|Table of Contents|
of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
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.
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.
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.
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
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--"
to be civil, Marlow," growled a voice, and I knew there was at least
one listener awake besides myself.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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. . . .
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
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 seen just under the water, exactly as a man's backbone is seen
running down the middle of his back under the skin. Now, as far as I did
see, I could go to the right or to the left of this.
I didn't know either channel, of course. The banks looked pretty well
alike, the depth appeared the same; but as I had been informed the station
was on the west side, I naturally headed for the western passage.
sooner had we fairly entered it than I became aware it was much narrower
than I had supposed. To the
left of us there was the long uninterrupted shoal, and to the right a high,
steep bank heavily overgrown with bushes.
Above the bush the trees stood in serried ranks. The twigs overhung
the current thickly, and from distance to distance a large limb of some tree
projected rigidly over the stream. It was then well on in the afternoon, the
face of the forest was gloomy, and a broad strip of shadow had already
fallen on the water. In this shadow we steamed up--very slowly, as you may
imagine. I sheered her well inshore--the water being deepest near the bank,
as the sounding-pole informed me.
of my hungry and forbearing friends was sounding in the bows just below me.
This steamboat was exactly like a decked scow.
On the deck, there were two little teakwood houses, with doors and
windows. The boiler was in the fore-end, and the machinery right astern.
yOver the whole there was a light roof, supported on stanchions. The funnel
projected through that roof, and in front of the funnel a small cabin built
of light planks served for a pilot-house. It contained a couch, two
camp-stools, a loaded Martini-Henry leaning in one corner, a tiny table, and
the steering-wheel. It had a wide door in front and a broad shutter at each
side. All these were always thrown open, of course.
I spent my days perched up there on the extreme fore-end of that
roof, before the door. At night I slept, or tried to, on the couch.
An athletic black belonging to some coast tribe and educated by my
poor predecessor, was the helmsman. He sported a pair of brass earrings,
wore a blue cloth wrapper from the waist to the ankles, and thought all the
world of himself. He was the most unstable kind of fool I had ever seen. He
steered with no end of a swagger while you were by; but if he lost sight of
you, he became instantly the prey of an abject funk, and would let that
cripple of a steamboat get the upper hand of him in a minute.
was looking down at the sounding-pole, and feeling much annoyed to see at
each try a little more of it stick out of that river, when I saw my poleman
give up on the business suddenly, and stretch himself flat on the deck,
without even taking the trouble to haul his pole in. He kept hold on it
though, and it trailed in the water. At the same time the fireman, whom I
could also see below me, sat down abruptly before his furnace and ducked his
head. I was amazed. Then I had
to look at the river mighty quick, because there was a snag in the fairway.
Sticks, little sticks, were flying about--thick:
they were whizzing before my nose, dropping below me, striking behind
me against my pilot-house. All this time the river, the shore, the woods,
were very quiet-- perfectly quiet. I
could only hear the heavy splashing thump of the stern-wheel and the patter
of these things. We cleared the snag clumsily.
Arrows, by Jove! We were being shot at!
I stepped in quickly to close the shutter on the landside.
That fool-helmsman, his hands on the spokes, was lifting his knees
high, stamping his feet, champing his mouth, like a reined-in horse. Confound him! And we were staggering within ten feet of the
bank. I had to lean right out to swing the heavy shutter, and I saw a face
amongst the leaves on the level with my own, looking at me very fierce and
steady; and then suddenly, as though a veil had been removed from my eyes, I
made out, deep in the tangled gloom, naked breasts, arms, legs, glaring
eyes-- the bush was swarming with human limbs in movement, glistening. of
bronze colour. The twigs shook,
swayed, and rustled, the arrows flew out of them, and then the shutter came
to. `Steer her straight,' I said to the helmsman.
He held his head rigid, face forward; but his eyes rolled, he kept on
lifting and setting down his feet gently, his mouth foamed a little. `Keep
quiet!' I said in a fury. I might just as well have ordered a tree not to sway in the
wind. I darted out. Below me
there was a great scuffle of feet on the iron deck; confused exclamations; a
voice screamed, `Can you turn back?' I caught sight of a V-shaped ripple on
the water ahead. What? Another
snag! A fusillade burst out
under my feet. The pilgrims had opened with their Winchesters, and were
simply squirting lead into that bush. A
deuce of a lot of smoke came up and drove slowly forward.
