THE SECRET AGENT
Winnie Verloc, the widow of Mr Verloc, the sister of the late faithful Stevie (blown to fragments in a state of innocence and in the conviction of being engaged in a humanitarian enterprise), did not run beyond the door of the parlour. She had indeed run away so far from a mere trickle of blood, but that was a movement of instinctive repulsion. And there she had paused, with staring eyes and lowered head. As though she had run through long years in her flight across the small parlour, Mrs Verloc by the door was quite a different person from the woman who had been leaning over the sofa, a little swimmy in her head, but otherwise free to enjoy the profound calm of idleness and irresponsibility. Mrs Verloc was no longer giddy. Her head was steady. On the other hand, she was no longer calm. She was afraid.
If she avoided looking in the direction of her reposing husband it was not because she was afraid of him. Mr Verloc was not frightful to behold. He looked comfortable. Moreover, he was dead. Mrs Verloc entertained no vain delusions on the subject of the dead. Nothing brings them back, neither love nor hate. They can do nothing to you. They are as nothing. Her mental state was tinged by a sort of austere contempt for that man who had let himself be killed so easily. He had been the master of a house, the husband of a woman, and the murderer of her Stevie. And now he was of no account in every respect. He was of less practical account than the clothing on his body, than his overcoat, than his boots — than that hat lying on the floor. He was nothing. He was not worth looking at. He was even no longer the murderer of poor Stevie. The only murderer that would be found in the room when people came to look for Mr Verloc would be — herself!
Her hands shook so that she failed twice in the task of refastening her veil. Mrs Verloc was no longer a person of leisure and responsibility. She was afraid. The stabbing of Mr Verloc had been only a blow. It had relieved the pent-up agony of shrieks strangled in her throat, of tears dried up in her hot eyes, of the maddening and indignant rage at the atrocious part played by that man, who was less than nothing now, in robbing her of the boy.
It had been an obscurely prompted blow. The blood trickling on the floor off the handle of the knife had turned it into an extremely plain case of murder. Mrs Verloc, who always refrained from looking deep into things, was compelled to look into the very bottom of this thing. She saw there no haunting face, no reproachful shade, no vision of remorse, no sort of ideal conception. She saw there an object. That object was the gallows. Mrs Verloc was afraid of the gallows.
She was terrified of them ideally. Having never set eyes on that last argument of men’s justice except in illustrative woodcuts to a certain type of tales, she first saw them erect against a black and stormy background, festooned with chains and human bones, circled about by birds that peck at dead men’s eyes. This was frightful enough, but Mrs Verloc, though not a well-informed woman, had a sufficient knowledge of the institutions of her country to know that gallows are no longer erected romantically on the banks of dismal rivers or on wind-swept headlands, but in the yards of jails. There within four high walls, as if into a pit, at dawn of day, the murderer was brought out to be executed, with a horrible quietness and, as the reports in the newspapers always said, “in the presence of the authorities.” With her eyes staring on the floor, her nostrils quivering with anguish and shame, she imagined herself all alone amongst a lot of strange gentlemen in silk hats who were calmly proceeding about the business of hanging her by the neck. That — never! Never! And how was it done? The impossibility of imagining the details of such quiet execution added something maddening to her abstract terror. The newspapers never gave any details except one, but that one with some affectation was always there at the end of a meagre report. Mrs Verloc remembered its nature. It came with a cruel burning pain into her head, as if the words “The drop given was fourteen feet” had been scratched on her brain with a hot needle. “The drop given was fourteen feet.”
These words affected her physically too. Her throat became convulsed in waves to resist strangulation; and the apprehension of the jerk was so vivid that she seized her head in both hands as if to save it from being torn off her shoulders. “The drop given was fourteen feet.” No! that must never be. She could not stand THAT. The thought of it even was not bearable. She could not stand thinking of it. Therefore Mrs Verloc formed the resolution to go at once and throw herself into the river off one of the bridges.
This time she managed to refasten her veil. With her face as if masked, all black from head to foot except for some flowers in her hat, she looked up mechanically at the clock. She thought it must have stopped. She could not believe that only two minutes had passed since she had looked at it last. Of course not. It had been stopped all the time. As a matter of fact, only three minutes had elapsed from the moment she had drawn the first deep, easy breath after the blow, to this moment when Mrs Verloc formed the resolution to drown herself in the Thames. But Mrs Verloc could not believe that. She seemed to have heard or read that clocks and watches always stopped at the moment of murder for the undoing of the murderer. She did not care. “To the bridge — and over I go.” . . . But her movements were slow.
She dragged herself painfully across the shop, and had to hold on to the handle of the door before she found the necessary fortitude to open it. The street frightened her, since it led either to the gallows or to the river. She floundered over the doorstep head forward, arms thrown out, like a person falling over the parapet of a bridge. This entrance into the open air had a foretaste of drowning; a slimy dampness enveloped her, entered her nostrils, clung to her hair. It was not actually raining, but each gas lamp had a rusty little halo of mist. The van and horses were gone, and in the black street the curtained window of the carters’ eating-house made a square patch of soiled blood-red light glowing faintly very near the level of the pavement. Mrs Verloc, dragging herself slowly towards it, thought that she was a very friendless woman. It was true. It was so true that, in a sudden longing to see some friendly face, she could think of no one else but of Mrs Neale, the charwoman. She had no acquaintances of her own. Nobody would miss her in a social way. It must not be imagined that the Widow Verloc had forgotten her mother. This was not so. Winnie had been a good daughter because she had been a devoted sister. Her mother had always leaned on her for support. No consolation or advice could be expected there. Now that Stevie was dead the bond seemed to be broken. She could not face the old woman with the horrible tale. Moreover, it was too far. The river was her present destination. Mrs Verloc tried to forget her mother.
Each step cost her an effort of will which seemed the last possible. Mrs Verloc had dragged herself past the red glow of the eating-house window. “To the bridge — and over I go,” she repeated to herself with fierce obstinacy. She put out her hand just in time to steady herself against a lamp-post. “I’ll never get there before morning,” she thought. The fear of death paralysed her efforts to escape the gallows. It seemed to her she had been staggering in that street for hours. “I’ll never get there,” she thought. “They’ll find me knocking about the streets. It’s too far.” She held on, panting under her black veil.
