The Secret Agent
Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood
ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall. Bronze
chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the
fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing
scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in mediaeval costumes. Varlets in green
jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer.
"Unless I am very much mistaken, you are the man who would know the inside of this
confounded affair," said the robust Ossipon, leaning over, his elbows far out on the table
and his feet tucked back completely under his chair. His eyes stared with wild eagerness.
An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, executed
suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive virtuosity. The din it raised was
deafening. When it ceased, as abruptly as it had started, the be-spectacled, dingy little
man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly what had
the sound of a general proposition.
"In principle what one of us may or may not know as to any given fact can't be a matter
for inquiry to the others."
"Certainly not," Comrade Ossipon agreed in a quiet undertone. "In principle."
With his big florid face held between his hands he continued to stare hard, while the
dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on
the table. His flat, large ears departed widely from the sides of his skull, which looked
frail enough for Ossipon to crush between thumb and forefinger; the dome of the
forehead seemed to rest on the rim of the spectacles; the flat cheeks, of a greasy,
unhealthy complexion, were merely smudged by the miserable poverty of a thin dark
whisker. The lamentable inferiority of the whole physique was made ludicrous by the
supremely self-confident bearing of the individual. His speech was curt, and he had a
particularly impressive manner of keeping silent.
Ossipon spoke again from between his hands in a mutter.
"Have you been out much to-day?"
"No. I stayed in bed all the morning," answered the other. "Why?"
"Oh! Nothing," said Ossipon, gazing earnestly and quivering inwardly with the desire to
find out something, but obviously intimidated by the little man's overwhelming air of
unconcern. When talking with this comrade - which happened but rarely - the big
Ossipon suffered from a sense of moral and even physical insignificance. However, he
ventured another question. "Did you walk down here?"