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The Secret Agent

Chapter 5
The Professor had turned into a street to the left, and walked along, with his head carried
rigidly erect, in a crowd whose every individual almost overtopped his stunted stature. It
was vain to pretend to himself that he was not disappointed. But that was mere feeling;
the stoicism of his thought could not be disturbed by this or any other failure. Next time,
or the time after next, a telling stroke would be delivered-something really startling - a
blow fit to open the first crack in the imposing front of the great edifice of legal
conceptions sheltering the atrocious injustice of society. Of humble origin, and with an
appearance really so mean as to stand in the way of his considerable natural abilities, his
imagination had been fired early by the tales of men rising from the depths of poverty to
positions of authority and affluence. The extreme, almost ascetic purity of his thought,
combined with an astounding ignorance of worldly conditions, had set before him a goal
of power and prestige to be attained without the medium of arts, graces, tact, wealth - by
sheer weight of merit alone. On that view he considered himself entitled to undisputed
success. His father, a delicate dark enthusiast with a sloping forehead, had been an
itinerant and rousing preacher of some obscure but rigid Christian sect - a man supremely
confident in the privileges of his righteousness. In the son, individualist by temperament,
once the science of colleges had replaced thoroughly the faith of conventicles, this moral
attitude translated itself into a frenzied puritanism of ambition. He nursed it as something
secularly holy. To see it thwarted opened his eyes to the true nature of the world, whose
morality was artificial, corrupt, and blasphemous. The way of even the most justifiable
revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds. The Professor's
indignation found in itself a final cause that absolved him from the sin of turning to
destruction as the agent of his ambition. To destroy public faith in legality was the
imperfect formula of his pedantic fanaticism; but the subconscious conviction that the
framework of an established social order cannot be effectually shattered except by some
form of collective or individual violence was precise and correct. He was a moral agent -
that was settled in his mind. By exercising his agency with ruthless defiance he procured
for himself the appearances of power and personal prestige. That was undeniable to his
vengeful bitterness. It pacified its unrest; and in their own way the most ardent of
revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common with the rest
of mankind - the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied appetites, or perhaps of appeased
Lost in the crowd, miserable and undersized, he meditated confidently on his power,
keeping his hand in the left pocket of his trousers, grasping lightly the india-rubber ball,
the supreme guarantee of his sinister freedom; but after a while he became disagreeably
affected by the sight of the roadway thronged with vehicles and of the pavement crowded
with men and women. He was in a long, straight street, peopled by a mere fraction of an
immense multitude; but all round him, on and on, even to the limits of the horizon hidden
by the enormous piles of bricks, he felt the mass of mankind mighty in its numbers. They
swarmed numerous like locusts, industrious like ants, thoughtless like a natural force,
pushing on blind and orderly and absorbed, impervious to sentiment, to logic, to terror
too perhaps.