I swore at it. Now I couldn't see the ripple or the snag either. I
stood in the doorway, peering, and the arrows came in swarms. They might
have been poisoned, but they looked as though they wouldn't kill a cat. The bush began to howl. Our wood-cutters raised a warlike
whoop; the report of a rifle just at my back deafened me. I glanced over my shoulder, and the pilot-house was yet full
of noise and smoke when I made a dash at the wheel. The fool-nigger had dropped everything, to throw the shutter
open and let off that Martini-Henry. He stood before the wide opening,
glaring, and I yelled at him to come back, while I straightened the sudden
twist out of that steamboat. There was no room to turn even if I had wanted
to, the snag was somewhere very near ahead in that confounded smoke, there
was no time to lose, so I just crowded her into the bank-- right into the
bank, where I knew the water was deep.
tore slowly along the overhanging bushes in a whirl of broken twigs and
flying leaves. The fusillade
below stopped short, as I had foreseen it would when the squirts got empty.
I threw my head back to a glinting whizz that traversed the pilot-house, in
at one shutter-hole and out at the other. Looking past that mad helmsman,
who was shaking the empty rifle and yelling at the shore, I saw vague forms
of men running bent double, leaping, gliding, distinct, incomplete,
evanescent. Something big appeared in the air before the shutter, the rifle
went overboard, and the man stepped back swiftly, looked at me over his
shoulder in an extraordinary, profound, familiar manner, and fell upon my
feet. The side of his head hit
the wheel twice, and the end of what appeared a long cane clattered round
and knocked over a little camp-stool. It looked as though after wrenching
that thing from somebody ashore he had lost his balance in the effort. The
thin smoke had blown away, we were clear of the snag, and looking ahead I
could see that in another hundred yards or so I would be free to sheer off,
away from the bank; but my feet felt so very warm and wet that I had to look
down. The man had rolled on his back and stared straight up at me; both his
hands clutched that cane. It
was the shaft of a spear that, either thrown or lunged through the opening,
had caught him in the side, just below the ribs; the blade had gone in out
of sight, after making a frightful gash; my shoes were full; a pool of blood
lay very still, gleaming dark-red under the wheel; his eyes shone with an
amazing lustre. The fusillade
burst out again. He looked at me anxiously, gripping the spear like
something precious, with an air of being afraid I would try to take it away
from him. I had to make an effort to free my eyes from his gaze and attend
to the steering. With one hand
I felt above my head for the line of the steam whistle, and jerked out
screech after screech hurriedly. The tumult of angry and warlike yells was
checked instantly, and then from the depths of the woods went out such a
tremulous and prolonged wail of mournful fear and utter despair as may be
imagined to follow the flight of the last hope from the earth. There was a
great commotion in the bush; the shower of arrows stopped, a few dropping
shots rang out sharply--then silence, in which the languid beat of the
stern-wheel came plainly to my ears. I put the helm hard a-starboard at the
moment when the pilgrim in pink pyjamas, very hot and agitated, appeared in
the doorway. `The manager sends me--' he began in an official tone, and
stopped short. `Good God!' he said, glaring at the wounded man.
two whites stood over him, and his lustrous and inquiring glance enveloped
us both. I declare it looked as
though he would presently put to us some questions in an understandable
language; but he died without uttering a sound, without moving a limb,
without twitching a muscle. Only
in the very last moment, as though in response to some sign we could not
see, to some whisper we could not hear, he frowned heavily, and that frown
gave to his black death-mask an inconeivably sombre, brooding, and menacing
expression. The lustre of inquiring glance faded swiftly into vacant
glassiness. `Can you steer?' I
asked the agent eagerly. He
looked very dubious; but I made a grab at his arm, and he understood at once
I meant him to steer whether or no. To
tell you the truth, I was morbidly anxious to change my shoes and socks.
`He is dead,' murmured the fellow, immensely impressed.
