was respectable. His
appearance might have been the effect of a feverish cold. He drank three
cups of tea, but abstained from food entirely. He recoiled from it with
sombre aversion when urged by Mrs Verloc, who said at last:
“Aren’t your feet wet? You had better put on your slippers. You aren’t
going out any more this evening.”
Mr Verloc intimated by morose grunts and signs that his feet were not
wet, and that anyhow he did not care. The proposal as to slippers was
disregarded as beneath his notice. But the question of going out in the
evening received an unexpected development. It was not of going out in
the evening that Mr Verloc was thinking. His thoughts embraced a vaster
scheme. From moody and incomplete phrases it became apparent that Mr
Verloc had been considering the expediency of emigrating. It was not
very clear whether he had in his mind France or California.
The utter unexpectedness, improbability, and inconceivableness of such an
event robbed this vague declaration of all its effect. Mrs Verloc, as
placidly as if her husband had been threatening her with the end of the
Mr Verloc declared himself sick and tired of everything, and besides—She
“You’ve a bad cold.”
It was indeed obvious that Mr Verloc was not in his usual state,
physically and even mentally. A sombre irresolution held him silent for
a while. Then he murmured a few ominous generalities on the theme of
“Will have to,” repeated Winnie, sitting calmly back, with folded arms,
opposite her husband. “I should like to know who’s to make you. You
ain’t a slave. No one need be a slave in this country—and don’t you make
yourself one.” She paused, and with invincible and steady candour. “The
business isn’t so bad,” she went on. “You’ve a comfortable home.”
She glanced all round the parlour, from the corner cupboard to the good
fire in the grate. Ensconced cosily behind the shop of doubtful wares,
with the mysteriously dim window, and its door suspiciously ajar in the
obscure and narrow street, it was in all essentials of domestic propriety
and domestic comfort a respectable home. Her devoted affection missed
out of it her brother Stevie, now enjoying a damp villegiature in the
Kentish lanes under the care of Mr Michaelis. She missed him poignantly,
with all the force of her protecting passion. This was the boy’s home
too—the roof, the cupboard, the stoked grate. On this thought Mrs Verloc
rose, and walking to the other end of the table, said in the fulness of
“And you are not tired of me.”
Mr Verloc made no sound. Winnie leaned on his shoulder from behind, and
pressed her lips to his forehead. Thus she lingered. Not a whisper
reached them from the outside world.
The sound of footsteps on the pavement died out in the discreet dimness
of the shop. Only the gas-jet above the table went on purring equably in
the brooding silence of the parlour.
During the contact of that unexpected and lingering kiss Mr Verloc,
gripping with both hands the edges of his chair, preserved a hieratic
immobility. When the pressure was removed he let go the chair, rose, and
went to stand before the fireplace. He turned no longer his back to the
room. With his features swollen and an air of being drugged, he followed
his wife’s movements with his eyes.
Mrs Verloc went about serenely, clearing up the table. Her tranquil
voice commented the idea thrown out in a reasonable and domestic tone.
It wouldn’t stand examination. She condemned it from every point of
view. But her only real concern was Stevie’s welfare. He appeared to
her thought in that connection as sufficiently “peculiar” not to be taken
rashly abroad. And that was all. But talking round that vital point,
she approached absolute vehemence in her delivery. Meanwhile, with
brusque movements, she arrayed herself in an apron for the washing up of
cups. And as if excited by the sound of her uncontradicted voice, she
went so far as to say in a tone almost tart:
“If you go abroad you’ll have to go without me.”
“You know I wouldn’t,” said Mr Verloc huskily, and the unresonant voice
of his private life trembled with an enigmatical emotion.
Already Mrs Verloc was regretting her words. They had sounded more
unkind than she meant them to be. They had also the unwisdom of
unnecessary things. In fact, she had not meant them at all. It was a
sort of phrase that is suggested by the demon of perverse inspiration.
But she knew a way to make it as if it had not been.
She turned her head over her shoulder and gave that man planted heavily
in front of the fireplace a glance, half arch, half cruel, out of her
large eyes—a glance of which the Winnie of the Belgravian mansion days
would have been incapable, because of her respectability and her
ignorance. But the man was her husband now, and she was no longer
ignorant. She kept it on him for a whole second, with her grave face
motionless like a mask, while she said playfully:
“You couldn’t. You would miss me too much.”
Mr Verloc started forward.
“Exactly,” he said in a louder tone, throwing his arms out and making a
step towards her. Something wild and doubtful in his expression made it
appear uncertain whether he meant to strangle or to embrace his wife.
But Mrs Verloc’s attention was called away from that manifestation by the
clatter of the shop bell.
“Shop, Adolf. You go.”
He stopped, his arms came down slowly.
“You go,” repeated Mrs Verloc. “I’ve got my apron on.”
Mr Verloc obeyed woodenly, stony-eyed, and like an automaton whose face
had been painted red. And this resemblance to a mechanical figure went
so far that he had an automaton’s absurd air of being aware of the
machinery inside of him.
He closed the parlour door, and Mrs Verloc moving briskly, carried the
tray into the kitchen. She washed the cups and some other things before
she stopped in her work to listen. No sound reached her. The customer
was a long time in the shop. It was a customer, because if he had not
been Mr Verloc would have taken him inside. Undoing the strings of her
apron with a jerk, she threw it on a chair, and walked back to the
At that precise moment Mr Verloc entered from the shop.
He had gone in red. He came out a strange papery white. His face,
losing its drugged, feverish stupor, had in that short time acquired a
bewildered and harassed expression. He walked straight to the sofa, and
stood looking down at his overcoat lying there, as though he were afraid
to touch it.
“What’s the matter?” asked Mrs Verloc in a subdued voice. Through the
door left ajar she could see that the customer was not gone yet.
“I find I’ll have to go out this evening,” said Mr Verloc. He did not
attempt to pick up his outer garment.
Without a word Winnie made for the shop, and shutting the door after her,
walked in behind the counter. She did not look overtly at the customer
till she had established herself comfortably on the chair. But by that
time she had noted that he was tall and thin, and wore his moustaches
twisted up. In fact, he gave the sharp points a twist just then. His
long, bony face rose out of a turned-up collar. He was a little
splashed, a little wet. A dark man, with the ridge of the cheek-bone
well defined under the slightly hollow temple. A complete stranger. Not
a customer either.
Mrs Verloc looked at him placidly.
“You came over from the Continent?” she said after a time.
The long, thin stranger, without exactly looking at Mrs Verloc, answered
only by a faint and peculiar smile.
Mrs Verloc’s steady, incurious gaze rested on him.
“You understand English, don’t you?”
“Oh yes. I understand English.”
There was nothing foreign in his accent, except that he seemed in his
slow enunciation to be taking pains with it. And Mrs Verloc, in her
varied experience, had come to the conclusion that some foreigners could
speak better English than the natives. She said, looking at the door of
the parlour fixedly:
“You don’t think perhaps of staying in England for good?”
The stranger gave her again a silent smile. He had a kindly mouth and
probing eyes. And he shook his head a little sadly, it seemed.
“My husband will see you through all right. Meantime for a few days you
couldn’t do better than take lodgings with Mr Giugliani. Continental
Hotel it’s called. Private. It’s quiet. My husband will take you
“A good idea,” said the thin, dark man, whose glance had hardened
“You knew Mr Verloc before—didn’t you? Perhaps in France?”
“I have heard of him,” admitted the visitor in his slow, painstaking
tone, which yet had a certain curtness of intention.
There was a pause. Then he spoke again, in a far less elaborate manner.
“Your husband has not gone out to wait for me in the street by chance?”
“In the street!” repeated Mrs Verloc, surprised. “He couldn’t. There’s
no other door to the house.”
For a moment she sat impassive, then left her seat to go and peep through
the glazed door. Suddenly she opened it, and disappeared into the
Mr Verloc had done no more than put on his overcoat. But why he should
remain afterwards leaning over the table propped up on his two arms as
though he were feeling giddy or sick, she could not understand. “Adolf,”
she called out half aloud; and when he had raised himself:
“Do you know that man?” she asked rapidly.
“I’ve heard of him,” whispered uneasily Mr Verloc, darting a wild glance
at the door.
Mrs Verloc’s fine, incurious eyes lighted up with a flash of abhorrence.
“One of Karl Yundt’s friends—beastly old man.”
“No! No!” protested Mr Verloc, busy fishing for his hat. But when he
got it from under the sofa he held it as if he did not know the use of a
“Well—he’s waiting for you,” said Mrs Verloc at last. “I say, Adolf, he
ain’t one of them Embassy people you have been bothered with of late?”
“Bothered with Embassy people,” repeated Mr Verloc, with a heavy start of
surprise and fear. “Who’s been talking to you of the Embassy people?”
“I! I! Talked of the Embassy to you!”
Mr Verloc seemed scared and bewildered beyond measure. His wife
“You’ve been talking a little in your sleep of late, Adolf.”
“What—what did I say? What do you know?”
“Nothing much. It seemed mostly nonsense. Enough to let me guess that
something worried you.”
Mr Verloc rammed his hat on his head. A crimson flood of anger ran over
“Nonsense—eh? The Embassy people! I would cut their hearts out one
after another. But let them look out. I’ve got a tongue in my head.”
He fumed, pacing up and down between the table and the sofa, his open
overcoat catching against the angles. The red flood of anger ebbed out,
and left his face all white, with quivering nostrils. Mrs Verloc, for
the purposes of practical existence, put down these appearances to the
“Well,” she said, “get rid of the man, whoever he is, as soon as you can,
and come back home to me. You want looking after for a day or two.”
Mr Verloc calmed down, and, with resolution imprinted on his pale face,
had already opened the door, when his wife called him back in a whisper:
“Adolf! Adolf!” He came back startled. “What about that money you drew
out?” she asked. “You’ve got it in your pocket? Hadn’t you better—”
Mr Verloc gazed stupidly into the palm of his wife’s extended hand for
some time before he slapped his brow.
“Money! Yes! Yes! I didn’t know what you meant.”
He drew out of his breast pocket a new pigskin pocket-book. Mrs Verloc
received it without another word, and stood still till the bell,
clattering after Mr Verloc and Mr Verloc’s visitor, had quieted down.
Only then she peeped in at the amount, drawing the notes out for the
purpose. After this inspection she looked round thoughtfully, with an
air of mistrust in the silence and solitude of the house. This abode of
her married life appeared to her as lonely and unsafe as though it had
been situated in the midst of a forest. No receptacle she could think of
amongst the solid, heavy furniture seemed other but flimsy and
particularly tempting to her conception of a house-breaker. It was an
ideal conception, endowed with sublime faculties and a miraculous
insight. The till was not to be thought of. It was the first spot a
thief would make for. Mrs Verloc unfastening hastily a couple of hooks,
slipped the pocket-book under the bodice of her dress. Having thus
disposed of her husband’s capital, she was rather glad to hear the
clatter of the door bell, announcing an arrival. Assuming the fixed,
unabashed stare and the stony expression reserved for the casual
customer, she walked in behind the counter.
A man standing in the middle of the shop was inspecting it with a swift,
cool, all-round glance. His eyes ran over the walls, took in the
ceiling, noted the floor—all in a moment. The points of a long fair
moustache fell below the line of the jaw. He smiled the smile of an old
if distant acquaintance, and Mrs Verloc remembered having seen him
before. Not a customer. She softened her “customer stare” to mere
indifference, and faced him across the counter.
He approached, on his side, confidentially, but not too markedly so.
“Husband at home, Mrs Verloc?” he asked in an easy, full tone.
“No. He’s gone out.”
“I am sorry for that. I’ve called to get from him a little private
This was the exact truth. Chief Inspector Heat had been all the way
home, and had even gone so far as to think of getting into his slippers,
since practically he was, he told himself, chucked out of that case. He
indulged in some scornful and in a few angry thoughts, and found the
occupation so unsatisfactory that he resolved to seek relief out of
doors. Nothing prevented him paying a friendly call to Mr Verloc,
casually as it were. It was in the character of a private citizen that
walking out privately he made use of his customary conveyances. Their
general direction was towards Mr Verloc’s home. Chief Inspector Heat
respected his own private character so consistently that he took especial
pains to avoid all the police constables on point and patrol duty in the
vicinity of Brett Street. This precaution was much more necessary for a
man of his standing than for an obscure Assistant Commissioner. Private
Citizen Heat entered the street, manoeuvring in a way which in a member
of the criminal classes would have been stigmatised as slinking. The
piece of cloth picked up in Greenwich was in his pocket. Not that he had
the slightest intention of producing it in his private capacity. On the
contrary, he wanted to know just what Mr Verloc would be disposed to say
voluntarily. He hoped Mr Verloc’s talk would be of a nature to
incriminate Michaelis. It was a conscientiously professional hope in the
main, but not without its moral value. For Chief Inspector Heat was a
servant of justice. Finding Mr Verloc from home, he felt disappointed.
“I would wait for him a little if I were sure he wouldn’t be long,” he
Mrs Verloc volunteered no assurance of any kind.
“The information I need is quite private,” he repeated. “You understand
what I mean? I wonder if you could give me a notion where he’s gone to?”
Mrs Verloc shook her head.
She turned away to range some boxes on the shelves behind the counter.
Chief Inspector Heat looked at her thoughtfully for a time.
“I suppose you know who I am?” he said.
Mrs Verloc glanced over her shoulder. Chief Inspector Heat was amazed at
“Come! You know I am in the police,” he said sharply.
“I don’t trouble my head much about it,” Mrs Verloc remarked, returning
to the ranging of her boxes.
“My name is Heat. Chief Inspector Heat of the Special Crimes section.”
Mrs Verloc adjusted nicely in its place a small cardboard box, and
turning round, faced him again, heavy-eyed, with idle hands hanging down.
A silence reigned for a time.
“So your husband went out a quarter of an hour ago! And he didn’t say
when he would be back?”
“He didn’t go out alone,” Mrs Verloc let fall negligently.
Mrs Verloc touched the back of her hair. It was in perfect order.
“A stranger who called.”
“I see. What sort of man was that stranger? Would you mind telling me?”
Mrs Verloc did not mind. And when Chief Inspector Heat heard of a man
dark, thin, with a long face and turned up moustaches, he gave signs of
perturbation, and exclaimed:
“Dash me if I didn’t think so! He hasn’t lost any time.”
He was intensely disgusted in the secrecy of his heart at the unofficial
conduct of his immediate chief. But he was not quixotic. He lost all
desire to await Mr Verloc’s return. What they had gone out for he did
not know, but he imagined it possible that they would return together.
The case is not followed properly, it’s being tampered with, he thought
“I am afraid I haven’t time to wait for your husband,” he said.
Mrs Verloc received this declaration listlessly. Her detachment had
impressed Chief Inspector Heat all along. At this precise moment it
whetted his curiosity. Chief Inspector Heat hung in the wind, swayed by
his passions like the most private of citizens.
“I think,” he said, looking at her steadily, “that you could give me a
pretty good notion of what’s going on if you liked.”
Forcing her fine, inert eyes to return his gaze, Mrs Verloc murmured:
“Going on! What _is_ going on?”
“Why, the affair I came to talk about a little with your husband.”
That day Mrs Verloc had glanced at a morning paper as usual. But she had
not stirred out of doors. The newsboys never invaded Brett Street. It
was not a street for their business. And the echo of their cries
drifting along the populous thoroughfares, expired between the dirty
brick walls without reaching the threshold of the shop. Her husband had
not brought an evening paper home. At any rate she had not seen it. Mrs
Verloc knew nothing whatever of any affair. And she said so, with a
genuine note of wonder in her quiet voice.
Chief Inspector Heat did not believe for a moment in so much ignorance.
Curtly, without amiability, he stated the bare fact.
Mrs Verloc turned away her eyes.
“I call it silly,” she pronounced slowly. She paused. “We ain’t
downtrodden slaves here.”
The Chief Inspector waited watchfully. Nothing more came.
“And your husband didn’t mention anything to you when he came home?”
Mrs Verloc simply turned her face from right to left in sign of negation.
A languid, baffling silence reigned in the shop. Chief Inspector Heat
felt provoked beyond endurance.
“There was another small matter,” he began in a detached tone, “which I
wanted to speak to your husband about. There came into our hands
a—a—what we believe is—a stolen overcoat.”
Mrs Verloc, with her mind specially aware of thieves that evening,
touched lightly the bosom of her dress.
“We have lost no overcoat,” she said calmly.
“That’s funny,” continued Private Citizen Heat. “I see you keep a lot of
marking ink here—”
He took up a small bottle, and looked at it against the gas-jet in the
middle of the shop.
“Purple—isn’t it?” he remarked, setting it down again. “As I said, it’s
strange. Because the overcoat has got a label sewn on the inside with
your address written in marking ink.”
Mrs Verloc leaned over the counter with a low exclamation.
“That’s my brother’s, then.”
“Where’s your brother? Can I see him?” asked the Chief Inspector
briskly. Mrs Verloc leaned a little more over the counter.
“No. He isn’t here. I wrote that label myself.”
“Where’s your brother now?”
“He’s been away living with—a friend—in the country.”
“The overcoat comes from the country. And what’s the name of the
“Michaelis,” confessed Mrs Verloc in an awed whisper.
The Chief Inspector let out a whistle. His eyes snapped.
“Just so. Capital. And your brother now, what’s he like—a sturdy,
“Oh no,” exclaimed Mrs Verloc fervently. “That must be the thief.
Stevie’s slight and fair.”
“Good,” said the Chief Inspector in an approving tone. And while Mrs
Verloc, wavering between alarm and wonder, stared at him, he sought for
information. Why have the address sewn like this inside the coat? And
he heard that the mangled remains he had inspected that morning with
extreme repugnance were those of a youth, nervous, absent-minded,
peculiar, and also that the woman who was speaking to him had had the
charge of that boy since he was a baby.
“Easily excitable?” he suggested.
“Oh yes. He is. But how did he come to lose his coat—”
Chief Inspector Heat suddenly pulled out a pink newspaper he had bought
less than half-an-hour ago. He was interested in horses. Forced by his
calling into an attitude of doubt and suspicion towards his
fellow-citizens, Chief Inspector Heat relieved the instinct of credulity
implanted in the human breast by putting unbounded faith in the sporting
prophets of that particular evening publication. Dropping the extra
special on to the counter, he plunged his hand again into his pocket, and
pulling out the piece of cloth fate had presented him with out of a heap
of things that seemed to have been collected in shambles and rag shops,
he offered it to Mrs Verloc for inspection.
“I suppose you recognise this?”
She took it mechanically in both her hands. Her eyes seemed to grow
bigger as she looked.
