Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
Part 1 out of 2
HEART OF DARKNESS
by Joseph Conrad
The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without
a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made,
the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river,
the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn
of the tide.
The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an
interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded
together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails
of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red
clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits.
A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness.
The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed
condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest,
and the greatest, town on earth.
The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We four
affectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking to seaward.
On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical.
He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified.
It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous
estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.
Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere,
the bond of the sea. Besides holding our hearts together
through long periods of separation, it had the effect of making
us tolerant of each other's yarns--and even convictions.
The Lawyer--the best of old fellows--had, because of his many
years and many virtues, the only cushion on deck, and was lying
on the only rug. The Accountant had brought out already a box
of dominoes, and was toying architecturally with the bones.
Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against
the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion,
a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped,
the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.
The director, satisfied the anchor had good hold, made his way
aft and sat down amongst us. We exchanged a few words lazily.
Afterwards there was silence on board the yacht.
For some reason or other we did not begin that game of dominoes.
We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring.
The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance.
The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a
benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex
marsh was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded
rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds.
Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches,
became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach
of the sun.
And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low,
and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat,
as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom
brooding over a crowd of men.
Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the serenity
became less brilliant but more profound. The old river
in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day,
after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks,
spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading
to the uttermost ends of the earth. We looked at the venerable
stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and
departs for ever, but in the august light of abiding memories.
And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes,
"followed the sea" with reverence and affection, that to evoke
the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames.
The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service,
crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne
to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea.
It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud,
from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all,
titled and untitled--the great knights-errant of the sea.
It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels
flashing in the night of time, from the GOLDEN HIND returning
with her rotund flanks full of treasure, to be visited by
the Queen's Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale,
to the EREBUS and TERROR, bound on other conquests--
and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men.
They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith--
the adventurers and the settlers; kings' ships and the ships
of men on 'Change; captains, admirals, the dark "interlopers"
of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned "generals"
of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame,
they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword,
and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land,
bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not
floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown
earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths,
the germs of empires.
The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to
appear along the shore. The Chapman light-house, a three-legged
thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved
in the fairway--a great stir of lights going up and going down.
And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town
was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine,
a lurid glare under the stars.
"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark
places of the earth."
He was the only man of us who still "followed the sea."
The worst that could be said of him was that he did not represent
his class. He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most
seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life.
Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is
always with them--the ship; and so is their country--the sea.
One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same.
In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores,
the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past,
veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance;
for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself,
which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny.
For the rest, after his hours of work, a casual stroll or a casual
spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole
continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing.
The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning
of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was
not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him
the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside,
enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out
a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes
are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow.
It was accepted in silence. No one took the trouble to grunt even;
and presently he said, very slow--"I was thinking of very old times,
when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago--the other day.
. . . Light came out of this river since--you say Knights? Yes; but it is
like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds.
We live in the flicker--may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling!
But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander
of a fine--what d'ye call 'em?--trireme in the Mediterranean,
ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry;
put in charge of one of these craft the legionaries--a wonderful lot
of handy men they must have been, too--used to build, apparently by
the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read.
Imagine him here--the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead,
a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina--
and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like.
Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages,--precious little to eat fit for a
civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here,
no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness,
like a needle in a bundle of hay--cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile,
and death--death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush.
They must have been dying like flies here. Oh, yes--he did it.
Did it very well, too, no doubt, and without thinking much about it either,
except afterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his time, perhaps.
They were men enough to face the darkness. And perhaps he was cheered
by keeping his eye on a chance of promotion to the fleet at Ravenna
by and by, if he had good friends in Rome and survived the awful climate.
Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga--perhaps too much dice,
you know--coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer,
or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through
the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery,
had closed round him--all that mysterious life of the wilderness
that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.
There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live
in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable.
And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him.
The fascination of the abomination--you know, imagine the growing regrets,
the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate."
"Mind," he began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm
of the hand outwards, so that, with his legs folded before him,
he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without
a lotus-flower--"Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this.
What saves us is efficiency--the devotion to efficiency.
But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists;
their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect.
They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force--
nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength
is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.
They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got.
It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale,
and men going at it blind--as is very proper for those who tackle
a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means
the taking it away from those who have a different complexion
or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing
when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.
An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea;
and an unselfish belief in the idea--something you can set up,
and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . ."
He broke off. Flames glided in the river, small green flames, red flames,
white flames, pursuing, overtaking, joining, crossing each other--
then separating slowly or hastily. The traffic of the great city went
on in the deepening night upon the sleepless river. We looked on,
waiting patiently--there was nothing else to do till the end of the flood;
but it was only after a long silence, when he said, in a hesitating voice,
"I suppose you fellows remember I did once turn fresh-water sailor
for a bit," that we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run,
to hear about one of Marlow's inconclusive experiences.
"I don't want to bother you much with what happened to me personally,"
he began, showing in this remark the weakness of many tellers
of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would
like best to hear; "yet to understand the effect of it on me you ought
to know how I got out there, what I saw, how I went up that river
to the place where I first met the poor chap. It was the farthest
point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience.
It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me--
and into my thoughts. It was sombre enough, too--and pitiful--
not extraordinary in any way--not very clear either. No, not very clear.
And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light.
"I had then, as you remember, just returned to London after a lot of Indian
Ocean, Pacific, China Seas--a regular dose of the East--six years or so,
and I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and invading
your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you.
It was very fine for a time, but after a bit I did get tired of resting.
Then I began to look for a ship--I should think the hardest work on earth.
But the ships wouldn't even look at me. And I got tired of that game, too.
"Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps.
I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia,
and lose myself in all the glories of exploration.
At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth,
and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map
(but they all look that) I would put my finger on it
and say, `When I grow up I will go there.' The North Pole
was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven't been
there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour's off.
Other places were scattered about the hemispheres. I have been
in some of them, and . . . well, we won't talk about that.
But there was one yet--the biggest, the most blank, so to speak--
that I had a hankering after.
"True, by this time it was not a blank space any more.
It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names.
It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery--
a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.
It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it
one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could
see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled,
with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over
a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.
And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it
fascinated me as a snake would a bird--a silly little bird.
Then I remembered there was a big concern, a Company for
trade on that river. Dash it all! I thought to myself,
they can't trade without using some kind of craft on that lot of
fresh water--steamboats! Why shouldn't I try to get charge of one?
I went on along Fleet Street, but could not shake off the idea.
The snake had charmed me.
"You understand it was a Continental concern, that Trading society;
but I have a lot of relations living on the Continent, because it's
cheap and not so nasty as it looks, they say.
"I am sorry to own I began to worry them. This was already a fresh
departure for me. I was not used to get things that way, you know.
I always went my own road and on my own legs where I had a mind to go.
I wouldn't have believed it of myself; but, then--you see--I felt
somehow I must get there by hook or by crook. So I worried them.
The men said `My dear fellow,' and did nothing. Then--would you
believe it?--I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work--
to get a job. Heavens! Well, you see, the notion drove me.
I had an aunt, a dear enthusiastic soul. She wrote: `It will be delightful.
I am ready to do anything, anything for you. It is a glorious idea.
I know the wife of a very high personage in the Administration,
and also a man who has lots of influence with,' etc. She was determined
to make no end of fuss to get me appointed skipper of a river steamboat,
if such was my fancy.
"I got my appointment--of course; and I got it very quick.
It appears the Company had received news that one of their
captains had been killed in a scuffle with the natives.
This was my chance, and it made me the more anxious to go.
It was only months and months afterwards, when I made the attempt
to recover what was left of the body, that I heard the original
quarrel arose from a misunderstanding about some hens.
Yes, two black hens. Fresleven--that was the fellow's name,
a Dane--thought himself wronged somehow in the bargain,
so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village
with a stick. Oh, it didn't surprise me in the least to
hear this, and at the same time to be told that Fresleven was
the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs.
No doubt he was; but he had been a couple of years already out
there engaged in the noble cause, you know, and he probably felt
the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way.
Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly, while a big
crowd of his people watched him, thunderstruck, till some man--
I was told the chief's son--in desperation at hearing the old
chap yell, made a tentative jab with a spear at the white man--
and of course it went quite easy between the shoulder-blades.
Then the whole population cleared into the forest, expecting all
kinds of calamities to happen, while, on the other hand,
the steamer Fresleven commanded left also in a bad panic,
in charge of the engineer, I believe. Afterwards nobody seemed
to trouble much about Fresleven's remains, till I got out and
stepped into his shoes. I couldn't let it rest, though; but when
an opportunity offered at last to meet my predecessor, the grass
growing through his ribs was tall enough to hide his bones.
They were all there. The supernatural being had not been
touched after he fell. And the village was deserted, the huts
gaped black, rotting, all askew within the fallen enclosures.
A calamity had come to it, sure enough. The people had vanished.
Mad terror had scattered them, men, women, and children,
through the bush, and they had never returned.
What became of the hens I don't know either. I should think
the cause of progress got them, anyhow. However, through this
glorious affair I got my appointment, before I had fairly
begun to hope for it.
"I flew around like mad to get ready, and before forty-eight
hours I was crossing the Channel to show myself to my employers,
and sign the contract. In a very few hours I arrived in a city that
always makes me think of a whited sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt.
I had no difficulty in finding the Company's offices. It was
the biggest thing in the town, and everybody I met was full of it.
They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of
coin by trade.
"A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses,
innumerable windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence, grass sprouting
right and left, immense double doors standing ponderously ajar.
I slipped through one of these cracks, went up a swept and ungarnished
staircase, as arid as a desert, and opened the first door I came to.
Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs,
knitting black wool. The slim one got up and walked straight at me--
still knitting with downcast eyes--and only just as I began to
think of getting out of her way, as you would for a somnambulist,
stood still, and looked up. Her dress was as plain as an
umbrella-cover, and she turned round without a word and preceded
me into a waiting-room. I gave my name, and looked about.
Deal table in the middle, plain chairs all round the walls, on one
end a large shining map, marked with all the colours of a rainbow.
There was a vast amount of red--good to see at any time, because one
knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot
of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast,
a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink
the jolly lager-beer. However, I wasn't going into any of these.
I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river
was there--fascinating--deadly--like a snake. Ough! A door opened,
ya white-haired secretarial head, but wearing a compassionate expression,
appeared, and a skinny forefinger beckoned me into the sanctuary.
Its light was dim, and a heavy writing-desk squatted in the middle.
From behind that structure came out an impression of pale plumpness
in a frock-coat. The great man himself. He was five feet six,
I should judge, and had his grip on the handle-end of ever
so many millions. He shook hands, I fancy, murmured vaguely,
was satisfied with my French. BON VOYAGE.
"In about forty-five seconds I found myself again in the waiting-room
with the compassionate secretary, who, full of desolation and sympathy,
made me sign some document. I believe I undertook amongst other things
not to disclose any trade secrets. Well, I am not going to.
"I began to feel slightly uneasy. You know I am not used to
such ceremonies, and there was something ominous in the atmosphere.
It was just as though I had been let into some conspiracy--
I don't know--something not quite right; and I was glad to get out.
In the outer room the two women knitted black wool feverishly.
People were arriving, and the younger one was walking back
and forth introducing them. The old one sat on her chair.
Her flat cloth slippers were propped up on a foot-warmer, and a cat
reposed on her lap. She wore a starched white affair on her head,
had a wart on one cheek, and silver-rimmed spectacles hung
on the tip of her nose. She glanced at me above the glasses.
The swift and indifferent placidity of that look troubled me.
Two youths with foolish and cheery countenances were being piloted over,
and she threw at them the same quick glance of unconcerned wisdom.
She seemed to know all about them and about me, too.
An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful.
Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door
of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall,
one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown,
the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned
old eyes. AVE! Old knitter of black wool. MORITURI TE SALUTANT.
Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again--not half,
by a long way.
"There was yet a visit to the doctor. `A simple formality,' assured me
the secretary, with an air of taking an immense part in all my sorrows.
Accordingly a young chap wearing his hat over the left eyebrow,
some clerk I suppose--there must have been clerks in the business,
though the house was as still as a house in a city of the dead--
came from somewhere up-stairs, and led me forth. He was shabby
and careless, with inkstains on the sleeves of his jacket, and his
cravat was large and billowy, under a chin shaped like the toe
of an old boot. It was a little too early for the doctor, so I
proposed a drink, and thereupon he developed a vein of joviality.
As we sat over our vermouths he glorified the Company's business,
and by and by I expressed casually my surprise at him not going
out there. He became very cool and collected all at once.
`I am not such a fool as I look, quoth Plato to his disciples,'
he said sententiously, emptied his glass with great resolution,
and we rose.
"The old doctor felt my pulse, evidently thinking of something
else the while. `Good, good for there,' he mumbled,
and then with a certain eagerness asked me whether I would
let him measure my head. Rather surprised, I said Yes,
when he produced a thing like calipers and got the dimensions
back and front and every way, taking notes carefully.
He was an unshaven little man in a threadbare coat like a gaberdine,
with his feet in slippers, and I thought him a harmless fool.
`I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure
the crania of those going out there,' he said. `And when they
come back, too?' I asked. `Oh, I never see them,' he remarked;
`and, moreover, the changes take place inside, you know.'
He smiled, as if at some quiet joke. `So you are going
out there. Famous. Interesting, too.' He gave me a searching
glance, and made another note. `Ever any madness in your family?'
he asked, in a matter-of-fact tone. I felt very annoyed.
`Is that question in the interests of science, too?'
`It would be,' he said, without taking notice of my irritation,
`interesting for science to watch the mental changes
of individuals, on the spot, but . . .' `Are you an alienist?'
I interrupted. `Every doctor should be--a little,'
answered that original, imperturbably. `I have a little theory
which you messieurs who go out there must help me to prove.
This is my share in the advantages my country shall reap
from the possession of such a magnificent dependency.
The mere wealth I leave to others. Pardon my questions,
but you are the first Englishman coming under my observation .
. .' I hastened to assure him I was not in the least typical.
`If I were,' said I, `I wouldn't be talking like this with you.'
`What you say is rather profound, and probably erroneous,'
he said, with a laugh. `Avoid irritation more than exposure
to the sun. Adieu. How do you English say, eh? Good-bye. Ah!
Good-bye. Adieu. In the tropics one must before everything
keep calm.' . . . He lifted a warning forefinger.
. . . `DU CALME, DU CALME. ADIEU.'
"One thing more remained to do--say good-bye to my excellent aunt.
I found her triumphant. I had a cup of tea--the last decent
cup of tea for many days--and in a room that most soothingly
looked just as you would expect a lady's drawing-room to look,
we had a long quiet chat by the fireside. In the course of these
confidences it became quite plain to me I had been represented
to the wife of the high dignitary, and goodness knows to how many
more people besides, as an exceptional and gifted creature--
a piece of good fortune for the Company--a man you don't get hold
of every day. Good heavens! and I was going to take charge of a
two-penny-half-penny river-steamboat with a penny whistle attached!
It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital--
you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a
lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose
in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman,
living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet.
She talked about 'weaning those ignorant millions from their
horrid ways,' till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable.
I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.
"`You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire,'
she said, brightly. It's queer how out of touch with truth women are.
They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything
like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they
were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset.
Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever
since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.
"After this I got embraced, told to wear flannel, be sure
to write often, and so on--and I left. In the street--I don't
know why--a queer feeling came to me that I was an imposter.
Odd thing that I, who used to clear out for any part of the world
at twenty-four hours' notice, with less thought than most men give
to the crossing of a street, had a moment--I won't say of hesitation,
but of startled pause, before this commonplace affair. The best
way I can explain it to you is by saying that, for a second or two,
I felt as though, instead of going to the centre of a continent,
I were about to set off for the centre of the earth.
"I left in a French steamer, and she called in every blamed
port they have out there, for, as far as I could see,
the sole purpose of landing soldiers and custom-house officers.
I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by the ship
is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you--
smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage,
and always mute with an air of whispering, `Come and find out.'
This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making,
with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle,
so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf,
ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along
a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist.
The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam.
Here and there greyish-whitish specks showed up clustered
inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps.
Settlements some centuries old, and still no bigger than
pinheads on the untouched expanse of their background.
We pounded along, stopped, landed soldiers; went on,
landed custom-house clerks to levy toll in what looked like a
God-forsaken wilderness, with a tin shed and a flag-pole lost
in it; landed more soldiers--to take care of the custom-house
clerks, presumably. Some, I heard, got drowned in the surf;
but whether they did or not, nobody seemed particularly to care.
They were just flung out there, and on we went.
Every day the coast looked the same, as though we had not moved;
but we passed various places--trading places--with names
like Gran' Bassam, Little Popo; names that seemed to belong
to some sordid farce acted in front of a sinister back-cloth.
The idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men
with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea,
the uniform sombreness of the coast, seemed to keep me away
from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful
and senseless delusion. The voice of the surf heard now and
then was a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother.
It was something natural, that had its reason, that had a meaning.
Now and then a boat from the shore gave one a momentary
contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows.
You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening.
They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration;
they had faces like grotesque masks--these chaps; but they
had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement,
that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast.
They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort
to look at. For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world
of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long.
Something would turn up to scare it away. Once, I remember,
we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast.
There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush.
It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts.
Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long
six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy,
slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her
thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water,
there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.
Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would
dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny
projectile would give a feeble screech--and nothing happened.
Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in
the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight;
and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me
earnestly there was a camp of natives--he called them enemies!--
hidden out of sight somewhere.
"We gave her her letters (I heard the men in that lonely ship
were dying of fever at the rate of three a day) and went on.
We called at some more places with farcical names,
where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still
and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb; all along
the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature
herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers,
streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud,
whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves,
that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.
Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularized impression,
but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me.
It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares.
"It was upward of thirty days before I saw the mouth of
the big river. We anchored off the seat of the government.
But my work would not begin till some two hundred miles farther on.
So as soon as I could I made a start for a place thirty
miles higher up.
"I had my passage on a little sea-going steamer.
Her captain was a Swede, and knowing me for a seaman, invited me
on the bridge. He was a young man, lean, fair, and morose,
with lanky hair and a shuffling gait. As we left the miserable
little wharf, he tossed his head contemptuously at the shore.
`Been living there?' he asked. I said, `Yes.' `Fine
lot these government chaps--are they not?' he went on,
speaking English with great precision and considerable bitterness.
`It is funny what some people will do for a few francs a month.
I wonder what becomes of that kind when it goes upcountry?'
I said to him I expected to see that soon.
`So-o-o!' he exclaimed. He shuffled athwart, keeping one
eye ahead vigilantly. `Don't be too sure,' he continued.
`The other day I took up a man who hanged himself on the road.
He was a Swede, too.' `Hanged himself! Why, in God's name?'
I cried. He kept on looking out watchfully. `Who knows?
The sun too much for him, or the country perhaps.'
"At last we opened a reach. A rocky cliff appeared,
mounds of turned-up earth by the shore, houses on a hill,
others with iron roofs, amongst a waste of excavations,
or hanging to the declivity. A continuous noise of the rapids
above hovered over this scene of inhabited devastation.
A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants.
A jetty projected into the river. A blinding sunlight
drowned all this at times in a sudden recrudescence of glare.
`There's your Company's station,' said the Swede, pointing to
three wooden barrack-like structures on the rocky slope. `I will
send your things up. Four boxes did you say? So. Farewell.'
