Description of Mr Adolf Verloc and his "little business", which is a dingy pornography shop. However his real work, which he describes as "in a way political" requires him to leave the shop at odd hours. His wife Winnie is introduced as "a young woman with a full bust, in a tight bodice, and with broad hips she preserved an air of unfathomable indifference", which establishes her maternal quality, and also her characteristic impenetrability. It is explained that the couple met when Mr Verloc was a lodger in the house kept by Winnie's mother, who now lives with them above the shop. She suffers from swollen legs and is dependent upon her daughter. Winnie also looks after her brother Stevie who is blond, "delicate" and unworldly. An incident from the past, illustrates how Stevie cannot be trusted to work, and how he can be exploited: when working in an office two other boys persuaded him to set off "fierce rockets" in the corridor by telling him that the company was unjust and oppressive. This is an important anecdote as it pre-shadows the role Stevie plays in the novel. The first chapter thus sets up the Verloc family situation.
Mr Verloc makes his way across Rotten Row to the Embassy where he has an appointment with his employer. En route, Conrad employs irony to show up Verloc as indolent and ineffectual; juxtaposing descriptions of him as a man with a mission "to protect the social mechanism" with wry mentions of his innate laziness - "Mr Verloc would have rubbed his hands with glee had he not been constitutionally averse to every superfluous action".
Subtle and snide comedy also pervades the visit: "The Embassy" is never given a clearer name, and Verloc first meets the "mincing" Privy Councillor Wurmt, Chancelier d'Ambassade, who despite his titles finds himself unable to conduct the interview with Verloc. Instead, he passes him on to Mr Vladimir, the "First Secretary". The depiction of bureaucracy teeters between parody and far-fetched realism. The interview is long and full of digressions (typifying the incompetence of the officials) e.g. "You are very corpulent" but the thrust of what Vladimir has to say to Verloc is that in twelve years he has performed no true anarchistic outrages, that he no longer deserves his code name unless he makes a successful attack upon the peace of mind of the bourgeoisie. Vladimir recommends that Verloc assaults "the fetish of the hour", science, by exploding a bomb at the Greenwich meridian, an act which cannot be seen as an assassination attempt and must be recognised as pure anarchic "ferocious imbecility". While Vladimir's lips twitch at the humour of sending Verloc off on such a mission, Verloc himself returns home in a daze.
The narrative returns to filling in general information about the Verloc family, and it emerges that the reason Winnie married Verloc was to give the vulnerable and incompetent Stevie a stable home. The irony of this becomes clear.
At Brett street where the Verlocs live, a meeting of anarchists is taking place. They are an unimpressive group: Michaelis the fat and pasty protégé of a rich old lady; Karl Yundt, a toothless old terrorist with "no pity for anything on this earth"; and Comrade Ossipon, a robust and womanising failed-medic. They argue over their half-baked theories of anarchism while Stevie quietly draws concentric circles. He seems to have been disturbed by their violent talk of "sizzling flesh" (note the proleptic irony given Stevie's fate) since he is in a "very excitable state" and Winnie has to put him to bed. Verloc is troubled by thoughts of how he is to enact the commissioned bomb outrage
Since Winnie turned off the light at the end of the preceding chapter, the narrative has jumped forward three weeks. The darkness of the gap is to be illuminated gradually through flashbacks. This chapter begins in a mediaeval-themed restaurant, a regular haunt of anarchists where Ossipon is sitting with the Professor, a wizened bomb-maker. Their conversation is slightly cryptic to the reader since they are speaking about events as yet unexplained. When Ossipon asks the man "the business of this confounded affair" his meaning is unclear but by the end of the chapter we realise that he is expecting details about that morning's explosion in Greenwich that has just been reported by the newspapers. A man died in the explosion and Ossipon expects it was an anarchist whom he knew; five pages later he decides it must have been Verloc. Although the reader naturally supposes him to be correct, one is not told certainly that it was Verloc, and should keep examining clues as to whom it was that died.
He rightly assumes that the Professor supplied the bomb, as is indicated by his question "Do you... give your stuff to anybody who's up to asking for it?". The Professor explains that Verloc was not intending to die, and that a mistake caused the fatality "He either ran the time too close, or simply let the thing fall... You can't expect a detonator to be absolutely foolproof."
Their conversation strays on to the bomb that the Professor always carries with him in his breast pocket, so that he can commit a kamikaze explosion at any moment. This gives the Professor a sense of power, especially since he feels it means he could outwit the police since if they tried to arrest him he could detonate the bomb thus killing himself and anyone close by him. The chapter ends with Ossipon keen to save his
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