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The Secret Agent Installment 2 of 93 Previous Next
The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad

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.

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