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.
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.
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.
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 others yarnsand even convictions.
The Lawyerthe best of old fellowshad, 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.
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.
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 seawith
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 untitledthe 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 Queens Highness and thus
pass out of the gigantic tale, to the EREBUS and TERROR, bound on other conquestsand
that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from
Deptford, from Greenwich, from Eriththe 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.
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 fairwaya 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.
this also, said Marlow suddenly, has been one of the dark places
of the earth.
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 themthe ship; and so is their countrythe
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.
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
was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen
hundred years agothe other day. . . . Light came out of this river sinceyou
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 flickermay it last as long
as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the
feelings of a commander of a finewhat dye 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 legionariesa
wonderful lot of handy men they must have been, tooused to build, apparently
by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine
him herethe 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 concertinaand
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 haycold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and deathdeath skulking
in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies
here. Oh, yeshe 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 togaperhaps too
much dice, you knowcoming 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 himall that mysterious life of the wilderness that
stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. Theres
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 abominationyou
know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust,
the surrender, the hate.
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-flowerMind, none of us would
feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiencythe 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 forcenothing 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 blindas 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 ideasomething
you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . .
broke off. Flames glided in the river, small green flames, red flames, white
flames, pursuing, overtaking, joining, crossing each otherthen separating
slowly or hastily. The traffic of the great city went on in the deepening
night upon the sleepless river. We looked on, waiting patientlythere
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 Marlows
dont 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 meand into my thoughts. It was sombre enough, tooand
pitifulnot extraordinary in any waynot very clear either. No,
not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light.
had then, as you remember, just returned to London after a lot of Indian Ocean,
Pacific, China Seasa regular dose of the Eastsix 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 shipI should think the hardest work on earth.
But the ships wouldnt even look at me. And I got tired of that game,
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 havent
been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamours off. Other places
were scattered about the hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and . .
. well, we wont talk about that. But there was one yetthe biggest,
the most blank, so to speakthat I had a hankering after.
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 mysterya 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 birda
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 cant trade
without using some kind of craft on that lot of fresh watersteamboats!
Why shouldnt 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.
understand it was a Continental concern, that Trading society; but I have
a lot of relations living on the Continent, because its cheap and not
so nasty as it looks, they say.
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 wouldnt have
believed it of myself; but, thenyou seeI felt somehow I must get
there by hook or by crook. So I worried them. The men said My dear fellow,
and did nothing. Thenwould you believe it?I tried the women. I,
Charlie Marlow, set the women to workto 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.
got my appointmentof 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. Fresleventhat
was the fellows name, a Danethought himself wronged somehow in
the bargain, so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village
with a stick. Oh, it didnt 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 manI was told the
chiefs sonin desperation at hearing the old chap yell, made a
tentative jab with a spear at the white manand 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 Freslevens remains, till I got out and stepped into
his shoes. I couldnt 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 dont 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
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 Companys 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.
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 mestill knitting with down-cast eyesand
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 redgood 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 wasnt going into any of these. I was going into the yellow.
Dead in the centre. And the river was therefascinatingdeadlylike
a snake. Ough! A door opened, a 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
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.
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 conspiracyI dont knowsomething
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 againnot half, by a long way.
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 supposethere
must have been clerks in the business, though the house was as still as a
house in a city of the deadcame 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 Companys 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.
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 bea 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 wouldnt
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
thing more remained to dosay good-bye to my excellent aunt. I found
her triumphant. I had a cup of teathe last decent cup of tea for many
daysand in a room that most soothingly looked just as you would expect
a ladys 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 creaturea
piece of good fortune for the Companya man you dont 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 capitalyou 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.
forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire, she said,
brightly. Its 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.
this I got embraced, told to wear flannel, be sure to write often, and so
onand I left. In the streetI dont know whya 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 momentI
wont 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.
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 yousmiling,
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 soldiersto 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 placestrading placeswith
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 masksthese 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 wasnt 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 screechand 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 nativeshe
called them enemies!hidden out of sight somewhere.
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.
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.
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 chapsare 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. Dont 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 Gods
name? I cried. He kept on looking out watchfully. Who knows? The
sun too much for him, or the country perhaps.
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. Theres your Companys 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.
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.
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.
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; Ive had to strike and to fend off. Ive had to resist and
to attack sometimesthats only one way of resistingwithout
counting the exact cost, according to the demands of such sort of life as
I had blundered into. Ive 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 menmen, 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.
avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the
purpose of which I found it impossible to divine. It wasnt 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 dont 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 wasnt
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 soundas though the tearing pace of the
launched earth had suddenly become audible.
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.
were dying slowlyit was very clear. They were not enemies, they were
not criminals, they were nothing earthly nownothing 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 airand 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 youngalmost a boybut
you know with them its hard to tell. I found nothing else to do but
to offer him one of my good Swedes ships biscuits I had in my
pocket. The fingers closed slowly on it and heldthere was no other movement
and no other glance. He had tied a bit of white worsted round his neckWhy?
Where did he get it? Was it a badgean ornamenta charma 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.
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.
didnt 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.
shook hands with this miracle, and I learned he was the Companys 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 wouldnt 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 hairdressers dummy; but in the great demoralization
of the land he kept up his appearance. Thats 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, Ive
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
else in the station was in a muddleheads, 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.
had to wait in the station for ten daysan eternity. I lived in a hut
in the yard, but to be out of the chaos I would sometimes get into the accountants
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
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.
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 savageshate them to the death.
He remained thoughtful for a moment. When you see Mr. Kurtz he
went on, tell him from me that everything herehe glanced
at the deckis very satisfactory. I dont like to write to
himwith those messengers of ours you never know who may get hold of
your letterat 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, abovethe Council in Europe, you knowmean him to be.
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.
day I left that station at last, with a caravan of sixty men, for a two-hundred-mile
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. Theres 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
wildand 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 festivenot to say drunk. Was looking after the upkeep
of the road, he declared. Cant 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 mans head while
he is coming to. I couldnt 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 nightquite
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 bushman, hammock, groans, blankets,
horrors. The heavy pole had skinned his poor nose. He was very anxious for
me to kill somebody, but there wasnt the shadow of a carrier near. I
remembered the old doctorIt 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!
did not see the real significance of that wreck at once. I fancy I see it
now, but I am not surenot at all. Certainly the affair was too stupidwhen
I think of itto 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.
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 stealthya smilenot a smileI remember
it, but I cant 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 partsnothing more. He was
obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired
uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrustjust uneasinessnothing
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 himwhy? 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
scalepompously. Jack ashorewith a differencein externals
only. This one could gather from his casual talk. He originated nothing, he
could keep the routine goingthats 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 pausefor 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 thingsbut 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 stations mess-room. Where he sat was the first
placethe rest were nowhere. One felt this to be his unalterable conviction.
He was neither civil nor uncivil. He was quiet. He allowed his boyan
overfed young negro from the coastto treat the white men, under his
very eyes, with provoking insolence.
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 onand 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 havent
even seen the wreck yetsome 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
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! Ive
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.
these months! Well, never mind. Various things happened. One evening a grass
shed full of calico, cotton prints, beads, and I dont 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.
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 everythingand 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 outand 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 ad-vantage of this unfortunate accident. One of
the men was the manager. I wished him a good evening. Did you ever see
anything like iteh? 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 managers
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.
business intrusted to this fellow was the making of bricksso I had been
informed; but there wasnt a fragment of a brick anywhere in the station,
and he had been there more than a yearwaiting. It seems he could not
make bricks without something, I dont know whatstraw 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 waitingall the sixteen or twenty pilgrims
of themfor something; and upon my word it did not seem an un-congenial
occupation, from the way they took it, though the only thing that ever came
to them was diseaseas 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 elseas 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 accountbut
as to effectually lifting a little fingeroh, 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
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 somethingin
fact, pumping me. He alluded constantly to Europe, to the people I
was supposed to know thereputting leading questions as to my acquaintances
in the sepulchral city, and so on. His little eyes glittered like mica
discswith curiositythough 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 couldnt 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 sombrealmost black.
The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight
on the face was sinister.
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 thisin this very station more than a year agowhile
waiting for means to go to his trading post. Tell me, pray, said
I, who is this Mr. Kurtz?
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. To-day 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 gangthe gang of virtue. The same people who sent him specially
also recommended you. Oh, dont say no. Ive my own eyes to trust.