“The drop given was fourteen feet.”
She pushed the lamp-post away from her violently, and found herself walking. But another wave of faintness overtook her like a great sea, washing away her heart clean out of her breast. “I will never get there,” she muttered, suddenly arrested, swaying lightly where she stood. “Never.”
And perceiving the utter impossibility of walking as far as the nearest bridge, Mrs Verloc thought of a flight abroad.
It came to her suddenly. Murderers escaped. They escaped abroad. Spain or California. Mere names. The vast world created for the glory of man was only a vast blank to Mrs Verloc. She did not know which way to turn. Murderers had friends, relations, helpers — they had knowledge. She had nothing. She was the most lonely of murderers that ever struck a mortal blow. She was alone in London: and the whole town of marvels and mud, with its maze of streets and its mass of lights, was sunk in a hopeless night, rested at the bottom of a black abyss from which no unaided woman could hope to scramble out.
She swayed forward, and made a fresh start blindly, with an awful dread of falling down; but at the end of a few steps, unexpectedly, she found a sensation of support, of security. Raising her head, she saw a man’s face peering closely at her veil. Comrade Ossipon was not afraid of strange women, and no feeling of false delicacy could prevent him from striking an acquaintance with a woman apparently very much intoxicated. Comrade Ossipon was interested in women. He held up this one between his two large palms, peering at her in a business-like way till he heard her say faintly “Mr Ossipon!” and then he very nearly let her drop to the ground.
“Mrs Verloc!” he exclaimed. “You here!”
It seemed impossible to him that she should have been drinking. But one never knows. He did not go into that question, but attentive not to discourage kind fate surrendering to him the widow of Comrade Verloc, he tried to draw her to his breast. To his astonishment she came quite easily, and even rested on his arm for a moment before she attempted to disengage herself. Comrade Ossipon would not be brusque with kind fate. He withdrew his arm in a natural way.
“You recognised me,” she faltered out, standing before him, fairly steady on her legs.
“Of course I did,” said Ossipon with perfect readiness. “I was afraid you were going to fall. I’ve thought of you too often lately not to recognise you anywhere, at any time. I’ve always thought of you — ever since I first set eyes on you.”
Mrs Verloc seemed not to hear. “You were coming to the shop?” she said nervously.
“Yes; at once,” answered Ossipon. “Directly I read the paper.”
In fact, Comrade Ossipon had been skulking for a good two hours in the neighbourhood of Brett Street, unable to make up his mind for a bold move. The robust anarchist was not exactly a bold conqueror. He remembered that Mrs Verloc had never responded to his glances by the slightest sign of encouragement. Besides, he thought the shop might be watched by the police, and Comrade Ossipon did not wish the police to form an exaggerated notion of his revolutionary sympathies. Even now he did not know precisely what to do. In comparison with his usual amatory speculations this was a big and serious undertaking. He ignored how much there was in it and how far he would have to go in order to get hold of what there was to get — supposing there was a chance at all. These perplexities checking his elation imparted to his tone a soberness well in keeping with the circumstances.
“May I ask you where you were going?” he inquired in a subdued voice.
“Don’t ask me!” cried Mrs Verloc with a shuddering, repressed violence. All her strong vitality recoiled from the idea of death. “Never mind where I was going. . . .”
Ossipon concluded that she was very much excited but perfectly sober. She remained silent by his side for moment, then all at once she did something which he did not expect. She slipped her hand under his arm. He was startled by the act itself certainly, and quite as much too by the palpably resolute character of this movement. But this being a delicate affair, Comrade Ossipon behaved with delicacy. He contented himself by pressing the hand slightly against his robust ribs. At the same time he felt himself being impelled forward, and yielded to the impulse. At the end of Brett Street he became aware of being directed to the left. He submitted.
The fruiterer at the corner had put out the blazing glory of his oranges and lemons, and Brett Place was all darkness, interspersed with the misty halos of the few lamps defining its triangular shape, with a cluster of three lights on one stand in the middle. The dark forms of the man and woman glided slowly arm in arm along the walls with a loverlike and homeless aspect in the miserable night.
“What would you say if I were to tell you that I was going to find you?” Mrs Verloc asked, gripping his arm with force.
“I would say that you couldn’t find anyone more ready to help you in your trouble,” answered Ossipon, with a notion of making tremendous headway. In fact, the progress of this delicate affair was almost taking his breath away.
“In my trouble!” Mrs Verloc repeated slowly.
“And do you know what my trouble is?” she whispered with strange intensity.
“Ten minutes after seeing the evening paper,” explained Ossipon with ardour, “I met a fellow whom you may have seen once or twice at the shop perhaps, and I had a talk with him which left no doubt whatever in my mind. Then I started for here, wondering whether you — I’ve been fond of you beyond words ever since I set eyes on your face,” he cried, as if unable to command his feelings.
Comrade Ossipon assumed correctly that no woman was capable of wholly disbelieving such a statement. But he did not know that Mrs Verloc accepted it with all the fierceness the instinct of self-preservation puts into the grip of a drowning person. To the widow of Mr Verloc the robust anarchist was like a radiant messenger of life.
They walked slowly, in step. “I thought so,” Mrs Verloc murmured faintly.
“You’ve read it in my eyes,” suggested Ossipon with great assurance.
“Yes,” she breathed out into his inclined ear.
“A love like mine could not be concealed from a woman like you,” he went on, trying to detach his mind from material considerations such as the business value of the shop, and the amount of money Mr Verloc might have left in the bank. He applied himself to the sentimental side of the affair. In his heart of hearts he was a little shocked at his success. Verloc had been a good fellow, and certainly a very decent husband as far as one could see. However, Comrade Ossipon was not going to quarrel with his luck for the sake of a dead man. Resolutely he suppressed his sympathy for the ghost of Comrade Verloc, and went on.
“I could not conceal it. I was too full of you. I daresay you could not help seeing it in my eyes. But I could not guess it. You were always so distant. . . .”
“What else did you expect?” burst out Mrs Verloc. “I was a respectable woman — ”
She paused, then added, as if speaking to herself, in sinister resentment: “Till he made me what I am.”
Ossipon let that pass, and took up his running. “He never did seem to me to be quite worthy of you,” he began, throwing loyalty to the winds. “You were worthy of a better fate.”