`No doubt about it,' said I, tugging like mad at the shoe-laces. `And
by the way, I suppose Mr. Kurtz is dead as well by this time.'
the moment that was the dominant thought.
There was a sense of extreme disappointment, as though I had found
out I had been striving after something altogether without a substance. I
couldn't have been more disgusted if I had travelled all this way for the
sole purpose of talking with Mr. Kurtz. Talking with . . . I flung one shoe
overboard, and became aware that that was exactly what I had been looking
forward to-- a talk with Kurtz. I
made the strange discovery that I had never imagined him as doing, you know,
but as discoursing. I didn't say to myself, `Now I will never see him,' or
`Now I will never shake him by the hand,' but, `Now I will never hear him.' The man presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I
did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn't I been told in all the
tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled,
or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together?
That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature,
and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried
with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words-- the
gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and
the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow
from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.
other shoe went flying unto the devil-god of that river. I thought, `By
Jove! it's all over. We are too
late; he has vanished-- the gift has vanished, by means of some spear,
arrow, or club. I will never hear that chap speak after all'--and my sorrow
had a startling extravagance of emotion, even such as I had noticed in the
howling sorrow of these savages in the bush. I couldn't have felt more of
lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my
destiny in life. . . . Why do you sigh in this beastly way, somebody?
Absurd? Well, absurd.
Good Lord! mustn't a man ever--Here, give me some tobacco." . . .
was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow's lean
face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids, with
an aspect of concentrated attention; and as he took vigorous draws at his
pipe, it seemed to retreat and advance out of the night in the regular
flicker of tiny flame. The match went out.
he cried. "This is the
worst of trying to tell. . . .
Here you all are, each moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two
anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another, excellent
appetites, and temperature normal--you hear--normal from year's end to
year's end. And you say, Absurd! Absurd
My dear boys, what can you expect from a man who out of sheer
nervousness had just flung overboard a pair of new shoes!
Now I think of it, it is amazing I did not shed tears.
I am, upon the whole, proud of my fortitude. I was cut to the quick
at the idea of having lost the inestimable privilege of listening to the
gifted Kurtz. Of course I was
wrong. The privilege was waiting for me.
Oh, yes, I heard more than enough. And I was right, too.
A voice. He was very
little more than a voice. And I heard--him--it--this voice--other
voices--all of them were so little more than voices--and the memory of that
time itself lingers around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one
immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without
any kind of sense. Voices, voices--even the girl herself--now--"
was silent for a long time.
laid the ghost of his gifts at last with a lie," he began, suddenly.
Did I mention a girl? Oh, she is out of it--completely.
They--the women, I mean-- are out of it--should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their
own, lest ours gets worse. Oh, she had to be out of it. You should have heard the disinterred body of Mr. Kurtz
saying, `My Intended.' You would have perceived directly then how completely
she was out of it. And the
lofty frontal bone of Mr. Kurtz! They say the hair goes on growing
sometimes, but this-- ah--specimen, was impressively bald.
The wilderness had patted him on the head, and, behold, it was like a
ball-- an ivory ball; it had caressed him, and--lo!--he had withered; it had
taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh,
and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some
devilish initiation. He was its
spoiled and pampered favourite. Ivory?
I should think so. Heaps of it, stacks of it.
The old mud shanty was bursting with it. You would think there was
not a single tusk left either above or below the ground in the whole
country. `Mostly fossil,' the
manager had remarked, disparagingly. It
was no more fossil than I am; but they call it fossil when it is dug up. It
appears these niggers do bury the tusks sometimes-- but evidently they
couldn't bury this parcel deep enough to save the gifted Mr. Kurtz from his
fate. We filled the steamboat
with it, and had to pile a lot on the deck. Thus he could see and enjoy as
long as he could see, because the appreciation of this favour had remained
with him to the last. You
should have heard him say, `My ivory.'
Oh, yes, I heard him. `My
Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my--' everything belonged to him.
It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst
into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their
places. Everything belonged to
him-- but that was a trifle. The
thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed
him for their own. That was the reflection that made you creepy all over. It
was impossible--it was not good for one either--trying to imagine. He had
taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land-- I mean literally.