Light dawned upon me. My dear aunts influential acquaintances were producing
an unexpected effect upon that young man. I nearly burst into a laugh. Do
you read the Companys confidential correspondence? I asked. He
hadnt a word to say. It was great fun. When Mr. Kurtz, I
continued, severely, is General Manager, you wont have the opportunity.
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. Transgressionpunishmentbang! Pitiless, pitiless.
Thats 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; its so natural.
Ha! Dangeragitation. He vanished. I went on to the river-side,
and the other followed me. I heard a scathing murmur at my ear, Heap
of muffsgo 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 ones very heartits 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 dont want to be misunderstood, and especially by
you, who will see Mr. Kurtz long before I can have that pleasure. I wouldnt
like him to get a false idea of my disposition. . . .
let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that
if I tried I could poke my fore-finger through him, and would find nothing
inside but a little loose dirt, maybe. He, dont 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 silverover 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
couldnt 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, tooGod knows! Yet somehow it didnt
bring any image with itno 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 wouldthough a man of sixtyoffer 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 cant 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 lieswhich is exactly
what I hate and detest in the worldwhat 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 seeyou 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 a dreammaking 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. . . .
was silent for a while.
. . . No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation
of any given epoch of ones existencethat which makes its
truth, its meaningits subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible.
We live, as we dreamalone. . . .
paused again as if reflecting, then added:
course in this you fellows see more than I could then. You see me, whom you
know. . . .
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.
. . . YesI 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 toolsintelligent
men. He did not make brickswhy, there was a physical impossibility
in the wayas 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
workto stop the hole. Rivets I wanted. There were cases of them down
at the coastcasespiled upburstsplit! 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 downand there wasnt 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 goodsghastly 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.
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 rivetsand 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 wayfor 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 wasnt 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 manyou 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 bitto find out what I could
do. No, I dont like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the
fine things that can be done. I dont like workno man doesbut
I like what is in the workthe chance to find yourself. Your own realityfor
yourself, not for otherswhat no other man can ever know. They can only
see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.
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 despisedon account
of their imperfect manners, I suppose. This was the foremana boiler-maker
by tradea 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
slapped him on the back and shouted, We shall have rivets! He
scrambled to his feet exclaiming, No! Rivets! as though he couldnt
believe his ears. Then in a low voice, You . . . eh? I dont
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 managers 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
shouldnt we get the rivets? Why not, indeed! I did not know of
any reason why we shouldnt. Theyll come in three weeks,
I said confidently.
they didnt. 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 court-yard, 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.
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 was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity,
and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of fore-sight 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 dont know; but the uncle of our manager was leader of that
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.
had given up worrying myself about the rivets. Ones 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 wasnt 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.
evening as I was lying flat on the deck of my steamboat, I heard voices approachingand
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 dont
like to be dictated to. Am I the manageror am I not? I was ordered to
send him there. Its 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 weatherone
manthe Councilby the nosebits 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 dont
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 itprime
sortlotsmost 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, on relief, on
thoughts of homeperhaps; 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 illhad recovered imperfectly. . . . The two below me moved
away then a few paces, and strolled back and forth at some little distance.
I heard: Military postdoctortwo hundred milesquite
alone nowunavoidable delaysnine monthsno newsstrange
rumours. They approached again, just as the manager was saying, No
one, as far as I know, unless a species of wandering tradera 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
Kurtzs 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? Anythinganything can be done in this country. Thats
what I say; nobody here, you understand, HERE, can endanger your position.
And why? You stand the climateyou 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
youthat ass! And he wants to be manager! No, its Here
he got choked by excessive indignation, and I lifted my head the least
bit. I was surprised to see how near they wereright 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 charmlike
a charm. But the restoh, my goodness! All sick. They die so quick, too,
that I havent the time to send them out of the countryits
incredible! Hmm. Just so, grunted the uncle. Ah!
my boy, trust to thisI 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 riverseemed 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 togetherout of sheer fright, I believethen 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 Kurtzs
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 water-way ran on, deserted, into the gloom of over-shadowed
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 oncesomewherefar
awayin another existence perhaps. There were moments when ones
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 days steaming. When you have to attend to things of that sort,
to the mere incidents of the surface, the realitythe reality, I tell
youfades. The inner truth is hiddenluckily, 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
forwhat 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 didnt do badly either, since I managed not to
sink that steamboat on my first trip. Its 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 thats supposed to float all the time
under his care is the unpardonable sin. No one may know of it, but you never
forget the thumpeh? A blow on the very heart. You remember it, you dream
of it, you wake up at night and think of ityears afterand go hot
and cold all over. I dont 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 fellowscannibalsin 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 stavesall 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 strangehad the appearance of being
held there captive by a spell. The word ivory would ring in the air for a
whileand 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 onwhich
was just what you wanted it to do. Where the pilgrims imagined it crawled
to I dont know. To some place where they expected to get something.
I bet! For me it crawled towards Kurtzexclusively; 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. We 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 pre-historic man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming uswho
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
signand no memories.
earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled
form of a conquered monster, but therethere you could look at a thing
monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men wereNo, they were
not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of itthis 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 humanitylike yoursthe 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 was 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 youyou
so remote from the night of first agescould comprehend. And why not?
The mind of man is capable of anythingbecause everything is in it, all
the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow,
devotion, valour, ragewho can tell?but truthtruth stripped
of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudderthe 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 stuffwith
his own in-born strength. Principles wont do. Acquisitions, clothes,
pretty ragsrags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you
want a deliberate belief. An appeal to me in this fiendish rowis 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. Whos that grunting? You
wonder I didnt go ashore for a howl and a dance? Well, noI didnt.
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-pipesI 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 intrepidityand 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 thisthat 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 silenceand 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 illegiblenot Kurtza 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
whatand 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 tablea 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,
Towsonsome such nameMaster in his Majestys 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 couldnt 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
itand making notesin cipher at that! It was an extravagant
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.
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 meddling.
the evening of the second day we judged ourselves about eight miles from Kurtzs
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 daylightnot 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 sleepit 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 deafthen 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 itall perfectly stilland 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 dont 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 pilgrimsa 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 herand 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 fellowships sake. Catch im,
he snapped, with a bloodshot widening of his eyes and a flash of sharp teethcatch
’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 dont
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 timehad
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 didnt enter anybodys head
to trouble how they would live. Certainly they had brought with them some
rotten hippo-meat, which couldnt have lasted very long, anyway, even
if the pilgrims hadnt, in the midst of a shocking hullabaloo, thrown
a considerable quantity of it over-board. It looked like a high-handed proceeding;
but it was really a case of legitimate self-defence. You cant
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, didnt 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
dont 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 eatthough it didnt look
eatable in the leastI 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 didnt go for
usthey were thirty to fiveand 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 interestnot
because it occurred to me I might be eaten by them before very long, though
I own to you that just then I perceivedin a new light, as it werehow
unwholesome the pilgrims looked, and I hoped, yes, I positively hoped, that
my aspect was not sowhat shall I say?sounappetizing: 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 cant
live with ones finger everlastingly on ones pulse. I had often
a little fever, or a little touch of other thingsthe 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, fearor 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. Dont 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. Its
really easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition
of ones soulthan 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 methe
fact dazzling, to be seen, like the foam on the depths of the sea, like a
ripple on an unfathomable enigma, a mystery greaterwhen
I thought of itthan 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 managers 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 airin
space. We wouldnt be able to tell where we were going towhether
up or down stream, or acrosstill we fetched against one bank
or the otherand then we wouldnt know at first which it was. Of
course I made no move. I had no mind for a smash-up. You couldnt 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.
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 impenetrableand 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 reachcertainly not abreast
of the steamer. But what made the idea of attack inconceivable to me
was the nature of the noiseof 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 violencebut 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 madwith 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, toochoking, 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 aggressiveit was not even defensive, in the usual
sense: it was undertaken under the stress of desperation, and in its essence
was purely protective.
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 Kurtzs
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 only 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 mans
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 didnt
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 upvery slowly, as you may imagine. I sheered
her well inshorethe water being deepest near the bank, as the sounding-pole
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. Over 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 aboutthick:
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 quietperfectly
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 land-side. 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 eyesthe
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 couldnt 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 wouldnt 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 bankright 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 sharplythen
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 inconceivably 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 couldnt 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 toa talk with Kurtz. I made
the strange discovery that I had never imagined him as doing, you know, but
as discoursing. I didnt 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. Hadnt 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 wordsthe 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! its all over. We are too late; he has vanishedthe gift has
vanished, by means of some spear, arrow, or club. I will never hear that chap
speak after alland 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 couldnt 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! mustnt
a man everHere, give me some tobacco. . . .
was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlows
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.