Mrs Verloc interrupted bitterly:
“Better fate! He cheated me out of seven years of life.”
“You seemed to live so happily with him.” Ossipon tried to exculpate the lukewarmness of his past conduct. “It’s that what’s made me timid. You seemed to love him. I was surprised — and jealous,” he added.
“Love him!” Mrs Verloc cried out in a whisper, full of scorn and rage. “Love him! I was a good wife to him. I am a respectable woman. You thought I loved him! You did! Look here, Tom — ”
The sound of this name thrilled Comrade Ossipon with pride. For his name was Alexander, and he was called Tom by arrangement with the most familiar of his intimates. It was a name of friendship — of moments of expansion. He had no idea that she had ever heard it used by anybody. It was apparent that she had not only caught it, but had treasured it in her memory — perhaps in her heart.
“Look here, Tom! I was a young girl. I was done up. I was tired. I had two people depending on what I could do, and it did seem as if I couldn’t do any more. Two people — mother and the boy. He was much more mine than mother’s. I sat up nights and nights with him on my lap, all alone upstairs, when I wasn’t more than eight years old myself. And then — He was mine, I tell you. . . . You can’t understand that. No man can understand it. What was I to do? There was a young fellow — ”
The memory of the early romance with the young butcher survived, tenacious, like the image of a glimpsed ideal in that heart quailing before the fear of the gallows and full of revolt against death.
“That was the man I loved then,” went on the widow of Mr Verloc. “I suppose he could see it in my eyes too. Five and twenty shillings a week, and his father threatened to kick him out of the business if he made such a fool of himself as to marry a girl with a crippled mother and a crazy idiot of a boy on her hands. But he would hang about me, till one evening I found the courage to slam the door in his face. I had to do it. I loved him dearly. Five and twenty shillings a week! There was that other man — a good lodger. What is a girl to do? Could I’ve gone on the streets? He seemed kind. He wanted me, anyhow. What was I to do with mother and that poor boy? Eh? I said yes. He seemed good-natured, he was freehanded, he had money, he never said anything. Seven years — seven years a good wife to him, the kind, the good, the generous, the — And he loved me. Oh yes. He loved me till I sometimes wished myself — Seven years. Seven years a wife to him. And do you know what he was, that dear friend of yours? Do you know what he was? He was a devil!”
The superhuman vehemence of that whispered statement completely stunned Comrade Ossipon. Winnie Verloc turning about held him by both arms, facing him under the falling mist in the darkness and solitude of Brett Place, in which all sounds of life seemed lost as if in a triangular well of asphalt and bricks, of blind houses and unfeeling stones.
“No; I didn’t know,” he declared, with a sort of flabby stupidity, whose comical aspect was lost upon a woman haunted by the fear of the gallows, “but I do now. I — I understand,” he floundered on, his mind speculating as to what sort of atrocities Verloc could have practised under the sleepy, placid appearances of his married estate. It was positively awful. “I understand,” he repeated, and then by a sudden inspiration uttered an — “Unhappy woman!” of lofty commiseration instead of the more familiar “Poor darling!” of his usual practice. This was no usual case. He felt conscious of something abnormal going on, while he never lost sight of the greatness of the stake. “Unhappy, brave woman!”
He was glad to have discovered that variation; but he could discover nothing else.
“Ah, but he is dead now,” was the best he could do. And he put a remarkable amount of animosity into his guarded exclamation. Mrs Verloc caught at his arm with a sort of frenzy.
“You guessed then he was dead,” she murmured, as if beside herself. “You! You guessed what I had to do. Had to!”
There were suggestions of triumph, relief, gratitude in the indefinable tone of these words. It engrossed the whole attention of Ossipon to the detriment of mere literal sense. He wondered what was up with her, why she had worked herself into this state of wild excitement. He even began to wonder whether the hidden causes of that Greenwich Park affair did not lie deep in the unhappy circumstances of the Verlocs’ married life. He went so far as to suspect Mr Verloc of having selected that extraordinary manner of committing suicide. By Jove! that would account for the utter inanity and wrong-headedness of the thing. No anarchist manifestation was required by the circumstances. Quite the contrary; and Verloc was as well aware of that as any other revolutionist of his standing. What an immense joke if Verloc had simply made fools of the whole of Europe, of the revolutionary world, of the police, of the press, and of the cocksure Professor as well. Indeed, thought Ossipon, in astonishment, it seemed almost certain that he did! Poor beggar! It struck him as very possible that of that household of two it wasn’t precisely the man who was the devil.
Alexander Ossipon, nicknamed the Doctor, was naturally inclined to think indulgently of his men friends. He eyed Mrs Verloc hanging on his arm. Of his women friends he thought in a specially practical way. Why Mrs Verloc should exclaim at his knowledge of Mr Verloc’s death, which was no guess at all, did not disturb him beyond measure. They often talked like lunatics. But he was curious to know how she had been informed. The papers could tell her nothing beyond the mere fact: the man blown to pieces in Greenwich Park not having been identified. It was inconceivable on any theory that Verloc should have given her an inkling of his intention — whatever it was. This problem interested Comrade Ossipon immensely. He stopped short. They had gone then along the three sides of Brett Place, and were near the end of Brett Street again.
“How did you first come to hear of it?” he asked in a tone he tried to render appropriate to the character of the revelations which had been made to him by the woman at his side.
She shook violently for a while before she answered in a listless voice.
“From the police. A chief inspector came, Chief Inspector Heat he said he was. He showed me — ”
Mrs Verloc choked. “Oh, Tom, they had to gather him up with a shovel.”
Her breast heaved with dry sobs. In a moment Ossipon found his tongue.
“The police! Do you mean to say the police came already? That Chief Inspector Heat himself actually came to tell you.”
“Yes,” she confirmed in the same listless tone. “He came just like this. He came. I didn’t know. He showed me a piece of overcoat, and — just like that. Do you know this? he says.”
“Heat! Heat! And what did he do?”
Mrs Verloc’s head dropped. “Nothing. He did nothing. He went away. The police were on that man’s side,” she murmured tragically. “Another one came too.”
“Another — another inspector, do you mean?” asked Ossipon, in great excitement, and very much in the tone of a scared child.