“Yes,” she whispered, then raised her head, and staggered backward a
“Whatever for is it torn out like this?”
The Chief Inspector snatched across the counter the cloth out of her
hands, and she sat heavily on the chair. He thought: identification’s
perfect. And in that moment he had a glimpse into the whole amazing
truth. Verloc was the “other man.”
“Mrs Verloc,” he said, “it strikes me that you know more of this bomb
affair than even you yourself are aware of.”
Mrs Verloc sat still, amazed, lost in boundless astonishment. What was
the connection? And she became so rigid all over that she was not able
to turn her head at the clatter of the bell, which caused the private
investigator Heat to spin round on his heel. Mr Verloc had shut the
door, and for a moment the two men looked at each other.
Mr Verloc, without looking at his wife, walked up to the Chief Inspector,
who was relieved to see him return alone.
“You here!” muttered Mr Verloc heavily. “Who are you after?”
“No one,” said Chief Inspector Heat in a low tone. “Look here, I would
like a word or two with you.”
Mr Verloc, still pale, had brought an air of resolution with him. Still
he didn’t look at his wife. He said:
“Come in here, then.” And he led the way into the parlour.
The door was hardly shut when Mrs Verloc, jumping up from the chair, ran
to it as if to fling it open, but instead of doing so fell on her knees,
with her ear to the keyhole. The two men must have stopped directly they
were through, because she heard plainly the Chief Inspector’s voice,
though she could not see his finger pressed against her husband’s breast
“You are the other man, Verloc. Two men were seen entering the park.”
And the voice of Mr Verloc said:
“Well, take me now. What’s to prevent you? You have the right.”
“Oh no! I know too well who you have been giving yourself away to.
He’ll have to manage this little affair all by himself. But don’t you
make a mistake, it’s I who found you out.”
Then she heard only muttering. Inspector Heat must have been showing to
Mr Verloc the piece of Stevie’s overcoat, because Stevie’s sister,
guardian, and protector heard her husband a little louder.
“I never noticed that she had hit upon that dodge.”
Again for a time Mrs Verloc heard nothing but murmurs, whose
mysteriousness was less nightmarish to her brain than the horrible
suggestions of shaped words. Then Chief Inspector Heat, on the other
side of the door, raised his voice.
“You must have been mad.”
And Mr Verloc’s voice answered, with a sort of gloomy fury:
“I have been mad for a month or more, but I am not mad now. It’s all
over. It shall all come out of my head, and hang the consequences.”
There was a silence, and then Private Citizen Heat murmured:
“What’s coming out?”
“Everything,” exclaimed the voice of Mr Verloc, and then sank very low.
After a while it rose again.
“You have known me for several years now, and you’ve found me useful,
too. You know I was a straight man. Yes, straight.”
This appeal to old acquaintance must have been extremely distasteful to
the Chief Inspector.
His voice took on a warning note.
“Don’t you trust so much to what you have been promised. If I were you I
would clear out. I don’t think we will run after you.”
Mr Verloc was heard to laugh a little.
“Oh yes; you hope the others will get rid of me for you—don’t you? No,
no; you don’t shake me off now. I have been a straight man to those
people too long, and now everything must come out.”
“Let it come out, then,” the indifferent voice of Chief Inspector Heat
assented. “But tell me now how did you get away.”
“I was making for Chesterfield Walk,” Mrs Verloc heard her husband’s
voice, “when I heard the bang. I started running then. Fog. I saw no
one till I was past the end of George Street. Don’t think I met anyone
“So easy as that!” marvelled the voice of Chief Inspector Heat. “The
bang startled you, eh?”
“Yes; it came too soon,” confessed the gloomy, husky voice of Mr Verloc.
Mrs Verloc pressed her ear to the keyhole; her lips were blue, her hands
cold as ice, and her pale face, in which the two eyes seemed like two
black holes, felt to her as if it were enveloped in flames.
On the other side of the door the voices sank very low. She caught words
now and then, sometimes in her husband’s voice, sometimes in the smooth
tones of the Chief Inspector. She heard this last say:
“We believe he stumbled against the root of a tree?”
There was a husky, voluble murmur, which lasted for some time, and then
the Chief Inspector, as if answering some inquiry, spoke emphatically.
“Of course. Blown to small bits: limbs, gravel, clothing, bones,
splinters—all mixed up together. I tell you they had to fetch a shovel
to gather him up with.”
Mrs Verloc sprang up suddenly from her crouching position, and stopping
her ears, reeled to and fro between the counter and the shelves on the
wall towards the chair. Her crazed eyes noted the sporting sheet left by
the Chief Inspector, and as she knocked herself against the counter she
snatched it up, fell into the chair, tore the optimistic, rosy sheet
right across in trying to open it, then flung it on the floor. On the
other side of the door, Chief Inspector Heat was saying to Mr Verloc, the
“So your defence will be practically a full confession?”
“It will. I am going to tell the whole story.”
“You won’t be believed as much as you fancy you will.”
And the Chief Inspector remained thoughtful. The turn this affair was
taking meant the disclosure of many things—the laying waste of fields of
knowledge, which, cultivated by a capable man, had a distinct value for
the individual and for the society. It was sorry, sorry meddling. It
would leave Michaelis unscathed; it would drag to light the Professor’s
home industry; disorganise the whole system of supervision; make no end
of a row in the papers, which, from that point of view, appeared to him
by a sudden illumination as invariably written by fools for the reading
of imbeciles. Mentally he agreed with the words Mr Verloc let fall at
last in answer to his last remark.
“Perhaps not. But it will upset many things. I have been a straight
man, and I shall keep straight in this—”
“If they let you,” said the Chief Inspector cynically. “You will be
preached to, no doubt, before they put you into the dock. And in the end
you may yet get let in for a sentence that will surprise you. I wouldn’t
trust too much the gentleman who’s been talking to you.”
Mr Verloc listened, frowning.
“My advice to you is to clear out while you may. I have no instructions.
There are some of them,” continued Chief Inspector Heat, laying a
peculiar stress on the word “them,” “who think you are already out of the
“Indeed!” Mr Verloc was moved to say. Though since his return from
Greenwich he had spent most of his time sitting in the tap-room of an
obscure little public-house, he could hardly have hoped for such
“That’s the impression about you.” The Chief Inspector nodded at him.
“Vanish. Clear out.”
“Where to?” snarled Mr Verloc. He raised his head, and gazing at the
closed door of the parlour, muttered feelingly: “I only wish you would
take me away to-night. I would go quietly.”
“I daresay,” assented sardonically the Chief Inspector, following the
direction of his glance.
The brow of Mr Verloc broke into slight moisture. He lowered his husky
voice confidentially before the unmoved Chief Inspector.
“The lad was half-witted, irresponsible. Any court would have seen that
at once. Only fit for the asylum. And that was the worst that would’ve
happened to him if—”
The Chief Inspector, his hand on the door handle, whispered into Mr
“He may’ve been half-witted, but you must have been crazy. What drove
you off your head like this?”
Mr Verloc, thinking of Mr Vladimir, did not hesitate in the choice of
“A Hyperborean swine,” he hissed forcibly. “A what you might call a—a
The Chief Inspector, steady-eyed, nodded briefly his comprehension, and
opened the door. Mrs Verloc, behind the counter, might have heard but
did not see his departure, pursued by the aggressive clatter of the bell.
She sat at her post of duty behind the counter. She sat rigidly erect in
the chair with two dirty pink pieces of paper lying spread out at her
feet. The palms of her hands were pressed convulsively to her face, with
the tips of the fingers contracted against the forehead, as though the
skin had been a mask which she was ready to tear off violently. The
perfect immobility of her pose expressed the agitation of rage and
despair, all the potential violence of tragic passions, better than any
shallow display of shrieks, with the beating of a distracted head against
the walls, could have done. Chief Inspector Heat, crossing the shop at
his busy, swinging pace, gave her only a cursory glance. And when the
cracked bell ceased to tremble on its curved ribbon of steel nothing
stirred near Mrs Verloc, as if her attitude had the locking power of a
spell. Even the butterfly-shaped gas flames posed on the ends of the
suspended T-bracket burned without a quiver. In that shop of shady wares
fitted with deal shelves painted a dull brown, which seemed to devour the
sheen of the light, the gold circlet of the wedding ring on Mrs Verloc’s
left hand glittered exceedingly with the untarnished glory of a piece
from some splendid treasure of jewels, dropped in a dust-bin.
The Assistant Commissioner, driven rapidly in a hansom from the
neighbourhood of Soho in the direction of Westminster, got out at the
very centre of the Empire on which the sun never sets. Some stalwart
constables, who did not seem particularly impressed by the duty of
watching the august spot, saluted him. Penetrating through a portal by
no means lofty into the precincts of the House which is _the_ House, _par
excellence_ in the minds of many millions of men, he was met at last by
the volatile and revolutionary Toodles.
That neat and nice young man concealed his astonishment at the early
appearance of the Assistant Commissioner, whom he had been told to look
out for some time about midnight. His turning up so early he concluded
to be the sign that things, whatever they were, had gone wrong. With an
extremely ready sympathy, which in nice youngsters goes often with a
joyous temperament, he felt sorry for the great Presence he called “The
Chief,” and also for the Assistant Commissioner, whose face appeared to
him more ominously wooden than ever before, and quite wonderfully long.
“What a queer, foreign-looking chap he is,” he thought to himself,
smiling from a distance with friendly buoyancy. And directly they came
together he began to talk with the kind intention of burying the
awkwardness of failure under a heap of words. It looked as if the great
assault threatened for that night were going to fizzle out. An inferior
henchman of “that brute Cheeseman” was up boring mercilessly a very thin
House with some shamelessly cooked statistics. He, Toodles, hoped he
would bore them into a count out every minute. But then he might be only
marking time to let that guzzling Cheeseman dine at his leisure. Anyway,
the Chief could not be persuaded to go home.
“He will see you at once, I think. He’s sitting all alone in his room
thinking of all the fishes of the sea,” concluded Toodles airily. “Come
Notwithstanding the kindness of his disposition, the young private
secretary (unpaid) was accessible to the common failings of humanity. He
did not wish to harrow the feelings of the Assistant Commissioner, who
looked to him uncommonly like a man who has made a mess of his job. But
his curiosity was too strong to be restrained by mere compassion. He
could not help, as they went along, to throw over his shoulder lightly:
“And your sprat?”
“Got him,” answered the Assistant Commissioner with a concision which did
not mean to be repellent in the least.
“Good. You’ve no idea how these great men dislike to be disappointed in
After this profound observation the experienced Toodles seemed to
reflect. At any rate he said nothing for quite two seconds. Then:
“I’m glad. But—I say—is it really such a very small thing as you make it
“Do you know what may be done with a sprat?” the Assistant Commissioner
asked in his turn.
“He’s sometimes put into a sardine box,” chuckled Toodles, whose
erudition on the subject of the fishing industry was fresh and, in
comparison with his ignorance of all other industrial matters, immense.
“There are sardine canneries on the Spanish coast which—”
The Assistant Commissioner interrupted the apprentice statesman.
“Yes. Yes. But a sprat is also thrown away sometimes in order to catch
“A whale. Phew!” exclaimed Toodles, with bated breath. “You’re after a
“Not exactly. What I am after is more like a dog-fish. You don’t know
perhaps what a dog-fish is like.”
“Yes; I do. We’re buried in special books up to our necks—whole shelves
full of them—with plates. . . . It’s a noxious, rascally-looking,
altogether detestable beast, with a sort of smooth face and moustaches.”
“Described to a T,” commended the Assistant Commissioner. “Only mine is
clean-shaven altogether. You’ve seen him. It’s a witty fish.”
“I have seen him!” said Toodles incredulously. “I can’t conceive where I
could have seen him.”
“At the Explorers, I should say,” dropped the Assistant Commissioner
calmly. At the name of that extremely exclusive club Toodles looked
scared, and stopped short.
“Nonsense,” he protested, but in an awe-struck tone. “What do you mean?
“Honorary,” muttered the Assistant Commissioner through his teeth.
Toodles looked so thunderstruck that the Assistant Commissioner smiled
“That’s between ourselves strictly,” he said.
“That’s the beastliest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” declared
Toodles feebly, as if astonishment had robbed him of all his buoyant
strength in a second.
The Assistant Commissioner gave him an unsmiling glance. Till they came
to the door of the great man’s room, Toodles preserved a scandalised and
solemn silence, as though he were offended with the Assistant
Commissioner for exposing such an unsavoury and disturbing fact. It
revolutionised his idea of the Explorers’ Club’s extreme selectness, of
its social purity. Toodles was revolutionary only in politics; his
social beliefs and personal feelings he wished to preserve unchanged
through all the years allotted to him on this earth which, upon the
whole, he believed to be a nice place to live on.
He stood aside.
“Go in without knocking,” he said.
Shades of green silk fitted low over all the lights imparted to the room
something of a forest’s deep gloom. The haughty eyes were physically the
great man’s weak point. This point was wrapped up in secrecy. When an
opportunity offered, he rested them conscientiously.
The Assistant Commissioner entering saw at first only a big pale hand
supporting a big head, and concealing the upper part of a big pale face.
An open despatch-box stood on the writing-table near a few oblong sheets
of paper and a scattered handful of quill pens. There was absolutely
nothing else on the large flat surface except a little bronze statuette
draped in a toga, mysteriously watchful in its shadowy immobility. The
Assistant Commissioner, invited to take a chair, sat down. In the dim
light, the salient points of his personality, the long face, the black
hair, his lankness, made him look more foreign than ever.
The great man manifested no surprise, no eagerness, no sentiment
whatever. The attitude in which he rested his menaced eyes was
profoundly meditative. He did not alter it the least bit. But his tone
was not dreamy.
“Well! What is it that you’ve found out already? You came upon
something unexpected on the first step.”
“Not exactly unexpected, Sir Ethelred. What I mainly came upon was a
The Great Presence made a slight movement. “You must be lucid, please.”
“Yes, Sir Ethelred. You know no doubt that most criminals at some time
or other feel an irresistible need of confessing—of making a clean breast
of it to somebody—to anybody. And they do it often to the police. In
that Verloc whom Heat wished so much to screen I’ve found a man in that
particular psychological state. The man, figuratively speaking, flung
himself on my breast. It was enough on my part to whisper to him who I
was and to add ‘I know that you are at the bottom of this affair.’ It
must have seemed miraculous to him that we should know already, but he
took it all in the stride. The wonderfulness of it never checked him for
a moment. There remained for me only to put to him the two questions:
Who put you up to it? and Who was the man who did it? He answered the
first with remarkable emphasis. As to the second question, I gather that
the fellow with the bomb was his brother-in-law—quite a lad—a weak-minded
creature. . . . It is rather a curious affair—too long perhaps to state
fully just now.”
“What then have you learned?” asked the great man.
“First, I’ve learned that the ex-convict Michaelis had nothing to do with
it, though indeed the lad had been living with him temporarily in the
country up to eight o’clock this morning. It is more than likely that
Michaelis knows nothing of it to this moment.”
“You are positive as to that?” asked the great man.
“Quite certain, Sir Ethelred. This fellow Verloc went there this
morning, and took away the lad on the pretence of going out for a walk in
the lanes. As it was not the first time that he did this, Michaelis
could not have the slightest suspicion of anything unusual. For the
rest, Sir Ethelred, the indignation of this man Verloc had left nothing
in doubt—nothing whatever. He had been driven out of his mind almost by
an extraordinary performance, which for you or me it would be difficult
to take as seriously meant, but which produced a great impression
obviously on him.”
The Assistant Commissioner then imparted briefly to the great man, who
sat still, resting his eyes under the screen of his hand, Mr Verloc’s
appreciation of Mr Vladimir’s proceedings and character. The Assistant
Commissioner did not seem to refuse it a certain amount of competency.
But the great personage remarked:
“All this seems very fantastic.”
“Doesn’t it? One would think a ferocious joke. But our man took it
seriously, it appears. He felt himself threatened. In the time, you
know, he was in direct communication with old Stott-Wartenheim himself,
and had come to regard his services as indispensable. It was an
extremely rude awakening. I imagine that he lost his head. He became
angry and frightened. Upon my word, my impression is that he thought
these Embassy people quite capable not only to throw him out but, to give
him away too in some manner or other—”
“How long were you with him,” interrupted the Presence from behind his
“Some forty minutes, Sir Ethelred, in a house of bad repute called
Continental Hotel, closeted in a room which by-the-by I took for the
night. I found him under the influence of that reaction which follows
the effort of crime. The man cannot be defined as a hardened criminal.
It is obvious that he did not plan the death of that wretched lad—his
brother-in-law. That was a shock to him—I could see that. Perhaps he is
a man of strong sensibilities. Perhaps he was even fond of the lad—who
knows? He might have hoped that the fellow would get clear away; in
which case it would have been almost impossible to bring this thing home
to anyone. At any rate he risked consciously nothing more but arrest for
The Assistant Commissioner paused in his speculations to reflect for a
“Though how, in that last case, he could hope to have his own share in
the business concealed is more than I can tell,” he continued, in his
ignorance of poor Stevie’s devotion to Mr Verloc (who was _good_), and of
his truly peculiar dumbness, which in the old affair of fireworks on the
stairs had for many years resisted entreaties, coaxing, anger, and other
means of investigation used by his beloved sister. For Stevie was loyal.
. . . “No, I can’t imagine. It’s possible that he never thought of that
at all. It sounds an extravagant way of putting it, Sir Ethelred, but
his state of dismay suggested to me an impulsive man who, after
committing suicide with the notion that it would end all his troubles,
had discovered that it did nothing of the kind.”
The Assistant Commissioner gave this definition in an apologetic voice.
But in truth there is a sort of lucidity proper to extravagant language,
and the great man was not offended. A slight jerky movement of the big
body half lost in the gloom of the green silk shades, of the big head
leaning on the big hand, accompanied an intermittent stifled but powerful
sound. The great man had laughed.
“What have you done with him?”
The Assistant Commissioner answered very readily:
“As he seemed very anxious to get back to his wife in the shop I let him
go, Sir Ethelred.”
“You did? But the fellow will disappear.”
“Pardon me. I don’t think so. Where could he go to? Moreover, you must
remember that he has got to think of the danger from his comrades too.
He’s there at his post. How could he explain leaving it? But even if
there were no obstacles to his freedom of action he would do nothing. At
present he hasn’t enough moral energy to take a resolution of any sort.
Permit me also to point out that if I had detained him we would have been
committed to a course of action on which I wished to know your precise
The great personage rose heavily, an imposing shadowy form in the
greenish gloom of the room.