"I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass, then found a path leading up
the hill. It turned aside for the boulders, and also for an undersized
railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air.
One was off. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal.
I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, a stack of rusty rails.
To the left a clump of trees made a shady spot, where dark things seemed
to stir feebly. I blinked, the path was steep. A horn tooted to the right,
and I saw the black people run. A heavy and dull detonation shook
the ground, a puff of smoke came out of the cliff, and that was all.
No change appeared on the face of the rock. They were building a railway.
The cliff was not in the way or anything; but this objectless blasting
was all the work going on.
"A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head.
Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path.
They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth
on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps.
Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends
behind waggled to and fro like tails. I could see every rib,
the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had
an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with
a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking.
Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly
of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent.
It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could
by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were
called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells,
had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea.
All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently
dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill.
They passed me within six inches, without a glance,
with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages.
Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed, the product of
the new forces at work, strolled despondently, carrying a rifle
by its middle. He had a uniform jacket with one button off,
and seeing a white man on the path, hoisted his weapon
to his shoulder with alacrity. This was simple prudence,
white men being so much alike at a distance that he could
not tell who I might be. He was speedily reassured, and with
a large, white, rascally grin, and a glance at his charge,
seemed to take me into partnership in his exalted trust.
After all, I also was a part of the great cause of these high
and just proceedings.
"Instead of going up, I turned and descended to the left.
My idea was to let that chain-gang get out of sight before I
climbed the hill. You know I am not particularly tender;
I've had to strike and to fend off. I've had to resist
and to attack sometimes--that's only one way of resisting--
without counting the exact cost, according to the demands
of such sort of life as I had blundered into. I've seen
the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil
of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty,
red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men--men, I tell you.
But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding
sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby,
pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.
How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find
out several months later and a thousand miles farther.
For a moment I stood appalled, as though by a warning.
Finally I descended the hill, obliquely, towards the trees
I had seen.
"I avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on
the slope, the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine.
It wasn't a quarry or a sandpit, anyhow. It was just a hole.
It might have been connected with the philanthropic desire
of giving the criminals something to do. I don't know.
Then I nearly fell into a very narrow ravine, almost no
more than a scar in the hillside. I discovered that a lot
of imported drainage-pipes for the settlement had been
tumbled in there. There wasn't one that was not broken.
It was a wanton smash-up. At last I got under the trees.
My purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment;
but no sooner within than it seemed to me I had stepped into
the gloomy circle of some Inferno. The rapids were near,
and an uninterrupted, uniform, headlong, rushing noise filled
the mournful stillness of the grove, where not a breath stirred,
not a leaf moved, with a mysterious sound--as though the tearing
pace of the launched earth had suddenly become audible.
"Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against
the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within
the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair.
Another mine on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder
of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work!
And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.
"They were dying slowly--it was very clear. They were not enemies,
they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now--
nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying
confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses
of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in
uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened,
became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest.
These moribund shapes were free as air--and nearly as thin.
I began to distinguish the gleam of the eyes under the trees.
Then, glancing down, I saw a face near my hand. The black bones
reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree,
and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me,
enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths
of the orbs, which died out slowly. The man seemed young--
almost a boy--but you know with them it's hard to tell.
I found nothing else to do but to offer him one of my good Swede's
ship's biscuits I had in my pocket. The fingers closed slowly
on it and held--there was no other movement and no other glance.
He had tied a bit of white worsted round his neck--Why?
Where did he get it? Was it a badge--an ornament--a charm--
a propitiatory act? Was there any idea at all connected with it?
It looked startling round his black neck, this bit of white
thread from beyond the seas.
"Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with
their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees,
stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner:
his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a
great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose
of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence.
While I stood horror-struck, one of these creatures rose to his hands
and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink.
He lapped out of his hand, then sat up in the sunlight, crossing his
shins in front of him, and after a time let his woolly head fall
on his breastbone.
"I didn't want any more loitering in the shade, and I made
haste towards the station. When near the buildings I met
a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up
that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision.
I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket,
snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots. No hat.
Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held
in a big white hand. He was amazing, and had a penholder
behind his ear.
"I shook hands with this miracle, and I learned he was the Company's
chief accountant, and that all the book-keeping was done at this station.
He had come out for a moment, he said, `to get a breath of fresh air.
The expression sounded wonderfully odd, with its suggestion of sedentary
desk-life. I wouldn't have mentioned the fellow to you at all, only it was
from his lips that I first heard the name of the man who is so indissolubly
connected with the memories of that time. Moreover, I respected the fellow.
Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair.
His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser's dummy; but in the great
demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That's backbone.
His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character.
He had been out nearly three years; and, later, I could not help asking
him how he managed to sport such linen. He had just the faintest blush,
and said modestly, `I've been teaching one of the native women about
the station. It was difficult. She had a distaste for the work.'
Thus this man had verily accomplished something. And he was devoted
to his books, which were in apple-pie order.
"Everything else in the station was in a muddle--heads, things, buildings.
Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed; a stream
of manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads, and brass-wire set into
the depths of darkness, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory.
"I had to wait in the station for ten days--an eternity.
I lived in a hut in the yard, but to be out of the chaos
I would sometimes get into the accountant's office.
It was built of horizontal planks, and so badly put together that,
as he bent over his high desk, he was barred from neck
to heels with narrow strips of sunlight. There was no need
to open the big shutter to see. It was hot there, too;
big flies buzzed fiendishly, and did not sting, but stabbed.
I sat generally on the floor, while, of faultless appearance
(and even slightly scented), perching on a high stool,
he wrote, he wrote. Sometimes he stood up for exercise.
When a truckle-bed with a sick man (some invalid agent
from upcountry) was put in there, he exhibited a gentle annoyance.
`The groans of this sick person,' he said, `distract my attention.
And without that it is extremely difficult to guard against
clerical errors in this climate.'
"One day he remarked, without lifting his head,
`In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr. Kurtz.'
On my asking who Mr. Kurtz was, he said he was a first-class agent;
and seeing my disappointment at this information, he added slowly,
laying down his pen, `He is a very remarkable person.'
Further questions elicited from him that Mr. Kurtz was at
present in charge of a trading-post, a very important one,
in the true ivory-country, at `the very bottom of there.
Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together . . .'
He began to write again. The sick man was too ill to groan.
The flies buzzed in a great peace.
"Suddenly there was a growing murmur of voices and a great
tramping of feet. A caravan had come in. A violent babble
of uncouth sounds burst out on the other side of the planks.
All the carriers were speaking together, and in the midst
of the uproar the lamentable voice of the chief agent was heard
`giving it up' tearfully for the twentieth time that day.
. . . He rose slowly. `What a frightful row,' he said.
He crossed the room gently to look at the sick man,
and returning, said to me, `He does not hear.' `What! Dead?'
I asked, startled. `No, not yet,' he answered, with great composure.
Then, alluding with a toss of the head to the tumult in
the station-yard, `When one has got to make correct entries,
one comes to hate those savages--hate them to the death.'
He remained thoughtful for a moment. `When you see Mr. Kurtz'
he went on, `tell him from me that everything here'--
he glanced at the deck--' is very satisfactory. I don't like
to write to him--with those messengers of ours you never know
who may get hold of your letter--at that Central Station.'
He stared at me for a moment with his mild, bulging eyes.
`Oh, he will go far, very far,' he began again.
`He will be a somebody in the Administration before long.
They, above--the Council in Europe, you know--mean him to be.'
"He turned to his work. The noise outside had ceased,
and presently in going out I stopped at the door.
In the steady buzz of flies the homeward-bound agent was lying
finished and insensible; the other, bent over his books,
was making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions;
and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still
tree-tops of the grove of death.
"Next day I left that station at last, with a caravan of sixty men,
for a two-hundred-mile tramp.
"No use telling you much about that. Paths, paths, everywhere;
a stamped-in network of paths spreading over the empty land,
through the long grass, through burnt grass, through thickets,
down and up chilly ravines, up and down stony hills ablaze
with heat; and a solitude, a solitude, nobody, not a hut.
The population had cleared out a long time ago. Well, if a lot
of mysterious niggers armed with all kinds of fearful weapons
suddenly took to travelling on the road between Deal and Gravesend,
catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads
for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get
empty very soon. Only here the dwellings were gone, too.
Still I passed through several abandoned villages.
There's something pathetically childish in the ruins of grass walls.
Day after day, with the stamp and shuffle of sixty pair
of bare feet behind me, each pair under a 60-lb. load.
Camp, cook, sleep, strike camp, march. Now and then a carrier
dead in harness, at rest in the long grass near the path,
with an empty water-gourd and his long staff lying by his side.
A great silence around and above. Perhaps on some quiet night
the tremor of far-off drums, sinking, swelling, a tremor vast, faint;
a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild--and perhaps with as
profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian country.
Once a white man in an unbuttoned uniform, camping on the path
with an armed escort of lank Zanzibaris, very hospitable and festive--
not to say drunk. Was looking after the upkeep of the road,
he declared. Can't say I saw any road or any upkeep,
unless the body of a middle-aged negro, with a bullet-hole
in the forehead, upon which I absolutely stumbled three miles
farther on, may be considered as a permanent improvement.
I had a white companion, too, not a bad chap, but rather
too fleshy and with the exasperating habit of fainting on
the hot hillsides, miles away from the least bit of shade
and water. Annoying, you know, to hold your own coat
like a parasol over a man's head while he is coming to.
I couldn't help asking him once what he meant by coming there
at all. `To make money, of course. What do you think?'
he said, scornfully. Then he got fever, and had to be carried
in a hammock slung under a pole. As he weighed sixteen stone I
had no end of rows with the carriers. They jibbed, ran away,
sneaked off with their loads in the night--quite a mutiny.