“I don’t know. He came. He looked like a foreigner. He may have been one of them Embassy people.”
Comrade Ossipon nearly collapsed under this new shock.
“Embassy! Are you aware what you are saying? What Embassy? What on earth do you mean by Embassy?”
“It’s that place in Chesham Square. The people he cursed so. I don’t know. What does it matter!”
“And that fellow, what did he do or say to you?”
“I don’t remember. . . . Nothing . . . . I don’t care. Don’t ask me,” she pleaded in a weary voice.
“All right. I won’t,” assented Ossipon tenderly. And he meant it too, not because he was touched by the pathos of the pleading voice, but because he felt himself losing his footing in the depths of this tenebrous affair. Police! Embassy! Phew! For fear of adventuring his intelligence into ways where its natural lights might fail to guide it safely he dismissed resolutely all suppositions, surmises, and theories out of his mind. He had the woman there, absolutely flinging herself at him, and that was the principal consideration. But after what he had heard nothing could astonish him any more. And when Mrs Verloc, as if startled suddenly out of a dream of safety, began to urge upon him wildly the necessity of an immediate flight on the Continent, he did not exclaim in the least. He simply said with unaffected regret that there was no train till the morning, and stood looking thoughtfully at her face, veiled in black net, in the light of a gas lamp veiled in a gauze of mist.
Near him, her black form merged in the night, like a figure half chiselled out of a block of black stone. It was impossible to say what she knew, how deep she was involved with policemen and Embassies. But if she wanted to get away, it was not for him to object. He was anxious to be off himself. He felt that the business, the shop so strangely familiar to chief inspectors and members of foreign Embassies, was not the place for him. That must be dropped. But there was the rest. These savings. The money!
“You must hide me till the morning somewhere,” she said in a dismayed voice.
“Fact is, my dear, I can’t take you where I live. I share the room with a friend.”
He was somewhat dismayed himself. In the morning the blessed ’tecs will be out in all the stations, no doubt. And if they once got hold of her, for one reason or another she would be lost to him indeed.
“But you must. Don’t you care for me at all — at all? What are you thinking of?”
She said this violently, but she let her clasped hands fall in discouragement. There was a silence, while the mist fell, and darkness reigned undisturbed over Brett Place. Not a soul, not even the vagabond, lawless, and amorous soul of a cat, came near the man and the woman facing each other.
“It would be possible perhaps to find a safe lodging somewhere,” Ossipon spoke at last. “But the truth is, my dear, I have not enough money to go and try with — only a few pence. We revolutionists are not rich.”
He had fifteen shillings in his pocket. He added:
“And there’s the journey before us, too — first thing in the morning at that.”
She did not move, made no sound, and Comrade Ossipon’s heart sank a little. Apparently she had no suggestion to offer. Suddenly she clutched at her breast, as if she had felt a sharp pain there.
“But I have,” she gasped. “I have the money. I have enough money. Tom! Let us go from here.”
“How much have you got?” he inquired, without stirring to her tug; for he was a cautious man.
“I have the money, I tell you. All the money.”
“What do you mean by it? All the money there was in the bank, or what?” he asked incredulously, but ready not to be surprised at anything in the way of luck.
“Yes, yes!” she said nervously. “All there was. I’ve it all.”
“How on earth did you manage to get hold of it already?” he marvelled.
“He gave it to me,” she murmured, suddenly subdued and trembling. Comrade Ossipon put down his rising surprise with a firm hand.
“Why, then — we are saved,” he uttered slowly.
She leaned forward, and sank against his breast. He welcomed her there. She had all the money. Her hat was in the way of very marked effusion; her veil too. He was adequate in his manifestations, but no more. She received them without resistance and without abandonment, passively, as if only half-sensible. She freed herself from his lax embraces without difficulty.
“You will save me, Tom,” she broke out, recoiling, but still keeping her hold on him by the two lapels of his damp coat. “Save me. Hide me. Don’t let them have me. You must kill me first. I couldn’t do it myself — I couldn’t, I couldn’t — not even for what I am afraid of.”
She was confoundedly bizarre, he thought. She was beginning to inspire him with an indefinite uneasiness. He said surlily, for he was busy with important thoughts:
“What the devil ARE you afraid of?”
“Haven’t you guessed what I was driven to do!” cried the woman. Distracted by the vividness of her dreadful apprehensions, her head ringing with forceful words, that kept the horror of her position before her mind, she had imagined her incoherence to be clearness itself. She had no conscience of how little she had audibly said in the disjointed phrases completed only in her thought. She had felt the relief of a full confession, and she gave a special meaning to every sentence spoken by Comrade Ossipon, whose knowledge did not in the least resemble her own. “Haven’t you guessed what I was driven to do!” Her voice fell. “You needn’t be long in guessing then what I am afraid of,” she continued, in a bitter and sombre murmur. “I won’t have it. I won’t. I won’t. I won’t. You must promise to kill me first!” She shook the lapels of his coat. “It must never be!”
He assured her curtly that no promises on his part were necessary, but he took good care not to contradict her in set terms, because he had had much to do with excited women, and he was inclined in general to let his experience guide his conduct in preference to applying his sagacity to each special case. His sagacity in this case was busy in other directions. Women’s words fell into water, but the shortcomings of time-tables remained. The insular nature of Great Britain obtruded itself upon his notice in an odious form. “Might just as well be put under lock and key every night,” he thought irritably, as nonplussed as though he had a wall to scale with the woman on his back. Suddenly he slapped his forehead. He had by dint of cudgelling his brains just thought of the Southampton — St Malo service. The boat left about midnight. There was a train at 10.30. He became cheery and ready to act.
“From Waterloo. Plenty of time. We are all right after all. . . . What’s the matter now? This isn’t the way,” he protested.
Mrs Verloc, having hooked her arm into his, was trying to drag him into Brett Street again.
“I’ve forgotten to shut the shop door as I went out,” she whispered, terribly agitated.
The shop and all that was in it had ceased to interest Comrade Ossipon. He knew how to limit his desires. He was on the point of saying “What of that? Let it be,” but he refrained. He disliked argument about trifles. He even mended his pace considerably on the thought that she might have left the money in the drawer. But his willingness lagged behind her feverish impatience.