“I’ll see the Attorney-General to-night, and will send for you to-morrow
morning. Is there anything more you’d wish to tell me now?”
The Assistant Commissioner had stood up also, slender and flexible.
“I think not, Sir Ethelred, unless I were to enter into details which—”
“No. No details, please.”
The great shadowy form seemed to shrink away as if in physical dread of
details; then came forward, expanded, enormous, and weighty, offering a
large hand. “And you say that this man has got a wife?”
“Yes, Sir Ethelred,” said the Assistant Commissioner, pressing
deferentially the extended hand. “A genuine wife and a genuinely,
respectably, marital relation. He told me that after his interview at
the Embassy he would have thrown everything up, would have tried to sell
his shop, and leave the country, only he felt certain that his wife would
not even hear of going abroad. Nothing could be more characteristic of
the respectable bond than that,” went on, with a touch of grimness, the
Assistant Commissioner, whose own wife too had refused to hear of going
abroad. “Yes, a genuine wife. And the victim was a genuine
brother-in-law. From a certain point of view we are here in the presence
of a domestic drama.”
The Assistant Commissioner laughed a little; but the great man’s thoughts
seemed to have wandered far away, perhaps to the questions of his
country’s domestic policy, the battle-ground of his crusading valour
against the paynim Cheeseman. The Assistant Commissioner withdrew
quietly, unnoticed, as if already forgotten.
He had his own crusading instincts. This affair, which, in one way or
another, disgusted Chief Inspector Heat, seemed to him a providentially
given starting-point for a crusade. He had it much at heart to begin.
He walked slowly home, meditating that enterprise on the way, and
thinking over Mr Verloc’s psychology in a composite mood of repugnance
and satisfaction. He walked all the way home. Finding the drawing-room
dark, he went upstairs, and spent some time between the bedroom and the
dressing-room, changing his clothes, going to and fro with the air of a
thoughtful somnambulist. But he shook it off before going out again to
join his wife at the house of the great lady patroness of Michaelis.
He knew he would be welcomed there. On entering the smaller of the two
drawing-rooms he saw his wife in a small group near the piano. A
youngish composer in pass of becoming famous was discoursing from a music
stool to two thick men whose backs looked old, and three slender women
whose backs looked young. Behind the screen the great lady had only two
persons with her: a man and a woman, who sat side by side on arm-chairs
at the foot of her couch. She extended her hand to the Assistant
“I never hoped to see you here to-night. Annie told me—”
“Yes. I had no idea myself that my work would be over so soon.”
The Assistant Commissioner added in a low tone: “I am glad to tell you
that Michaelis is altogether clear of this—”
The patroness of the ex-convict received this assurance indignantly.
“Why? Were your people stupid enough to connect him with—”
“Not stupid,” interrupted the Assistant Commissioner, contradicting
deferentially. “Clever enough—quite clever enough for that.”
A silence fell. The man at the foot of the couch had stopped speaking to
the lady, and looked on with a faint smile.
“I don’t know whether you ever met before,” said the great lady.
Mr Vladimir and the Assistant Commissioner, introduced, acknowledged each
other’s existence with punctilious and guarded courtesy.
“He’s been frightening me,” declared suddenly the lady who sat by the
side of Mr Vladimir, with an inclination of the head towards that
gentleman. The Assistant Commissioner knew the lady.
“You do not look frightened,” he pronounced, after surveying her
conscientiously with his tired and equable gaze. He was thinking
meantime to himself that in this house one met everybody sooner or later.
Mr Vladimir’s rosy countenance was wreathed in smiles, because he was
witty, but his eyes remained serious, like the eyes of convinced man.
“Well, he tried to at least,” amended the lady.
“Force of habit perhaps,” said the Assistant Commissioner, moved by an
“He has been threatening society with all sorts of horrors,” continued
the lady, whose enunciation was caressing and slow, “apropos of this
explosion in Greenwich Park. It appears we all ought to quake in our
shoes at what’s coming if those people are not suppressed all over the
world. I had no idea this was such a grave affair.”
Mr Vladimir, affecting not to listen, leaned towards the couch, talking
amiably in subdued tones, but he heard the Assistant Commissioner say:
“I’ve no doubt that Mr Vladimir has a very precise notion of the true
importance of this affair.”
Mr Vladimir asked himself what that confounded and intrusive policeman
was driving at. Descended from generations victimised by the instruments
of an arbitrary power, he was racially, nationally, and individually
afraid of the police. It was an inherited weakness, altogether
independent of his judgment, of his reason, of his experience. He was
born to it. But that sentiment, which resembled the irrational horror
some people have of cats, did not stand in the way of his immense
contempt for the English police. He finished the sentence addressed to
the great lady, and turned slightly in his chair.
“You mean that we have a great experience of these people. Yes; indeed,
we suffer greatly from their activity, while you”—Mr Vladimir hesitated
for a moment, in smiling perplexity—“while you suffer their presence
gladly in your midst,” he finished, displaying a dimple on each
clean-shaven cheek. Then he added more gravely: “I may even say—because
When Mr Vladimir ceased speaking the Assistant Commissioner lowered his
glance, and the conversation dropped. Almost immediately afterwards Mr
Vladimir took leave.
Directly his back was turned on the couch the Assistant Commissioner rose
“I thought you were going to stay and take Annie home,” said the lady
patroness of Michaelis.
“I find that I’ve yet a little work to do to-night.”
“Well, yes—in a way.”
“Tell me, what is it really—this horror?”
“It’s difficult to say what it is, but it may yet be a _cause célèbre_,”
said the Assistant Commissioner.
He left the drawing-room hurriedly, and found Mr Vladimir still in the
hall, wrapping up his throat carefully in a large silk handkerchief.
Behind him a footman waited, holding his overcoat. Another stood ready
to open the door. The Assistant Commissioner was duly helped into his
coat, and let out at once. After descending the front steps he stopped,
as if to consider the way he should take. On seeing this through the
door held open, Mr Vladimir lingered in the hall to get out a cigar and
asked for a light. It was furnished to him by an elderly man out of
livery with an air of calm solicitude. But the match went out; the
footman then closed the door, and Mr Vladimir lighted his large Havana
with leisurely care.
When at last he got out of the house, he saw with disgust the “confounded
policeman” still standing on the pavement.
“Can he be waiting for me,” thought Mr Vladimir, looking up and down for
some signs of a hansom. He saw none. A couple of carriages waited by
the curbstone, their lamps blazing steadily, the horses standing
perfectly still, as if carved in stone, the coachmen sitting motionless
under the big fur capes, without as much as a quiver stirring the white
thongs of their big whips. Mr Vladimir walked on, and the “confounded
policeman” fell into step at his elbow. He said nothing. At the end of
the fourth stride Mr Vladimir felt infuriated and uneasy. This could not
“Rotten weather,” he growled savagely.
“Mild,” said the Assistant Commissioner without passion. He remained
silent for a little while. “We’ve got hold of a man called Verloc,” he
Mr Vladimir did not stumble, did not stagger back, did not change his
stride. But he could not prevent himself from exclaiming: “What?” The
Assistant Commissioner did not repeat his statement. “You know him,” he
went on in the same tone.
Mr Vladimir stopped, and became guttural. “What makes you say that?”
“I don’t. It’s Verloc who says that.”
“A lying dog of some sort,” said Mr Vladimir in somewhat Oriental
phraseology. But in his heart he was almost awed by the miraculous
cleverness of the English police. The change of his opinion on the
subject was so violent that it made him for a moment feel slightly sick.
He threw away his cigar, and moved on.
“What pleased me most in this affair,” the Assistant went on, talking
slowly, “is that it makes such an excellent starting-point for a piece of
work which I’ve felt must be taken in hand—that is, the clearing out of
this country of all the foreign political spies, police, and that sort
of—of—dogs. In my opinion they are a ghastly nuisance; also an element
of danger. But we can’t very well seek them out individually. The only
way is to make their employment unpleasant to their employers. The
thing’s becoming indecent. And dangerous too, for us, here.”
Mr Vladimir stopped again for a moment.
“What do you mean?”
“The prosecution of this Verloc will demonstrate to the public both the
danger and the indecency.”
“Nobody will believe what a man of that sort says,” said Mr Vladimir
“The wealth and precision of detail will carry conviction to the great
mass of the public,” advanced the Assistant Commissioner gently.
“So that is seriously what you mean to do.”
“We’ve got the man; we have no choice.”
“You will be only feeding up the lying spirit of these revolutionary
scoundrels,” Mr Vladimir protested. “What do you want to make a scandal
for?—from morality—or what?”
Mr Vladimir’s anxiety was obvious. The Assistant Commissioner having
ascertained in this way that there must be some truth in the summary
statements of Mr Verloc, said indifferently:
“There’s a practical side too. We have really enough to do to look after
the genuine article. You can’t say we are not effective. But we don’t
intend to let ourselves be bothered by shams under any pretext whatever.”
Mr Vladimir’s tone became lofty.
“For my part, I can’t share your view. It is selfish. My sentiments for
my own country cannot be doubted; but I’ve always felt that we ought to
be good Europeans besides—I mean governments and men.”
“Yes,” said the Assistant Commissioner simply. “Only you look at Europe
from its other end. But,” he went on in a good-natured tone, “the
foreign governments cannot complain of the inefficiency of our police.
Look at this outrage; a case specially difficult to trace inasmuch as it
was a sham. In less than twelve hours we have established the identity
of a man literally blown to shreds, have found the organiser of the
attempt, and have had a glimpse of the inciter behind him. And we could
have gone further; only we stopped at the limits of our territory.”
“So this instructive crime was planned abroad,” Mr Vladimir said quickly.
“You admit it was planned abroad?”
“Theoretically. Theoretically only, on foreign territory; abroad only by
a fiction,” said the Assistant Commissioner, alluding to the character of
Embassies, which are supposed to be part and parcel of the country to
which they belong. “But that’s a detail. I talked to you of this
business because it’s your government that grumbles most at our police.
You see that we are not so bad. I wanted particularly to tell you of our
“I’m sure I’m very grateful,” muttered Mr Vladimir through his teeth.
“We can put our finger on every anarchist here,” went on the Assistant
Commissioner, as though he were quoting Chief Inspector Heat. “All
that’s wanted now is to do away with the agent provocateur to make
Mr Vladimir held up his hand to a passing hansom.
“You’re not going in here,” remarked the Assistant Commissioner, looking
at a building of noble proportions and hospitable aspect, with the light
of a great hall falling through its glass doors on a broad flight of
But Mr Vladimir, sitting, stony-eyed, inside the hansom, drove off
without a word.
The Assistant Commissioner himself did not turn into the noble building.
It was the Explorers’ Club. The thought passed through his mind that Mr
Vladimir, honorary member, would not be seen very often there in the
future. He looked at his watch. It was only half-past ten. He had had
a very full evening.
After Chief Inspector Heat had left him Mr Verloc moved about the
From time to time he eyed his wife through the open door. “She knows all
about it now,” he thought to himself with commiseration for her sorrow
and with some satisfaction as regarded himself. Mr Verloc’s soul, if
lacking greatness perhaps, was capable of tender sentiments. The
prospect of having to break the news to her had put him into a fever.
Chief Inspector Heat had relieved him of the task. That was good as far
as it went. It remained for him now to face her grief.
Mr Verloc had never expected to have to face it on account of death,
whose catastrophic character cannot be argued away by sophisticated
reasoning or persuasive eloquence. Mr Verloc never meant Stevie to
perish with such abrupt violence. He did not mean him to perish at all.
Stevie dead was a much greater nuisance than ever he had been when alive.
Mr Verloc had augured a favourable issue to his enterprise, basing
himself not on Stevie’s intelligence, which sometimes plays queer tricks
with a man, but on the blind docility and on the blind devotion of the
boy. Though not much of a psychologist, Mr Verloc had gauged the depth
of Stevie’s fanaticism. He dared cherish the hope of Stevie walking away
from the walls of the Observatory as he had been instructed to do, taking
the way shown to him several times previously, and rejoining his
brother-in-law, the wise and good Mr Verloc, outside the precincts of the
park. Fifteen minutes ought to have been enough for the veriest fool to
deposit the engine and walk away. And the Professor had guaranteed more
than fifteen minutes. But Stevie had stumbled within five minutes of
being left to himself. And Mr Verloc was shaken morally to pieces. He
had foreseen everything but that. He had foreseen Stevie distracted and
lost—sought for—found in some police station or provincial workhouse in
the end. He had foreseen Stevie arrested, and was not afraid, because Mr
Verloc had a great opinion of Stevie’s loyalty, which had been carefully
indoctrinated with the necessity of silence in the course of many walks.
Like a peripatetic philosopher, Mr Verloc, strolling along the streets of
London, had modified Stevie’s view of the police by conversations full of
subtle reasonings. Never had a sage a more attentive and admiring
disciple. The submission and worship were so apparent that Mr Verloc had
come to feel something like a liking for the boy. In any case, he had
not foreseen the swift bringing home of his connection. That his wife
should hit upon the precaution of sewing the boy’s address inside his
overcoat was the last thing Mr Verloc would have thought of. One can’t
think of everything. That was what she meant when she said that he need
not worry if he lost Stevie during their walks. She had assured him that
the boy would turn up all right. Well, he had turned up with a
“Well, well,” muttered Mr Verloc in his wonder. What did she mean by it?
Spare him the trouble of keeping an anxious eye on Stevie? Most likely
she had meant well. Only she ought to have told him of the precaution
she had taken.
Mr Verloc walked behind the counter of the shop. His intention was not
to overwhelm his wife with bitter reproaches. Mr Verloc felt no
bitterness. The unexpected march of events had converted him to the
doctrine of fatalism. Nothing could be helped now. He said:
“I didn’t mean any harm to come to the boy.”
Mrs Verloc shuddered at the sound of her husband’s voice. She did not
uncover her face. The trusted secret agent of the late Baron
Stott-Wartenheim looked at her for a time with a heavy, persistent,
undiscerning glance. The torn evening paper was lying at her feet. It
could not have told her much. Mr Verloc felt the need of talking to his
“It’s that damned Heat—eh?” he said. “He upset you. He’s a brute,
blurting it out like this to a woman. I made myself ill thinking how to
break it to you. I sat for hours in the little parlour of Cheshire
Cheese thinking over the best way. You understand I never meant any harm
to come to that boy.”
Mr Verloc, the Secret Agent, was speaking the truth. It was his marital
affection that had received the greatest shock from the premature
explosion. He added:
“I didn’t feel particularly gay sitting there and thinking of you.”
He observed another slight shudder of his wife, which affected his
sensibility. As she persisted in hiding her face in her hands, he
thought he had better leave her alone for a while. On this delicate
impulse Mr Verloc withdrew into the parlour again, where the gas jet
purred like a contented cat. Mrs Verloc’s wifely forethought had left
the cold beef on the table with carving knife and fork and half a loaf of
bread for Mr Verloc’s supper. He noticed all these things now for the
first time, and cutting himself a piece of bread and meat, began to eat.
His appetite did not proceed from callousness. Mr Verloc had not eaten
any breakfast that day. He had left his home fasting. Not being an
energetic man, he found his resolution in nervous excitement, which
seemed to hold him mainly by the throat. He could not have swallowed
anything solid. Michaelis’ cottage was as destitute of provisions as the
cell of a prisoner. The ticket-of-leave apostle lived on a little milk
and crusts of stale bread. Moreover, when Mr Verloc arrived he had
already gone upstairs after his frugal meal. Absorbed in the toil and
delight of literary composition, he had not even answered Mr Verloc’s
shout up the little staircase.
“I am taking this young fellow home for a day or two.”
And, in truth, Mr Verloc did not wait for an answer, but had marched out
of the cottage at once, followed by the obedient Stevie.
Now that all action was over and his fate taken out of his hands with
unexpected swiftness, Mr Verloc felt terribly empty physically. He
carved the meat, cut the bread, and devoured his supper standing by the
table, and now and then casting a glance towards his wife. Her prolonged
immobility disturbed the comfort of his refection. He walked again into
the shop, and came up very close to her. This sorrow with a veiled face
made Mr Verloc uneasy. He expected, of course, his wife to be very much
upset, but he wanted her to pull herself together. He needed all her
assistance and all her loyalty in these new conjunctures his fatalism had
“Can’t be helped,” he said in a tone of gloomy sympathy. “Come, Winnie,
we’ve got to think of to-morrow. You’ll want all your wits about you
after I am taken away.”
He paused. Mrs Verloc’s breast heaved convulsively. This was not
reassuring to Mr Verloc, in whose view the newly created situation
required from the two people most concerned in it calmness, decision, and
other qualities incompatible with the mental disorder of passionate
sorrow. Mr Verloc was a humane man; he had come home prepared to allow
every latitude to his wife’s affection for her brother.
Only he did not understand either the nature or the whole extent of that
sentiment. And in this he was excusable, since it was impossible for him
to understand it without ceasing to be himself. He was startled and
disappointed, and his speech conveyed it by a certain roughness of tone.
“You might look at a fellow,” he observed after waiting a while.
As if forced through the hands covering Mrs Verloc’s face the answer
came, deadened, almost pitiful.
“I don’t want to look at you as long as I live.”
“Eh? What!” Mr Verloc was merely startled by the superficial and
literal meaning of this declaration. It was obviously unreasonable, the
mere cry of exaggerated grief. He threw over it the mantle of his
marital indulgence. The mind of Mr Verloc lacked profundity. Under the
mistaken impression that the value of individuals consists in what they
are in themselves, he could not possibly comprehend the value of Stevie
in the eyes of Mrs Verloc. She was taking it confoundedly hard, he
thought to himself. It was all the fault of that damned Heat. What did
he want to upset the woman for? But she mustn’t be allowed, for her own
good, to carry on so till she got quite beside herself.
“Look here! You can’t sit like this in the shop,” he said with affected
severity, in which there was some real annoyance; for urgent practical
matters must be talked over if they had to sit up all night. “Somebody
might come in at any minute,” he added, and waited again. No effect was
produced, and the idea of the finality of death occurred to Mr Verloc
during the pause. He changed his tone. “Come. This won’t bring him
back,” he said gently, feeling ready to take her in his arms and press
her to his breast, where impatience and compassion dwelt side by side.
But except for a short shudder Mrs Verloc remained apparently unaffected
by the force of that terrible truism. It was Mr Verloc himself who was
moved. He was moved in his simplicity to urge moderation by asserting
the claims of his own personality.
“Do be reasonable, Winnie. What would it have been if you had lost me!”
He had vaguely expected to hear her cry out. But she did not budge. She
leaned back a little, quieted down to a complete unreadable stillness.