So, one evening, I made a speech in English with gestures,
not one of which was lost to the sixty pairs of eyes before me,
and the next morning I started the hammock off in front all right.
An hour afterwards I came upon the whole concern wrecked
in a bush--man, hammock, groans, blankets, horrors. The heavy
pole had skinned his poor nose. He was very anxious for me
to kill somebody, but there wasn't the shadow of a carrier near.
I remembered the old doctor--'It would be interesting for science
to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot.'
I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting. However, all
that is to no purpose. On the fifteenth day I came in sight
of the big river again, and hobbled into the Central Station.
It was on a back water surrounded by scrub and forest,
with a pretty border of smelly mud on one side, and on the three
others enclosed by a crazy fence of rushes. A neglected gap
was all the gate it had, and the first glance at the place was
enough to let you see the flabby devil was running that show.
White men with long staves in their hands appeared languidly
from amongst the buildings, strolling up to take a look at me,
and then retired out of sight somewhere. One of them,
a stout, excitable chap with black moustaches, informed me
with great volubility and many digressions, as soon as I told
him who I was, that my steamer was at the bottom of the river.
I was thunderstruck. What, how, why? Oh, it was `all right.'
The `manager himself' was there. All quite correct.
`Everybody had behaved splendidly! splendidly!'--'you must,'
he said in agitation, `go and see the general manager at once.
He is waiting!'
"I did not see the real significance of that wreck at once.
I fancy I see it now, but I am not sure--not at all.
Certainly the affair was too stupid--when I think of it--
to be altogether natural. Still . . . But at the moment it presented
itself simply as a confounded nuisance. The steamer was sunk.
They had started two days before in a sudden hurry up the river
with the manager on board, in charge of some volunteer skipper,
and before they had been out three hours they tore the bottom
out of her on stones, and she sank near the south bank.
I asked myself what I was to do there, now my boat was lost.
As a matter of fact, I had plenty to do in fishing my command
out of the river. I had to set about it the very next day.
That, and the repairs when I brought the pieces to the station,
took some months.
"My first interview with the manager was curious. He did not
ask me to sit down after my twenty-mile walk that morning.
He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners,
and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build.
His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold,
and he certainly could make his glance fall on one as trenchant
and heavy as an axe. But even at these times the rest of his
person seemed to disclaim the intention. Otherwise there was only
an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy--
a smile--not a smile--I remember it, but I can't explain.
It was unconscious, this smile was, though just after
he had said something it got intensified for an instant.
It came at the end of his speeches like a seal applied on
the words to make the meaning of the commonest phrase appear
absolutely inscrutable. He was a common trader, from his youth
up employed in these parts--nothing more. He was obeyed,
yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect.
He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a
definite mistrust--just uneasiness--nothing more. You have
no idea how effective such a . . . a. . . . faculty can be.
He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even.
That was evident in such things as the deplorable state
of the station. He had no learning, and no intelligence.
His position had come to him--why? Perhaps because he was never
ill . . . He had served three terms of three years out there . .
. Because triumphant health in the general rout of constitutions
is a kind of power in itself. When he went home on leave he rioted
on a large scale--pompously. Jack ashore--with a difference--
in externals only. This one could gather from his casual talk.
He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going--that's all.
But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it
was impossible to tell what could control such a man.
He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing
within him. Such a suspicion made one pause--for out there there
were no external checks. Once when various tropical diseases
had laid low almost every `agent' in the station, he was heard
to say, `Men who come out here should have no entrails.'
He sealed the utterance with that smile of his, as though it
had been a door opening into a darkness he had in his keeping.
You fancied you had seen things--but the seal was on.
When annoyed at meal-times by the constant quarrels of the white
men about precedence, he ordered an immense round table
to be made, for which a special house had to be built.
This was the station's mess-room. Where he sat was the
first place--the rest were nowhere. One felt this to be his
unalterable conviction. He was neither civil nor uncivil.
He was quiet. He allowed his `boy'--an overfed young negro
from the coast--to treat the white men, under his very eyes,
with provoking insolence.
"He began to speak as soon as he saw me. I had been very long
on the road. He could not wait. Had to start without me.
The up-river stations had to be relieved. There had been so many
delays already that he did not know who was dead and who was alive,
and how they got on--and so on, and so on. He paid no attention
to my explanations, and, playing with a stick of sealing-wax, repeated
several times that the situation was `very grave, very grave.'
There were rumours that a very important station was in jeopardy,
and its chief, Mr. Kurtz, was ill. Hoped it was not true.
Mr. Kurtz was . . . I felt weary and irritable. Hang Kurtz, I thought.
I interrupted him by saying I had heard of Mr. Kurtz on the coast.
`Ah! So they talk of him down there,' he murmured to himself.
Then he began again, assuring me Mr. Kurtz was the best agent he had,
an exceptional man, of the greatest importance to the Company;
therefore I could understand his anxiety. He was, he said,
`very, very uneasy.' Certainly he fidgeted on his chair a
good deal, exclaimed, `Ah, Mr. Kurtz!' broke the stick of sealing-wax
and seemed dumfounded by the accident. Next thing he wanted
to know `how long it would take to' . . . I interrupted him again.
Being hungry, you know, and kept on my feet too. I was getting savage.
`How can I tell?' I said. `I haven't even seen the wreck yet--
some months, no doubt.' All this talk seemed to me so futile.
`Some months,' he said. `Well, let us say three months before we
can make a start. Yes. That ought to do the affair.' I flung out
of his hut (he lived all alone in a clay hut with a sort of verandah)
muttering to myself my opinion of him. He was a chattering idiot.
Afterwards I took it back when it was borne in upon me startlingly
with what extreme nicety he had estimated the time requisite
for the `affair.'
"I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back
on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could
keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must
look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men
strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard.
I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered
here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands,
like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence.
The word `ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed.
You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile
rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.
By Jove! I've never seen anything so unreal in my life.
And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared
speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible,
like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away
of this fantastic invasion.
"Oh, these months! Well, never mind. Various things yhappened.
One evening a grass shed full of calico, cotton prints, beads, and I don't
know what else, burst into a blaze so suddenly that you would have thought
the earth had opened to let an avenging fire consume all that trash.
I was smoking my pipe quietly by my dismantled steamer, and saw
them all cutting capers in the light, with their arms lifted high,
when the stout man with moustaches came tearing down to the river,
a tin pail in his hand, assured me that everybody was `behaving splendidly,
splendidly,' dipped about a quart of water and tore back again.
I noticed there was a hole in the bottom of his pail.
"I strolled up. There was no hurry. You see the thing had gone off
like a box of matches. It had been hopeless from the very first.
The flame had leaped high, driven everybody back, lighted up everything--
and collapsed. The shed was already a heap of embers glowing fiercely.
A nigger was being beaten near by. They said he had caused the fire
in some way; be that as it may, he was screeching most horribly.
I saw him, later, for several days, sitting in a bit of shade looking
very sick and trying to recover himself; afterwards he arose and went out--
and the wilderness without a sound took him into its bosom again.
As I approached the glow from the dark I found myself at the back of
two men, talking. I heard the name of Kurtz pronounced, then the words, `take
advantage of this unfortunate accident.' One of the men was the manager.
I wished him a good evening. `Did you ever see anything like it--
eh? it is incredible,' he said, and walked off. The other man remained.
He was a first-class agent, young, gentlemanly, a bit reserved,
with a forked little beard and a hooked nose. He was stand-offish
with the other agents, and they on their side said he was the manager's
spy upon them. As to me, I had hardly ever spoken to him before.
We got into talk, and by and by we strolled away from the hissing ruins.
Then he asked me to his room, which was in the main building of the station.
He struck a match, and I perceived that this young aristocrat had not only
a silver-mounted dressing-case but also a whole candle all to himself.
Just at that time the manager was the only man supposed to have any
right to candles. Native mats covered the clay walls; a collection
of spears, assegais, shields, knives was hung up in trophies.
The business intrusted to this fellow was the making of bricks--
so I had been informed; but there wasn't a fragment of a brick anywhere
in the station, and he had been there more than a year--waiting. It seems
he could not make bricks without something, I don't know what--straw maybe.
Anyway, it could not be found there and as it was not likely to be sent
from Europe, it did not appear clear to me what he was waiting for.
An act of special creation perhaps. However, they were all waiting--
all the sixteen or twenty pilgrims of them--for something; and upon
my word it did not seem an uncongenial occupation, from the way they
took it, though the only thing that ever came to them was disease--
as far as I could see. They beguiled the time by back-biting and
intriguing against each other in a foolish kind of way. There was an air
of plotting about that station, but nothing came of it, of course.
It was as unreal as everything else--as the philanthropic pretence of the
whole concern, as their talk, as their government, as their show of work.
The only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post
where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages.
They intrigued and slandered and hated each other only on that account--
but as to effectually lifting a little finger--oh, no. By heavens! there
is something after all in the world allowing one man to steal a horse
while another must not look at a halter. Steal a horse straight out.
Very well. He has done it. Perhaps he can ride. But there is a way
of looking at a halter that would provoke the most charitable of saints
into a kick.
"I had no idea why he wanted to be sociable, but as we chatted in there
it suddenly occurred to me the fellow was trying to get at something--
in fact, pumping me. He alluded constantly to Europe, to the people I was
supposed to know there--putting leading questions as to my acquaintances
in the sepulchral city, and so on. His little eyes glittered like mica discs--
with curiosity--though he tried to keep up a bit of superciliousness.
At first I was astonished, but very soon I became awfully curious
to see what he would find out from me. I couldn't possibly imagine
what I had in me to make it worth his while. It was very pretty to see
how he baffled himself, for in truth my body was full only of chills,
and my head had nothing in it but that wretched steamboat business.
It was evident he took me for a perfectly shameless prevaricator.