You can't understand. How
could you?-- with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind
neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between
the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and
lunatic asylums--how can you imagine what particular region of the first
ages a man's untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of
solitude--utter solitude without a policeman-- by the way of silence--utter
silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering
of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference. When
they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your
own capacity for faithfulness. Of course you may be too much of a fool to go
wrong-- too dull even to know you are being assaulted by the powers of
darkness. I take it, no fool
ever made a bargain for his soul with the devil; the fool is too much of a
fool, or the devil too much of a devil--I don't know which. Or you may be
such a thunderingly exalted creature as to be altogether deaf and blind to
anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Then the earth for you is only a
standing place--and whether to be like this is your loss or your gain I
won't pretend to say. But most of us are neither one nor the other. The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up
with sights, with sounds, with smells, too, by Jove!--breathe dead hippo, so
to speak, and not be contaminated. And
there, don't you see? Your strength comes in, the faith in your ability for
the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the stuff in-- your power of
devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking business.
And that's difficult enough. Mind,
I am not trying to excuse or even explain--I am trying to account to myself
for--for--Mr. Kurtz--for the shade of Mr. Kurtz. This initiated wraith from
the back of Nowhere honoured me with its amazing confidence before it
vanished altogether. This was because it could speak English to me.
The original Kurtz had been educated partly in England, and--as he
was good enough to say himself--his sympathies were in the right place. His
mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed
to the making of Kurtz; and by and by I learned that, most appropriately,
the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had
intrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance. And he
had written it, too. I've seen it. I've
read it. It was eloquent, vibrating with eloquence, but too high-strung, I
think. Seventeen pages of close
writing he had found time for! But this must have been before his--let us
say--nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight
dances ending with unspeakable rites, which--as far as I reluctantly
gathered from what I heard at various times--were offered up to him-- do you
understand?--to Mr. Kurtz himself. But
it was a beautiful piece of writing. The
opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me
now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of
development we had arrived at, `must necessarily appear to them [savages] in
the nature of supernatural beings-- we approach them with the might of a
deity,' and so on, and so on. `By the simple exercise of our will we can
exert a power for good practically unbounded,' etc., etc.
From that point he soared and took me with him.
The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you
know. It gave me the notion of
an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with
enthusiasm. This was the
unbounded power of eloquence--of words--of burning noble words. There were
no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind
of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an
unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method.
It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every
altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash
of lightning in a serene sky: `Exterminate
all the brutes!' The curious part was that he had apparently forgotten all
about that valuable postscriptum, because, later on, when he in a sense came
to himself, he repeatedly entreated me to take good care of `my pamphlet'
(he called it), as it was sure to have in the future a good influence upon
his career. I had full information about all these things, and, besides, as
it turned out, I was to have the care of his memory. I've done enough for it
to give me the indisputable right to lay it, if I choose, for an everlasting
rest in the dust-bin of progress, amongst all the sweepings and,
figuratively speaking, all the dead cats of civilization.
But then, you see, I can't choose. He won't be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common. He had the power to charm
or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour;
he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings:
he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the
world that was neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking. No; I
can't forget him, though I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly
worth the life we lost in getting to him.
I missed my late helmsman awfully-- I missed him even while his body
was still lying in the pilot-house. Perhaps you will think it passing
strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of
sand in a black Sahara. Well,
don't you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him
at my back-- a help--an instrument. It
was a kind of partnership. He steered for me--I had to look after him, I
worried about his deficiencies, and thus a subtle bond had been created, of
which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken. And the intimate
profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this
day in my memory-- like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme
fool! If he had only left that
shutter alone. He had no restraint, no restraint--just like Kurtz--a tree
swayed by the wind. As soon as
I had put on a dry pair of slippers, I dragged him out, after first jerking
the spear out of his side, which operation I confess I performed with my
eyes shut tight. His heels leaped together over the little doorstep; his
shoulders were pressed to my breast; I hugged him from behind desperately.
Oh! he was heavy, heavy; heavier than any man on earth, I should imagine.