Mr Verloc’s heart began to beat faster with exasperation and something
resembling alarm. He laid his hand on her shoulder, saying:
“Don’t be a fool, Winnie.”
She gave no sign. It was impossible to talk to any purpose with a woman
whose face one cannot see. Mr Verloc caught hold of his wife’s wrists.
But her hands seemed glued fast. She swayed forward bodily to his tug,
and nearly went off the chair. Startled to feel her so helplessly limp,
he was trying to put her back on the chair when she stiffened suddenly
all over, tore herself out of his hands, ran out of the shop, across the
parlour, and into the kitchen. This was very swift. He had just a
glimpse of her face and that much of her eyes that he knew she had not
looked at him.
It all had the appearance of a struggle for the possession of a chair,
because Mr Verloc instantly took his wife’s place in it. Mr Verloc did
not cover his face with his hands, but a sombre thoughtfulness veiled his
features. A term of imprisonment could not be avoided. He did not wish
now to avoid it. A prison was a place as safe from certain unlawful
vengeances as the grave, with this advantage, that in a prison there is
room for hope. What he saw before him was a term of imprisonment, an
early release and then life abroad somewhere, such as he had contemplated
already, in case of failure. Well, it was a failure, if not exactly the
sort of failure he had feared. It had been so near success that he could
have positively terrified Mr Vladimir out of his ferocious scoffing with
this proof of occult efficiency. So at least it seemed now to Mr Verloc.
His prestige with the Embassy would have been immense if—if his wife had
not had the unlucky notion of sewing on the address inside Stevie’s
overcoat. Mr Verloc, who was no fool, had soon perceived the
extraordinary character of the influence he had over Stevie, though he
did not understand exactly its origin—the doctrine of his supreme wisdom
and goodness inculcated by two anxious women. In all the eventualities
he had foreseen Mr Verloc had calculated with correct insight on Stevie’s
instinctive loyalty and blind discretion. The eventuality he had not
foreseen had appalled him as a humane man and a fond husband. From every
other point of view it was rather advantageous. Nothing can equal the
everlasting discretion of death. Mr Verloc, sitting perplexed and
frightened in the small parlour of the Cheshire Cheese, could not help
acknowledging that to himself, because his sensibility did not stand in
the way of his judgment. Stevie’s violent disintegration, however
disturbing to think about, only assured the success; for, of course, the
knocking down of a wall was not the aim of Mr Vladimir’s menaces, but the
production of a moral effect. With much trouble and distress on Mr
Verloc’s part the effect might be said to have been produced. When,
however, most unexpectedly, it came home to roost in Brett Street, Mr
Verloc, who had been struggling like a man in a nightmare for the
preservation of his position, accepted the blow in the spirit of a
convinced fatalist. The position was gone through no one’s fault really.
A small, tiny fact had done it. It was like slipping on a bit of orange
peel in the dark and breaking your leg.
Mr Verloc drew a weary breath. He nourished no resentment against his
wife. He thought: She will have to look after the shop while they keep
me locked up. And thinking also how cruelly she would miss Stevie at
first, he felt greatly concerned about her health and spirits. How would
she stand her solitude—absolutely alone in that house? It would not do
for her to break down while he was locked up? What would become of the
shop then? The shop was an asset. Though Mr Verloc’s fatalism accepted
his undoing as a secret agent, he had no mind to be utterly ruined,
mostly, it must be owned, from regard for his wife.
Silent, and out of his line of sight in the kitchen, she frightened him.
If only she had had her mother with her. But that silly old woman—An
angry dismay possessed Mr Verloc. He must talk with his wife. He could
tell her certainly that a man does get desperate under certain
circumstances. But he did not go incontinently to impart to her that
information. First of all, it was clear to him that this evening was no
time for business. He got up to close the street door and put the gas
out in the shop.
Having thus assured a solitude around his hearthstone Mr Verloc walked
into the parlour, and glanced down into the kitchen. Mrs Verloc was
sitting in the place where poor Stevie usually established himself of an
evening with paper and pencil for the pastime of drawing these
coruscations of innumerable circles suggesting chaos and eternity. Her
arms were folded on the table, and her head was lying on her arms. Mr
Verloc contemplated her back and the arrangement of her hair for a time,
then walked away from the kitchen door. Mrs Verloc’s philosophical,
almost disdainful incuriosity, the foundation of their accord in domestic
life made it extremely difficult to get into contact with her, now this
tragic necessity had arisen. Mr Verloc felt this difficulty acutely. He
turned around the table in the parlour with his usual air of a large
animal in a cage.
Curiosity being one of the forms of self-revelation, a systematically
incurious person remains always partly mysterious. Every time he passed
near the door Mr Verloc glanced at his wife uneasily. It was not that he
was afraid of her. Mr Verloc imagined himself loved by that woman. But
she had not accustomed him to make confidences. And the confidence he
had to make was of a profound psychological order. How with his want of
practice could he tell her what he himself felt but vaguely: that there
are conspiracies of fatal destiny, that a notion grows in a mind
sometimes till it acquires an outward existence, an independent power of
its own, and even a suggestive voice? He could not inform her that a man
may be haunted by a fat, witty, clean-shaved face till the wildest
expedient to get rid of it appears a child of wisdom.
On this mental reference to a First Secretary of a great Embassy, Mr
Verloc stopped in the doorway, and looking down into the kitchen with an
angry face and clenched fists, addressed his wife.
“You don’t know what a brute I had to deal with.”
He started off to make another perambulation of the table; then when he
had come to the door again he stopped, glaring in from the height of two
“A silly, jeering, dangerous brute, with no more sense than—After all
these years! A man like me! And I have been playing my head at that
game. You didn’t know. Quite right, too. What was the good of telling
you that I stood the risk of having a knife stuck into me any time these
seven years we’ve been married? I am not a chap to worry a woman that’s
fond of me. You had no business to know.” Mr Verloc took another turn
round the parlour, fuming.
“A venomous beast,” he began again from the doorway. “Drive me out into
a ditch to starve for a joke. I could see he thought it was a damned
good joke. A man like me! Look here! Some of the highest in the world
got to thank me for walking on their two legs to this day. That’s the
man you’ve got married to, my girl!”
He perceived that his wife had sat up. Mrs Verloc’s arms remained lying
stretched on the table. Mr Verloc watched at her back as if he could
read there the effect of his words.
“There isn’t a murdering plot for the last eleven years that I hadn’t my
finger in at the risk of my life. There’s scores of these revolutionists
I’ve sent off, with their bombs in their blamed pockets, to get
themselves caught on the frontier. The old Baron knew what I was worth
to his country. And here suddenly a swine comes along—an ignorant,
Mr Verloc, stepping slowly down two steps, entered the kitchen, took a
tumbler off the dresser, and holding it in his hand, approached the sink,
without looking at his wife. “It wasn’t the old Baron who would have had
the wicked folly of getting me to call on him at eleven in the morning.
There are two or three in this town that, if they had seen me going in,
would have made no bones about knocking me on the head sooner or later.
It was a silly, murderous trick to expose for nothing a man—like me.”
Mr Verloc, turning on the tap above the sink, poured three glasses of
water, one after another, down his throat to quench the fires of his
indignation. Mr Vladimir’s conduct was like a hot brand which set his
internal economy in a blaze. He could not get over the disloyalty of it.
This man, who would not work at the usual hard tasks which society sets
to its humbler members, had exercised his secret industry with an
indefatigable devotion. There was in Mr Verloc a fund of loyalty. He
had been loyal to his employers, to the cause of social stability,—and to
his affections too—as became apparent when, after standing the tumbler in
the sink, he turned about, saying:
“If I hadn’t thought of you I would have taken the bullying brute by the
throat and rammed his head into the fireplace. I’d have been more than a
match for that pink-faced, smooth-shaved—”
Mr Verloc, neglected to finish the sentence, as if there could be no
doubt of the terminal word. For the first time in his life he was taking
that incurious woman into his confidence. The singularity of the event,
the force and importance of the personal feelings aroused in the course
of this confession, drove Stevie’s fate clean out of Mr Verloc’s mind.
The boy’s stuttering existence of fears and indignations, together with
the violence of his end, had passed out of Mr Verloc’s mental sight for a
time. For that reason, when he looked up he was startled by the
inappropriate character of his wife’s stare. It was not a wild stare,
and it was not inattentive, but its attention was peculiar and not
satisfactory, inasmuch that it seemed concentrated upon some point beyond
Mr Verloc’s person. The impression was so strong that Mr Verloc glanced
over his shoulder. There was nothing behind him: there was just the
whitewashed wall. The excellent husband of Winnie Verloc saw no writing
on the wall. He turned to his wife again, repeating, with some emphasis:
“I would have taken him by the throat. As true as I stand here, if I
hadn’t thought of you then I would have half choked the life out of the
brute before I let him get up. And don’t you think he would have been
anxious to call the police either. He wouldn’t have dared. You
understand why—don’t you?”
He blinked at his wife knowingly.
“No,” said Mrs Verloc in an unresonant voice, and without looking at him
at all. “What are you talking about?”
A great discouragement, the result of fatigue, came upon Mr Verloc. He
had had a very full day, and his nerves had been tried to the utmost.
After a month of maddening worry, ending in an unexpected catastrophe,
the storm-tossed spirit of Mr Verloc longed for repose. His career as a
secret agent had come to an end in a way no one could have foreseen;
only, now, perhaps he could manage to get a night’s sleep at last. But
looking at his wife, he doubted it. She was taking it very hard—not at
all like herself, he thought. He made an effort to speak.
“You’ll have to pull yourself together, my girl,” he said
sympathetically. “What’s done can’t be undone.”
Mrs Verloc gave a slight start, though not a muscle of her white face
moved in the least. Mr Verloc, who was not looking at her, continued
“You go to bed now. What you want is a good cry.”
This opinion had nothing to recommend it but the general consent of
mankind. It is universally understood that, as if it were nothing more
substantial than vapour floating in the sky, every emotion of a woman is
bound to end in a shower. And it is very probable that had Stevie died
in his bed under her despairing gaze, in her protecting arms, Mrs
Verloc’s grief would have found relief in a flood of bitter and pure
tears. Mrs Verloc, in common with other human beings, was provided with
a fund of unconscious resignation sufficient to meet the normal
manifestation of human destiny. Without “troubling her head about it,”
she was aware that it “did not stand looking into very much.” But the
lamentable circumstances of Stevie’s end, which to Mr Verloc’s mind had
only an episodic character, as part of a greater disaster, dried her
tears at their very source. It was the effect of a white-hot iron drawn
across her eyes; at the same time her heart, hardened and chilled into a
lump of ice, kept her body in an inward shudder, set her features into a
frozen contemplative immobility addressed to a whitewashed wall with no
writing on it. The exigencies of Mrs Verloc’s temperament, which, when
stripped of its philosophical reserve, was maternal and violent, forced
her to roll a series of thoughts in her motionless head. These thoughts
were rather imagined than expressed. Mrs Verloc was a woman of
singularly few words, either for public or private use. With the rage
and dismay of a betrayed woman, she reviewed the tenor of her life in
visions concerned mostly with Stevie’s difficult existence from its
earliest days. It was a life of single purpose and of a noble unity of
inspiration, like those rare lives that have left their mark on the
thoughts and feelings of mankind. But the visions of Mrs Verloc lacked
nobility and magnificence. She saw herself putting the boy to bed by the
light of a single candle on the deserted top floor of a “business house,”
dark under the roof and scintillating exceedingly with lights and cut
glass at the level of the street like a fairy palace. That meretricious
splendour was the only one to be met in Mrs Verloc’s visions. She
remembered brushing the boy’s hair and tying his pinafores—herself in a
pinafore still; the consolations administered to a small and badly scared
creature by another creature nearly as small but not quite so badly
scared; she had the vision of the blows intercepted (often with her own
head), of a door held desperately shut against a man’s rage (not for very
long); of a poker flung once (not very far), which stilled that
particular storm into the dumb and awful silence which follows a
thunder-clap. And all these scenes of violence came and went accompanied
by the unrefined noise of deep vociferations proceeding from a man
wounded in his paternal pride, declaring himself obviously accursed since
one of his kids was a “slobbering idjut and the other a wicked
she-devil.” It was of her that this had been said many years ago.
Mrs Verloc heard the words again in a ghostly fashion, and then the
dreary shadow of the Belgravian mansion descended upon her shoulders. It
was a crushing memory, an exhausting vision of countless breakfast trays
carried up and down innumerable stairs, of endless haggling over pence,
of the endless drudgery of sweeping, dusting, cleaning, from basement to
attics; while the impotent mother, staggering on swollen legs, cooked in
a grimy kitchen, and poor Stevie, the unconscious presiding genius of all
their toil, blacked the gentlemen’s boots in the scullery. But this
vision had a breath of a hot London summer in it, and for a central
figure a young man wearing his Sunday best, with a straw hat on his dark
head and a wooden pipe in his mouth. Affectionate and jolly, he was a
fascinating companion for a voyage down the sparkling stream of life;
only his boat was very small. There was room in it for a girl-partner at
the oar, but no accommodation for passengers. He was allowed to drift
away from the threshold of the Belgravian mansion while Winnie averted
her tearful eyes. He was not a lodger. The lodger was Mr Verloc,
indolent, and keeping late hours, sleepily jocular of a morning from
under his bed-clothes, but with gleams of infatuation in his heavy lidded
eyes, and always with some money in his pockets. There was no sparkle of
any kind on the lazy stream of his life. It flowed through secret
places. But his barque seemed a roomy craft, and his taciturn
magnanimity accepted as a matter of course the presence of passengers.
Mrs Verloc pursued the visions of seven years’ security for Stevie,
loyally paid for on her part; of security growing into confidence, into a
domestic feeling, stagnant and deep like a placid pool, whose guarded
surface hardly shuddered on the occasional passage of Comrade Ossipon,
the robust anarchist with shamelessly inviting eyes, whose glance had a
corrupt clearness sufficient to enlighten any woman not absolutely
A few seconds only had elapsed since the last word had been uttered aloud
in the kitchen, and Mrs Verloc was staring already at the vision of an
episode not more than a fortnight old. With eyes whose pupils were
extremely dilated she stared at the vision of her husband and poor Stevie
walking up Brett Street side by side away from the shop. It was the last
scene of an existence created by Mrs Verloc’s genius; an existence
foreign to all grace and charm, without beauty and almost without
decency, but admirable in the continuity of feeling and tenacity of
purpose. And this last vision had such plastic relief, such nearness of
form, such a fidelity of suggestive detail, that it wrung from Mrs Verloc
an anguished and faint murmur, reproducing the supreme illusion of her
life, an appalled murmur that died out on her blanched lips.
“Might have been father and son.”
Mr Verloc stopped, and raised a care-worn face. “Eh? What did you say?”
he asked. Receiving no reply, he resumed his sinister tramping. Then
with a menacing flourish of a thick, fleshy fist, he burst out:
“Yes. The Embassy people. A pretty lot, ain’t they! Before a week’s
out I’ll make some of them wish themselves twenty feet underground. Eh?
He glanced sideways, with his head down. Mrs Verloc gazed at the
whitewashed wall. A blank wall—perfectly blank. A blankness to run at
and dash your head against. Mrs Verloc remained immovably seated. She
kept still as the population of half the globe would keep still in
astonishment and despair, were the sun suddenly put out in the summer sky
by the perfidy of a trusted providence.
“The Embassy,” Mr Verloc began again, after a preliminary grimace which
bared his teeth wolfishly. “I wish I could get loose in there with a
cudgel for half-an-hour. I would keep on hitting till there wasn’t a
single unbroken bone left amongst the whole lot. But never mind, I’ll
teach them yet what it means trying to throw out a man like me to rot in
the streets. I’ve a tongue in my head. All the world shall know what
I’ve done for them. I am not afraid. I don’t care. Everything’ll come
out. Every damned thing. Let them look out!”
In these terms did Mr Verloc declare his thirst for revenge. It was a
very appropriate revenge. It was in harmony with the promptings of Mr
Verloc’s genius. It had also the advantage of being within the range of
his powers and of adjusting itself easily to the practice of his life,
which had consisted precisely in betraying the secret and unlawful
proceedings of his fellow-men. Anarchists or diplomats were all one to
him. Mr Verloc was temperamentally no respecter of persons. His scorn
was equally distributed over the whole field of his operations. But as a
member of a revolutionary proletariat—which he undoubtedly was—he
nourished a rather inimical sentiment against social distinction.
“Nothing on earth can stop me now,” he added, and paused, looking fixedly
at his wife, who was looking fixedly at a blank wall.
The silence in the kitchen was prolonged, and Mr Verloc felt
disappointed. He had expected his wife to say something. But Mrs
Verloc’s lips, composed in their usual form, preserved a statuesque
immobility like the rest of her face. And Mr Verloc was disappointed.
Yet the occasion did not, he recognised, demand speech from her. She was
a woman of very few words. For reasons involved in the very foundation
of his psychology, Mr Verloc was inclined to put his trust in any woman
who had given herself to him. Therefore he trusted his wife. Their
accord was perfect, but it was not precise. It was a tacit accord,
congenial to Mrs Verloc’s incuriosity and to Mr Verloc’s habits of mind,
which were indolent and secret. They refrained from going to the bottom
of facts and motives.
This reserve, expressing, in a way, their profound confidence in each
other, introduced at the same time a certain element of vagueness into
their intimacy. No system of conjugal relations is perfect. Mr Verloc
presumed that his wife had understood him, but he would have been glad to
hear her say what she thought at the moment. It would have been a
There were several reasons why this comfort was denied him. There was a
physical obstacle: Mrs Verloc had no sufficient command over her voice.
She did not see any alternative between screaming and silence, and
instinctively she chose the silence. Winnie Verloc was temperamentally a
silent person. And there was the paralysing atrocity of the thought
which occupied her. Her cheeks were blanched, her lips ashy, her
immobility amazing. And she thought without looking at Mr Verloc: “This
man took the boy away to murder him. He took the boy away from his home
to murder him. He took the boy away from me to murder him!”
Mrs Verloc’s whole being was racked by that inconclusive and maddening
thought. It was in her veins, in her bones, in the roots of her hair.
Mentally she assumed the biblical attitude of mourning—the covered face,
the rent garments; the sound of wailing and lamentation filled her head.
But her teeth were violently clenched, and her tearless eyes were hot
with rage, because she was not a submissive creature. The protection she
had extended over her brother had been in its origin of a fierce and
indignant complexion. She had to love him with a militant love. She had
battled for him—even against herself. His loss had the bitterness of
defeat, with the anguish of a baffled passion. It was not an ordinary
stroke of death. Moreover, it was not death that took Stevie from her.
