Mr. Verloc goes out one morning, leaving his small London shop in the care of his brother-in-law, Stevie. Verloc’s wife, Winnie, supervises Stevie in turn. The shop’s front window contains photos of dancing girls, odd packages, French publications, and newspapers like The Torch. Mostly, the customers are nervous young men or poor older men.
The shady contents of Mr. Verloc’s shop immediately inject elements of questionable legality, foreign influence, and rebellion from convention into the story. The Torch was an anarchist newspaper published by the Rossettis—extended family of poet Christina Rossetti, and cousins of novelist Ford Madox Ford. Ford was Conrad’s source for information on London anarchism.
Usually, when the shop bell rings, Verloc emerges from the back. He is a heavy-eyed man with a rumpled, rather lazy appearance. Sometimes Winnie answers the door instead. She is young, full-figured, and tidy, and she treats the awkward male customers with detachment. Winnie’s mother, a stout and sickly woman with swollen legs, also lives in their house. She used to be married to an innkeeper, and now, as a widow, she provides for herself by renting out some apartments in Belgravia. Winnie helps out with the lodgers—that’s how she met Verloc, who stayed there for occasional stretches.
Verloc and Winnie seem an unlikely couple: Verloc is unkempt, while Winnie is young and attractive. Winnie’s ailing mother, dependent on her daughter’s support, provides more insight into the couple’s relationship. It seems that, despite Verloc’s “lazy” appearance, he’s a trustworthy provider for both women.
After Verloc and Winnie got married, Winnie’s mother gave up the lodging-house, and she moved into their house in the less fashionable Soho neighborhood. Winnie’s brother Stevie, a delicate boy with a mental disability, joined the household too. Stevie was always a well-behaved boy, except for an episode when he was 14, when “tales of injustice” spurred him to set off fireworks in the office building where he worked as an errand-boy. Nowadays, Stevie’s main hobby is using a compass to draw circles on pieces of paper. He also helps Winnie around the house, and Winnie looks after Stevie as if he’s her son.
Verloc not only cares for Winnie and her mother, but also for Winnie’s brother Stevie, who is unable to support himself. The incident with Stevie and the fireworks, however, foreshadows Stevie’s later outbursts against “tales of injustice.” Though he’s normally docile and predictable (drawing endless circles, for example), he’s also capable of shocking behavior when he’s given sufficient motivation. Winnie is deeply loyal to her brother, which suggests that she’ll stand by him regardless of his behavior.