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
normalyou hearnormal from years end to years end.
And you say, Absurd! Absurd beexploded! 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 heardhimitthis voiceother
voicesall of them were so little more than voicesand 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, voiceseven the girl
was silent for a long time.
laid the ghost of his gifts at last with a lie,he began, suddenly. Girl!
What? Did I mention a girl? Oh, she is out of itcompletely. Theythe
women, I meanare out of itshould 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 thisahspecimen,
was impressively bald. The wilderness had patted him on the head, and, behold,
it was like a ballan ivory ball; it had caressed him, andlo!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 sometimesbut evidently they couldnt 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 himbut
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 impossibleit was not good for one eithertrying
to imagine. He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the landI
mean literally. You cant 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 asylumshow
can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a mans untrammelled
feet may take him into by the way of solitudeutter solitude without
a policemanby the way of silenceutter 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 wrongtoo 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 devilI dont 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 placeand whether to be like this is your loss or
your gain I wont 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, dont you see? Your strength
comes in, the faith in your ability for the digging of unostentatious holes
to bury the stuff inyour power of devotion, not to yourself, but to
an obscure, back-breaking business. And thats difficult enough.
Mind, I am not trying to excuse or even explainI am trying to account
to myself forforMr. Kurtzfor 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, andas
he was good enough to say himselfhis 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. Ive seen it. Ive 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 hislet
us saynerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight
dances ending with unspeakable rites, whichas far as I reluctantly gathered
from what I heard at various timeswere offered up to himdo 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 beingswe 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 eloquenceof
wordsof 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. Ive 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 cant choose.
He wont 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 cant 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 awfullyI 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, dont you see, he had done something, he had steered;
for months I had him at my backa helpan instrument. It was a kind
of partnership. He steered for meI 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 memorylike a claim of distant kinship affirmed in
a supreme moment.
fool! If he had only left that shutter alone. He had no restraint, no restraintjust
like Kurtza 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 cant 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 reasonthough 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 burntand so onand 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 cant 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 maintainedand I was rightwas 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. Whats 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 under-growth. 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 movementshuman 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 knowI know. Its all right, yelled back
the other, as cheerful as you please. Come along. Its all right.
I am glad.
aspect reminded me of something I had seensomething 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
yellowpatches 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 sun-shine 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; theres 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 dont 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.
Dont you talk with Mr. Kurtz? I said. You dont
talk with that manyou listen to him, he exclaimed with severe
exaltation. But now He waved his arm, and in the
twinkling of an eye was in the utter-most 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, thats brotherly. Smoke?
Wheres 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. Ive sent him one small lot of
ivory a year ago, so that he cant call me a little thief when I get
back. I hope he got it. And for the rest I dont care. I had some wood
stacked for you. That was my old house. Did you see?
gave him Towsons 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 sometimesand
sometimes youve 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 dont want him to go.
Dont 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.
looked at him, lost in astonishment. There he was before me, in motley,
as though he had absconded from a troupe of mimes, enthusiastic, fabulous.
His very existence was improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering.
He was an insoluble problem. It was inconceivable how he had
existed, how he had succeeded in getting so far, how he had managed to remainwhy
he did not instantly disappear. I went a little farther, he said,
then still a little farthertill I had gone so far that
I dont know how Ill ever get back. Never mind. Plenty time. I
can manage. You take Kurtz away quickquickI tell you. The
glamour of youth enveloped his parti-coloured rags, his destitution,
his loneliness, the essential desolation of his futile wanderings.
For monthsfor yearshis life hadnt been worth a days
purchase; and there he was gallantly, thoughtlessly alive, to all appearances
indestructible solely by the virtue of his few years and of his unreflecting
audacity. I was seduced into something like admirationlike
envy. Glamour urged him on, glamour kept him unscathed. He surely wanted nothing
from the wilderness but space to breathe in and to push on through. His need
was to exist, and to move onwards at the greatest possible risk, and with
a maximum of privation. If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical
spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it ruled this bepatched
youth. I almost envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame.
It seemed to have consumed all thought of self so completely, that even while
he was talking to you, you forgot that it was hethe man before your
eyeswho had gone through these things. I did not envy him his devotion
to Kurtz, though. He had not meditated over it. It came to him, and he accepted
it with a sort of eager fatalism. I must say that to me it appeared
about the most dangerous thing in every way he had come upon so far.
had come together unavoidably, like two ships becalmed near each other,
and lay rubbing sides at last. I suppose Kurtz wanted an audience, because
on a certain occasion, when encamped in the forest, they had talked all night,
or more probably Kurtz had talked. We talked of everything, he
said, quite transported at the recollection. I forgot there was such
a thing as sleep. The night did not seem to last an hour. Everything! Everything!
. . . Of love, too. Ah, he talked to you of love! I said,
much amused. It isnt what you think, he cried, almost passionately.
It was in general. He made me see thingsthings.
threw his arms up. We were on deck at the time, and the headman of my wood-cutters,
lounging near by, turned upon him his heavy and glittering eyes. I
looked around, and I dont know why, but I assure you that never, never
before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing
sky, appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human
thought, so pitiless to human weakness. And, ever since, you have been
with him, of course? I said.
the contrary. It appears their intercourse had been very much broken
by various causes. He had, as he informed me proudly, managed to nurse Kurtz
through two illnesses (he alluded to it as you would to some risky
feat), but as a rule Kurtz wandered alone, far in the depths of the forest.
Very often coming to this station, I had to wait days and days before
he would turn up, he said. Ah, it was worth waiting for!sometimes.
What was he doing? exploring or what? I asked. Oh, yes,
of course; he had discovered lots of villages, a lake, toohe did
not know exactly in what direction; it was dangerous to inquire too muchbut
mostly his expeditions had been for ivory. But he had no goods to trade
with by that time, I objected. Theres a good lot of cartridges
left even yet, he answered, looking away. To speak plainly, he
raided the country, I said. He nodded. Not alone, surely!
He muttered something about the villages round that lake. Kurtz got
the tribe to follow him, did he? I suggested. He fidgeted a little.
They adored him, he said. The tone of these words was so extraordinary
that I looked at him searchingly. It was curious to see his mingled eagerness
and reluctance to speak of Kurtz. The man filled his life, occupied his thoughts,
swayed his emotions. What can you expect? he burst out; he
came to them with thunder and lightning, you knowand they had never
seen anything like itand very terrible. He could be very terrible. You
cant judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man. No, no, no! Nowjust
to give you an ideaI dont mind telling you, he wanted to shoot
me, too, one daybut I dont judge him. Shoot you!
I cried What for? Well, I had a small lot of ivory the chief
of that village near my house gave me. You see I used to shoot game for them.
Well, he wanted it, and wouldnt hear reason. He declared he would shoot
me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because
he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to
prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased. And it was true, too. I gave
him the ivory. What did I care! But I didnt clear out. No, no. I couldnt
leave him. I had to be careful, of course, till we got friendly again
for a time. He had his second illness then. Afterwards I had to keep out of
the way; but I didnt mind. He was living for the most part in those
villages on the lake. When he came down to the river, sometimes he would take
to me, and sometimes it was better for me to be careful. This man suffered
too much. He hated all this, and somehow he couldnt get away. When I
had a chance I begged him to try and leave while there was time; I offered
to go back with him. And he would say yes, and then he would remain; go off
on another ivory hunt; disappear for weeks; forget himself amongst these peopleforget
himselfyou know. Why! hes mad, I said. He protested
indignantly. Mr. Kurtz couldnt be mad. If I had heard him talk,
only two days ago, I wouldnt dare hint at such a thing. . . . I had
taken up my binoculars while we talked, and was looking at the shore, sweeping
the limit of the forest at each side and at the back of the house. The consciousness
of there being people in that bush, so silent, so quietas silent and
quiet as the ruined house on the hillmade me uneasy. There was no sign
on the face of nature of this amazing tale that was not so much told as suggested
to me in desolate exclamations, completed by shrugs, in interrupted
phrases, in hints ending in deep sighs. The woods were unmoved, like a maskheavy,
like the closed door of a prisonthey looked with their air of hidden
knowledge, of patient expectation, of unapproachable silence. The Russian
was explaining to me that it was only lately that Mr. Kurtz had come down
to the river, bringing along with him all the fighting men of that lake tribe.