It was Mr Verloc who took him away. She had seen him. She had watched
him, without raising a hand, take the boy away. And she had let him go,
like—like a fool—a blind fool. Then after he had murdered the boy he
came home to her. Just came home like any other man would come home to
his wife. . . .
Through her set teeth Mrs Verloc muttered at the wall:
“And I thought he had caught a cold.”
Mr Verloc heard these words and appropriated them.
“It was nothing,” he said moodily. “I was upset. I was upset on your
Mrs Verloc, turning her head slowly, transferred her stare from the wall
to her husband’s person. Mr Verloc, with the tips of his fingers between
his lips, was looking on the ground.
“Can’t be helped,” he mumbled, letting his hand fall. “You must pull
yourself together. You’ll want all your wits about you. It is you who
brought the police about our ears. Never mind, I won’t say anything more
about it,” continued Mr Verloc magnanimously. “You couldn’t know.”
“I couldn’t,” breathed out Mrs Verloc. It was as if a corpse had spoken.
Mr Verloc took up the thread of his discourse.
“I don’t blame you. I’ll make them sit up. Once under lock and key it
will be safe enough for me to talk—you understand. You must reckon on me
being two years away from you,” he continued, in a tone of sincere
concern. “It will be easier for you than for me. You’ll have something
to do, while I—Look here, Winnie, what you must do is to keep this
business going for two years. You know enough for that. You’ve a good
head on you. I’ll send you word when it’s time to go about trying to
sell. You’ll have to be extra careful. The comrades will be keeping an
eye on you all the time. You’ll have to be as artful as you know how,
and as close as the grave. No one must know what you are going to do. I
have no mind to get a knock on the head or a stab in the back directly I
am let out.”
Thus spoke Mr Verloc, applying his mind with ingenuity and forethought to
the problems of the future. His voice was sombre, because he had a
correct sentiment of the situation. Everything which he did not wish to
pass had come to pass. The future had become precarious. His judgment,
perhaps, had been momentarily obscured by his dread of Mr Vladimir’s
truculent folly. A man somewhat over forty may be excusably thrown into
considerable disorder by the prospect of losing his employment,
especially if the man is a secret agent of political police, dwelling
secure in the consciousness of his high value and in the esteem of high
personages. He was excusable.
Now the thing had ended in a crash. Mr Verloc was cool; but he was not
cheerful. A secret agent who throws his secrecy to the winds from desire
of vengeance, and flaunts his achievements before the public eye, becomes
the mark for desperate and bloodthirsty indignations. Without unduly
exaggerating the danger, Mr Verloc tried to bring it clearly before his
wife’s mind. He repeated that he had no intention to let the
revolutionists do away with him.
He looked straight into his wife’s eyes. The enlarged pupils of the
woman received his stare into their unfathomable depths.
“I am too fond of you for that,” he said, with a little nervous laugh.
A faint flush coloured Mrs Verloc’s ghastly and motionless face. Having
done with the visions of the past, she had not only heard, but had also
understood the words uttered by her husband. By their extreme disaccord
with her mental condition these words produced on her a slightly
suffocating effect. Mrs Verloc’s mental condition had the merit of
simplicity; but it was not sound. It was governed too much by a fixed
idea. Every nook and cranny of her brain was filled with the thought
that this man, with whom she had lived without distaste for seven years,
had taken the “poor boy” away from her in order to kill him—the man to
whom she had grown accustomed in body and mind; the man whom she had
trusted, took the boy away to kill him! In its form, in its substance,
in its effect, which was universal, altering even the aspect of inanimate
things, it was a thought to sit still and marvel at for ever and ever.
Mrs Verloc sat still. And across that thought (not across the kitchen)
the form of Mr Verloc went to and fro, familiarly in hat and overcoat,
stamping with his boots upon her brain. He was probably talking too; but
Mrs Verloc’s thought for the most part covered the voice.
Now and then, however, the voice would make itself heard. Several
connected words emerged at times. Their purport was generally hopeful.
On each of these occasions Mrs Verloc’s dilated pupils, losing their
far-off fixity, followed her husband’s movements with the effect of black
care and impenetrable attention. Well informed upon all matters relating
to his secret calling, Mr Verloc augured well for the success of his
plans and combinations. He really believed that it would be upon the
whole easy for him to escape the knife of infuriated revolutionists. He
had exaggerated the strength of their fury and the length of their arm
(for professional purposes) too often to have many illusions one way or
the other. For to exaggerate with judgment one must begin by measuring
with nicety. He knew also how much virtue and how much infamy is
forgotten in two years—two long years. His first really confidential
discourse to his wife was optimistic from conviction. He also thought it
good policy to display all the assurance he could muster. It would put
heart into the poor woman. On his liberation, which, harmonising with
the whole tenor of his life, would be secret, of course, they would
vanish together without loss of time. As to covering up the tracks, he
begged his wife to trust him for that. He knew how it was to be done so
that the devil himself—
He waved his hand. He seemed to boast. He wished only to put heart into
her. It was a benevolent intention, but Mr Verloc had the misfortune not
to be in accord with his audience.
The self-confident tone grew upon Mrs Verloc’s ear which let most of the
words go by; for what were words to her now? What could words do to her,
for good or evil in the face of her fixed idea? Her black glance
followed that man who was asserting his impunity—the man who had taken
poor Stevie from home to kill him somewhere. Mrs Verloc could not
remember exactly where, but her heart began to beat very perceptibly.
Mr Verloc, in a soft and conjugal tone, was now expressing his firm
belief that there were yet a good few years of quiet life before them
both. He did not go into the question of means. A quiet life it must be
and, as it were, nestling in the shade, concealed among men whose flesh
is grass; modest, like the life of violets. The words used by Mr Verloc
were: “Lie low for a bit.” And far from England, of course. It was not
clear whether Mr Verloc had in his mind Spain or South America; but at
any rate somewhere abroad.
This last word, falling into Mrs Verloc’s ear, produced a definite
impression. This man was talking of going abroad. The impression was
completely disconnected; and such is the force of mental habit that Mrs
Verloc at once and automatically asked herself: “And what of Stevie?”
It was a sort of forgetfulness; but instantly she became aware that there
was no longer any occasion for anxiety on that score. There would never
be any occasion any more. The poor boy had been taken out and killed.
The poor boy was dead.
This shaking piece of forgetfulness stimulated Mrs Verloc’s intelligence.
She began to perceive certain consequences which would have surprised Mr
Verloc. There was no need for her now to stay there, in that kitchen, in
that house, with that man—since the boy was gone for ever. No need
whatever. And on that Mrs Verloc rose as if raised by a spring. But
neither could she see what there was to keep her in the world at all.
And this inability arrested her. Mr Verloc watched her with marital
“You’re looking more like yourself,” he said uneasily. Something
peculiar in the blackness of his wife’s eyes disturbed his optimism. At
that precise moment Mrs Verloc began to look upon herself as released
from all earthly ties.
She had her freedom. Her contract with existence, as represented by that
man standing over there, was at an end. She was a free woman. Had this
view become in some way perceptible to Mr Verloc he would have been
extremely shocked. In his affairs of the heart Mr Verloc had been always
carelessly generous, yet always with no other idea than that of being
loved for himself. Upon this matter, his ethical notions being in
agreement with his vanity, he was completely incorrigible. That this
should be so in the case of his virtuous and legal connection he was
perfectly certain. He had grown older, fatter, heavier, in the belief
that he lacked no fascination for being loved for his own sake. When he
saw Mrs Verloc starting to walk out of the kitchen without a word he was
“Where are you going to?” he called out rather sharply. “Upstairs?”
Mrs Verloc in the doorway turned at the voice. An instinct of prudence
born of fear, the excessive fear of being approached and touched by that
man, induced her to nod at him slightly (from the height of two steps),
with a stir of the lips which the conjugal optimism of Mr Verloc took for
a wan and uncertain smile.
“That’s right,” he encouraged her gruffly. “Rest and quiet’s what you
want. Go on. It won’t be long before I am with you.”
Mrs Verloc, the free woman who had had really no idea where she was going
to, obeyed the suggestion with rigid steadiness.
Mr Verloc watched her. She disappeared up the stairs. He was
disappointed. There was that within him which would have been more
satisfied if she had been moved to throw herself upon his breast. But he
was generous and indulgent. Winnie was always undemonstrative and
silent. Neither was Mr Verloc himself prodigal of endearments and words
as a rule. But this was not an ordinary evening. It was an occasion
when a man wants to be fortified and strengthened by open proofs of
sympathy and affection. Mr Verloc sighed, and put out the gas in the
kitchen. Mr Verloc’s sympathy with his wife was genuine and intense. It
almost brought tears into his eyes as he stood in the parlour reflecting
on the loneliness hanging over her head. In this mood Mr Verloc missed
Stevie very much out of a difficult world. He thought mournfully of his
end. If only that lad had not stupidly destroyed himself!
The sensation of unappeasable hunger, not unknown after the strain of a
hazardous enterprise to adventurers of tougher fibre than Mr Verloc,
overcame him again. The piece of roast beef, laid out in the likeness of
funereal baked meats for Stevie’s obsequies, offered itself largely to
his notice. And Mr Verloc again partook. He partook ravenously, without
restraint and decency, cutting thick slices with the sharp carving knife,
and swallowing them without bread. In the course of that refection it
occurred to Mr Verloc that he was not hearing his wife move about the
bedroom as he should have done. The thought of finding her perhaps
sitting on the bed in the dark not only cut Mr Verloc’s appetite, but
also took from him the inclination to follow her upstairs just yet.
Laying down the carving knife, Mr Verloc listened with careworn
He was comforted by hearing her move at last. She walked suddenly across
the room, and threw the window up. After a period of stillness up there,
during which he figured her to himself with her head out, he heard the
sash being lowered slowly. Then she made a few steps, and sat down.
Every resonance of his house was familiar to Mr Verloc, who was
thoroughly domesticated. When next he heard his wife’s footsteps
overhead he knew, as well as if he had seen her doing it, that she had
been putting on her walking shoes. Mr Verloc wriggled his shoulders
slightly at this ominous symptom, and moving away from the table, stood
with his back to the fireplace, his head on one side, and gnawing
perplexedly at the tips of his fingers. He kept track of her movements
by the sound. She walked here and there violently, with abrupt
stoppages, now before the chest of drawers, then in front of the
wardrobe. An immense load of weariness, the harvest of a day of shocks
and surprises, weighed Mr Verloc’s energies to the ground.
He did not raise his eyes till he heard his wife descending the stairs.
It was as he had guessed. She was dressed for going out.
Mrs Verloc was a free woman. She had thrown open the window of the
bedroom either with the intention of screaming Murder! Help! or of
throwing herself out. For she did not exactly know what use to make of
her freedom. Her personality seemed to have been torn into two pieces,
whose mental operations did not adjust themselves very well to each
other. The street, silent and deserted from end to end, repelled her by
taking sides with that man who was so certain of his impunity. She was
afraid to shout lest no one should come. Obviously no one would come.
Her instinct of self-preservation recoiled from the depth of the fall
into that sort of slimy, deep trench. Mrs Verloc closed the window, and
dressed herself to go out into the street by another way. She was a free
woman. She had dressed herself thoroughly, down to the tying of a black
veil over her face. As she appeared before him in the light of the
parlour, Mr Verloc observed that she had even her little handbag hanging
from her left wrist. . . . Flying off to her mother, of course.
The thought that women were wearisome creatures after all presented
itself to his fatigued brain. But he was too generous to harbour it for
more than an instant. This man, hurt cruelly in his vanity, remained
magnanimous in his conduct, allowing himself no satisfaction of a bitter
smile or of a contemptuous gesture. With true greatness of soul, he only
glanced at the wooden clock on the wall, and said in a perfectly calm but
“Five and twenty minutes past eight, Winnie. There’s no sense in going
over there so late. You will never manage to get back to-night.”
Before his extended hand Mrs Verloc had stopped short. He added heavily:
“Your mother will be gone to bed before you get there. This is the sort
of news that can wait.”
Nothing was further from Mrs Verloc’s thoughts than going to her mother.
She recoiled at the mere idea, and feeling a chair behind her, she obeyed
the suggestion of the touch, and sat down. Her intention had been simply
to get outside the door for ever. And if this feeling was correct, its
mental form took an unrefined shape corresponding to her origin and
station. “I would rather walk the streets all the days of my life,” she
thought. But this creature, whose moral nature had been subjected to a
shock of which, in the physical order, the most violent earthquake of
history could only be a faint and languid rendering, was at the mercy of
mere trifles, of casual contacts. She sat down. With her hat and veil
she had the air of a visitor, of having looked in on Mr Verloc for a
moment. Her instant docility encouraged him, whilst her aspect of only
temporary and silent acquiescence provoked him a little.
“Let me tell you, Winnie,” he said with authority, “that your place is
here this evening. Hang it all! you brought the damned police high and
low about my ears. I don’t blame you—but it’s your doing all the same.
You’d better take this confounded hat off. I can’t let you go out, old
girl,” he added in a softened voice.
Mrs Verloc’s mind got hold of that declaration with morbid tenacity. The
man who had taken Stevie out from under her very eyes to murder him in a
locality whose name was at the moment not present to her memory would not
allow her go out. Of course he wouldn’t.
Now he had murdered Stevie he would never let her go. He would want to
keep her for nothing. And on this characteristic reasoning, having all
the force of insane logic, Mrs Verloc’s disconnected wits went to work
practically. She could slip by him, open the door, run out. But he
would dash out after her, seize her round the body, drag her back into
the shop. She could scratch, kick, and bite—and stab too; but for
stabbing she wanted a knife. Mrs Verloc sat still under her black veil,
in her own house, like a masked and mysterious visitor of impenetrable
Mr Verloc’s magnanimity was not more than human. She had exasperated him
“Can’t you say something? You have your own dodges for vexing a man. Oh
yes! I know your deaf-and-dumb trick. I’ve seen you at it before
to-day. But just now it won’t do. And to begin with, take this damned
thing off. One can’t tell whether one is talking to a dummy or to a live
He advanced, and stretching out his hand, dragged the veil off, unmasking
a still, unreadable face, against which his nervous exasperation was
shattered like a glass bubble flung against a rock. “That’s better,” he
said, to cover his momentary uneasiness, and retreated back to his old
station by the mantelpiece. It never entered his head that his wife
could give him up. He felt a little ashamed of himself, for he was fond
and generous. What could he do? Everything had been said already. He
“By heavens! You know that I hunted high and low. I ran the risk of
giving myself away to find somebody for that accursed job. And I tell
you again I couldn’t find anyone crazy enough or hungry enough. What do
you take me for—a murderer, or what? The boy is gone. Do you think I
wanted him to blow himself up? He’s gone. His troubles are over. Ours
are just going to begin, I tell you, precisely because he did blow
himself. I don’t blame you. But just try to understand that it was a
pure accident; as much an accident as if he had been run over by a ’bus
while crossing the street.”
His generosity was not infinite, because he was a human being—and not a
monster, as Mrs Verloc believed him to be. He paused, and a snarl
lifting his moustaches above a gleam of white teeth gave him the
expression of a reflective beast, not very dangerous—a slow beast with a
sleek head, gloomier than a seal, and with a husky voice.
“And when it comes to that, it’s as much your doing as mine. That’s so.
You may glare as much as you like. I know what you can do in that way.
Strike me dead if I ever would have thought of the lad for that purpose.
It was you who kept on shoving him in my way when I was half distracted
with the worry of keeping the lot of us out of trouble. What the devil
made you? One would think you were doing it on purpose. And I am damned
if I know that you didn’t. There’s no saying how much of what’s going on
you have got hold of on the sly with your infernal don’t-care-a-damn way
of looking nowhere in particular, and saying nothing at all. . . . ”
His husky domestic voice ceased for a while. Mrs Verloc made no reply.
Before that silence he felt ashamed of what he had said. But as often
happens to peaceful men in domestic tiffs, being ashamed he pushed
“You have a devilish way of holding your tongue sometimes,” he began
again, without raising his voice. “Enough to make some men go mad. It’s
lucky for you that I am not so easily put out as some of them would be by
your deaf-and-dumb sulks. I am fond of you. But don’t you go too far.
This isn’t the time for it. We ought to be thinking of what we’ve got to
do. And I can’t let you go out to-night, galloping off to your mother
with some crazy tale or other about me. I won’t have it. Don’t you make
any mistake about it: if you will have it that I killed the boy, then
you’ve killed him as much as I.”
In sincerity of feeling and openness of statement, these words went far
beyond anything that had ever been said in this home, kept up on the
wages of a secret industry eked out by the sale of more or less secret
wares: the poor expedients devised by a mediocre mankind for preserving
an imperfect society from the dangers of moral and physical corruption,
both secret too of their kind. They were spoken because Mr Verloc had
felt himself really outraged; but the reticent decencies of this home
life, nestling in a shady street behind a shop where the sun never shone,
remained apparently undisturbed. Mrs Verloc heard him out with perfect
propriety, and then rose from her chair in her hat and jacket like a
visitor at the end of a call. She advanced towards her husband, one arm
extended as if for a silent leave-taking. Her net veil dangling down by
one end on the left side of her face gave an air of disorderly formality
to her restrained movements. But when she arrived as far as the
hearthrug, Mr Verloc was no longer standing there. He had moved off in
the direction of the sofa, without raising his eyes to watch the effect
of his tirade. He was tired, resigned in a truly marital spirit. But he
felt hurt in the tender spot of his secret weakness. If she would go on
sulking in that dreadful overcharged silence—why then she must. She was
a master in that domestic art. Mr Verloc flung himself heavily upon the
sofa, disregarding as usual the fate of his hat, which, as if accustomed
to take care of itself, made for a safe shelter under the table.
He was tired. The last particle of his nervous force had been expended
in the wonders and agonies of this day full of surprising failures coming
at the end of a harassing month of scheming and insomnia. He was tired.
A man isn’t made of stone. Hang everything! Mr Verloc reposed
characteristically, clad in his outdoor garments. One side of his open
overcoat was lying partly on the ground. Mr Verloc wallowed on his back.
But he longed for a more perfect rest—for sleep—for a few hours of
delicious forgetfulness. That would come later. Provisionally he
rested. And he thought: “I wish she would give over this damned
nonsense. It’s exasperating.”