At last he got angry, and, to conceal a movement of furious annoyance,
he yawned. I rose. Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel,
representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch.
The background was sombre--almost black. The movement of the woman
was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister.
"It arrested me, and he stood by civilly, holding an empty half-pint
champagne bottle (medical comforts) with the candle stuck in it.
To my question he said Mr. Kurtz had painted this--in this very station
more than a year ago--while waiting for means to go to his trading post.
`Tell me, pray,' said I, `who is this Mr. Kurtz?'
"`The chief of the Inner Station,' he answered in a short tone,
looking away. `Much obliged,' I said, laughing.
`And you are the brickmaker of the Central Station.
Every one knows that.' He was silent for a while.
`He is a prodigy,' he said at last. `He is an emissary of pity
and science and progress, and devil knows what else. We want,'
he began to declaim suddenly, `for the guidance of the cause
intrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence,
wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose.' `Who says that?'
I asked. `Lots of them,' he replied. `Some even write that;
and so HE comes here, a special being, as you ought to know.'
`Why ought I to know?' I interrupted, really surprised.
He paid no attention. `Yes. Today he is chief of the best station,
next year he will be assistant-manager, two years more and . .
. but I dare-say you know what he will be in two years' time.
You are of the new gang--the gang of virtue. The same people
who sent him specially also recommended you. Oh, don't say no.
I've my own eyes to trust.' Light dawned upon me. My dear
aunt's influential acquaintances were producing an unexpected
effect upon that young man. I nearly burst into a laugh.
`Do you read the Company's confidential correspondence?'
I asked. He hadn't a word to say. It was great fun.
`When Mr. Kurtz,' I continued, severely, `is General Manager,
you won't have the opportunity.'
"He blew the candle out suddenly, and we went outside.
The moon had risen. Black figures strolled about listlessly,
pouring water on the glow, whence proceeded a sound of hissing;
steam ascended in the moonlight, the beaten nigger groaned somewhere.
`What a row the brute makes!' said the indefatigable man
with the moustaches, appearing near us. `Serve him right.
Transgression--punishment--bang! Pitiless, pitiless.
That's the only way. This will prevent all conflagrations
for the future. I was just telling the manager . . .' He
noticed my companion, and became crestfallen all at once.
`Not in bed yet,' he said, with a kind of servile heartiness;
`it's so natural. Ha! Danger--agitation.' He vanished.
I went on to the riverside, and the other followed me.
I heard a scathing murmur at my ear, `Heap of muffs--go to.'
The pilgrims could be seen in knots gesticulating, discussing.
Several had still their staves in their hands. I verily believe
they took these sticks to bed with them. Beyond the fence
the forest stood up spectrally in the moonlight, and through that
dim stir, through the faint sounds of that lamentable courtyard,
the silence of the land went home to one's very heart--its mystery,
its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life.
The hurt nigger moaned feebly somewhere near by, and then
fetched a deep sigh that made me mend my pace away from there.
I felt a hand introducing itself under my arm. `My dear sir,'
said the fellow, `I don't want to be misunderstood, and especially
by you, who will see Mr. Kurtz long before I can have that pleasure.
I wouldn't like him to get a false idea of my disposition.
. . .'
"I let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed
to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him,
and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.
He, don't you see, had been planning to be assistant-manager
by and by under the present man, and I could see that
the coming of that Kurtz had upset them both not a little.
He talked precipitately, and I did not try to stop him.
I had my shoulders against the wreck of my steamer, hauled up
on the slope like a carcass of some big river animal.
The smell of mud, of primeval mud, by Jove! was in my nostrils,
the high stillness of primeval forest was before my eyes;
there were shiny patches on the black creek.
The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver--
over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted
vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple,
over the great river I could see through a sombre gap glittering,
glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur.
All this was great, expectant, mute, while the man jabbered
about himself. I wondered whether the stillness on the face
of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal
or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here?
Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us?
I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that
couldn't talk, and perhaps was deaf as well. What was in there?
I could see a little ivory coming out from there, and I had heard
Mr. Kurtz was in there. I had heard enough about it, too--
God knows! Yet somehow it didn't bring any image with it--
no more than if I had been told an angel or a fiend was in there.
I believed it in the same way one of you might believe there
are inhabitants in the planet Mars. I knew once a Scotch
sailmaker who was certain, dead sure, there were people in Mars.
If you asked him for some idea how they looked and behaved,
he would get shy and mutter something about `walking on all-fours.'
If you as much as smiled, he would--though a man of sixty--
offer to fight you. I would not have gone so far as to
fight for Kurtz, but I went for him near enough to a lie.
You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am
straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me.
There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies--
which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world--
what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick,
like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose.
Well, I went near enough to it by letting the young fool there
believe anything he liked to imagine as to my influence in Europe.
I became in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest
of the bewitched pilgrims. This simply because I had a notion
it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time
I did not see--you understand. He was just a word for me.
I did not see the man in the name any more than you do.
Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems
to me I am trying to tell you ya dream--making a vain attempt,
because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation,
that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment
in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured
by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams.
. . ."
He was silent for a while.
". . . No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation
of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth,
its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible.
We live, as we dream--alone. . . ."
He paused again as if reflecting, then added:
"Of course in this you fellows see more than I could then.
You see me, whom you know. . . ."
It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see
one another. For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been
no more to us than a voice. There was not a word from anybody.
The others might have been asleep, but I was awake.
I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word,
that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired
by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human
lips in the heavy night-air of the river.
". . . Yes--I let him run on," Marlow began again,
"and think what he pleased about the powers that were
behind me. I did! And there was nothing behind me!
There was nothing but that wretched, old, mangled steamboat
I was leaning against, while he talked fluently about `the
necessity for every man to get on.' `And when one comes
out here, you conceive, it is not to gaze at the moon.'
Mr. Kurtz was a `universal genius,' but even a genius would
find it easier to work with `adequate tools--intelligent men.'
He did not make bricks--why, there was a physical impossibility
in the way--as I was well aware; and if he did secretarial
work for the manager, it was because `no sensible man rejects
wantonly the confidence of his superiors.' Did I see it?
I saw it. What more did I want? What I really wanted was rivets,
by heaven! Rivets. To get on with the work--to stop the hole.
Rivets I wanted. There were cases of them down at the coast--
cases--piled up--burst--split! You kicked a loose rivet
at every second step in that station-yard on the hillside.
Rivets had rolled into the grove of death. You could fill
your pockets with rivets for the trouble of stooping down--
and there wasn't one rivet to be found where it was wanted.
We had plates that would do, but nothing to fasten them with.
And every week the messenger, a long negro, letter-bag on
shoulder and staff in hand, left our station for the coast.
And several times a week a coast caravan came in with
trade goods--ghastly glazed calico that made you shudder
only to look at it, glass beads value about a penny a quart,
confounded spotted cotton handkerchiefs. And no rivets.
Three carriers could have brought all that was wanted to set
that steamboat afloat.
"He was becoming confidential now, but I fancy my unresponsive
attitude must have exasperated him at last, for he judged
it necessary to inform me he feared neither God nor devil,
let alone any mere man. I said I could see that very well,
but what I wanted was a certain quantity of rivets--and rivets
were what really Mr. Kurtz wanted, if he had only known it.
Now letters went to the coast every week. . . . `My dear sir,'
he cried, `I write from dictation.' I demanded rivets.
There was a way--for an intelligent man. He changed his manner;
became very cold, and suddenly began to talk about
a hippopotamus; wondered whether sleeping on board the steamer
(I stuck to my salvage night and day) I wasn't disturbed.
There was an old hippo that had the bad habit of getting out
on the bank and roaming at night over the station grounds.
The pilgrims used to turn out in a body and empty every rifle they
could lay hands on at him. Some even had sat up o' nights for him.
All this energy was wasted, though. `That animal has a charmed life,'
he said; `but you can say this only of brutes in this country.
No man--you apprehend me?--no man here bears a charmed life.'
He stood there for a moment in the moonlight with his delicate
hooked nose set a little askew, and his mica eyes glittering
without a wink, then, with a curt Good-night, he strode off.
I could see he was disturbed and considerably puzzled,
which made me feel more hopeful than I had been for days.
It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to my influential
friend, the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat.
I clambered on board. She rang under my feet like an empty
Huntley & Palmer biscuit-tin kicked along a gutter; she was
nothing so solid in make, and rather less pretty in shape,
but I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her.
No influential friend would have served me better.
She had given me a chance to come out a bit--to find out
what I could do. No, I don't like work. I had rather laze
about and think of all the fine things that can be done.
I don't like work--no man does--but I like what is in the work--
the chance to find yourself. Your own reality--for yourself,
not for others--what no other man can ever know.
They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what
it really means.
"I was not surprised to see somebody sitting aft, on the deck,
with his legs dangling over the mud. You see I rather chummed with
the few mechanics there were in that station, whom the other pilgrims
naturally despised--on account of their imperfect manners, I suppose.
This was the foreman--a boiler-maker by trade--a good worker.
He was a lank, bony, yellow-faced man, with big intense eyes.
His aspect was worried, and his head was as bald as the palm of my hand;
but his hair in falling seemed to have stuck to his chin, and had
prospered in the new locality, for his beard hung down to his waist.
He was a widower with six young children (he had left them in charge
of a sister of his to come out there), and the passion of his
life was pigeon-flying. He was an enthusiast and a connoisseur.
He would rave about pigeons. After work hours he used sometimes to come
over from his hut for a talk about his children and his pigeons; at work,
when he had to crawl in the mud under the bottom of the steamboat,
he would tie up that beard of his in a kind of white serviette
he brought for the purpose. It had loops to go over his ears.
In the evening he could be seen squatted on the bank rinsing that
wrapper in the creek with great care, then spreading it solemnly
on a bush to dry.
"I slapped him on the back and shouted, `We shall have rivets!'