He had been absent for several monthsgetting himself adored, I supposeand
had come down unexpectedly, with the intention to all appearance of making
a raid either across the river or down stream. Evidently the appetite for
more ivory had got the better of thewhat shall I say?less material
aspirations. However he had got much worse suddenly. I heard
he was lying helpless, and so I came uptook my chance, said the
Russian. Oh, he is bad, very bad. I directed my glass to the house.
There were no signs of life, but there was the ruined roof, the long mud wall
peeping above the grass, with three little square window-holes, no two of
the same size; all this brought within reach of my hand, as it were. And then
I made a brusque movement, and one of the remaining posts of that vanished
fence leaped up in the field of my glass. You remember I told you I had been
struck at the distance by certain attempts at ornamentation, rather remarkable
in the ruinous aspect of the place. Now I had suddenly a nearer view, and
its first result was to make me throw my head back as if before a blow. Then
I went carefully from post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake. These
round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling,
striking and disturbingfood for thought and also for vultures if there
had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as
were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more
impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned
to the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. I was
not so shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really nothing
but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you
know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seenand there it was,
black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelidsa head that seemed to sleep
at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow
white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless
and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.
am not disclosing any trade secrets. In fact, the manager said afterwards
that Mr. Kurtzs methods had ruined the district. I have no opinion on
that point, but I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly
profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked
restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was
something wanting in himsome small matter which, when the pressing need
arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether
he knew of this deficiency himself I cant say. I think the knowledge
came to him at lastonly at the very last. But the wilderness had found
him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic
invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did
not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel
with this great solitudeand the whisper had proved irresistibly
fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.
. . . I put down the glass, and the head that had appeared near enough to
be spoken to seemed at once to have leaped away from me into inaccessible
admirer of Mr. Kurtz was a bit crestfallen. In a hurried, indistinct
voice he began to assure me he had not dared to take thesesay, symbolsdown.
He was not afraid of the natives; they would not stir till Mr. Kurtz
gave the word. His ascendancy was extraordinary. The camps of these
people surrounded the place, and the chiefs came every day to see him. They
would crawl. . . . I dont want to know anything of the ceremonies
used when approaching Mr. Kurtz, I shouted. Curious, this feeling that
came over me that such details would be more intolerable than those
heads drying on the stakes under Mr. Kurtzs windows. After all, that
was only a savage sight, while I seemed at one bound to have been transported
into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated
savagery was a positive relief, being something that had a right to existobviouslyin
the sunshine. The young man looked at me with surprise. I suppose it did not
occur to him that Mr. Kurtz was no idol of mine. He forgot I hadnt heard
any of these splendid monologues on, what was it? on love, justice,
conduct of lifeor what not. If it had come to crawling before Mr. Kurtz,
he crawled as much as the veriest savage of them all. I had no idea of the
conditions, he said: these heads were the heads of rebels. I shocked him excessively
by laughing. Rebels! What would be the next definition I was to hear? There
had been enemies, criminals, workersand these were rebels. Those rebellious
heads looked very subdued to me on their sticks. You dont
know how such a life tries a man like Kurtz, cried Kurtzs last
disciple. Well, and you? I said. I! I! I am a simple
man. I have no great thoughts. I want nothing from anybody. How can you compare
me to . . . ? His feelings were too much for speech, and suddenly he
broke down. I dont understand, he groaned. Ive
been doing my best to keep him alive, and thats enough. I had no hand
in all this. I have no abilities. There hasnt been a drop of medicine
or a mouthful of invalid food for months here. He was shamefully abandoned.
A man like this, with such ideas. Shamefully! Shamefully! IIhavent
slept for the last ten nights . . .
voice lost itself in the calm of the evening. The long shadows of the forest
had slipped downhill while we talked, had gone far beyond the ruined hovel,
beyond the symbolic row of stakes. All this was in the gloom, while we down
there were yet in the sunshine, and the stretch of the river abreast
of the clearing glittered in a still and dazzling splendour, with a murky
and overshadowed bend above and below. Not a living soul was seen on the shore.
The bushes did not rustle.
round the corner of the house a group of men appeared, as though they had
come up from the ground. They waded waist-deep in the grass, in a compact
body, bearing an improvised stretcher in their midst. Instantly, in
the emptiness of the landscape, a cry arose whose shrillness pierced the still
air like a sharp arrow flying straight to the very heart of the land; and,
as if by enchantment, streams of human beingsof naked human beingswith
spears in their hands, with bows, with shields, with wild glances and savage
movements, were poured into the clearing by the dark-faced and pensive
forest. The bushes shook, the grass swayed for a time, and then everything
stood still in attentive immobility.
if he does not say the right thing to them we are all done for, said
the Russian at my elbow. The knot of men with the stretcher had stopped, too,
halfway to the steamer, as if petrified. I saw the man on the stretcher
sit up, lank and with an uplifted arm, above the shoulders of the bearers.
Let us hope that the man who can talk so well of love in general will
find some particular reason to spare us this time, I said. I resented
bitterly the absurd danger of our situation, as if to be at the mercy of that
atrocious phantom had been a dishonouring necessity. I could not hear
a sound, but through my glasses I saw the thin arm extended commandingly,
the lower jaw moving, the eyes of that apparition shining darkly far
in its bony head that nodded with grotesque jerks. KurtzKurtzthat
means short in Germandont it? Well, the name was as true as everything
else in his lifeand death. He looked at least seven feet long. His covering
had fallen off, and his body emerged from it pitiful and appalling
as from a winding-sheet. I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones
of his arm waving. It was as though an animated image of death carved
out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless
crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze. I saw him open his mouth
wideit gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had
wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him. A deep
voice reached me faintly. He must have been shouting. He fell back suddenly.
The stretcher shook as the bearers staggered forward again, and almost at
the same time I noticed that the crowd of savages was vanishing without any
perceptible movement of retreat, as if the forest that had ejected
these beings so suddenly had drawn them in again as the breath is drawn in
a long aspiration.
of the pilgrims behind the stretcher carried his armstwo shot-guns,
a heavy rifle, and a light revolver-carbinethe thunderbolts of
that pitiful Jupiter. The manager bent over him murmuring as he walked beside
his head. They laid him down in one of the little cabinsjust a room
for a bed place and a camp-stool or two, you know. We had brought his belated
correspondence, and a lot of torn envelopes and open letters littered his
bed. His hand roamed feebly amongst these papers. I was struck by the fire
of his eyes and the composed languor of his expression. It was not
so much the exhaustion of disease. He did not seem in pain. This shadow looked
satiated and calm, as though for the moment it had had its fill of
all the emotions.
rustled one of the letters, and looking straight in my face said, I
am glad. Somebody had been writing to him about me. These special recommendations
were turning up again. The volume of tone he emitted without effort, almost
without the trouble of moving his lips, amazed me. A voice! a voice! It was
grave, profound, vibrating, while the man did not seem capable of a
whisper. However, he had enough strength in himfactitious no doubtto
very nearly make an end of us, as you shall hear directly.
manager appeared silently in the doorway; I stepped out at once and he drew
the curtain after me. The Russian, eyed curiously by the pilgrims, was staring
at the shore. I followed the direction of his glance.
human shapes could be made out in the distance, flitting indistinctly
against the gloomy border of the forest, and near the river two bronze figures,
leaning on tall spears, stood in the sunlight under fantastic head-dresses
of spotted skins, warlike and still in statuesque repose. And
from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition
of a woman.
walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading
the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments.
She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she
had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the
elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of
glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witch-men, that
hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the
value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed
and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in
her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the
whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of
the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive,
as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate
came abreast of the steamer, stood still, and faced us. Her long shadow
fell to the waters edge. Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of
wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped
resolve. She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness
itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose.