There must have been something imperfect in Mrs Verloc’s sentiment of
regained freedom. Instead of taking the way of the door she leaned back,
with her shoulders against the tablet of the mantelpiece, as a wayfarer
rests against a fence. A tinge of wildness in her aspect was derived
from the black veil hanging like a rag against her cheek, and from the
fixity of her black gaze where the light of the room was absorbed and
lost without the trace of a single gleam. This woman, capable of a
bargain the mere suspicion of which would have been infinitely shocking
to Mr Verloc’s idea of love, remained irresolute, as if scrupulously
aware of something wanting on her part for the formal closing of the
On the sofa Mr Verloc wriggled his shoulders into perfect comfort, and
from the fulness of his heart emitted a wish which was certainly as pious
as anything likely to come from such a source.
“I wish to goodness,” he growled huskily, “I had never seen Greenwich
Park or anything belonging to it.”
The veiled sound filled the small room with its moderate volume, well
adapted to the modest nature of the wish. The waves of air of the proper
length, propagated in accordance with correct mathematical formulas,
flowed around all the inanimate things in the room, lapped against Mrs
Verloc’s head as if it had been a head of stone. And incredible as it
may appear, the eyes of Mrs Verloc seemed to grow still larger. The
audible wish of Mr Verloc’s overflowing heart flowed into an empty place
in his wife’s memory. Greenwich Park. A park! That’s where the boy was
killed. A park—smashed branches, torn leaves, gravel, bits of brotherly
flesh and bone, all spouting up together in the manner of a firework.
She remembered now what she had heard, and she remembered it pictorially.
They had to gather him up with the shovel. Trembling all over with
irrepressible shudders, she saw before her the very implement with its
ghastly load scraped up from the ground. Mrs Verloc closed her eyes
desperately, throwing upon that vision the night of her eyelids, where
after a rainlike fall of mangled limbs the decapitated head of Stevie
lingered suspended alone, and fading out slowly like the last star of a
pyrotechnic display. Mrs Verloc opened her eyes.
Her face was no longer stony. Anybody could have noted the subtle change
on her features, in the stare of her eyes, giving her a new and startling
expression; an expression seldom observed by competent persons under the
conditions of leisure and security demanded for thorough analysis, but
whose meaning could not be mistaken at a glance. Mrs Verloc’s doubts as
to the end of the bargain no longer existed; her wits, no longer
disconnected, were working under the control of her will. But Mr Verloc
observed nothing. He was reposing in that pathetic condition of optimism
induced by excess of fatigue. He did not want any more trouble—with his
wife too—of all people in the world. He had been unanswerable in his
vindication. He was loved for himself. The present phase of her silence
he interpreted favourably. This was the time to make it up with her.
The silence had lasted long enough. He broke it by calling to her in an
“Yes,” answered obediently Mrs Verloc the free woman. She commanded her
wits now, her vocal organs; she felt herself to be in an almost
preternaturally perfect control of every fibre of her body. It was all
her own, because the bargain was at an end. She was clear sighted. She
had become cunning. She chose to answer him so readily for a purpose.
She did not wish that man to change his position on the sofa which was
very suitable to the circumstances. She succeeded. The man did not
stir. But after answering him she remained leaning negligently against
the mantelpiece in the attitude of a resting wayfarer. She was
unhurried. Her brow was smooth. The head and shoulders of Mr Verloc
were hidden from her by the high side of the sofa. She kept her eyes
fixed on his feet.
She remained thus mysteriously still and suddenly collected till Mr
Verloc was heard with an accent of marital authority, and moving slightly
to make room for her to sit on the edge of the sofa.
“Come here,” he said in a peculiar tone, which might have been the tone
of brutality, but was intimately known to Mrs Verloc as the note of
She started forward at once, as if she were still a loyal woman bound to
that man by an unbroken contract. Her right hand skimmed slightly the
end of the table, and when she had passed on towards the sofa the carving
knife had vanished without the slightest sound from the side of the dish.
Mr Verloc heard the creaky plank in the floor, and was content. He
waited. Mrs Verloc was coming. As if the homeless soul of Stevie had
flown for shelter straight to the breast of his sister, guardian and
protector, the resemblance of her face with that of her brother grew at
every step, even to the droop of the lower lip, even to the slight
divergence of the eyes. But Mr Verloc did not see that. He was lying on
his back and staring upwards. He saw partly on the ceiling and partly on
the wall the moving shadow of an arm with a clenched hand holding a
carving knife. It flickered up and down. Its movements were leisurely.
They were leisurely enough for Mr Verloc to recognise the limb and the
They were leisurely enough for him to take in the full meaning of the
portent, and to taste the flavour of death rising in his gorge. His wife
had gone raving mad—murdering mad. They were leisurely enough for the
first paralysing effect of this discovery to pass away before a resolute
determination to come out victorious from the ghastly struggle with that
armed lunatic. They were leisurely enough for Mr Verloc to elaborate a
plan of defence involving a dash behind the table, and the felling of the
woman to the ground with a heavy wooden chair. But they were not
leisurely enough to allow Mr Verloc the time to move either hand or foot.
The knife was already planted in his breast. It met no resistance on its
way. Hazard has such accuracies. Into that plunging blow, delivered
over the side of the couch, Mrs Verloc had put all the inheritance of her
immemorial and obscure descent, the simple ferocity of the age of
caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms. Mr
Verloc, the Secret Agent, turning slightly on his side with the force of
the blow, expired without stirring a limb, in the muttered sound of the
word “Don’t” by way of protest.
Mrs Verloc had let go the knife, and her extraordinary resemblance to her
late brother had faded, had become very ordinary now. She drew a deep
breath, the first easy breath since Chief Inspector Heat had exhibited to
her the labelled piece of Stevie’s overcoat. She leaned forward on her
folded arms over the side of the sofa. She adopted that easy attitude
not in order to watch or gloat over the body of Mr Verloc, but because of
the undulatory and swinging movements of the parlour, which for some time
behaved as though it were at sea in a tempest. She was giddy but calm.
She had become a free woman with a perfection of freedom which left her
nothing to desire and absolutely nothing to do, since Stevie’s urgent
claim on her devotion no longer existed. Mrs Verloc, who thought in
images, was not troubled now by visions, because she did not think at
all. And she did not move. She was a woman enjoying her complete
irresponsibility and endless leisure, almost in the manner of a corpse.
She did not move, she did not think. Neither did the mortal envelope of
the late Mr Verloc reposing on the sofa. Except for the fact that Mrs
Verloc breathed these two would have been perfect in accord: that accord
of prudent reserve without superfluous words, and sparing of signs, which
had been the foundation of their respectable home life. For it had been
respectable, covering by a decent reticence the problems that may arise
in the practice of a secret profession and the commerce of shady wares.
To the last its decorum had remained undisturbed by unseemly shrieks and
other misplaced sincerities of conduct. And after the striking of the
blow, this respectability was continued in immobility and silence.
Nothing moved in the parlour till Mrs Verloc raised her head slowly and
looked at the clock with inquiring mistrust. She had become aware of a
ticking sound in the room. It grew upon her ear, while she remembered
clearly that the clock on the wall was silent, had no audible tick. What
did it mean by beginning to tick so loudly all of a sudden? Its face
indicated ten minutes to nine. Mrs Verloc cared nothing for time, and
the ticking went on. She concluded it could not be the clock, and her
sullen gaze moved along the walls, wavered, and became vague, while she
strained her hearing to locate the sound. Tic, tic, tic.
After listening for some time Mrs Verloc lowered her gaze deliberately on
her husband’s body. Its attitude of repose was so home-like and familiar
that she could do so without feeling embarrassed by any pronounced
novelty in the phenomena of her home life. Mr Verloc was taking his
habitual ease. He looked comfortable.
By the position of the body the face of Mr Verloc was not visible to Mrs
Verloc, his widow. Her fine, sleepy eyes, travelling downward on the
track of the sound, became contemplative on meeting a flat object of bone
which protruded a little beyond the edge of the sofa. It was the handle
of the domestic carving knife with nothing strange about it but its
position at right angles to Mr Verloc’s waistcoat and the fact that
something dripped from it. Dark drops fell on the floorcloth one after
another, with a sound of ticking growing fast and furious like the pulse
of an insane clock. At its highest speed this ticking changed into a
continuous sound of trickling. Mrs Verloc watched that transformation
with shadows of anxiety coming and going on her face. It was a trickle,
dark, swift, thin. . . . Blood!
At this unforeseen circumstance Mrs Verloc abandoned her pose of idleness
With a sudden snatch at her skirts and a faint shriek she ran to the
door, as if the trickle had been the first sign of a destroying flood.
Finding the table in her way she gave it a push with both hands as though
it had been alive, with such force that it went for some distance on its
four legs, making a loud, scraping racket, whilst the big dish with the
joint crashed heavily on the floor.
Then all became still. Mrs Verloc on reaching the door had stopped. A
round hat disclosed in the middle of the floor by the moving of the table
rocked slightly on its crown in the wind of her flight.
Winnie Verloc, the widow of Mr Verloc, the sister of the late faithful
Stevie (blown to fragments in a state of innocence and in the conviction
of being engaged in a humanitarian enterprise), did not run beyond the
door of the parlour. She had indeed run away so far from a mere trickle
of blood, but that was a movement of instinctive repulsion. And there
she had paused, with staring eyes and lowered head. As though she had
run through long years in her flight across the small parlour, Mrs Verloc
by the door was quite a different person from the woman who had been
leaning over the sofa, a little swimmy in her head, but otherwise free to
enjoy the profound calm of idleness and irresponsibility. Mrs Verloc was
no longer giddy. Her head was steady. On the other hand, she was no
longer calm. She was afraid.
If she avoided looking in the direction of her reposing husband it was
not because she was afraid of him. Mr Verloc was not frightful to
behold. He looked comfortable. Moreover, he was dead. Mrs Verloc
entertained no vain delusions on the subject of the dead. Nothing brings
them back, neither love nor hate. They can do nothing to you. They are
as nothing. Her mental state was tinged by a sort of austere contempt
for that man who had let himself be killed so easily. He had been the
master of a house, the husband of a woman, and the murderer of her
Stevie. And now he was of no account in every respect. He was of less
practical account than the clothing on his body, than his overcoat, than
his boots—than that hat lying on the floor. He was nothing. He was not
worth looking at. He was even no longer the murderer of poor Stevie.
The only murderer that would be found in the room when people came to
look for Mr Verloc would be—herself!
Her hands shook so that she failed twice in the task of refastening her
veil. Mrs Verloc was no longer a person of leisure and responsibility.
She was afraid. The stabbing of Mr Verloc had been only a blow. It had
relieved the pent-up agony of shrieks strangled in her throat, of tears
dried up in her hot eyes, of the maddening and indignant rage at the
atrocious part played by that man, who was less than nothing now, in
robbing her of the boy.
It had been an obscurely prompted blow. The blood trickling on the floor
off the handle of the knife had turned it into an extremely plain case of
murder. Mrs Verloc, who always refrained from looking deep into things,
was compelled to look into the very bottom of this thing. She saw there
no haunting face, no reproachful shade, no vision of remorse, no sort of
ideal conception. She saw there an object. That object was the gallows.
Mrs Verloc was afraid of the gallows.
She was terrified of them ideally. Having never set eyes on that last
argument of men’s justice except in illustrative woodcuts to a certain
type of tales, she first saw them erect against a black and stormy
background, festooned with chains and human bones, circled about by birds
that peck at dead men’s eyes. This was frightful enough, but Mrs Verloc,
though not a well-informed woman, had a sufficient knowledge of the
institutions of her country to know that gallows are no longer erected
romantically on the banks of dismal rivers or on wind-swept headlands,
but in the yards of jails. There within four high walls, as if into a
pit, at dawn of day, the murderer was brought out to be executed, with a
horrible quietness and, as the reports in the newspapers always said, “in
the presence of the authorities.” With her eyes staring on the floor,
her nostrils quivering with anguish and shame, she imagined herself all
alone amongst a lot of strange gentlemen in silk hats who were calmly
proceeding about the business of hanging her by the neck. That—never!
Never! And how was it done? The impossibility of imagining the details
of such quiet execution added something maddening to her abstract terror.
The newspapers never gave any details except one, but that one with some
affectation was always there at the end of a meagre report. Mrs Verloc
remembered its nature. It came with a cruel burning pain into her head,
as if the words “The drop given was fourteen feet” had been scratched on
her brain with a hot needle. “The drop given was fourteen feet.”
These words affected her physically too. Her throat became convulsed in
waves to resist strangulation; and the apprehension of the jerk was so
vivid that she seized her head in both hands as if to save it from being
torn off her shoulders. “The drop given was fourteen feet.” No! that
must never be. She could not stand _that_. The thought of it even was
not bearable. She could not stand thinking of it. Therefore Mrs Verloc
formed the resolution to go at once and throw herself into the river off
one of the bridges.
This time she managed to refasten her veil. With her face as if masked,
all black from head to foot except for some flowers in her hat, she
looked up mechanically at the clock. She thought it must have stopped.
She could not believe that only two minutes had passed since she had
looked at it last. Of course not. It had been stopped all the time. As
a matter of fact, only three minutes had elapsed from the moment she had
drawn the first deep, easy breath after the blow, to this moment when Mrs
Verloc formed the resolution to drown herself in the Thames. But Mrs
Verloc could not believe that. She seemed to have heard or read that
clocks and watches always stopped at the moment of murder for the undoing
of the murderer. She did not care. “To the bridge—and over I go.” . . .
But her movements were slow.
She dragged herself painfully across the shop, and had to hold on to the
handle of the door before she found the necessary fortitude to open it.
The street frightened her, since it led either to the gallows or to the
river. She floundered over the doorstep head forward, arms thrown out,
like a person falling over the parapet of a bridge. This entrance into
the open air had a foretaste of drowning; a slimy dampness enveloped her,
entered her nostrils, clung to her hair. It was not actually raining,
but each gas lamp had a rusty little halo of mist. The van and horses
were gone, and in the black street the curtained window of the carters’
eating-house made a square patch of soiled blood-red light glowing
faintly very near the level of the pavement. Mrs Verloc, dragging
herself slowly towards it, thought that she was a very friendless woman.
It was true. It was so true that, in a sudden longing to see some
friendly face, she could think of no one else but of Mrs Neale, the
charwoman. She had no acquaintances of her own. Nobody would miss her
in a social way. It must not be imagined that the Widow Verloc had
forgotten her mother. This was not so. Winnie had been a good daughter
because she had been a devoted sister. Her mother had always leaned on
her for support. No consolation or advice could be expected there. Now
that Stevie was dead the bond seemed to be broken. She could not face
the old woman with the horrible tale. Moreover, it was too far. The
river was her present destination. Mrs Verloc tried to forget her
Each step cost her an effort of will which seemed the last possible. Mrs
Verloc had dragged herself past the red glow of the eating-house window.
“To the bridge—and over I go,” she repeated to herself with fierce
obstinacy. She put out her hand just in time to steady herself against a
lamp-post. “I’ll never get there before morning,” she thought. The fear
of death paralysed her efforts to escape the gallows. It seemed to her
she had been staggering in that street for hours. “I’ll never get
there,” she thought. “They’ll find me knocking about the streets. It’s
too far.” She held on, panting under her black veil.
“The drop given was fourteen feet.”
She pushed the lamp-post away from her violently, and found herself
walking. But another wave of faintness overtook her like a great sea,
washing away her heart clean out of her breast. “I will never get
there,” she muttered, suddenly arrested, swaying lightly where she stood.
And perceiving the utter impossibility of walking as far as the nearest
bridge, Mrs Verloc thought of a flight abroad.
It came to her suddenly. Murderers escaped. They escaped abroad. Spain
or California. Mere names. The vast world created for the glory of man
was only a vast blank to Mrs Verloc. She did not know which way to turn.
Murderers had friends, relations, helpers—they had knowledge. She had
nothing. She was the most lonely of murderers that ever struck a mortal
blow. She was alone in London: and the whole town of marvels and mud,
with its maze of streets and its mass of lights, was sunk in a hopeless
night, rested at the bottom of a black abyss from which no unaided woman
could hope to scramble out.
She swayed forward, and made a fresh start blindly, with an awful dread
of falling down; but at the end of a few steps, unexpectedly, she found a
sensation of support, of security. Raising her head, she saw a man’s
face peering closely at her veil. Comrade Ossipon was not afraid of
strange women, and no feeling of false delicacy could prevent him from
striking an acquaintance with a woman apparently very much intoxicated.
Comrade Ossipon was interested in women. He held up this one between his
two large palms, peering at her in a business-like way till he heard her
say faintly “Mr Ossipon!” and then he very nearly let her drop to the
“Mrs Verloc!” he exclaimed. “You here!”
It seemed impossible to him that she should have been drinking. But one
never knows. He did not go into that question, but attentive not to
discourage kind fate surrendering to him the widow of Comrade Verloc, he
tried to draw her to his breast. To his astonishment she came quite
easily, and even rested on his arm for a moment before she attempted to
disengage herself. Comrade Ossipon would not be brusque with kind fate.
He withdrew his arm in a natural way.
“You recognised me,” she faltered out, standing before him, fairly steady
on her legs.
“Of course I did,” said Ossipon with perfect readiness. “I was afraid
you were going to fall. I’ve thought of you too often lately not to
recognise you anywhere, at any time. I’ve always thought of you—ever
since I first set eyes on you.”
Mrs Verloc seemed not to hear. “You were coming to the shop?” she said
“Yes; at once,” answered Ossipon. “Directly I read the paper.”
In fact, Comrade Ossipon had been skulking for a good two hours in the
neighbourhood of Brett Street, unable to make up his mind for a bold
move. The robust anarchist was not exactly a bold conqueror. He
remembered that Mrs Verloc had never responded to his glances by the
slightest sign of encouragement. Besides, he thought the shop might be
watched by the police, and Comrade Ossipon did not wish the police to
form an exaggerated notion of his revolutionary sympathies. Even now he
did not know precisely what to do. In comparison with his usual amatory
speculations this was a big and serious undertaking. He ignored how much
there was in it and how far he would have to go in order to get hold of
what there was to get—supposing there was a chance at all. These
perplexities checking his elation imparted to his tone a soberness well
in keeping with the circumstances.
“May I ask you where you were going?” he inquired in a subdued voice.
“Don’t ask me!” cried Mrs Verloc with a shuddering, repressed violence.
All her strong vitality recoiled from the idea of death. “Never mind
where I was going. . . .”
Ossipon concluded that she was very much excited but perfectly sober.
She remained silent by his side for moment, then all at once she did
something which he did not expect. She slipped her hand under his arm.
He was startled by the act itself certainly, and quite as much too by the
palpably resolute character of this movement. But this being a delicate
affair, Comrade Ossipon behaved with delicacy. He contented himself by
pressing the hand slightly against his robust ribs. At the same time he
felt himself being impelled forward, and yielded to the impulse. At the
end of Brett Street he became aware of being directed to the left. He
The fruiterer at the corner had put out the blazing glory of his oranges
and lemons, and Brett Place was all darkness, interspersed with the misty
halos of the few lamps defining its triangular shape, with a cluster of
three lights on one stand in the middle. The dark forms of the man and
woman glided slowly arm in arm along the walls with a loverlike and
homeless aspect in the miserable night.