He scrambled to his feet exclaiming, `No! Rivets!' as though
he couldn't believe his ears. Then in a low voice, `You . . . eh?'
I don't know why we behaved like lunatics. I put my finger
to the side of my nose and nodded mysteriously. `Good for you!'
he cried, snapped his fingers above his head, lifting one foot.
I tried a jig. We capered on the iron deck. A frightful clatter came
out of that hulk, and the virgin forest on the other bank of the creek
sent it back in a thundering roll upon the sleeping station.
It must have made some of the pilgrims sit up in their hovels.
A dark figure obscured the lighted doorway of the manager's hut,
vanished, then, a second or so after, the doorway itself vanished, too.
We stopped, and the silence driven away by the stamping
of our feet flowed back again from the recesses of the land.
The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks,
branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight,
was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave
of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek,
to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence.
And it moved not. A deadened burst of mighty splashes and snorts
reached us from afar, as though an icthyosaurus had been taking a bath
of glitter in the great river. `After all,' said the boiler-maker
in a reasonable tone, `why shouldn't we get the rivets?'
Why not, indeed! I did not know of any reason why we shouldn't.
`They'll come in three weeks,' I said confidently.
"But they didn't. Instead of rivets there came an invasion,
an infliction, a visitation. It came in sections during
the next three weeks, each section headed by a donkey carrying
a white man in new clothes and tan shoes, bowing from
that elevation right and left to the impressed pilgrims.
A quarrelsome band of footsore sulky niggers trod on the heels
of the donkey; a lot of tents, camp-stools, tin boxes, white cases,
brown bales would be shot down in the courtyard, and the air
of mystery would deepen a little over the muddle of the station.
Five such instalments came, with their absurd air of disorderly
flight with the loot of innumerable outfit shops and
provision stores, that, one would think, they were lugging,
after a raid, into the wilderness for equitable division.
It was an inextricable mess of things decent in themselves
but that human folly made look like the spoils of thieving.
"This devoted band called itself the Eldorado Exploring
Expedition, and I believe they were sworn to secrecy.
Their talk, however, was the talk of sordid buccaneers:
it ywas reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity,
and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight
or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they
did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work
of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land
was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back
of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.
Who paid the expenses of the noble enterprise I don't know;
but the uncle of our manager was leader of that lot.
"In exterior he resembled a butcher in a poor neighbourhood,
and his eyes had a look of sleepy cunning. He carried his fat
paunch with ostentation on his short legs, and during the time
his gang infested the station spoke to no one but his nephew.
You could see these two roaming about all day long with their
heads close together in an everlasting confab.
"I had given up worrying myself about the rivets.
One's capacity for that kind of folly is more limited than
you would suppose. I said Hang!--and let things slide.
I had plenty of time for meditation, and now and then I would
give some thought to Kurtz. I wasn't very interested in him.
No. Still, I was curious to see whether this man, who had come
out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top
after all and how he would set about his work when there."
"One evening as I was lying flat on the deck of my steamboat,
I heard voices approaching--and there were the nephew and the uncle
strolling along the bank. I laid my head on my arm again,
and had nearly lost myself in a doze, when somebody said in my ear,
as it were: `I am as harmless as a little child, but I don't
like to be dictated to. Am I the manager--or am I not?
I was ordered to send him there. It's incredible.'
. . . I became aware that the two were standing on the shore
alongside the forepart of the steamboat, just below my head.
I did not move; it did not occur to me to move: I was sleepy.
`It IS unpleasant,' grunted the uncle. `He has asked the
Administration to be sent there,' said the other, `with the idea
of showing what he could do; and I was instructed accordingly.
Look at the influence that man must have. Is it not frightful?'
They both agreed it was frightful, then made several bizarre remarks:
`Make rain and fine weather--one man--the Council--by the nose'--
bits of absurd sentences that got the better of my drowsiness,
so that I had pretty near the whole of my wits about me when the
uncle said, `The climate may do away with this difficulty for you.
Is he alone there?' `Yes,' answered the manager; `he sent
his assistant down the river with a note to me in these terms:
"Clear this poor devil out of the country, and don't
bother sending more of that sort. I had rather be alone
than have the kind of men you can dispose of with me."
It was more than a year ago. Can you imagine such impudence!'
`Anything since then?' asked the other hoarsely. `Ivory,' jerked
the nephew; `lots of it--prime sort--lots--most annoying,
from him.' `And with that?' questioned the heavy rumble.
`Invoice,' was the reply fired out, so to speak. Then silence.
They had been talking about Kurtz.
"I was broad awake by this time, but, lying perfectly at ease,
remained still, having no inducement to change my position.
`How did that ivory come all this way?' growled the elder man,
who seemed very vexed. The other explained that it had come
with a fleet of canoes in charge of an English half-caste
clerk Kurtz had with him; that Kurtz had apparently intended
to return himself, the station being by that time bare
of goods and stores, but after coming three hundred miles,
had suddenly decided to go back, which he started to do alone
in a small dugout with four paddlers, leaving the half-caste
to continue down the river with the ivory. The two fellows
there seemed astounded at anybody attempting such a thing.
They were at a loss for an adequate motive. As to me, I seemed
to see Kurtz for the first time. It was a distinct glimpse:
the dugout, four paddling savages, and the lone white man
turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, yon relief,
on thoughts of home--perhaps; setting his face towards the depths
of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station.
I did not know the motive. Perhaps he was just simply a fine
fellow who stuck to his work for its own sake. His name,
you understand, had not been pronounced once. He was `that man.'
The half-caste, who, as far as I could see, had conducted
a difficult trip with great prudence and pluck, was invariably
alluded to as `that scoundrel.' The `scoundrel' had reported
that the `man' had been very ill--had recovered imperfectly.
. . . The two below me moved away then a few paces,
and strolled back and forth at some little distance. I heard:
`Military post--doctor--two hundred miles--quite alone now--
unavoidable delays--nine months--no news--strange rumours.'
They approached again, just as the manager was saying, `No one,
as far as I know, unless a species of wandering trader--
a pestilential fellow, snapping ivory from the natives.'
Who was it they were talking about now? I gathered
in snatches that this was some man supposed to be in
Kurtz's district, and of whom the manager did not approve.
`We will not be free from unfair competition till one
of these fellows is hanged for an example,' he said.
`Certainly,' grunted the other; `get him hanged! Why not?
Anything--anything can be done in this country. That's what I say;
nobody here, you understand, HERE, can endanger your position.
And why? You stand the climate--you outlast them all.
The danger is in Europe; but there before I left I took care to--'
They moved off and whispered, then their voices rose again.
`The extraordinary series of delays is not my fault.
I did my best.' The fat man sighed. `Very sad.'
`And the pestiferous absurdity of his talk,' continued the other;
`he bothered me enough when he was here. "Each station
should be like a beacon on the road towards better things,
a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing,
improving, instructing." Conceive you--that ass!
And he wants to be manager! No, it's--' Here he got choked
by excessive indignation, and I lifted my head the least bit.
I was surprised to see how near they were--right under me.
I could have spat upon their hats. They were looking on the ground,
absorbed in thought. The manager was switching his leg with
a slender twig: his sagacious relative lifted his head.
`You have been well since you came out this time?' he asked.
The other gave a start. `Who? I? Oh! Like a charm--like a charm.
But the rest--oh, my goodness! All sick. They die so quick,
too, that I haven't the time to send them out of the country--
it's incredible!' `Hm'm. Just so,' grunted the uncle.
`Ah! my boy, trust to this--I say, trust to this.'
I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture
that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river--
seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit
face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death,
to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.
It was so startling that I leaped to my feet and looked
back at the edge of the forest, as though I had expected
an answer of some sort to that black display of confidence.
You know the foolish notions that come to one sometimes.
The high stillness confronted these two figures with its ominous
patience, waiting for the passing away of a fantastic invasion.
"They swore aloud together--out of sheer fright, I believe--then pretending
not to know anything of my existence, turned back to the station.
The sun was low; and leaning forward side by side, they seemed to be
tugging painfully uphill their two ridiculous shadows of unequal length,
that trailed behind them slowly over the tall grass without bending
a single blade.
"In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient
wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver.
Long afterwards the news came that all the donkeys were dead.
I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals.
They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved.
I did not inquire. I was then rather excited at the prospect of meeting
Kurtz very soon. When I say very soon I mean it comparatively.
It was just two months from the day we left the creek when we came
to the bank below Kurtz's station.
"Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings
of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees
were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.
The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy
in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway
ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery
sand-banks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side.
The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands;
you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted
all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you
thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you
had known once--somewhere--far away--in another existence perhaps.
There were moments when one's past came back to one, as it
will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare for yourself;
but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream,
remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities
of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence.
And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace.
It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an
inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.
I got used to it afterwards; I did not see it any more; I had no time.
I had to keep guessing at the channel; I had to discern, mostly by
inspiration, the signs of hidden banks; I watched for sunken stones;
I was learning to clap my teeth smartly before my heart flew out,
when I shaved by a fluke some infernal sly old snag that would
have ripped the life out of the tin-pot steamboat and drowned
all the pilgrims; I had to keep a lookout for the signs of dead
wood we could cut up in the night for next day's steaming.
When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents
of the surface, the reality--the reality, I tell you--fades. The inner
truth is hidden--luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same;
I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks,
just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective
tight-ropes for--what is it? half-a-crown a tumble--"
"Try to be civil, Marlow," growled a voice, and I knew there
was at least one listener awake besides myself.
"I beg your pardon. I forgot the heartache which makes up
the rest of the price. And indeed what does the price matter,
if the trick be well done? You do your tricks very well.
And I didn't do badly either, since I managed not to sink
that steamboat on my first trip. It's a wonder to me yet.
Imagine a blindfolded man set to drive a van over a bad road.
