Part 3 out of 6
"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
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 impassively:
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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 simplicity. 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
"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 address."
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
"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
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 measured steps.
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 building.
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
"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
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
"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 addresssing 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
The Assistant Commissioner glanced in the direction of the window
"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 there?"
"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 his hips.
"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
"No! These people are too impossible. What do they mean by
importing their methods of Crim-Tartary here? A Turk would have
"You forget, Sir Ethelred, that strictly speaking we know nothing
positively - as yet."
"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
"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
"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 my remarks."
"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 revolutionises. It would mean just that
"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,
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
"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 lofty elevation.
"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 Assistant Commissioner.
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
"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 eyes.
"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 undismayed face.
"Very well," he said, and paused, as if in deliberate contempt of
the official clock. "But what first put you in motion in this
"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 attacks - "
"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
"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 gas-
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 her legs.
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
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 life.
"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
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
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 dear."
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
"He's been driving a cab for twenty years. I never knew him to
have an accident."
"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
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 earnestly: "Don't."
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 chin.
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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 mediaeval 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
"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
"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
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 misty recollection.
"Oh! `Ere you are, young fellow," he whispered. "You'll know him
again - won't you?"
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
"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
"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
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 just audibly.
"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
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 indolence.
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 vaguely:
Hanging back suddenly, Stevie inflicted an arresting jerk upon his
"Poor! Poor!" he ejaculated appreciatively. "Cabman poor too. He
told me himself."
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
"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
"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 her way.
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
"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
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 complete success.
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 cafes 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
"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?" she asked.
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 muttered heavily:
"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
Mrs Verloc, full of deep purpose, spoke in the tone of the
"There is no need to have the woman here all day. I shall do very
well with Stevie."
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 awe.
"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
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 toll, 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