A whole minute passed, and then she made a step forward. There was a low jingle,
a glint of yellow metal, a sway of fringed draperies, and she stopped as if
her heart had failed her. The young fellow by my side growled. The pilgrims
murmured at my back. She looked at us all as if her life had depended upon
the unswerving steadiness of her glance. Suddenly she opened her bared
arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable
desire to touch the sky, and at the same time the swift shadows darted out
on the earth, swept around on the river, gathering the steamer into a shadowy
embrace. A formidable silence hung over the scene.
turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes
to the left. Once only her eyes gleamed back at us in the dusk of the thickets
before she disappeared.
she had offered to come aboard I really think I would have tried to shoot
her, said the man of patches, nervously. I have been risking my
life every day for the last fortnight to keep her out of the house. She got
in one day and kicked up a row about those miserable rags I picked up in the
storeroom to mend my clothes with. I wasnt decent. At least it must
have been that, for she talked like a fury to Kurtz for an hour, pointing
at me now and then. I dont understand the dialect of this tribe. Luckily
for me, I fancy Kurtz felt too ill that day to care, or there would have been
mischief. I dont understand. . . . Noits too much for me.
Ah, well, its all over now.
this moment I heard Kurtzs deep voice behind the curtain: Save
me!save the ivory, you mean. Dont tell me. Save ME! Why, Ive
had to save you. You are interrupting my plans now. Sick! Sick! Not so sick
as you would like to believe. Never mind. Ill carry my ideas out yetI
will return. Ill show you what can be done. You with your little peddling
notionsyou are interfering with me. I will return. I. . . .
manager came out. He did me the honour to take me under the arm and lead me
aside. He is very low, very low, he said. He considered it necessary
to sigh, but neglected to be consistently sorrowful. We have done all
we could for himhavent we? But there is no disguising the fact,
Mr. Kurtz has done more harm than good to the Company. He did not see the
time was not ripe for vigorous action. Cautiously, cautiouslythats
my principle. We must be cautious yet. The district is closed to us for a
time. Deplorable! Upon the whole, the trade will suffer. I dont
deny there is a remarkable quantity of ivorymostly fossil. We must save
it, at all eventsbut look how precarious the position isand
why? Because the method is unsound. Do you, said I, looking
at the shore, call it unsound method? Without doubt,
he exclaimed hotly. Dont you? . . . No method at all,
I murmured after a while. Exactly, he exulted. I
anticipated this. Shows a complete want of judgment. It is my duty to point
it out in the proper quarter. Oh, said I, that fellowwhats
his name?the brickmaker, will make a readable report for you.
He appeared confounded for a moment. It seemed to me I had never breathed
an atmosphere so vile, and I turned mentally to Kurtz for reliefpositively
for relief. Nevertheless I think Mr. Kurtz is a remarkable man,
I said with emphasis. He started, dropped on me a heavy glance, said very
quietly, he WAS, and turned his back on me. My hour of favour
was over; I found myself lumped along with Kurtz as a partisan of methods
for which the time was not ripe: I was unsound! Ah! but it was something to
have at least a choice of nightmares.
had turned to the wilderness really, not to Mr. Kurtz, who, I was ready to
admit, was as good as buried. And for a moment it seemed to me as if I also
were buried in a vast grave full of unspeakable secrets. I felt an intolerable
weight oppressing my breast, the smell of the damp earth, the unseen presence
of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night.
. . . The Russian tapped me on the shoulder. I heard him mumbling and stammering
something about brother seamancouldnt concealknowledge
of matters that would affect Mr. Kurtzs reputation. I waited.
For him evidently Mr. Kurtz was not in his grave; I suspect that for him Mr.
Kurtz was one of the immortals. Well! said I at last, speak
out. As it happens, I am Mr. Kurtzs friendin a way.
stated with a good deal of formality that had we not been of the same
profession, he would have kept the matter to himself without regard
to consequences. He suspected there was an active ill-will towards him
on the part of these white men that You are right,
I said, remembering a certain conversation I had over-heard. The manager
thinks you ought to be hanged. He showed a concern at this intelligence
which amused me at first. I had better get out of the way quietly,
he said earnestly. I can do no more for Kurtz now, and they would
soon find some excuse. Whats to stop them? Theres a military post
three hundred miles from here. Well, upon my word, said
I, perhaps you had better go if you have any friends amongst the savages
near by. Plenty, he said. They are simple peopleand
I want nothing, you know. He stood biting his lip, then: I dont
want any harm to happen to these whites here, but of course I was thinking
of Mr. Kurtzs reputationbut you are a brother seaman and
All right, said I, after a time. Mr. Kurtzs reputation
is safe with me. I did not know how truly I spoke.
informed me, lowering his voice, that it was Kurtz who had ordered the attack
to be made on the steamer. He hated sometimes the idea of being taken
awayand then again. . . . But I dont understand these matters.
I am a simple man. He thought it would scare you awaythat you would
give it up, thinking him dead. I could not stop him. Oh, I had an awful time
of it this last month. Very well, I said. He is all
right now. Ye-e-es, he muttered, not very convinced apparently.
Thanks, said I; I shall keep my eyes open. But
quiet-eh? he urged anxiously. It would be awful for his reputation
if anybody here I promised a complete discretion with great
gravity. I have a canoe and three black fellows waiting not very far.
I am off. Could you give me a few Martini-Henry cartridges? I could,
and did, with proper secrecy. He helped himself, with a wink at me, to a handful
of my tobacco. Between sailorsyou knowgood English tobacco.
At the door of the pilot-house he turned roundI say, havent
you a pair of shoes you could spare? He raised one leg. Look.
The soles were tied with knotted strings sandalwise under his bare feet. I
rooted out an old pair, at which he looked with admiration before tucking
it under his left arm. One of his pockets (bright red) was bulging with cartridges,
from the other (dark blue) peeped Towsons Inquiry, etc.,
etc. He seemed to think himself excellently well equipped for a renewed encounter
with the wilderness. Ah! Ill never, never meet such a man again.
You ought to have heard him recite poetryhis own, too, it was, he told
me. Poetry! He rolled his eyes at the recollection of these delights.
Oh, he enlarged my mind! Good-bye, said I. He shook
hands and vanished in the night. Sometimes I ask myself whether I had ever
really seen himwhether it was possible to meet such a phenomenon!
. . .
I woke up shortly after midnight his warning came to my mind with its hint
of danger that seemed, in the starred darkness, real enough to make me get
up for the purpose of having a look round. On the hill a big fire burned,
illuminating fitfully a crooked corner of the station-house.
One of the agents with a picket of a few of our blacks, armed for the purpose,
was keeping guard over the ivory; but deep within the forest, red gleams that
wavered, that seemed to sink and rise from the ground amongst confused columnar
shapes of intense blackness, showed the exact position of the camp where Mr.
Kurtzs adorers were keeping their uneasy vigil. The monotonous
beating of a big drum filled the air with muffled shocks and a lingering
vibration. A steady droning sound of many men chanting each to himself
some weird incantation came out from the black, flat wall of the woods as
the humming of bees comes out of a hive, and had a strange narcotic effect
upon my half-awake senses. I believe I dozed off leaning over the rail, till
an abrupt burst of yells, an overwhelming outbreak of a pent-up and mysterious
frenzy, woke me up in a bewildered wonder. It was cut short all at
once, and the low droning went on with an effect of audible
and soothing silence. I glanced casually into the little cabin. A light was
burning within, but Mr. Kurtz was not there.
think I would have raised an outcry if I had believed my eyes. But I didnt
believe them at firstthe thing seemed so impossible. The fact is I was
completely unnerved by a sheer blank fright, pure abstract terror, unconnected
with any distinct shape of physical danger. What made this emotion so overpowering
washow shall I define it?the moral shock I received, as if something
altogether monstrous, intolerable to thought and odious to the
soul, had been thrust upon me unexpectedly. This lasted of course the merest
fraction of a second, and then the usual sense of commonplace, deadly
danger, the possibility of a sudden onslaught and massacre,
or something of the kind, which I saw impending, was positively welcome
and composing. It pacified me, in fact, so much that I did not raise
was an agent buttoned up inside an ulster and sleeping on a chair on deck
within three feet of me. The yells had not awakened him; he snored very slightly;
I left him to his slumbers and leaped ashore. I did not betray Mr. Kurtzit
was ordered I should never betray himit was written I should be loyal
to the nightmare of my choice. I was anxious to deal with this shadow by myself
aloneand to this day I dont know why I was so jealous of sharing
with any one the peculiar blackness of that experience.
soon as I got on the bank I saw a traila broad trail through the grass.