I sweated and shivered over that business considerably,
I can tell you. After all, for a seaman, to scrape the bottom
of the thing that's supposed to float all the time under
his care is the unpardonable sin. No one may know of it,
but you never forget the thump--eh? A blow on the very heart.
You remember it, you dream of it, you wake up at night
and think of it--years after--and go hot and cold all over.
I don't pretend to say that steamboat floated all the time.
More than once she had to wade for a bit, with twenty cannibals
splashing around and pushing. We had enlisted some of these chaps
on the way for a crew. Fine fellows--cannibals--in their place.
They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them.
And, after all, they did not eat each other before my face:
they had brought along a provision of hippo-meat which
went rotten, and made the mystery of the wilderness stink
in my nostrils. Phoo! I can sniff it now. I had the manager
on board and three or four pilgrims with their staves--
all complete. Sometimes we came upon a station close by the bank,
clinging to the skirts of the unknown, and the white men
rushing out of a tumble-down hovel, with great gestures
of joy and surprise and welcome, seemed very strange--
had the appearance of being held there captive by a spell.
The word ivory would ring in the air for a while--and on we went
again into the silence, along empty reaches, round the still bends,
between the high walls of our winding way, reverberating in
hollow claps the ponderous beat of the stern-wheel. Trees,
trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high;
and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream,
crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle
crawling on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel
very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing,
that feeling. After all, if you were small, the grimy
beetle crawled on--which was just what you wanted it to do.
Where the pilgrims imagined it crawled to I don't know.
To some place where they expected to get something. I bet!
For me it crawled towards Kurtz--exclusively; but when
the steam-pipes started leaking we crawled very slow.
The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had
stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return.
We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.
It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll
of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river
and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air
high over our heads, till the first break of day.
Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer we could not tell.
The dawns were heralded by the descent of a chill stillness;
the wood-cutters slept, their fires burned low; the snapping of a twig
would make you start. Were were wanderers on a prehistoric earth,
on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet.
We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking
possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued
at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil.
But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would
be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst
of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping.
of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling,
under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage.
The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black
and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was
cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us--who could tell?
We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings;
we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled,
as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.
We could not understand because we were too far and could not
remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages,
of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign--
and no memories.
"The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look
upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there--
there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.
It was unearthly, and the men were--No, they were not inhuman.
Well, you know, that was the worst of it--this suspicion
of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one.
They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces;
but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity--
like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this
wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough;
but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself
that there ywas in you just the faintest trace of a response
to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion
of there being a meaning in it which you--you so remote from
the night of first ages--could comprehend. And why not?
The mind of man is capable of anything--because everything is in it,
all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all?
Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage--who can tell?--
but truth--truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool
gape and shudder--the man knows, and can look on without a wink.
But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore.
He must meet that truth with his own true stuff--
with his own inborn strength. Principles won't do.
Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags--rags that would fly off
at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief.
An appeal to me in this fiendish row--is there? Very well;
I hear; I admit, but I have a voice, too, and for good or evil
mine is the speech that cannot be silenced. Of course, a fool,
what with sheer fright and fine sentiments, is always safe.
Who's that grunting? You wonder I didn't go ashore for a howl
and a dance? Well, no--I didn't. Fine sentiments, you say?
Fine sentiments, be hanged! I had no time. I had to mess
about with white-lead and strips of woolen blanket helping
to put bandages on those leaky steam-pipes--I tell you.
I had to watch the steering, and circumvent those snags,
and get the tin-pot along by hook or by crook. There was
surface-truth enough in these things to save a wiser man.
And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman.
He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler.
He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him
was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches
and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs. A few months
of training had done for that really fine chap. He squinted
at the steam-gauge and at the water-gauge with an evident effort
of intrepidity--and he had filed teeth, too, the poor devil,
and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns,
and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks.
He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his
feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work,
a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge.
He was useful because he had been instructed; and what he knew
was this--that should the water in that transparent thing disappear,
the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through
the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance.
So he sweated and fired up and watched the glass fearfully
(with an impromptu charm, made of rags, tied to his arm,
and a piece of polished bone, as big as a watch, stuck flatways
through his lower lip), while the wooded banks slipped past
us slowly, the short noise was left behind, the interminable
miles of silence--and we crept on, towards Kurtz.
But the snags were thick, the water was treacherous and shallow,
the boiler seemed indeed to have a sulky devil in it,
and thus neither that fireman nor I had any time to peer
into our creepy thoughts.
"Some fifty miles below the Inner Station we came upon a hut
of reeds, an inclined and melancholy pole, with the unrecognizable
tatters of what had been a flag of some sort flying from it,
and a neatly stacked wood-pile. This was unexpected.
We came to the bank, and on the stack of firewood found
a flat piece of board with some faded pencil-writing on it.
When deciphered it said: `Wood for you. Hurry up.
Approach cautiously.' There was a signature,
but it was illegible--not Kurtz--a much longer word.
`Hurry up.' Where? Up the river? `Approach cautiously.'
We had not done so. But the warning could not have been meant
for the place where it could be only found after approach.
Something was wrong above. But what--and how much?
That was the question. We commented adversely upon
the imbecility of that telegraphic style. The bush around
said nothing, and would not let us look very far, either.
A torn curtain of red twill hung in the doorway of the hut,
and flapped sadly in our faces. The dwelling was dismantled;
but we could see a white man had lived there not very long ago.
There remained a rude table--a plank on two posts; a heap of rubbish
reposed in a dark corner, and by the door I picked up a book.
It had lost its covers, and the pages had been thumbed
into a state of extremely dirty softness; but the back
had been lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread,
which looked clean yet. It was an extraordinary find.
Its title was, AN INQUIRY INTO SOME POINTS OF SEAMANSHIP,
by a man Towser, Towson--some such name--Master in his
Majesty's Navy. The matter looked dreary reading enough,
with illustrative diagrams and repulsive tables of figures,
and the copy was sixty years old. I handled this amazing
antiquity with the greatest possible tenderness, lest it should
dissolve in my hands. Within, Towson or Towser was inquiring
earnestly into the breaking strain of ships' chains and tackle,
and other such matters. Not a very enthralling book;
but at the first glance you could see there a singleness
of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going
to work, which made these humble pages, thought out so many
years ago, luminous with another than a professional light.
The simple old sailor, with his talk of chains and purchases,
made me forget the jungle and the pilgrims in a delicious
sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real.
Such a book being there was wonderful enough; but still
more astounding were the notes pencilled in the margin,
and plainly referring to the text. I couldn't believe my eyes!
They were in cipher! Yes, it looked like cipher.
Fancy a man lugging with him a book of that description into this
nowhere and studying it--and making notes--in cipher at that!
It was an extravagant mystery.
"I had been dimly aware for some time of a worrying noise,
and when I lifted my eyes I saw the wood-pile was gone,
and the manager, aided by all the pilgrims, was shouting at
me from the riverside. I slipped the book into my pocket.
I assure you to leave off reading was like tearing myself away
from the shelter of an old and solid friendship.
"I started the lame engine ahead. `It must be this miserable
trader-this intruder,' exclaimed the manager, looking back
malevolently at the place we had left. `He must be English,'
I said. `It will not save him from getting into trouble
if he is not careful,' muttered the manager darkly.
I observed with assumed innocence that no man was safe from
trouble in this world.
"The current was more rapid now, the steamer seemed at her
last gasp, the stern-wheel flopped languidly, and I caught myself
listening on tiptoe for the next beat of the boat, for in sober
truth I expected the wretched thing to give up every moment.
It was like watching the last flickers of a life.
But still we crawled. Sometimes I would pick out a tree
a little way ahead to measure our progress towards Kurtz by,
but I lost it invariably before we got abreast. To keep
the eyes so long on one thing was too much for human patience.
The manager displayed a beautiful resignation. I fretted
and fumed and took to arguing with myself whether or no I
would talk openly with Kurtz; but before I could come to any
conclusion it occurred to me that my speech or my silence,
indeed any action of mine, would be a mere futility.
What did it matter what any one knew or ignored? What did it matter
who was manager? One gets sometimes such a flash of insight.
The essentials of this affair lay deep under the surface,
beyond my reach, and beyond my power of meddling.
"Towards the evening of the second day we judged ourselves
about eight miles from Kurtz's station. I wanted to push on;
but the manager looked grave, and told me the navigation up
there was so dangerous that it would be advisable, the sun being
very low already, to wait where we were till next morning.
Moreover, he pointed out that if the warning to approach
cautiously were to be followed, we must approach in daylight--
not at dusk or in the dark. This was sensible enough.
Eight miles meant nearly three hours' steaming for us, and I
could also see suspicious ripples at the upper end of the reach.
Nevertheless, I was annoyed beyond expression at the delay,
and most unreasonably, too, since one night more could not matter
much after so many months. As we had plenty of wood, and caution
was the word, I brought up in the middle of the stream. The reach
was narrow, straight, with high sides like a railway cutting.
The dusk came gliding into it long before the sun had set.
The current ran smooth and swift, but a dumb immobility sat
on the banks. The living trees, lashed together by the creepers
and every living bush of the undergrowth, might have been changed
into stone, even to the slenderest twig, to the lightest leaf.
It was not sleep--it seemed unnatural, like a state of trance.
Not the faintest sound of any kind could be heard.
You looked on amazed, and began to suspect yourself of being deaf--
then the night came suddenly, and struck you blind as well.
About three in the morning some large fish leaped,
and the loud splash made me jump as though a gun had been fired.
When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy,
and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive;
it was just there, standing all round you like something solid.
At eight or nine, perhaps, it lifted as a shutter lifts.
We had a glimpse of the towering multitude of trees, of the immense
matted jungle, with the blazing little ball of the sun hanging
over it--all perfectly still--and then the white shutter came
down again, smoothly, as if sliding in greased grooves.
