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The Secret Agent

Chapter 6
The lady patroness of Michaelis, the ticket-of-leave apostle of humanitarian hopes, was
one of the most influential and distinguished connections of the Assistant Commissioner's
wife, whom she called Annie, and treated still rather as a not very wise and utterly
inexperienced young girl. But she had consented to accept him on a friendly footing,
which was by no means the case with all of his wife's influential connections. Married
young and splendidly at some remote epoch of the past, she had had for a time a close
view of great affairs and even of some great men. She herself was a great lady. Old now
in the number of her years, she had that sort of exceptional temperament which defies
time with scornful disregard, as if it were a rather vulgar convention submitted to by the
mass of inferior mankind. Many other conventions easier to set aside, alas! failed to
obtain her recognition, also on temperamental grounds - either because they bored her, or
else because they stood in the way of her scorns and sympathies. Admiration was a
sentiment unknown to her (it was one of the secret griefs of her most noble husband
against her) - first, as always more or less tainted with mediocrity, and next as being in a
way an admission of inferiority. And both were frankly inconceivable to her nature. To
be fearlessly outspoken in her opinions came easily to her, since she judged solely from
the standpoint of her social position. She was equally untrammelled in her actions; and as
her tactfulness proceeded from genuine humanity, her bodily vigour remained remarkable
and her superiority was serene and cordial, three generations had admired her infinitely,
and the last she was likely to see had pronounced her a wonderful woman. Meantime
intelligent, with a sort of lofty simplicity, and curious at heart, but not like many women
merely of social gossip, she amused her age by attracting within her ken through the
power of her great, almost historical, social prestige everything that rose above the dead
level of mankind, lawfully or unlawfully, by position, wit, audacity, fortune or
misfortune. Royal Highnesses, artists, men of science, young statesmen, and charlatans of
all ages and conditions, who, unsubstantial and light, bobbing up like corks, show best
the direction of the surface currents, had been welcomed in that house, listened to,
penetrated, understood, appraised, for her own edification. In her own words, she liked to
watch what the world was coming to. And as she had a practical mind her judgment of
men and things, though based on special prejudices, was seldom totally wrong, and
almost never wrong-headed. Her drawing-room was probably the only place in the wide
world where an Assistant Commissioner of Police could meet a convict liberated on a
ticket-of-leave on other than professional and official ground. Who had brought
Michaelis there one afternoon the Assistant Commissioner did not remember very well.
He had a notion it must have been a certain Member of Parliament of illustrious
parentage and unconventional sympathies, which were the standing joke of the comic
papers. The notabilities and even the simple notorieties of the day brought each other
freely to that temple of an old woman's not ignoble curiosity. You never could guess
whom you were likely to come upon being received in semi-privacy within the faded blue
silk and gilt frame screen, making a cosy nook for a couch and a few arm-chairs in the
great drawing-room, with its hum of voices and the groups of people seated or standing in
the light of six tall windows.
 
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