The shop seemed to be quite dark at first. The door stood ajar. Mrs Verloc, leaning against the front, gasped out:
“Nobody has been in. Look! The light — the light in the parlour.”
Ossipon, stretching his head forward, saw a faint gleam in the darkness of the shop.
“There is,” he said.
“I forgot it.” Mrs Verloc’s voice came from behind her veil faintly. And as he stood waiting for her to enter first, she said louder: “Go in and put it out — or I’ll go mad.”
He made no immediate objection to this proposal, so strangely motived. “Where’s all that money?” he asked.
“On me! Go, Tom. Quick! Put it out. . . . Go in!” she cried, seizing him by both shoulders from behind.
Not prepared for a display of physical force, Comrade Ossipon stumbled far into the shop before her push. He was astonished at the strength of the woman and scandalised by her proceedings. But he did not retrace his steps in order to remonstrate with her severely in the street. He was beginning to be disagreeably impressed by her fantastic behaviour. Moreover, this or never was the time to humour the woman. Comrade Ossipon avoided easily the end of the counter, and approached calmly the glazed door of the parlour. The curtain over the panes being drawn back a little he, by a very natural impulse, looked in, just as he made ready to turn the handle. He looked in without a thought, without intention, without curiosity of any sort. He looked in because he could not help looking in. He looked in, and discovered Mr Verloc reposing quietly on the sofa.
A yell coming from the innermost depths of his chest died out unheard and transformed into a sort of greasy, sickly taste on his lips. At the same time the mental personality of Comrade Ossipon executed a frantic leap backward. But his body, left thus without intellectual guidance, held on to the door handle with the unthinking force of an instinct. The robust anarchist did not even totter. And he stared, his face close to the glass, his eyes protruding out of his head. He would have given anything to get away, but his returning reason informed him that it would not do to let go the door handle. What was it — madness, a nightmare, or a trap into which he had been decoyed with fiendish artfulness? Why — what for? He did not know. Without any sense of guilt in his breast, in the full peace of his conscience as far as these people were concerned, the idea that he would be murdered for mysterious reasons by the couple Verloc passed not so much across his mind as across the pit of his stomach, and went out, leaving behind a trail of sickly faintness — an indisposition. Comrade Ossipon did not feel very well in a very special way for a moment — a long moment. And he stared. Mr Verloc lay very still meanwhile, simulating sleep for reasons of his own, while that savage woman of his was guarding the door — invisible and silent in the dark and deserted street. Was all this a some sort of terrifying arrangement invented by the police for his especial benefit? His modesty shrank from that explanation.
But the true sense of the scene he was beholding came to Ossipon through the contemplation of the hat. It seemed an extraordinary thing, an ominous object, a sign. Black, and rim upward, it lay on the floor before the couch as if prepared to receive the contributions of pence from people who would come presently to behold Mr Verloc in the fullness of his domestic ease reposing on a sofa. From the hat the eyes of the robust anarchist wandered to the displaced table, gazed at the broken dish for a time, received a kind of optical shock from observing a white gleam under the imperfectly closed eyelids of the man on the couch. Mr Verloc did not seem so much asleep now as lying down with a bent head and looking insistently at his left breast. And when Comrade Ossipon had made out the handle of the knife he turned away from the glazed door, and retched violently.
The crash of the street door flung to made his very soul leap in a panic. This house with its harmless tenant could still be made a trap of — a trap of a terrible kind. Comrade Ossipon had no settled conception now of what was happening to him. Catching his thigh against the end of the counter, he spun round, staggered with a cry of pain, felt in the distracting clatter of the bell his arms pinned to his side by a convulsive hug, while the cold lips of a woman moved creepily on his very ear to form the words:
“Policeman! He has seen me!”
He ceased to struggle; she never let him go. Her hands had locked themselves with an inseparable twist of fingers on his robust back. While the footsteps approached, they breathed quickly, breast to breast, with hard, laboured breaths, as if theirs had been the attitude of a deadly struggle, while, in fact, it was the attitude of deadly fear. And the time was long.
The constable on the beat had in truth seen something of Mrs Verloc; only coming from the lighted thoroughfare at the other end of Brett Street, she had been no more to him than a flutter in the darkness. And he was not even quite sure that there had been a flutter. He had no reason to hurry up. On coming abreast of the shop he observed that it had been closed early. There was nothing very unusual in that. The men on duty had special instructions about that shop: what went on about there was not to be meddled with unless absolutely disorderly, but any observations made were to be reported. There were no observations to make; but from a sense of duty and for the peace of his conscience, owing also to that doubtful flutter of the darkness, the constable crossed the road, and tried the door. The spring latch, whose key was reposing for ever off duty in the late Mr Verloc’s waistcoat pocket, held as well as usual. While the conscientious officer was shaking the handle, Ossipon felt the cold lips of the woman stirring again creepily against his very ear:
“If he comes in kill me — kill me, Tom.”
The constable moved away, flashing as he passed the light of his dark lantern, merely for form’s sake, at the shop window. For a moment longer the man and the woman inside stood motionless, panting, breast to breast; then her fingers came unlocked, her arms fell by her side slowly. Ossipon leaned against the counter. The robust anarchist wanted support badly. This was awful. He was almost too disgusted for speech. Yet he managed to utter a plaintive thought, showing at least that he realised his position.
“Only a couple of minutes later and you’d have made me blunder against the fellow poking about here with his damned dark lantern.”
The widow of Mr Verloc, motionless in the middle of the shop, said insistently:
“Go in and put that light out, Tom. It will drive me crazy.”
She saw vaguely his vehement gesture of refusal. Nothing in the world would have induced Ossipon to go into the parlour. He was not superstitious, but there was too much blood on the floor; a beastly pool of it all round the hat. He judged he had been already far too near that corpse for his peace of mind — for the safety of his neck, perhaps!
“At the meter then! There. Look. In that corner.”
The robust form of Comrade Ossipon, striding brusque and shadowy across the shop, squatted in a corner obediently; but this obedience was without grace. He fumbled nervously — and suddenly in the sound of a muttered curse the light behind the glazed door flicked out to a gasping, hysterical sigh of a woman. Night, the inevitable reward of men’s faithful labours on this earth, night had fallen on Mr Verloc, the tried revolutionist — “one of the old lot” — the humble guardian of society; the invaluable Secret Agent [delta] of Baron Stott-Wartenheim’s despatches; a servant of law and order, faithful, trusted, accurate, admirable, with perhaps one single amiable weakness: the idealistic belief in being loved for himself.