I remember the exultation with which I said to myself, He cant
walkhe is crawling on all-foursIve got him. The grass
was wet with dew. I strode rapidly with clenched fists. I fancy I had some
vague notion of falling upon him and giving him a drubbing. I dont know.
I had some imbecile thoughts. The knitting old woman with the cat obtruded
herself upon my memory as a most improper person to be sitting at the other
end of such an affair. I saw a row of pilgrims squirting lead in the air out
of Winchesters held to the hip. I thought I would never get back to the steamer,
and imagined myself living alone and unarmed in the woods to an advanced age.
Such silly thingsyou know. And I remember I confounded the beat
of the drum with the beating of my heart, and was pleased at its calm regularity.
kept to the track thoughthen stopped to listen. The night was very clear;
a dark blue space, sparkling with dew and starlight, in which black things
stood very still. I thought I could see a kind of motion ahead of me. I was
strangely cocksure of everything that night. I actually left the track and
ran in a wide semicircle (I verily believe chuckling to myself) so
as to get in front of that stir, of that motion I had seenif indeed
I had seen anything. I was circumventing Kurtz as though it had been
a boyish game.
came upon him, and, if he had not heard me coming, I would have fallen over
him, too, but he got up in time. He rose, unsteady, long, pale, indistinct,
like a vapour exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent
before me; while at my back the fires loomed between the trees, and
the murmur of many voices issued from the forest. I had cut him off cleverly;
but when actually confronting him I seemed to come to my senses, I saw the
danger in its right proportion. It was by no means over yet. Suppose he began
to shout? Though he could hardly stand, there was still plenty of vigour in
his voice. Go awayhide yourself, he said, in that profound
tone. It was very awful. I glanced back. We were within thirty yards from
the nearest fire. A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving
long black arms, across the glow. It had hornsantelope horns, I thinkon
its head. Some sorcerer, some witch-man, no doubt: it looked fiendlike enough.
Do you know what you are doing? I whispered. Perfectly,
he answered, raising his voice for that single word: it sounded to me far
off and yet loud, like a hail through a speaking-trumpet. If he makes
a row we are lost, I thought to myself. This clearly was not a case
for fisticuffs, even apart from the very natural aversion I had to
beat that Shadowthis wandering and tormented thing. You will be
lost, I saidutterly lost. One gets sometimes such
a flash of inspiration, you know. I did say the right thing, though indeed
he could not have been more irretrievably lost than he was at this very moment,
when the foundations of our intimacy were being laidto endureto
endureeven to the endeven beyond.
had immense plans, he muttered irresolutely. Yes,
said I; but if you try to shout Ill smash your head with
There was not a stick or a stone near. I will throttle you for good,
I corrected myself. I was on the threshold of great things, he
pleaded, in a voice of longing, with a wistfulness of tone that made
my blood run cold. And now for this stupid scoundrel
Your success in Europe is assured in any case, I affirmed steadily.
I did not want to have the throttling of him, you understandand indeed
it would have been very little use for any practical purpose. I tried to break
the spellthe heavy, mute spell of the wildernessthat seemed to
draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts,
by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was
convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards
the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations;
this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted
aspirations. And, dont you see, the terror of the position was
not in being knocked on the headthough I had a very lively sense of
that danger, toobut in this, that I had to deal with a being to whom
I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low. I had, even like the
niggers, to invoke himhimselfhis own exalted and
incredible degradation. There was nothing either above or below him, and I
knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man!
he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did
not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air. Ive been
telling you what we saidrepeating the phrases we pronouncedbut
whats the good? They were common everyday wordsthe familiar, vague
sounds exchanged on every waking day of life. But what of that? They had behind
them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of
phrases spoken in nightmares. Soul! If anybody ever struggled with a soul,
I am the man. And I wasnt arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me
or not, his intelligence was perfectly clearconcentrated, it is true,
upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my only chancebarring,
of course, the killing him there and then, which wasnt so good, on account
of unavoidable noise. But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness,
it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.
I hadfor my sins, I supposeto go through the ordeal of
looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to
ones belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled
with himself, too. I saw itI heard it. I saw the inconceivable
mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling
blindly with itself. I kept my head pretty well; but when I had him at last
stretched on the couch, I wiped my forehead, while my legs shook under me
as though I had carried half a ton on my back down that hill. And yet I had
only supported him, his bony arm clasped round my neckand he was not
much heavier than a child.
next day we left at noon, the crowd, of whose presence behind the curtain
of trees I had been acutely conscious all the time, flowed out of the
woods again, filled the clearing, covered the slope with a mass of naked,
breathing, quivering, bronze bodies. I steamed up a bit, then swung down stream,
and two thousand eyes followed the evolutions of the splashing, thumping,
fierce river-demon beating the water with its terrible tail and breathing
black smoke into the air. In front of the first rank, along the river, three
men, plastered with bright red earth from head to foot, strutted to and fro
restlessly. When we came abreast again, they faced the river, stamped
their feet, nodded their horned heads, swayed their scarlet bodies; they shook
towards the fierce river-demon a bunch of black feathers, a mangy skin
with a pendent tailsomething that looked a dried gourd; they
shouted periodically together strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds
of human language; and the deep murmurs of the crowd, interrupted suddenly,
were like the responses of some satanic litany.
had carried Kurtz into the pilot-house: there was more air there. Lying on
the couch, he stared through the open shutter. There was an eddy in
the mass of human bodies, and the woman with helmeted head and tawny cheeks
rushed out to the very brink of the stream. She put out her hands, shouted
something, and all that wild mob took up the shout in a roaring chorus of
articulated, rapid, breathless utterance.
you understand this? I asked.
kept on looking out past me with fiery, longing eyes, with a mingled expression
of wistfulness and hate. He made no answer, but I saw a smile, a smile
of indefinable meaning, appear on his colourless lips that a moment after
twitched convulsively. Do I not? he said slowly, gasping,
as if the words had been torn out of him by a supernatural power.
pulled the string of the whistle, and I did this because I saw the pilgrims
on deck getting out their rifles with an air of anticipating a jolly lark.
At the sudden screech there was a movement of abject terror through
that wedged mass of bodies. Dont! dont you frighten them
away, cried some one on deck disconsolately. I pulled the string
time after time. They broke and ran, they leaped, they crouched, they swerved,
they dodged the flying terror of the sound. The three red chaps had fallen
flat, face down on the shore, as though they had been shot dead. Only the
barbarous and superb woman did not so much as flinch, and stretched tragically
her bare arms after us over the sombre and glittering river.
then that imbecile crowd down on the deck started their little fun,
and I could see nothing more for smoke.
brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards
the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtzs life
was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into
the sea of inexorable time. The manager was very placid, he
had no vital anxieties now, he took us both in with a comprehensive
and satisfied glance: the affair had come off as well as could
be wished. I saw the time approaching when I would be left alone of the party
of unsound method. The pilgrims looked upon me with disfavour.
I was, so to speak, numbered with the dead. It is strange how I accepted this
unforeseen partnership, this choice of nightmares forced upon me in the tenebrous
land invaded by these mean and greedy phantoms.
discoursed. A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his
strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness
of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain
were haunted by shadowy images nowimages of wealth and fame revolving
obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty
expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideasthese were the
subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade of
the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it
was to be buried presently in the mould of primeval earth. But
both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had
penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive
emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances
of success and power.
he was contemptibly childish. He desired to have kings meet him at
railway-stations on his return from some ghastly Nowhere, where he
intended to accomplish great things. You show them you have in you something
that is really profitable, and then there will be no limits to the recognition
of your ability, he would say. Of course you must take care of
the motivesright motivesalways. The long reaches that were
like one and the same reach, monotonous bends that were exactly alike,
slipped past the steamer with their multitude of secular trees looking
patiently after this grimy fragment of another world, the forerunner
of change, of conquest, of trade, of massacres, of blessings. I looked
aheadpiloting. Close the shutter, said Kurtz suddenly one
day; I cant bear to look at this. I did so. There was a
silence. Oh, but I will wring your heart yet! he cried at the
broke downas I had expectedand had to lie up for repairs at the
head of an island. This delay was the first thing that shook Kurtzs
confidence. One morning he gave me a packet of papers and a photographthe
lot tied together with a shoe-string. Keep this for me, he said.
