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
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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