Ossipon groped his way back through the stuffy atmosphere, as black as ink now, to the counter. The voice of Mrs Verloc, standing in the middle of the shop, vibrated after him in that blackness with a desperate protest.
“I will not be hanged, Tom. I will not — ”
She broke off. Ossipon from the counter issued a warning: “Don’t shout like this,” then seemed to reflect profoundly. “You did this thing quite by yourself?” he inquired in a hollow voice, but with an appearance of masterful calmness which filled Mrs Verloc’s heart with grateful confidence in his protecting strength.
“Yes,” she whispered, invisible.
“I wouldn’t have believed it possible,” he muttered. “Nobody would.” She heard him move about and the snapping of a lock in the parlour door. Comrade Ossipon had turned the key on Mr Verloc’s repose; and this he did not from reverence for its eternal nature or any other obscurely sentimental consideration, but for the precise reason that he was not at all sure that there was not someone else hiding somewhere in the house. He did not believe the woman, or rather he was incapable by now of judging what could be true, possible, or even probable in this astounding universe. He was terrified out of all capacity for belief or disbelief in regard of this extraordinary affair, which began with police inspectors and Embassies and would end goodness knows where — on the scaffold for someone. He was terrified at the thought that he could not prove the use he made of his time ever since seven o’clock, for he had been skulking about Brett Street. He was terrified at this savage woman who had brought him in there, and would probably saddle him with complicity, at least if he were not careful. He was terrified at the rapidity with which he had been involved in such dangers — decoyed into it. It was some twenty minutes since he had met her — not more.
The voice of Mrs Verloc rose subdued, pleading piteously: “Don’t let them hang me, Tom! Take me out of the country. I’ll work for you. I’ll slave for you. I’ll love you. I’ve no one in the world. . . . Who would look at me if you don’t!” She ceased for a moment; then in the depths of the loneliness made round her by an insignificant thread of blood trickling off the handle of a knife, she found a dreadful inspiration to her — who had been the respectable girl of the Belgravian mansion, the loyal, respectable wife of Mr Verloc. “I won’t ask you to marry me,” she breathed out in shame-faced accents.
She moved a step forward in the darkness. He was terrified at her. He would not have been surprised if she had suddenly produced another knife destined for his breast. He certainly would have made no resistance. He had really not enough fortitude in him just then to tell her to keep back. But he inquired in a cavernous, strange tone: “Was he asleep?”
“No,” she cried, and went on rapidly. “He wasn’t. Not he. He had been telling me that nothing could touch him. After taking the boy away from under my very eyes to kill him — the loving, innocent, harmless lad. My own, I tell you. He was lying on the couch quite easy — after killing the boy — my boy. I would have gone on the streets to get out of his sight. And he says to me like this: ‘Come here,’ after telling me I had helped to kill the boy. You hear, Tom? He says like this: ‘Come here,’ after taking my very heart out of me along with the boy to smash in the dirt.”
She ceased, then dreamily repeated twice: “Blood and dirt. Blood and dirt.” A great light broke upon Comrade Ossipon. It was that half-witted lad then who had perished in the park. And the fooling of everybody all round appeared more complete than ever — colossal. He exclaimed scientifically, in the extremity of his astonishment: “The degenerate — by heavens!”
“Come here.” The voice of Mrs Verloc rose again. “What did he think I was made of? Tell me, Tom. Come here! Me! Like this! I had been looking at the knife, and I thought I would come then if he wanted me so much. Oh yes! I came — for the last time. . . . With the knife.”
He was excessively terrified at her — the sister of the degenerate — a degenerate herself of a murdering type . . . or else of the lying type. Comrade Ossipon might have been said to be terrified scientifically in addition to all other kinds of fear. It was an immeasurable and composite funk, which from its very excess gave him in the dark a false appearance of calm and thoughtful deliberation. For he moved and spoke with difficulty, being as if half frozen in his will and mind — and no one could see his ghastly face. He felt half dead.
He leaped a foot high. Unexpectedly Mrs Verloc had desecrated the unbroken reserved decency of her home by a shrill and terrible shriek.
“Help, Tom! Save me. I won’t be hanged!”
He rushed forward, groping for her mouth with a silencing hand, and the shriek died out. But in his rush he had knocked her over. He felt her now clinging round his legs, and his terror reached its culminating point, became a sort of intoxication, entertained delusions, acquired the characteristics of delirium tremens. He positively saw snakes now. He saw the woman twined round him like a snake, not to be shaken off. She was not deadly. She was death itself — the companion of life.
Mrs Verloc, as if relieved by the outburst, was very far from behaving noisily now. She was pitiful.
“Tom, you can’t throw me off now,” she murmured from the floor. “Not unless you crush my head under your heel. I won’t leave you.”
“Get up,” said Ossipon.
His face was so pale as to be quite visible in the profound black darkness of the shop; while Mrs Verloc, veiled, had no face, almost no discernible form. The trembling of something small and white, a flower in her hat, marked her place, her movements.
It rose in the blackness. She had got up from the floor, and Ossipon regretted not having, run out at once into the street. But he perceived easily that it would not do. It would not do. She would run after him. She would pursue him shrieking till she sent every policeman within hearing in chase. And then goodness only knew what she would say of him. He was so frightened that for a moment the insane notion of strangling her in the dark passed through his mind. And he became more frightened than ever! She had him! He saw himself living in abject terror in some obscure hamlet in Spain or Italy; till some fine morning they found him dead too, with a knife in his breast — like Mr Verloc. He sighed deeply. He dared not move. And Mrs Verloc waited in silence the good pleasure of her saviour, deriving comfort from his reflective silence.
Suddenly he spoke up in an almost natural voice. His reflections had come to an end.
“Let’s get out, or we will lose the train.”
“Where are we going to, Tom?” she asked timidly. Mrs Verloc was no longer a free woman.
“Let’s get to Paris first, the best way we can. . . . Go out first, and see if the way’s clear.”
She obeyed. Her voice came subdued through the cautiously opened door.