This noxious fool (meaning the manager) is capable
of prying into my boxes when I am not looking. In the afternoon I saw
him. He was lying on his back with closed eyes, and I withdrew quietly, but
I heard him mutter, Live rightly, die, die . . . I listened. There
was nothing more. Was he rehearsing some speech in his sleep, or was it a
fragment of a phrase from some newspaper article? He had been writing for
the papers and meant to do so again, for the furthering of my ideas.
Its a duty.
was an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a
man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines.
But I had not much time to give him, because I was helping the engine-driver
to take to pieces the leaky cylinders, to straighten a bent connecting-rod,
and in other such matters. I lived in an infernal mess of rust, filings,
nuts, bolts, spanners, hammers, ratchet-drillsthings I abominate,
because I dont get on with them. I tended the little forge we fortunately
had aboard; I toiled wearily in a wretched scrap-heapunless I
had the shakes too bad to stand.
evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him say a little tremulously,
I am lying here in the dark waiting for death. The light was within
a foot of his eyes. I forced myself to murmur, Oh, nonsense! and
stood over him as if transfixed.
approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before,
and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasnt touched. I was fascinated.
It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression
of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terrorof
an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail
of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete
knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some visionhe cried
out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
horror! The horror!
blew the candle out and left the cabin. The pilgrims were dining in the mess-room,
and I took my place opposite the manager, who lifted his eyes to give me a
questioning glance, which I successfully ignored. He leaned back, serene,
with that peculiar smile of his sealing the unexpressed depths of his
meanness. A continuous shower of small flies streamed upon the lamp, upon
the cloth, upon our hands and faces. Suddenly the managers boy put his
insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing
the pilgrims rushed out to see. I remained, and went on with my dinner. I
believe I was considered brutally callous. However, I did not eat much.
There was a lamp in therelight, dont you knowand outside
it was so beastly, beastly dark. I went no more near the remarkable man who
had pronounced a judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this earth. The
voice was gone. What else had been there? But I am of course aware that next
day the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole.
then they very nearly buried me.
as you see, I did not go to join Kurtz there and then. I did not. I remained
to dream the nightmare out to the end, and to show my loyalty to Kurtz once
more. Destiny. My destiny! Droll thing life isthat mysterious
arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can
hope from it is some knowledge of yourselfthat comes too latea
crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most
unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable
greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators,
without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without
the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism,
without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.
If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than
some of us think it to be. I was within a hairs breadth of the last
opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably
I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was
a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped
over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could
not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole
universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness.
He had summed uphe had judged. The horror! He was a remarkable
man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour,
it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had
the appalling face of a glimpsed truththe strange commingling
of desire and hate. And it is not my own extremity I remember besta
vision of greyness without form filled with physical pain, and a careless
contempt for the evanescence of all thingseven of this pain itself.
No! It is his extremity that I seem to have lived through. True, he
had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been
permitted to draw back my hesitating foot. And perhaps in this is the whole
difference; perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are
just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over
the threshold of the invisible. Perhaps! I like to think my summing-up would
not have been a word of careless contempt. Better his crymuch better.
It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats,
by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was
a victory! That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last, and even
beyond, when a long time after I heard once more, not his own voice, but the
echo of his magnificent eloquence thrown to me from a soul as translucently
pure as a cliff of crystal.
they did not bury me, though there is a period of time which I remember mistily,
with a shuddering wonder, like a passage through some inconceivable
world that had no hope in it and no desire. I found myself back in the sepulchral
city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch
a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to
gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams.
They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life
was to me an irritating pretence, because I felt so sure they could
not possibly know the things I knew. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing
of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance
of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly
in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire
to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing
in their faces so full of stupid importance. I daresay I was not very well
at that time. I tottered about the streetsthere were various
affairs to settlegrinning bitterly at perfectly respectable persons.
I admit my behaviour was inexcusable, but then my temperature was seldom normal
in these days. My dear aunts endeavours to nurse up my
strength seemed altogether beside the mark. It was not my strength that
wanted nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing. I kept the bundle
of papers given me by Kurtz, not knowing exactly what to do with it. His mother
had died lately, watched over, as I was told, by his Intended. A clean-shaved
man, with an official manner and wearing gold-rimmed spectacles, called on
me one day and made inquiries, at first circuitous, afterwards suavely
pressing, about what he was pleased to denominate certain documents.
I was not surprised, because I had had two rows with the manager on the subject
out there. I had refused to give up the smallest scrap out of that package,
and I took the same attitude with the spectacled man. He became darkly menacing
at last, and with much heat argued that the Company had the right to every
bit of information about its territories. And said he, Mr.
Kurtzs knowledge of unexplored regions must have been necessarily extensive
and peculiarowing to his great abilities and to the deplorable
circumstances in which he had been placed: therefore I assured
him Mr. Kurtzs knowledge, however extensive, did not bear upon the problems
of commerce or administration. He invoked then the name of science.
It would be an incalculable loss if, etc., etc. I offered him
the report on the Suppression of Savage Customs, with the postscriptum
torn off. He took it up eagerly, but ended by sniffing at it with an air of
contempt. This is not what we had a right to expect, he remarked.
Expect nothing else, I said. There are only private letters.
He withdrew upon some threat of legal proceedings, and I saw him no more;
but another fellow, calling himself Kurtzs cousin, appeared two days
later, and was anxious to hear all the details about his dear relatives
last moments. Incidentally he gave me to understand that Kurtz had
been essentially a great musician. There was the making of an immense
success, said the man, who was an organist, I believe, with lank grey
hair flowing over a greasy coat-collar. I had no reason to doubt his statement;
and to this day I am unable to say what was Kurtzs profession, whether
he ever had anywhich was the greatest of his talents. I had taken him
for a painter who wrote for the papers, or else for a journalist who could
paintbut even the cousin (who took snuff during the interview) could
not tell me what he had beenexactly. He was a universal geniuson
that point I agreed with the old chap, who thereupon blew his nose noisily
into a large cotton handkerchief and withdrew in senile agitation,
bearing off some family letters and memoranda without importance. Ultimately
a journalist anxious to know something of the fate of his dear colleague
turned up. This visitor informed me Kurtzs proper sphere ought to have
been politics on the popular side. He had furry straight eyebrows,
bristly hair cropped short, an eyeglass on a broad ribbon, and, becoming expansive,
confessed his opinion that Kurtz really couldnt write a bitbut
heavens! how that man could talk. He electrified large meetings. He had faithdont
you see?he had the faith. He could get himself to believe anythinganything.
He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party. What
party? I asked. Any party, answered the other. He
was ananextremist. Did I not think so? I assented.
Did I know, he asked, with a sudden flash of curiosity, what it was
that had induced him to go out there? Yes, said I,
and forthwith handed him the famous Report for publication, if he thought
fit. He glanced through it hurriedly, mumbling all the time, judged it
would do, and took himself off with this plunder.
I was left at last with a slim packet of letters and the girls portrait.
She struck me as beautifulI mean she had a beautiful expression. I know
that the sunlight can be made to lie, too, yet one felt that no manipulation
of light and pose could have conveyed the delicate shade of truthfulness upon
those features. She seemed ready to listen without mental reservation, without
suspicion, without a thought for herself. I concluded I would go and give
her back her portrait and those letters myself. Curiosity? Yes; and also some
other feeling perhaps. All that had been Kurtzs had passed out of my
hands: his soul, his body, his station, his plans, his ivory, his career.