“What would you say if I were to tell you that I was going to find you?”
Mrs Verloc asked, gripping his arm with force.
“I would say that you couldn’t find anyone more ready to help you in your
trouble,” answered Ossipon, with a notion of making tremendous headway.
In fact, the progress of this delicate affair was almost taking his
“In my trouble!” Mrs Verloc repeated slowly.
“And do you know what my trouble is?” she whispered with strange
“Ten minutes after seeing the evening paper,” explained Ossipon with
ardour, “I met a fellow whom you may have seen once or twice at the shop
perhaps, and I had a talk with him which left no doubt whatever in my
mind. Then I started for here, wondering whether you—I’ve been fond of
you beyond words ever since I set eyes on your face,” he cried, as if
unable to command his feelings.
Comrade Ossipon assumed correctly that no woman was capable of wholly
disbelieving such a statement. But he did not know that Mrs Verloc
accepted it with all the fierceness the instinct of self-preservation
puts into the grip of a drowning person. To the widow of Mr Verloc the
robust anarchist was like a radiant messenger of life.
They walked slowly, in step. “I thought so,” Mrs Verloc murmured
“You’ve read it in my eyes,” suggested Ossipon with great assurance.
“Yes,” she breathed out into his inclined ear.
“A love like mine could not be concealed from a woman like you,” he went
on, trying to detach his mind from material considerations such as the
business value of the shop, and the amount of money Mr Verloc might have
left in the bank. He applied himself to the sentimental side of the
affair. In his heart of hearts he was a little shocked at his success.
Verloc had been a good fellow, and certainly a very decent husband as far
as one could see. However, Comrade Ossipon was not going to quarrel with
his luck for the sake of a dead man. Resolutely he suppressed his
sympathy for the ghost of Comrade Verloc, and went on.
“I could not conceal it. I was too full of you. I daresay you could not
help seeing it in my eyes. But I could not guess it. You were always so
distant. . . .”
“What else did you expect?” burst out Mrs Verloc. “I was a respectable
She paused, then added, as if speaking to herself, in sinister
resentment: “Till he made me what I am.”
Ossipon let that pass, and took up his running. “He never did seem to me
to be quite worthy of you,” he began, throwing loyalty to the winds.
“You were worthy of a better fate.”
Mrs Verloc interrupted bitterly:
“Better fate! He cheated me out of seven years of life.”
“You seemed to live so happily with him.” Ossipon tried to exculpate the
lukewarmness of his past conduct. “It’s that what’s made me timid. You
seemed to love him. I was surprised—and jealous,” he added.
“Love him!” Mrs Verloc cried out in a whisper, full of scorn and rage.
“Love him! I was a good wife to him. I am a respectable woman. You
thought I loved him! You did! Look here, Tom—”
The sound of this name thrilled Comrade Ossipon with pride. For his name
was Alexander, and he was called Tom by arrangement with the most
familiar of his intimates. It was a name of friendship—of moments of
expansion. He had no idea that she had ever heard it used by anybody.
It was apparent that she had not only caught it, but had treasured it in
her memory—perhaps in her heart.
“Look here, Tom! I was a young girl. I was done up. I was tired. I
had two people depending on what I could do, and it did seem as if I
couldn’t do any more. Two people—mother and the boy. He was much more
mine than mother’s. I sat up nights and nights with him on my lap, all
alone upstairs, when I wasn’t more than eight years old myself. And
then—He was mine, I tell you. . . . You can’t understand that. No man
can understand it. What was I to do? There was a young fellow—”
The memory of the early romance with the young butcher survived,
tenacious, like the image of a glimpsed ideal in that heart quailing
before the fear of the gallows and full of revolt against death.
“That was the man I loved then,” went on the widow of Mr Verloc. “I
suppose he could see it in my eyes too. Five and twenty shillings a
week, and his father threatened to kick him out of the business if he
made such a fool of himself as to marry a girl with a crippled mother and
a crazy idiot of a boy on her hands. But he would hang about me, till
one evening I found the courage to slam the door in his face. I had to
do it. I loved him dearly. Five and twenty shillings a week! There was
that other man—a good lodger. What is a girl to do? Could I’ve gone on
the streets? He seemed kind. He wanted me, anyhow. What was I to do
with mother and that poor boy? Eh? I said yes. He seemed good-natured,
he was freehanded, he had money, he never said anything. Seven
years—seven years a good wife to him, the kind, the good, the generous,
the—And he loved me. Oh yes. He loved me till I sometimes wished
myself—Seven years. Seven years a wife to him. And do you know what he
was, that dear friend of yours? Do you know what he was? He was a
The superhuman vehemence of that whispered statement completely stunned
Comrade Ossipon. Winnie Verloc turning about held him by both arms,
facing him under the falling mist in the darkness and solitude of Brett
Place, in which all sounds of life seemed lost as if in a triangular well
of asphalt and bricks, of blind houses and unfeeling stones.
“No; I didn’t know,” he declared, with a sort of flabby stupidity, whose
comical aspect was lost upon a woman haunted by the fear of the gallows,
“but I do now. I—I understand,” he floundered on, his mind speculating
as to what sort of atrocities Verloc could have practised under the
sleepy, placid appearances of his married estate. It was positively
awful. “I understand,” he repeated, and then by a sudden inspiration
uttered an—“Unhappy woman!” of lofty commiseration instead of the more
familiar “Poor darling!” of his usual practice. This was no usual case.
He felt conscious of something abnormal going on, while he never lost
sight of the greatness of the stake. “Unhappy, brave woman!”
He was glad to have discovered that variation; but he could discover
“Ah, but he is dead now,” was the best he could do. And he put a
remarkable amount of animosity into his guarded exclamation. Mrs Verloc
caught at his arm with a sort of frenzy.
“You guessed then he was dead,” she murmured, as if beside herself.
“You! You guessed what I had to do. Had to!”
There were suggestions of triumph, relief, gratitude in the indefinable
tone of these words. It engrossed the whole attention of Ossipon to the
detriment of mere literal sense. He wondered what was up with her, why
she had worked herself into this state of wild excitement. He even began
to wonder whether the hidden causes of that Greenwich Park affair did not
lie deep in the unhappy circumstances of the Verlocs’ married life. He
went so far as to suspect Mr Verloc of having selected that extraordinary
manner of committing suicide. By Jove! that would account for the utter
inanity and wrong-headedness of the thing. No anarchist manifestation
was required by the circumstances. Quite the contrary; and Verloc was as
well aware of that as any other revolutionist of his standing. What an
immense joke if Verloc had simply made fools of the whole of Europe, of
the revolutionary world, of the police, of the press, and of the cocksure
Professor as well. Indeed, thought Ossipon, in astonishment, it seemed
almost certain that he did! Poor beggar! It struck him as very possible
that of that household of two it wasn’t precisely the man who was the
Alexander Ossipon, nicknamed the Doctor, was naturally inclined to think
indulgently of his men friends. He eyed Mrs Verloc hanging on his arm.
Of his women friends he thought in a specially practical way. Why Mrs
Verloc should exclaim at his knowledge of Mr Verloc’s death, which was no
guess at all, did not disturb him beyond measure. They often talked like
lunatics. But he was curious to know how she had been informed. The
papers could tell her nothing beyond the mere fact: the man blown to
pieces in Greenwich Park not having been identified. It was
inconceivable on any theory that Verloc should have given her an inkling
of his intention—whatever it was. This problem interested Comrade
Ossipon immensely. He stopped short. They had gone then along the three
sides of Brett Place, and were near the end of Brett Street again.
“How did you first come to hear of it?” he asked in a tone he tried to
render appropriate to the character of the revelations which had been
made to him by the woman at his side.
She shook violently for a while before she answered in a listless voice.
“From the police. A chief inspector came, Chief Inspector Heat he said
he was. He showed me—”
Mrs Verloc choked. “Oh, Tom, they had to gather him up with a shovel.”
Her breast heaved with dry sobs. In a moment Ossipon found his tongue.
“The police! Do you mean to say the police came already? That Chief
Inspector Heat himself actually came to tell you.”
“Yes,” she confirmed in the same listless tone. “He came just like this.
He came. I didn’t know. He showed me a piece of overcoat, and—just like
that. Do you know this? he says.”
“Heat! Heat! And what did he do?”
Mrs Verloc’s head dropped. “Nothing. He did nothing. He went away.
The police were on that man’s side,” she murmured tragically. “Another
one came too.”
“Another—another inspector, do you mean?” asked Ossipon, in great
excitement, and very much in the tone of a scared child.
“I don’t know. He came. He looked like a foreigner. He may have been
one of them Embassy people.”
Comrade Ossipon nearly collapsed under this new shock.
“Embassy! Are you aware what you are saying? What Embassy? What on
earth do you mean by Embassy?”
“It’s that place in Chesham Square. The people he cursed so. I don’t
know. What does it matter!”
“And that fellow, what did he do or say to you?”
“I don’t remember. . . . Nothing . . . . I don’t care. Don’t ask me,”
she pleaded in a weary voice.
“All right. I won’t,” assented Ossipon tenderly. And he meant it too,
not because he was touched by the pathos of the pleading voice, but
because he felt himself losing his footing in the depths of this
tenebrous affair. Police! Embassy! Phew! For fear of adventuring his
intelligence into ways where its natural lights might fail to guide it
safely he dismissed resolutely all suppositions, surmises, and theories
out of his mind. He had the woman there, absolutely flinging herself at
him, and that was the principal consideration. But after what he had
heard nothing could astonish him any more. And when Mrs Verloc, as if
startled suddenly out of a dream of safety, began to urge upon him wildly
the necessity of an immediate flight on the Continent, he did not exclaim
in the least. He simply said with unaffected regret that there was no
train till the morning, and stood looking thoughtfully at her face,
veiled in black net, in the light of a gas lamp veiled in a gauze of
Near him, her black form merged in the night, like a figure half
chiselled out of a block of black stone. It was impossible to say what
she knew, how deep she was involved with policemen and Embassies. But if
she wanted to get away, it was not for him to object. He was anxious to
be off himself. He felt that the business, the shop so strangely
familiar to chief inspectors and members of foreign Embassies, was not
the place for him. That must be dropped. But there was the rest. These
savings. The money!
“You must hide me till the morning somewhere,” she said in a dismayed
“Fact is, my dear, I can’t take you where I live. I share the room with
He was somewhat dismayed himself. In the morning the blessed ’tecs will
be out in all the stations, no doubt. And if they once got hold of her,
for one reason or another she would be lost to him indeed.
“But you must. Don’t you care for me at all—at all? What are you
She said this violently, but she let her clasped hands fall in
discouragement. There was a silence, while the mist fell, and darkness
reigned undisturbed over Brett Place. Not a soul, not even the vagabond,
lawless, and amorous soul of a cat, came near the man and the woman
facing each other.
“It would be possible perhaps to find a safe lodging somewhere,” Ossipon
spoke at last. “But the truth is, my dear, I have not enough money to go
and try with—only a few pence. We revolutionists are not rich.”
He had fifteen shillings in his pocket. He added:
“And there’s the journey before us, too—first thing in the morning at
She did not move, made no sound, and Comrade Ossipon’s heart sank a
little. Apparently she had no suggestion to offer. Suddenly she
clutched at her breast, as if she had felt a sharp pain there.
“But I have,” she gasped. “I have the money. I have enough money. Tom!
Let us go from here.”
“How much have you got?” he inquired, without stirring to her tug; for he
was a cautious man.
“I have the money, I tell you. All the money.”
“What do you mean by it? All the money there was in the bank, or what?”
he asked incredulously, but ready not to be surprised at anything in the
way of luck.
“Yes, yes!” she said nervously. “All there was. I’ve it all.”
“How on earth did you manage to get hold of it already?” he marvelled.
“He gave it to me,” she murmured, suddenly subdued and trembling.
Comrade Ossipon put down his rising surprise with a firm hand.
“Why, then—we are saved,” he uttered slowly.
She leaned forward, and sank against his breast. He welcomed her there.
She had all the money. Her hat was in the way of very marked effusion;
her veil too. He was adequate in his manifestations, but no more. She
received them without resistance and without abandonment, passively, as
if only half-sensible. She freed herself from his lax embraces without
“You will save me, Tom,” she broke out, recoiling, but still keeping her
hold on him by the two lapels of his damp coat. “Save me. Hide me.
Don’t let them have me. You must kill me first. I couldn’t do it
myself—I couldn’t, I couldn’t—not even for what I am afraid of.”
She was confoundedly bizarre, he thought. She was beginning to inspire
him with an indefinite uneasiness. He said surlily, for he was busy with
“What the devil _are_ you afraid of?”
“Haven’t you guessed what I was driven to do!” cried the woman.
Distracted by the vividness of her dreadful apprehensions, her head
ringing with forceful words, that kept the horror of her position before
her mind, she had imagined her incoherence to be clearness itself. She
had no conscience of how little she had audibly said in the disjointed
phrases completed only in her thought. She had felt the relief of a full
confession, and she gave a special meaning to every sentence spoken by
Comrade Ossipon, whose knowledge did not in the least resemble her own.
“Haven’t you guessed what I was driven to do!” Her voice fell. “You
needn’t be long in guessing then what I am afraid of,” she continued, in
a bitter and sombre murmur. “I won’t have it. I won’t. I won’t. I
won’t. You must promise to kill me first!” She shook the lapels of his
coat. “It must never be!”
He assured her curtly that no promises on his part were necessary, but he
took good care not to contradict her in set terms, because he had had
much to do with excited women, and he was inclined in general to let his
experience guide his conduct in preference to applying his sagacity to
each special case. His sagacity in this case was busy in other
directions. Women’s words fell into water, but the shortcomings of
time-tables remained. The insular nature of Great Britain obtruded
itself upon his notice in an odious form. “Might just as well be put
under lock and key every night,” he thought irritably, as nonplussed as
though he had a wall to scale with the woman on his back. Suddenly he
slapped his forehead. He had by dint of cudgelling his brains just
thought of the Southampton—St Malo service. The boat left about
midnight. There was a train at 10.30. He became cheery and ready to
“From Waterloo. Plenty of time. We are all right after all. . . .
What’s the matter now? This isn’t the way,” he protested.
Mrs Verloc, having hooked her arm into his, was trying to drag him into
Brett Street again.
“I’ve forgotten to shut the shop door as I went out,” she whispered,
The shop and all that was in it had ceased to interest Comrade Ossipon.
He knew how to limit his desires. He was on the point of saying “What of
that? Let it be,” but he refrained. He disliked argument about trifles.
He even mended his pace considerably on the thought that she might have
left the money in the drawer. But his willingness lagged behind her
The shop seemed to be quite dark at first. The door stood ajar. Mrs
Verloc, leaning against the front, gasped out:
“Nobody has been in. Look! The light—the light in the parlour.”
Ossipon, stretching his head forward, saw a faint gleam in the darkness
of the shop.
“There is,” he said.
“I forgot it.” Mrs Verloc’s voice came from behind her veil faintly. And
as he stood waiting for her to enter first, she said louder: “Go in and
put it out—or I’ll go mad.”
He made no immediate objection to this proposal, so strangely motived.
“Where’s all that money?” he asked.
“On me! Go, Tom. Quick! Put it out. . . . Go in!” she cried, seizing
him by both shoulders from behind.
Not prepared for a display of physical force, Comrade Ossipon stumbled
far into the shop before her push. He was astonished at the strength of
the woman and scandalised by her proceedings. But he did not retrace his
steps in order to remonstrate with her severely in the street. He was
beginning to be disagreeably impressed by her fantastic behaviour.
Moreover, this or never was the time to humour the woman. Comrade
Ossipon avoided easily the end of the counter, and approached calmly the
glazed door of the parlour. The curtain over the panes being drawn back
a little he, by a very natural impulse, looked in, just as he made ready
to turn the handle. He looked in without a thought, without intention,
without curiosity of any sort. He looked in because he could not help
looking in. He looked in, and discovered Mr Verloc reposing quietly on
A yell coming from the innermost depths of his chest died out unheard and
transformed into a sort of greasy, sickly taste on his lips. At the same
time the mental personality of Comrade Ossipon executed a frantic leap
backward. But his body, left thus without intellectual guidance, held on
to the door handle with the unthinking force of an instinct. The robust
anarchist did not even totter. And he stared, his face close to the
glass, his eyes protruding out of his head. He would have given anything
to get away, but his returning reason informed him that it would not do
to let go the door handle. What was it—madness, a nightmare, or a trap
into which he had been decoyed with fiendish artfulness? Why—what for?
He did not know. Without any sense of guilt in his breast, in the full
peace of his conscience as far as these people were concerned, the idea
that he would be murdered for mysterious reasons by the couple Verloc
passed not so much across his mind as across the pit of his stomach, and
went out, leaving behind a trail of sickly faintness—an indisposition.
Comrade Ossipon did not feel very well in a very special way for a
moment—a long moment. And he stared. Mr Verloc lay very still
meanwhile, simulating sleep for reasons of his own, while that savage
woman of his was guarding the door—invisible and silent in the dark and
deserted street. Was all this a some sort of terrifying arrangement
invented by the police for his especial benefit? His modesty shrank from
But the true sense of the scene he was beholding came to Ossipon through
the contemplation of the hat. It seemed an extraordinary thing, an
ominous object, a sign. Black, and rim upward, it lay on the floor
before the couch as if prepared to receive the contributions of pence
from people who would come presently to behold Mr Verloc in the fullness
of his domestic ease reposing on a sofa. From the hat the eyes of the
robust anarchist wandered to the displaced table, gazed at the broken
dish for a time, received a kind of optical shock from observing a white
gleam under the imperfectly closed eyelids of the man on the couch. Mr
Verloc did not seem so much asleep now as lying down with a bent head and
looking insistently at his left breast. And when Comrade Ossipon had
made out the handle of the knife he turned away from the glazed door, and
The crash of the street door flung to made his very soul leap in a panic.
This house with its harmless tenant could still be made a trap of—a trap
of a terrible kind. Comrade Ossipon had no settled conception now of
what was happening to him. Catching his thigh against the end of the
counter, he spun round, staggered with a cry of pain, felt in the
distracting clatter of the bell his arms pinned to his side by a
convulsive hug, while the cold lips of a woman moved creepily on his very
ear to form the words:
“Policeman! He has seen me!”