“It’s all right.”
Ossipon came out. Notwithstanding his endeavours to be gentle, the cracked bell clattered behind the closed door in the empty shop, as if trying in vain to warn the reposing Mr Verloc of the final departure of his wife — accompanied by his friend.
In the hansom, they presently picked up, the robust anarchist became explanatory. He was still awfully pale, with eyes that seemed to have sunk a whole half-inch into his tense face. But he seemed to have thought of everything with extraordinary method.
“When we arrive,” he discoursed in a queer, monotonous tone, “you must go into the station ahead of me, as if we did not know each other. I will take the tickets, and slip in yours into your hand as I pass you. Then you will go into the first-class ladies’ waiting-room, and sit there till ten minutes before the train starts. Then you come out. I will be outside. You go in first on the platform, as if you did not know me. There may be eyes watching there that know what’s what. Alone you are only a woman going off by train. I am known. With me, you may be guessed at as Mrs Verloc running away. Do you understand, my dear?” he added, with an effort.
“Yes,” said Mrs Verloc, sitting there against him in the hansom all rigid with the dread of the gallows and the fear of death. “Yes, Tom.” And she added to herself, like an awful refrain: “The drop given was fourteen feet.”
Ossipon, not looking at her, and with a face like a fresh plaster cast of himself after a wasting illness, said: “By-the-by, I ought to have the money for the tickets now.”
Mrs Verloc, undoing some hooks of her bodice, while she went on staring ahead beyond the splashboard, handed over to him the new pigskin pocket-book. He received it without a word, and seemed to plunge it deep somewhere into his very breast. Then he slapped his coat on the outside.
All this was done without the exchange of a single glance; they were like two people looking out for the first sight of a desired goal. It was not till the hansom swung round a corner and towards the bridge that Ossipon opened his lips again.
“Do you know how much money there is in that thing?” he asked, as if addressing slowly some hobgoblin sitting between the ears of the horse.
“No,” said Mrs Verloc. “He gave it to me. I didn’t count. I thought nothing of it at the time. Afterwards — ”
She moved her right hand a little. It was so expressive that little movement of that right hand which had struck the deadly blow into a man’s heart less than an hour before that Ossipon could not repress a shudder. He exaggerated it then purposely, and muttered:
“I am cold. I got chilled through.”
Mrs Verloc looked straight ahead at the perspective of her escape. Now and then, like a sable streamer blown across a road, the words “The drop given was fourteen feet” got in the way of her tense stare. Through her black veil the whites of her big eyes gleamed lustrously like the eyes of a masked woman.
Ossipon’s rigidity had something business-like, a queer official expression. He was heard again all of a sudden, as though he had released a catch in order to speak.
“Look here! Do you know whether your — whether he kept his account at the bank in his own name or in some other name.”
Mrs Verloc turned upon him her masked face and the big white gleam of her eyes.
“Other name?” she said thoughtfully.
“Be exact in what you say,” Ossipon lectured in the swift motion of the hansom. “It’s extremely important. I will explain to you. The bank has the numbers of these notes. If they were paid to him in his own name, then when his — his death becomes known, the notes may serve to track us since we have no other money. You have no other money on you?”
She shook her head negatively.
“None whatever?” he insisted.
“A few coppers.”
“It would be dangerous in that case. The money would have then to be dealt specially with. Very specially. We’d have perhaps to lose more than half the amount in order to get these notes changed in a certain safe place I know of in Paris. In the other case I mean if he had his account and got paid out under some other name — say Smith, for instance — the money is perfectly safe to use. You understand? The bank has no means of knowing that Mr Verloc and, say, Smith are one and the same person. Do you see how important it is that you should make no mistake in answering me? Can you answer that query at all? Perhaps not. Eh?”
She said composedly:
“I remember now! He didn’t bank in his own name. He told me once that it was on deposit in the name of Prozor.”
“You are sure?”
“You don’t think the bank had any knowledge of his real name? Or anybody in the bank or — ”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“How can I know? Is it likely, Tom?
“No. I suppose it’s not likely. It would have been more comfortable to know. . . . Here we are. Get out first, and walk straight in. Move smartly.”
He remained behind, and paid the cabman out of his own loose silver. The programme traced by his minute foresight was carried out. When Mrs Verloc, with her ticket for St Malo in her hand, entered the ladies’ waiting-room, Comrade Ossipon walked into the bar, and in seven minutes absorbed three goes of hot brandy and water.
“Trying to drive out a cold,” he explained to the barmaid, with a friendly nod and a grimacing smile. Then he came out, bringing out from that festive interlude the face of a man who had drunk at the very Fountain of Sorrow. He raised his eyes to the clock. It was time. He waited.
Punctual, Mrs Verloc came out, with her veil down, and all black — black as commonplace death itself, crowned with a few cheap and pale flowers. She passed close to a little group of men who were laughing, but whose laughter could have been struck dead by a single word. Her walk was indolent, but her back was straight, and Comrade Ossipon looked after it in terror before making a start himself.
The train was drawn up, with hardly anybody about its row of open doors. Owing to the time of the year and to the abominable weather there were hardly any passengers. Mrs Verloc walked slowly along the line of empty compartments till Ossipon touched her elbow from behind.
She got in, and he remained on the platform looking about. She bent forward, and in a whisper:
“What is it, Tom? Is there any danger? Wait a moment. There’s the guard.”
She saw him accost the man in uniform. They talked for a while. She heard the guard say “Very well, sir,” and saw him touch his cap. Then Ossipon came back, saying: “I told him not to let anybody get into our compartment.”
She was leaning forward on her seat. “You think of everything. . . . You’ll get me off, Tom?” she asked in a gust of anguish, lifting her veil brusquely to look at her saviour.
She had uncovered a face like adamant. And out of this face the eyes looked on, big, dry, enlarged, lightless, burnt out like two black holes in the white, shining globes.