There remained only his memory and his Intendedand I wanted to give
that up, too, to the past, in a wayto surrender personally all that
remained of him with me to that oblivion which is the last word of
our common fate. I dont defend myself. I had no clear perception of
what it was I really wanted. Perhaps it was an impulse of unconscious loyalty,
or the fulfilment of one of those ironic necessities that lurk in the
facts of human existence. I dont know. I cant tell. But I went.
thought his memory was like the other memories of the dead that accumulate
in every mans lifea vague impress on the brain of shadows that
had fallen on it in their swift and final passage; but before the high and
ponderous door, between the tall houses of a street as still and decorous
as a well-kept alley in a cemetery, I had a vision of him on the stretcher,
opening his mouth voraciously, as if to devour all the earth with all
its mankind. He lived then before me; he lived as much as he had ever liveda
shadow insatiable of splendid appearances, of frightful realities;
a shadow darker than the shadow of the night, and draped nobly in the folds
of a gorgeous eloquence. The vision seemed to enter the house with
methe stretcher, the phantom-bearers, the wild crowd of obedient worshippers,
the gloom of the forests, the glitter of the reach between the murky
bends, the beat of the drum, regular and muffled like the beating of a heartthe
heart of a conquering darkness. It was a moment of triumph for the wilderness,
an invading and vengeful rush which, it seemed to me, I would have to keep
back alone for the salvation of another soul. And the memory of what I had
heard him say afar there, with the horned shapes stirring at my back, in the
glow of fires, within the patient woods, those broken phrases came back to
me, were heard again in their ominous and terrifying simplicity. I
remembered his abject pleading, his abject threats, the colossal
scale of his vile desires, the meanness, the torment, the tempestuous
anguish of his soul. And later on I seemed to see his collected languid
manner, when he said one day, This lot of ivory now is really mine.
The Company did not pay for it. I collected it myself at a very great personal
risk. I am afraid they will try to claim it as theirs though. Hm. It
is a difficult case. What do you think I ought to doresist? Eh? I want
no more than justice. . . . He wanted no more than justiceno more
than justice. I rang the bell before a mahogany door on the first floor,
and while I waited he seemed to stare at me out of the glassy panelstare
with that wide and immense stare embracing, condemning, loathing all
the universe. I seemed to hear the whispered cry, The horror! The horror!
dusk was falling. I had to wait in a lofty drawing-room with three
long windows from floor to ceiling that were like three luminous and
bedraped columns. The bent gilt legs and backs of the furniture shone in indistinct
curves. The tall marble fireplace had a cold and monumental whiteness.
A grand piano stood massively in a corner; with dark gleams on the flat surfaces
like a sombre and polished sarcophagus. A high door openedclosed.
came forward, all in black, with a pale head, floating towards me in the dusk.
She was in mourning. It was more than a year since his death, more than a
year since the news came; she seemed as though she would remember and mourn
forever. She took both my hands in hers and murmured, I had heard you
were coming. I noticed she was not very youngI mean not girlish.
She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.
The room seemed to have grown darker, as if all the sad light of the cloudy
evening had taken refuge on her forehead. This fair hair, this pale visage,
this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes
looked out at me. Their glance was guileless, profound, confident,
and trustful. She carried her sorrowful head as though she were proud of that
sorrow, as though she would say, II alone know how to mourn for
him as he deserves. But while we were still shaking hands, such a look
of awful desolation came upon her face that I perceived she was one
of those creatures that are not the playthings of Time. For her he had died
only yesterday. And, by Jove! the impression was so powerful that for me,
too, he seemed to have died only yesterdaynay, this very minute. I saw
her and him in the same instant of timehis death and her sorrowI
saw her sorrow in the very moment of his death. Do you understand? I saw them
togetherI heard them together. She had said, with a deep catch of the
breath, I have survived while my strained ears seemed to hear
distinctly, mingled with her tone of despairing regret, the summing up whisper
of his eternal condemnation. I asked myself what I was doing there, with a
sensation of panic in my heart as though I had blundered into a place of cruel
and absurd mysteries not fit for a human being to behold. She motioned me
to a chair. We sat down. I laid the packet gently on the little table, and
she put her hand over it. . . . You knew him well, she murmured,
after a moment of mourning silence.
grows quickly out there, I said. I knew him as well as it is possible
for one man to know another.
you admired him, she said. It was impossible to know him and not
to admire him. Was it?
was a remarkable man, I said, unsteadily. Then before the appealing
fixity of her gaze, that seemed to watch for more words on my lips, I went
on, It was impossible not to
him, she finished eagerly, silencing me into an appalled dumbness.
How true! how true! But when you think that no one knew him so well
as I! I had all his noble confidence. I knew him best.
knew him best, I repeated. And perhaps she did. But with every word
spoken the room was growing darker, and only her forehead, smooth and white,
remained illumined by the inextinguishable light of belief and love.
were his friend, she went on. His friend, she repeated,
a little louder. You must have been, if he had given you this, and sent
you to me. I feel I can speak to youand oh! I must speak. I want youyou
who have heard his last wordsto know I have been worthy of him. . .
. It is not pride. . . . Yes! I am proud to know I understood him better than
any one on earthhe told me so himself. And since his mother died I have
had no oneno onetoto
listened. The darkness deepened. I was not even sure whether he had given
me the right bundle. I rather suspect he wanted me to take care of another
batch of his papers which, after his death, I saw the manager examining under
the lamp. And the girl talked, easing her pain in the certitude of
my sympathy; she talked as thirsty men drink. I had heard that her engagement
with Kurtz had been disapproved by her people. He wasnt rich enough
or something. And indeed I dont know whether he had not been a pauper
all his life. He had given me some reason to infer that it was his
impatience of comparative poverty that drove him out there.
. . Who was not his friend who had heard him speak once? she was saying.
He drew men towards him by what was best in them. She looked at
me with intensity. It is the gift of the great, she went on, and
the sound of her low voice seemed to have the accompaniment of all
the other sounds, full of mystery, desolation, and sorrow, I had ever
heardthe ripple of the river, the soughing of the trees swayed by the
wind, the murmurs of the crowds, the faint ring of incomprehensible words
cried from afar, the whisper of a voice speaking from beyond the threshold
of an eternal darkness. But you have heard him! You know! she
I know, I said with something like despair in my heart, but bowing my
head before the faith that was in her, before that great and saving illusion
that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness, in the triumphant darkness
from which I could not have defended herfrom which I could not even
a loss to meto us!she corrected herself with beautiful generosity;
then added in a murmur, To the world. By the last gleams of twilight
I could see the glitter of her eyes, full of tearsof tears that would
have been very happyvery fortunatevery proud, she went on.
Too fortunate. Too happy for a little while. And now I am unhappy forfor
stood up; her fair hair seemed to catch all the remaining light in a glimmer
of gold. I rose, too.
of all this, she went on mournfully, of all his promise, and of
all his greatness, of his generous mind, of his noble heart, nothing remainsnothing
but a memory. You and I
shall always remember him, I said hastily.
she cried. It is impossible that all this should be lostthat such
a life should be sacrificed to leave nothingbut sorrow. You know what
vast plans he had. I knew of them, tooI could not perhaps understandbut
others knew of them. Something must remain. His words, at least, have not
words will remain, I said.
his example, she whispered to herself. Men looked up to himhis
goodness shone in every act. His example
I said; his example, too. Yes, his example. I forgot that.
I do not. I cannotI cannot believenot yet. I cannot believe that
I shall never see him again, that no-body will see him again, never, never,
put out her arms as if after a retreating figure, stretching them back and
with clasped pale hands across the fading and narrow sheen of the window.
Never see him! I saw him clearly enough then. I shall see this eloquent
phantom as long as I live, and I shall see her, too, a tragic and familiar
Shade, resembling in this gesture another one, tragic also, and bedecked
with powerless charms, stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the
infernal stream, the stream of darkness. She said suddenly very low,
He died as he lived.
end, said I, with dull anger stirring in me, was in every way
worthy of his life.
I was not with him, she murmured. My anger subsided before a
feeling of infinite pity.
that could be done I mumbled.
but I believed in him more than any one on earthmore than his own mother,
more thanhimself. He needed me! Me! I would have treasured every sigh,
every word, every sign, every glance.
felt like a chill grip on my chest. Dont, I said, in a muffled
me. II have mourned so long in silencein silence. . . . You were
with himto the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand
him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear. . . .
the very end, I said, shakily. I heard his very last words. .
. . I stopped in a fright.
she murmured in a heart-broken tone. I wantI wantsomethingsomethingtoto live with.
was on the point of crying at her, Dont you hear them? The
dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper
that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. The
horror! The horror!
last wordto live with, she insisted. Dont you understand
I loved himI loved himI loved him!
pulled myself together and spoke slowly.
last word he pronounced wasyour name.
heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an
exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph
and of unspeakable pain. I knew itI was sure! . . . She
knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands.
It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that
the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do
not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I
had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadnt he said
he wanted only justice? But I couldnt. I could not tell her. It would
have been too darktoo dark altogether. . . .
ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating
Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. We have lost the first of the ebb,said
the Director suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black
bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost
ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast skyseemed to
lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
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