Then without more ado I tipped him overboard. The current snatched
him as though he had been a wisp of grass, and I saw the body roll over
twice before I lost sight of it for ever.
All the pilgrims and the manager were then congregated on the
awning-deck about the pilot-house, chattering at each other like a flock of
excited magpies, and there was a scandalized murmur at my heartless
promptitude. What they wanted to keep that body hanging about for I can't
guess. Embalm it, maybe. But I
had also heard another, and a very ominous, murmur on the deck below.
My friends the wood-cutters were likewise scandalized, and with a
better show of reason-- though I admit that the reason itself was quite
inadmissible. Oh, quite! I had
made up my mind that if my late helmsman was to be eaten, the fishes alone
should have him. He had been a very second-rate helmsman while alive, but
now he was dead he might have become a first-class temptation, and possibly
cause some startling trouble. Besides,
I was anxious to take the wheel, the man in pink pyjamas showing himself a
hopeless duffer at the business.
I did directly the simple funeral was over. We were going half-speed,
keeping right in the middle of the stream, and I listened to the talk about
me. They had given up Kurtz, they had given up the station; Kurtz was dead,
and the station had been burnt--and so on--and so on. The red-haired pilgrim
was beside himself with the thought that at least this poor Kurtz had been
properly avenged. `Say! We must have made a glorious slaughter of them in
the bush. Eh?
What do you think? Say?'
He positively danced, the bloodthirsty little gingery beggar.
And he had nearly fainted when he saw the wounded man!
I could not help saying, `You made a glorious lot of smoke, anyhow.'
I had seen, from the way the tops of the bushes rustled and flew,
that almost all the shots had gone too high.
You can't hit anything unless you take aim and fire from the
shoulder; but these chaps fired from the hip with their eyes shut. The
retreat, I maintained--and I was right--was caused by the screeching of the
steam whistle. Upon this they
forgot Kurtz, and began to howl at me with indignant protests.
manager stood by the wheel murmuring confidentially about the necessity of
getting well away down the river before dark at all events, when I saw in
the distance a clearing on the riverside and the outlines of some sort of
building. `What's this?' I
asked. He clapped his hands in
wonder. `The station!' he
cried. I edged in at once, still going half-speed.
my glasses I saw the slope of a hill interspersed with rare trees and
perfectly free from undergrowth. A
long decaying building on the summit was half buried in the high grass; the
large holes in the peaked roof gaped black from afar; the jungle and the
woods made a background. There
was no enclosure or fence of any kind; but there had been one apparently,
for near the house half-a-dozen slim posts remained in a row, roughly
trimmed, and with their upper ends ornamented with round carved balls. The
rails, or whatever there had been between, had disappeared. Of course the
forest surrounded all that. The
river-bank was clear, and on the waterside I saw a white man under a hat
like a cart-wheel beckoning persistently with his whole arm. Examining the
edge of the forest above and below, I was almost certain I could see
movements--human forms gliding here and there. I steamed past prudently,
then stopped the engines and let her drift down. The man on the shore began
to shout, urging us to land. `We have been attacked,' screamed the manager.
`I know--I know. It's all right,' yelled back the other, as cheerful
as you please. `Come along. It's
all right. I am glad.'
aspect reminded me of something I had seen--something funny I had seen
somewhere. As I manoeuvred to
get alongside, I was asking myself, `What does this fellow look like?'
Suddenly I got it. He looked
like a harlequin. His clothes had been made of some stuff that was brown
holland probably, but it was covered with patches all over, with bright
patches, blue, red, and yellow--patches on the back, patches on the front,
patches on elbows, on knees; coloured binding around his jacket, scarlet
edging at the bottom of his trousers; and the sunshine made him look
extremely gay and wonderfully neat withal, because you could see how
beautifully all this patching had been done.
A beardless, boyish face, very fair, no features to speak of, nose
peeling, little blue eyes, smiles and frowns chasing each other over that
open countenance like sunshine and shadow on a wind-swept plain. `Look out,
captain!' he cried; `there's a snag lodged in here last night.'