He ceased to struggle; she never let him go. Her hands had locked
themselves with an inseparable twist of fingers on his robust back.
While the footsteps approached, they breathed quickly, breast to breast,
with hard, laboured breaths, as if theirs had been the attitude of a
deadly struggle, while, in fact, it was the attitude of deadly fear. And
the time was long.
The constable on the beat had in truth seen something of Mrs Verloc; only
coming from the lighted thoroughfare at the other end of Brett Street,
she had been no more to him than a flutter in the darkness. And he was
not even quite sure that there had been a flutter. He had no reason to
hurry up. On coming abreast of the shop he observed that it had been
closed early. There was nothing very unusual in that. The men on duty
had special instructions about that shop: what went on about there was
not to be meddled with unless absolutely disorderly, but any observations
made were to be reported. There were no observations to make; but from a
sense of duty and for the peace of his conscience, owing also to that
doubtful flutter of the darkness, the constable crossed the road, and
tried the door. The spring latch, whose key was reposing for ever off
duty in the late Mr Verloc’s waistcoat pocket, held as well as usual.
While the conscientious officer was shaking the handle, Ossipon felt the
cold lips of the woman stirring again creepily against his very ear:
“If he comes in kill me—kill me, Tom.”
The constable moved away, flashing as he passed the light of his dark
lantern, merely for form’s sake, at the shop window. For a moment longer
the man and the woman inside stood motionless, panting, breast to breast;
then her fingers came unlocked, her arms fell by her side slowly.
Ossipon leaned against the counter. The robust anarchist wanted support
badly. This was awful. He was almost too disgusted for speech. Yet he
managed to utter a plaintive thought, showing at least that he realised
“Only a couple of minutes later and you’d have made me blunder against
the fellow poking about here with his damned dark lantern.”
The widow of Mr Verloc, motionless in the middle of the shop, said
“Go in and put that light out, Tom. It will drive me crazy.”
She saw vaguely his vehement gesture of refusal. Nothing in the world
would have induced Ossipon to go into the parlour. He was not
superstitious, but there was too much blood on the floor; a beastly pool
of it all round the hat. He judged he had been already far too near that
corpse for his peace of mind—for the safety of his neck, perhaps!
“At the meter then! There. Look. In that corner.”
The robust form of Comrade Ossipon, striding brusque and shadowy across
the shop, squatted in a corner obediently; but this obedience was without
grace. He fumbled nervously—and suddenly in the sound of a muttered
curse the light behind the glazed door flicked out to a gasping,
hysterical sigh of a woman. Night, the inevitable reward of men’s
faithful labours on this earth, night had fallen on Mr Verloc, the tried
revolutionist—“one of the old lot”—the humble guardian of society; the
invaluable Secret Agent [delta] of Baron Stott-Wartenheim’s despatches; a
servant of law and order, faithful, trusted, accurate, admirable, with
perhaps one single amiable weakness: the idealistic belief in being loved
Ossipon groped his way back through the stuffy atmosphere, as black as
ink now, to the counter. The voice of Mrs Verloc, standing in the middle
of the shop, vibrated after him in that blackness with a desperate
“I will not be hanged, Tom. I will not—”
She broke off. Ossipon from the counter issued a warning: “Don’t shout
like this,” then seemed to reflect profoundly. “You did this thing quite
by yourself?” he inquired in a hollow voice, but with an appearance of
masterful calmness which filled Mrs Verloc’s heart with grateful
confidence in his protecting strength.
“Yes,” she whispered, invisible.
“I wouldn’t have believed it possible,” he muttered. “Nobody would.”
She heard him move about and the snapping of a lock in the parlour door.
Comrade Ossipon had turned the key on Mr Verloc’s repose; and this he did
not from reverence for its eternal nature or any other obscurely
sentimental consideration, but for the precise reason that he was not at
all sure that there was not someone else hiding somewhere in the house.
He did not believe the woman, or rather he was incapable by now of
judging what could be true, possible, or even probable in this astounding
universe. He was terrified out of all capacity for belief or disbelief
in regard of this extraordinary affair, which began with police
inspectors and Embassies and would end goodness knows where—on the
scaffold for someone. He was terrified at the thought that he could not
prove the use he made of his time ever since seven o’clock, for he had
been skulking about Brett Street. He was terrified at this savage woman
who had brought him in there, and would probably saddle him with
complicity, at least if he were not careful. He was terrified at the
rapidity with which he had been involved in such dangers—decoyed into it.
It was some twenty minutes since he had met her—not more.
The voice of Mrs Verloc rose subdued, pleading piteously: “Don’t let them
hang me, Tom! Take me out of the country. I’ll work for you. I’ll
slave for you. I’ll love you. I’ve no one in the world. . . . Who
would look at me if you don’t!” She ceased for a moment; then in the
depths of the loneliness made round her by an insignificant thread of
blood trickling off the handle of a knife, she found a dreadful
inspiration to her—who had been the respectable girl of the Belgravian
mansion, the loyal, respectable wife of Mr Verloc. “I won’t ask you to
marry me,” she breathed out in shame-faced accents.
She moved a step forward in the darkness. He was terrified at her. He
would not have been surprised if she had suddenly produced another knife
destined for his breast. He certainly would have made no resistance. He
had really not enough fortitude in him just then to tell her to keep
back. But he inquired in a cavernous, strange tone: “Was he asleep?”
“No,” she cried, and went on rapidly. “He wasn’t. Not he. He had been
telling me that nothing could touch him. After taking the boy away from
under my very eyes to kill him—the loving, innocent, harmless lad. My
own, I tell you. He was lying on the couch quite easy—after killing the
boy—my boy. I would have gone on the streets to get out of his sight.
And he says to me like this: ‘Come here,’ after telling me I had helped
to kill the boy. You hear, Tom? He says like this: ‘Come here,’ after
taking my very heart out of me along with the boy to smash in the dirt.”
She ceased, then dreamily repeated twice: “Blood and dirt. Blood and
dirt.” A great light broke upon Comrade Ossipon. It was that
half-witted lad then who had perished in the park. And the fooling of
everybody all round appeared more complete than ever—colossal. He
exclaimed scientifically, in the extremity of his astonishment: “The
“Come here.” The voice of Mrs Verloc rose again. “What did he think I
was made of? Tell me, Tom. Come here! Me! Like this! I had been
looking at the knife, and I thought I would come then if he wanted me so
much. Oh yes! I came—for the last time. . . . With the knife.”
He was excessively terrified at her—the sister of the degenerate—a
degenerate herself of a murdering type . . . or else of the lying type.
Comrade Ossipon might have been said to be terrified scientifically in
addition to all other kinds of fear. It was an immeasurable and
composite funk, which from its very excess gave him in the dark a false
appearance of calm and thoughtful deliberation. For he moved and spoke
with difficulty, being as if half frozen in his will and mind—and no one
could see his ghastly face. He felt half dead.
He leaped a foot high. Unexpectedly Mrs Verloc had desecrated the
unbroken reserved decency of her home by a shrill and terrible shriek.
“Help, Tom! Save me. I won’t be hanged!”
He rushed forward, groping for her mouth with a silencing hand, and the
shriek died out. But in his rush he had knocked her over. He felt her
now clinging round his legs, and his terror reached its culminating
point, became a sort of intoxication, entertained delusions, acquired the
characteristics of delirium tremens. He positively saw snakes now. He
saw the woman twined round him like a snake, not to be shaken off. She
was not deadly. She was death itself—the companion of life.
Mrs Verloc, as if relieved by the outburst, was very far from behaving
noisily now. She was pitiful.
“Tom, you can’t throw me off now,” she murmured from the floor. “Not
unless you crush my head under your heel. I won’t leave you.”
“Get up,” said Ossipon.
His face was so pale as to be quite visible in the profound black
darkness of the shop; while Mrs Verloc, veiled, had no face, almost no
discernible form. The trembling of something small and white, a flower
in her hat, marked her place, her movements.
It rose in the blackness. She had got up from the floor, and Ossipon
regretted not having run out at once into the street. But he perceived
easily that it would not do. It would not do. She would run after him.
She would pursue him shrieking till she sent every policeman within
hearing in chase. And then goodness only knew what she would say of him.
He was so frightened that for a moment the insane notion of strangling
her in the dark passed through his mind. And he became more frightened
than ever! She had him! He saw himself living in abject terror in some
obscure hamlet in Spain or Italy; till some fine morning they found him
dead too, with a knife in his breast—like Mr Verloc. He sighed deeply.
He dared not move. And Mrs Verloc waited in silence the good pleasure of
her saviour, deriving comfort from his reflective silence.
Suddenly he spoke up in an almost natural voice. His reflections had
come to an end.
“Let’s get out, or we will lose the train.”
“Where are we going to, Tom?” she asked timidly. Mrs Verloc was no
longer a free woman.
“Let’s get to Paris first, the best way we can. . . . Go out first, and
see if the way’s clear.”
She obeyed. Her voice came subdued through the cautiously opened door.
“It’s all right.”
Ossipon came out. Notwithstanding his endeavours to be gentle, the
cracked bell clattered behind the closed door in the empty shop, as if
trying in vain to warn the reposing Mr Verloc of the final departure of
his wife—accompanied by his friend.
In the hansom they presently picked up, the robust anarchist became
explanatory. He was still awfully pale, with eyes that seemed to have
sunk a whole half-inch into his tense face. But he seemed to have
thought of everything with extraordinary method.
“When we arrive,” he discoursed in a queer, monotonous tone, “you must go
into the station ahead of me, as if we did not know each other. I will
take the tickets, and slip in yours into your hand as I pass you. Then
you will go into the first-class ladies’ waiting-room, and sit there till
ten minutes before the train starts. Then you come out. I will be
outside. You go in first on the platform, as if you did not know me.
There may be eyes watching there that know what’s what. Alone you are
only a woman going off by train. I am known. With me, you may be
guessed at as Mrs Verloc running away. Do you understand, my dear?” he
added, with an effort.
“Yes,” said Mrs Verloc, sitting there against him in the hansom all rigid
with the dread of the gallows and the fear of death. “Yes, Tom.” And
she added to herself, like an awful refrain: “The drop given was fourteen
Ossipon, not looking at her, and with a face like a fresh plaster cast of
himself after a wasting illness, said: “By-the-by, I ought to have the
money for the tickets now.”
Mrs Verloc, undoing some hooks of her bodice, while she went on staring
ahead beyond the splashboard, handed over to him the new pigskin
pocket-book. He received it without a word, and seemed to plunge it deep
somewhere into his very breast. Then he slapped his coat on the outside.
All this was done without the exchange of a single glance; they were like
two people looking out for the first sight of a desired goal. It was not
till the hansom swung round a corner and towards the bridge that Ossipon
opened his lips again.
“Do you know how much money there is in that thing?” he asked, as if
addressing slowly some hobgoblin sitting between the ears of the horse.
“No,” said Mrs Verloc. “He gave it to me. I didn’t count. I thought
nothing of it at the time. Afterwards—”
She moved her right hand a little. It was so expressive that little
movement of that right hand which had struck the deadly blow into a man’s
heart less than an hour before that Ossipon could not repress a shudder.
He exaggerated it then purposely, and muttered:
“I am cold. I got chilled through.”
Mrs Verloc looked straight ahead at the perspective of her escape. Now
and then, like a sable streamer blown across a road, the words “The drop
given was fourteen feet” got in the way of her tense stare. Through her
black veil the whites of her big eyes gleamed lustrously like the eyes of
a masked woman.
Ossipon’s rigidity had something business-like, a queer official
expression. He was heard again all of a sudden, as though he had
released a catch in order to speak.
“Look here! Do you know whether your—whether he kept his account at the
bank in his own name or in some other name.”
Mrs Verloc turned upon him her masked face and the big white gleam of her
“Other name?” she said thoughtfully.
“Be exact in what you say,” Ossipon lectured in the swift motion of the
hansom. “It’s extremely important. I will explain to you. The bank has
the numbers of these notes. If they were paid to him in his own name,
then when his—his death becomes known, the notes may serve to track us
since we have no other money. You have no other money on you?”
She shook her head negatively.
“None whatever?” he insisted.
“A few coppers.”
“It would be dangerous in that case. The money would have then to be
dealt specially with. Very specially. We’d have perhaps to lose more
than half the amount in order to get these notes changed in a certain
safe place I know of in Paris. In the other case I mean if he had his
account and got paid out under some other name—say Smith, for
instance—the money is perfectly safe to use. You understand? The bank
has no means of knowing that Mr Verloc and, say, Smith are one and the
same person. Do you see how important it is that you should make no
mistake in answering me? Can you answer that query at all? Perhaps not.
She said composedly:
“I remember now! He didn’t bank in his own name. He told me once that
it was on deposit in the name of Prozor.”
“You are sure?”
“You don’t think the bank had any knowledge of his real name? Or anybody
in the bank or—”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“How can I know? Is it likely, Tom?
“No. I suppose it’s not likely. It would have been more comfortable to
know. . . . Here we are. Get out first, and walk straight in. Move
He remained behind, and paid the cabman out of his own loose silver. The
programme traced by his minute foresight was carried out. When Mrs
Verloc, with her ticket for St Malo in her hand, entered the ladies’
waiting-room, Comrade Ossipon walked into the bar, and in seven minutes
absorbed three goes of hot brandy and water.
“Trying to drive out a cold,” he explained to the barmaid, with a
friendly nod and a grimacing smile. Then he came out, bringing out from
that festive interlude the face of a man who had drunk at the very
Fountain of Sorrow. He raised his eyes to the clock. It was time. He
Punctual, Mrs Verloc came out, with her veil down, and all black—black as
commonplace death itself, crowned with a few cheap and pale flowers. She
passed close to a little group of men who were laughing, but whose
laughter could have been struck dead by a single word. Her walk was
indolent, but her back was straight, and Comrade Ossipon looked after it
in terror before making a start himself.
The train was drawn up, with hardly anybody about its row of open doors.
Owing to the time of the year and to the abominable weather there were
hardly any passengers. Mrs Verloc walked slowly along the line of empty
compartments till Ossipon touched her elbow from behind.
She got in, and he remained on the platform looking about. She bent
forward, and in a whisper:
“What is it, Tom? Is there any danger? Wait a moment. There’s the
She saw him accost the man in uniform. They talked for a while. She
heard the guard say “Very well, sir,” and saw him touch his cap. Then
Ossipon came back, saying: “I told him not to let anybody get into our
She was leaning forward on her seat. “You think of everything. . . .
You’ll get me off, Tom?” she asked in a gust of anguish, lifting her veil
brusquely to look at her saviour.
She had uncovered a face like adamant. And out of this face the eyes
looked on, big, dry, enlarged, lightless, burnt out like two black holes
in the white, shining globes.
“There is no danger,” he said, gazing into them with an earnestness
almost rapt, which to Mrs Verloc, flying from the gallows, seemed to be
full of force and tenderness. This devotion deeply moved her—and the
adamantine face lost the stern rigidity of its terror. Comrade Ossipon
gazed at it as no lover ever gazed at his mistress’s face. Alexander
Ossipon, anarchist, nicknamed the Doctor, author of a medical (and
improper) pamphlet, late lecturer on the social aspects of hygiene to
working men’s clubs, was free from the trammels of conventional
morality—but he submitted to the rule of science. He was scientific, and
he gazed scientifically at that woman, the sister of a degenerate, a
degenerate herself—of a murdering type. He gazed at her, and invoked
Lombroso, as an Italian peasant recommends himself to his favourite
saint. He gazed scientifically. He gazed at her cheeks, at her nose, at
her eyes, at her ears. . . . Bad! . . . Fatal! Mrs Verloc’s pale lips
parting, slightly relaxed under his passionately attentive gaze, he gazed
also at her teeth. . . . Not a doubt remained . . . a murdering type. . . .
If Comrade Ossipon did not recommend his terrified soul to Lombroso, it
was only because on scientific grounds he could not believe that he
carried about him such a thing as a soul. But he had in him the
scientific spirit, which moved him to testify on the platform of a
railway station in nervous jerky phrases.
“He was an extraordinary lad, that brother of yours. Most interesting to
study. A perfect type in a way. Perfect!”
He spoke scientifically in his secret fear. And Mrs Verloc, hearing
these words of commendation vouchsafed to her beloved dead, swayed
forward with a flicker of light in her sombre eyes, like a ray of
sunshine heralding a tempest of rain.
“He was that indeed,” she whispered softly, with quivering lips. “You
took a lot of notice of him, Tom. I loved you for it.”
“It’s almost incredible the resemblance there was between you two,”
pursued Ossipon, giving a voice to his abiding dread, and trying to
conceal his nervous, sickening impatience for the train to start. “Yes;
he resembled you.”
These words were not especially touching or sympathetic. But the fact of
that resemblance insisted upon was enough in itself to act upon her
emotions powerfully. With a little faint cry, and throwing her arms out,
Mrs Verloc burst into tears at last.
Ossipon entered the carriage, hastily closed the door and looked out to
see the time by the station clock. Eight minutes more. For the first
three of these Mrs Verloc wept violently and helplessly without pause or
interruption. Then she recovered somewhat, and sobbed gently in an
abundant fall of tears. She tried to talk to her saviour, to the man who
was the messenger of life.
“Oh, Tom! How could I fear to die after he was taken away from me so
cruelly! How could I! How could I be such a coward!”
She lamented aloud her love of life, that life without grace or charm,
and almost without decency, but of an exalted faithfulness of purpose,
even unto murder. And, as often happens in the lament of poor humanity,
rich in suffering but indigent in words, the truth—the very cry of
truth—was found in a worn and artificial shape picked up somewhere among
the phrases of sham sentiment.
“How could I be so afraid of death! Tom, I tried. But I am afraid. I
tried to do away with myself. And I couldn’t. Am I hard? I suppose the
cup of horrors was not full enough for such as 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 driver.
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 pocket.
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 sunlight.
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
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 tint.
“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
“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 grimly.
“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 history.”
“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
“Just so. An immense charity for the healing of the weak,” assented the
“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
“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 master.”
“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 his pocket. The Professor raised his head at
“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. They ran
thus: “_An impenetrable mystery seems destined to hang for ever over this
act of madness or despair_.”
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 mystery seems
destined to hang for ever_. . . . ” He knew every word by heart. “_An
impenetrable mystery_. . . . ”
And the robust anarchist, hanging his head on his breast, fell into a
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
“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 weak.”
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 mystery is destined
to hang for ever_. . . . ”
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
The Professor passed the tip of his tongue on his dry, thin lips, and
“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.
“Will you have it?” said Ossipon, looking up with an idiotic grin.
“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 madness or despair_.”
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
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.