“There is no danger,” he said, gazing into them with an earnestness almost rapt, which to Mrs Verloc, flying from the gallows, seemed to be full of force and tenderness. This devotion deeply moved her — and the adamantine face lost the stern rigidity of its terror. Comrade Ossipon gazed at it as no lover ever gazed at his mistress’s face. Alexander Ossipon, anarchist, nicknamed the Doctor, author of a medical (and improper) pamphlet, late lecturer on the social aspects of hygiene to working men’s clubs, was free from the trammels of conventional morality — but he submitted to the rule of science. He was scientific, and he gazed scientifically at that woman, the sister of a degenerate, a degenerate herself — of a murdering type. He gazed at her, and invoked Lombroso, as an Italian peasant recommends himself to his favourite saint. He gazed scientifically. He gazed at her cheeks, at her nose, at her eyes, at her ears. . . . Bad! . . . Fatal! Mrs Verloc’s pale lips parting, slightly relaxed under his passionately attentive gaze, he gazed also at her teeth. . . . Not a doubt remained . . . a murdering type. . . . If Comrade Ossipon did not recommend his terrified soul to Lombroso, it was only because on scientific grounds he could not believe that he carried about him such a thing as a soul. But he had in him the scientific spirit, which moved him to testify on the platform of a railway station in nervous jerky phrases.
“He was an extraordinary lad, that brother of yours. Most interesting to study. A perfect type in a way. Perfect!”
He spoke scientifically in his secret fear. And Mrs Verloc, hearing these words of commendation vouchsafed to her beloved dead, swayed forward with a flicker of light in her sombre eyes, like a ray of sunshine heralding a tempest of rain.
“He was that indeed,” she whispered softly, with quivering lips. “You took a lot of notice of him, Tom. I loved you for it.”
“It’s almost incredible the resemblance there was between you two,” pursued Ossipon, giving a voice to his abiding dread, and trying to conceal his nervous, sickening impatience for the train to start. “Yes; he resembled you.”
These words were not especially touching or sympathetic. But the fact of that resemblance insisted upon was enough in itself to act upon her emotions powerfully. With a little faint cry, and throwing her arms out, Mrs Verloc burst into tears at last.
Ossipon entered the carriage, hastily closed the door and looked out to see the time by the station clock. Eight minutes more. For the first three of these Mrs Verloc wept violently and helplessly without pause or interruption. Then she recovered somewhat, and sobbed gently in an abundant fall of tears. She tried to talk to her saviour, to the man who was the messenger of life.
“Oh, Tom! How could I fear to die after he was taken away from me so cruelly! How could I! How could I be such a coward!”
She lamented aloud her love of life, that life without grace or charm, and almost without decency, but of an exalted faithfulness of purpose, even unto murder. And, as often happens in the lament of poor humanity, rich in suffering but indigent in words, the truth — the very cry of truth — was found in a worn and artificial shape picked up somewhere among the phrases of sham sentiment.
“How could I be so afraid of death! Tom, I tried. But I am afraid. I tried to do away with myself. And I couldn’t. Am I hard? I suppose the cup of horrors was not full enough for such as me. Then when you came. . . . ”
She paused. Then in a gust of confidence and gratitude, “I will live all my days for you, Tom!” she sobbed out.
“Go over into the other corner of the carriage, away from the platform,” said Ossipon solicitously. She let her saviour settle her comfortably, and he watched the coming on of another crisis of weeping, still more violent than the first. He watched the symptoms with a sort of medical air, as if counting seconds. He heard the guard’s whistle at last. An involuntary contraction of the upper lip bared his teeth with all the aspect of savage resolution as he felt the train beginning to move. Mrs Verloc heard and felt nothing, and Ossipon, her saviour, stood still. He felt the train roll quicker, rumbling heavily to the sound of the woman’s loud sobs, and then crossing the carriage in two long strides he opened the door deliberately, and leaped out.
He had leaped out at the very end of the platform; and such was his determination in sticking to his desperate plan that he managed by a sort of miracle, performed almost in the air, to slam to the door of the carriage. Only then did he find himself rolling head over heels like a shot rabbit. He was bruised, shaken, pale as death, and out of breath when he got up. But he was calm, and perfectly able to meet the excited crowd of railway men who had gathered round him in a moment. He explained, in gentle and convincing tones, that his wife had started at a moment’s notice for Brittany to her dying mother; that, of course, she was greatly up-set, and he considerably concerned at her state; that he was trying to cheer her up, and had absolutely failed to notice at first that the train was moving out. To the general exclamation, “Why didn’t you go on to Southampton, then, sir?” he objected the inexperience of a young sister-in-law left alone in the house with three small children, and her alarm at his absence, the telegraph offices being closed. He had acted on impulse. “But I don’t think I’ll ever try that again,” he concluded; smiled all round; distributed some small change, and marched without a limp out of the station.
Outside, Comrade Ossipon, flush of safe banknotes as never before in his life, refused the offer of a cab.
“I can walk,” he said, with a little friendly laugh to the civil driver.
He could walk. He walked. He crossed the bridge. Later on the towers of the Abbey saw in their massive immobility the yellow bush of his hair passing under the lamps. The lights of Victoria saw him too, and Sloane Square, and the railings of the park. And Comrade Ossipon once more found himself on a bridge. The river, a sinister marvel of still shadows and flowing gleams mingling below in a black silence, arrested his attention. He stood looking over the parapet for a long time. The clock tower boomed a brazen blast above his drooping head. He looked up at the dial. . . . Half-past twelve of a wild night in the Channel.
And again Comrade Ossipon walked. His robust form was seen that night in distant parts of the enormous town slumbering monstrously on a carpet of mud under a veil of raw mist. It was seen crossing the streets without life and sound, or diminishing in the interminable straight perspectives of shadowy houses bordering empty roadways lined by strings of gas lamps. He walked through Squares, Places, Ovals, Commons, through monotonous streets with unknown names where the dust of humanity settles inert and hopeless out of the stream of life. He walked. And suddenly turning into a strip of a front garden with a mangy grass plot, he let himself into a small grimy house with a latch-key he took out of his pocket.
He threw himself down on his bed all dressed, and lay still for a whole quarter of an hour. Then he sat up suddenly, drawing up his knees, and clasping his legs. The first dawn found him open-eyed, in that same posture. This man who could walk so long, so far, so aimlessly, without showing a sign of fatigue, could also remain sitting still for hours without stirring a limb or an eyelid. But when the late sun sent its rays into the room he unclasped his hands, and fell back on the pillow. His eyes stared at the ceiling. And suddenly they closed. Comrade Ossipon slept in the sunlight.