The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad


Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in

charge of his brother-in-law. It could be done, because there was

very little business at any time, and practically none at all

before the evening. Mr Verloc cared but little about his

ostensible business. And, moreover, his wife was in charge of his


The shop was small, and so was the house. It was one of those

grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era

of reconstruction dawned upon London. The shop was a square box of

a place, with the front glazed in small panes. In the daytime the

door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but

suspiciously ajar.

The window contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing

girls; nondescript packages in wrappers like patent medicines;

closed yellow paper envelopes, very flimsy, and marked two-and-six

in heavy black figures; a few numbers of ancient French comic

publications hung across a string as if to dry; a dingy blue china

bowl, a casket of black wood, bottles of marking ink, and rubber

stamps; a few books, with titles hinting at impropriety; a few

apparently old copies of obscure newspapers, badly printed, with

titles like THE TORCH, THE GONG – rousing titles. And the two gas

jets inside the panes were always turned low, either for economy’s

sake or for the sake of the customers.

These customers were either very young men, who hung about the

window for a time before slipping in suddenly; or men of a more

mature age, but looking generally as if they were not in funds.

Some of that last kind had the collars of their overcoats turned

right up to their moustaches, and traces of mud on the bottom of

their nether garments, which had the appearance of being much worn

and not very valuable. And the legs inside them did not, as a

general rule, seem of much account either. With their hands

plunged deep in the side pockets of their coats, they dodged in

sideways, one shoulder first, as if afraid to start the bell going.

The bell, hung on the door by means of a curved ribbon of steel,

was difficult to circumvent. It was hopelessly cracked; but of an

evening, at the slightest provocation, it clattered behind the

customer with impudent virulence.

It clattered; and at that signal, through the dusty glass door

behind the painted deal counter, Mr Verloc would issue hastily from

the parlour at the back. His eyes were naturally heavy; he had an

air of having wallowed, fully dressed, all day on an unmade bed.

Another man would have felt such an appearance a distinct

disadvantage. In a commercial transaction of the retail order much

depends on the seller’s engaging and amiable aspect. But Mr Verloc

knew his business, and remained undisturbed by any sort of

aesthetic doubt about his appearance. With a firm, steady-eyed

impudence, which seemed to hold back the threat of some abominable

menace, he would proceed to sell over the counter some object

looking obviously and scandalously not worth the money which passed

in the transaction: a small cardboard box with apparently nothing

inside, for instance, or one of those carefully closed yellow

flimsy envelopes, or a soiled volume in paper covers with a

promising title. Now and then it happened that one of the faded,

yellow dancing girls would get sold to an amateur, as though she

had been alive and young.

Sometimes it was Mrs Verloc who would appear at the call of the

cracked bell. Winnie Verloc was a young woman with a full bust, in

a tight bodice, and with broad hips. Her hair was very tidy.

Steady-eyed like her husband, she preserved an air of unfathomable

indifference behind the rampart of the counter. Then the customer

of comparatively tender years would get suddenly disconcerted at

having to deal with a woman, and with rage in his heart would

proffer a request for a bottle of marking ink, retail value

sixpence (price in Verloc’s shop one-and-sixpence), which, once

outside, he would drop stealthily into the gutter.

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Categories: Conrad, Joseph