What! Another snag? I confess I swore shamefully. I had nearly holed my cripple,
to finish off that charming trip. The harlequin on the bank turned his
little pug-nose up to me. `You English?' he asked, all smiles.
`Are you?' I shouted
from the wheel. The smiles
vanished, and he shook his head as if sorry for my disappointment.
Then he brightened up. `Never mind!' he cried encouragingly.
`Are we in time?' I asked. `He
is up there,' he replied, with a toss of the head up the hill, and becoming
gloomy all of a sudden. His face was like the autumn sky, overcast one
moment and bright the next.
the manager, escorted by the pilgrims, all of them armed to the teeth, had
gone to the house this chap came on board. `I say, I don't like this.
These natives are in the bush,' I said.
He assured me earnestly it was all right. `They are simple people,'
he added; `well, I am glad you came. It took me all my time to keep them
off.' `But you said it was all
right,' I cried. `Oh, they
meant no harm,' he said; and as I stared he corrected himself, `Not
exactly.' Then vivaciously, `My faith, your pilot-house wants a clean-up!'
In the next breath he advised me to keep enough steam on the boiler to blow
the whistle in case of any trouble. `One good screech will do more for you
than all your rifles. They are simple people,' he repeated. He rattled away at such a rate he quite overwhelmed me.
He seemed to be trying to make up for lots of silence, and actually
hinted, laughing, that such was the case.
`Don't you talk with Mr. Kurtz?'
I said. `You don't talk with that man--you listen to him,' he
exclaimed with severe exaltation. `But now--' He waved his arm, and in the twinkling of an eye
was in the uttermost depths of despondency. In a moment he came up again
with a jump, possessed himself of both my hands, shook them continuously,
while he gabbled: `Brother sailor . . . honour . . . pleasure . . . delight
. . . introduce myself . . . Russian . . . son of an arch-priest . . .
Government of Tambov . . . What? Tobacco!
English tobacco; the excellent English tobacco!
Now, that's brotherly. Smoke?
Where's a sailor that does not smoke?"
pipe soothed him, and gradually I made out he had run away from school, had
gone to sea in a Russian ship; ran away again; served some time in English
ships; was now reconciled with the arch-priest. He made a point of that.
`But when one is young one must see things, gather experience, ideas;
enlarge the mind.' `Here!' I
interrupted. `You can never
tell! Here I met Mr. Kurtz,' he said, youthfully solemn and reproachful. I
held my tongue after that. It
appears he had persuaded a Dutch trading-house on the coast to fit him out
with stores and goods, and had started for the interior with a light heart
and no more idea of what would happen to him than a baby. He had been
wandering about that river for nearly two years alone, cut off from
everybody and everything. `I am not so young as I look.
I am twenty-five,' he said. `At first old Van Shuyten would tell me
to go to the devil,' he narrated with keen enjoyment; `but I stuck to him,
and talked and talked, till at last he got afraid I would talk the hind-leg
off his favourite dog, so he gave me some cheap things and a few guns, and
told me he hoped he would never see my face again.
Good old Dutchman, Van Shuyten. I've sent him one small lot of ivory
a year ago, so that he can't call me a little thief when I get back.
I hope he got it. And for the rest I don't care.
I had some wood stacked for you. That was my old house.
Did you see?'
gave him Towson's book. He made
as though he would kiss me, but restrained himself. `The only book I had left, and I thought I had lost it,' he
said, looking at it ecstatically. `So many accidents happen to a man going
about alone, you know. Canoes get upset sometimes--and sometimes you've got
to clear out so quick when the people get angry.' He thumbed the pages.
`You made notes in Russian?' I
asked. He nodded. `I thought
they were written in cipher,' I said. He laughed, then became serious.
`I had lots of trouble to keep these people off,' he said.
`Did they want to kill you?' I asked.
`Oh, no!' he cried, and checked himself. `Why did they attack us?'
I pursued. He hesitated,
then said shamefacedly, `They don't want him to go.'
`Don't they?' I said curiously.
He nodded a nod full of mystery and wisdom. `I tell you,' he cried,
`this man has enlarged my mind.' He opened his arms wide, staring at me with
his little blue eyes that were perfectly round."
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