I ordered the chain, which we had begun to heave in, to be paid
out again. Before it stopped running with a muffled rattle,
a cry, a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation,
soared slowly in the opaque air. It ceased. A complaining
clamour, modulated in savage discords, filled our ears.
The sheer unexpectedness of it made my hair stir under my cap.
I don't know how it struck the others: to me it seemed as though
the mist itself had screamed, so suddenly, and apparently from all
sides at once, did this tumultuous and mournful uproar arise.
It culminated in a hurried outbreak of almost intolerably
excessive shrieking, which stopped short, leaving us stiffened
in a variety of silly attitudes, and obstinately listening
to the nearly as appalling and excessive silence. `Good God!
What is the meaning--' stammered at my elbow one of the pilgrims--
a little fat man, with sandy hair and red whiskers, who wore
sidespring boots, and pink pyjamas tucked into his socks.
Two others remained open-mouthed a while minute, then dashed
into the little cabin, to rush out incontinently and stand darting
scared glances, with Winchesters at `ready' in their hands.
What we could see was just the steamer we were on, her outlines
blurred as though she had been on the point of dissolving,
and a misty strip of water, perhaps two feet broad, around her--
and that was all. The rest of the world was nowhere,
as far as our eyes and ears were concerned. Just nowhere.
Gone, disappeared; swept off without leaving a whisper
or a shadow behind.
"I went forward, and ordered the chain to be hauled in short,
so as to be ready to trip the anchor and move the steamboat at once
if necessary. `Will they attack?' whispered an awed voice.
`We will be all butchered in this fog,' murmured another.
The faces twitched with the strain, the hands trembled slightly,
the eyes forgot to wink. It was very curious to see the contrast
of expressions of the white men and of the black fellows of our crew,
who were as much strangers to that part of the river as we,
though their homes were only eight hundred miles away.
The whites, of course greatly discomposed, had besides a curious
look of being painfully shocked by such an outrageous row.
The others had an alert, naturally interested expression;
but their faces were essentially quiet, even those of
the one or two who grinned as they hauled at the chain.
Several exchanged short, grunting phrases, which seemed
to settle the matter to their satisfaction. Their headman,
a young, broad-chested black, severely draped in dark-blue
fringed cloths, with fierce nostrils and his hair
all done up artfully in oily ringlets, stood near me.
`Aha!' I said, just for good fellowship's sake.
`Catch 'im,' he snapped, with a bloodshot widening of his eyes
and a flash of sharp teeth--'catch 'im. Give 'im to us.'
`To you, eh?' I asked; `what would you do with them?' `Eat 'im!'
he said curtly, and, leaning his elbow on the rail, looked out
into the fog in a dignified and profoundly pensive attitude.
I would no doubt have been properly horrified, had it not
occurred to me that he and his chaps must be very hungry:
that they must have been growing increasingly hungry for at
least this month past. They had been engaged for six months
(I don't think a single one of them had any clear idea of time,
as we at the end of countless ages have. They still belonged
to the beginnings of time--had no inherited experience to teach
them as it were), and of course, as long as there was a piece
of paper written over in accordance with some farcical law
or other made down the river, it didn't enter anybody's head
to trouble how they would live. Certainly they had brought
with them some rotten hippo-meat, which couldn't have lasted
very long, anyway, even if the pilgrims hadn't, in the midst
of a shocking hullabaloo, thrown a considerable quantity
of it overboard. It looked like a high-handed proceeding;
but it was really a case of legitimate self-defence. You
can't breathe dead hippo waking, sleeping, and eating,
and at the same time keep your precarious grip on existence.
Besides that, they had given them every week three pieces
of brass wire, each about nine inches long; and the theory
was they were to buy their provisions with that currency
in riverside villages. You can see how THAT worked.
There were either no villages, or the people were hostile,
or the director, who like the rest of us fed out of tins,
with an occasional old he-goat thrown in, didn't want
to stop the steamer for some more or less recondite reason.
So, unless they swallowed the wire itself, or made loops of it
to snare the fishes with, I don't see what good their extravagant
salary could be to them. I must say it was paid with a
regularity worthy of a large and honourable trading company.
For the rest, the only thing to eat--though it didn't look
eatable in the least--I saw in their possession was a few lumps
of some stuff like half-cooked dough, of a dirty lavender colour,
they kept wrapped in leaves, and now and then swallowed
a piece of, but so small that it seemed done more for the looks
of the thing than for any serious purpose of sustenance.
Why in the name of all the gnawing devils of hunger they didn't
go for us--they were thirty to five--and have a good tuck-in
for once, amazes me now when I think of it. They were big
powerful men, with not much capacity to weigh the consequences,
with courage, with strength, even yet, though their skins
were no longer glossy and their muscles no longer hard.
And I saw that something restraining, one of those human
secrets that baffle probability, had come into play there.
I looked at them with a swift quickening of interest--
not because it occurred to me I might be eaten by them before
very long, though I own to you that just then I perceived--
in a new light, as it were--how unwholesome the pilgrims looked,
and I hoped, yes, I positively hoped, that my aspect was not so--
what shall I say?--so--unappetizing: a touch of fantastic
vanity which fitted well with the dream-sensation that pervaded
all my days at that time. Perhaps I had a little fever, too.
One can't live with one's finger everlastingly on one's pulse.
I had often 'a little fever,' or a little touch of other things--
the playful paw-strokes of the wilderness, the preliminary trifling
before the more serious onslaught which came in due course.
Yes; I looked at them as you would on any human being,
with a curiosity of their impulses, motives, capacities,
weaknesses, when brought to the test of an inexorable
physical necessity. Restraint! What possible restraint?
Was it superstition, disgust, patience, fear--or some kind
of primitive honour? No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience
can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is;
and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles,
they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don't you know
the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment,
its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well, I do.
It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly.
It's really easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition
of one's soul--than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true.
And these chaps, too, had no earthly reason for any kind
of scruple. Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint
from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield.
But there was the fact facing me--the fact dazzling, to be seen,
like the foam on the depths of the sea, like a ripple on an
unfathomable enigma, a mystery greater--when I thought of it--
than the curious, inexplicable note of desperate grief in this
savage clamour that had swept by us on the river-bank, behind
the blind whiteness of the fog.
"Two pilgrims were quarrelling in hurried whispers as to which bank.
`Left.' "no, no; how can you? Right, right, of course.'
`It is very serious,' said the manager's voice behind me; `I would be
desolated if anything should happen to Mr. Kurtz before we came up.'
I looked at him, and had not the slightest doubt he was sincere.
He was just the kind of man who would wish to preserve appearances.
That was his restraint. But when he muttered something about
going on at once, I did not even take the trouble to answer him.
I knew, and he knew, that it was impossible. Were we to let go our
hold of the bottom, we would be absolutely in the air--in space.
We wouldn't be able to tell where we were going to--whether up
or down stream, or across--till we fetched against one bank
or the other--and then we wouldn't know at first which it was.
Of course I made no move. I had no mind for a smash-up.
You couldn't imagine a more deadly place for a shipwreck.
Whether we drowned at once or not, we were sure to perish speedily
in one way or another. `I authorize you to take all the risks,'
he said, after a short silence. `I refuse to take any,'
I said shortly; which was just the answer he expected, though its tone
might have surprised him. `Well, I must defer to your judgment.
You are captain,' he said with marked civility. I turned my shoulder
to him in sign of my appreciation, and looked into the fog.
How long would it last? It was the most hopeless lookout.
The approach to this Kurtz grubbing for ivory in the wretched bush was
beset by as many dangers as though he had been an enchanted princess
sleeping in a fabulous castle. `Will they attack, do you think?'
asked the manager, in a confidential tone.
"I did not think they would attack, for several obvious reasons.
The thick fog was one. If they left the bank in their canoes they
would get lost in it, as we would be if we attempted to move.
Still, I had also judged the jungle of both banks quite impenetrable--
and yet eyes were in it, eyes that had seen us. The riverside
bushes were certainly very thick; but the undergrowth behind
was evidently penetrable. However, during the short lift I
had seen no canoes anywhere in the reach--certainly not abreast
of the steamer. But what made the idea of attack inconceivable
to me was the nature of the noise--of the cries we had heard.
They had not the fierce character boding immediate hostile intention.
Unexpected, wild, and violent as they had been, they had given me
an irresistible impression of sorrow. The glimpse of the steamboat
had for some reason filled those savages with unrestrained grief.
The danger, if any, I expounded, was from our proximity to a great
human passion let loose. Even extreme grief may ultimately vent
itself in violence--but more generally takes the form of apathy.
. . .
"You should have seen the pilgrims stare! They had no heart to grin,
or even to revile me: but I believe they thought me gone mad--
with fright, maybe. I delivered a regular lecture. My dear boys,
it was no good bothering. Keep a lookout? Well, you may guess I
watched the fog for the signs of lifting as a cat watches a mouse;
but for anything else our eyes were of no more use to us than
if we had been buried miles deep in a heap of cotton-wool. It
felt like it, too--choking, warm, stifling. Besides, all I said,
though it sounded extravagant, was absolutely true to fact. What we
afterwards alluded to as an attack was really an attempt at repulse.
The action was very far from being aggressive--it was not even defensive,
in the usual sense: it was undertaken under the stress of desperation,
and in its essence was purely protective.
"It developed itself, I should say, two hours after the fog lifted,
and its commencement was at a spot, roughly speaking,
about a mile and a half below Kurtz's station. We had just
floundered and flopped round a bend, when I saw an islet, a mere
grassy hummock of bright green, in the middle of the stream.
It was the ony thing of the kind; but as we opened the reach more,
I perceived it was the head of a long sand-bank, or rather of a
chain of shallow patches stretching down the middle of the river.
They were discoloured, just awash, and the whole lot was
Back to Full Books