Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses
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scholarly text but a reading text for a seminar
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Heart of Darkness
"One evening as I was lying flat on the deck of my steamboat, I heard voices
approaching—and there were the nephew [the
station manager] and the uncle [leader of
Expedition] strolling along the bank. I
laid my head on my arm again, and had nearly lost myself in a doze, when
somebody said in my ear, as it were: 'I am as harmless as a little child, but I
don't like to be dictated to. Am I the manager—or am I not? I was ordered to
send him there. It's incredible.' . . . I became aware that the two were
standing on the shore alongside the forepart of the steamboat, just below my
head. I did not move; it did not occur to me to move: I was sleepy.
'It is unpleasant,' grunted the
'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
They both agreed it was frightful, then
made several bizarre remarks: 'Make rain and fine weather—one man—the Council—by
the nose'—bits of absurd sentences that got the better of my drowsiness, so that
I had pretty near the whole of my wits about me when the uncle said,
'The climate may do away with this
difficulty for you. Is he alone there?'
'Yes,' answered the manager; 'he sent
his assistant down the river with a note to me in these terms: "Clear this poor
devil out of the country, and don't bother sending more of that sort. I had
rather be alone than have the kind of men you can dispose of with me." It was
more than a year ago. Can you imagine such impudence!'
'Anything since then?' asked the other
'Ivory,' jerked the nephew; 'lots of
it—prime sort—lots—most annoying, from him.'
'And with that?' questioned the heavy
[a bill],' was the reply fired out, so to speak.
Then silence. They had been talking
"I was broad awake by this time, but, lying perfectly at ease, remained still,
having no inducement to change my position.
'How did that
ivory come all this way?'
growled the elder man, who seemed very vexed.
The other explained that it had come
with a fleet of canoes in charge of an English half-caste
[mixed-race] 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
[canoe] with four paddlers, leaving the
half-caste to continue down the river with the ivory.
The two fellows there
[manager & uncle] 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 home—perhaps;
setting his face towards the depths of the wilderness, towards his empty and
desolate station. I did not know the motive. Perhaps he was just simply a fine
fellow who stuck to his work for its own sake.
His name, you understand, had not been
pronounced once. He was 'that man.' The half-caste, who, as far as I could
see, had conducted a difficult trip with great prudence and pluck, was
invariably alluded to as 'that scoundrel.' The 'scoundrel' had reported that the
'man' had been very ill—had recovered imperfectly. . . .
The two below me moved away then a few
paces, and strolled back and forth at some little distance. I heard: 'Military
post—doctor—two hundred miles—quite alone now—unavoidable delays—nine months—no
They approached again, just as the
manager was saying, 'No one, as far as I know, unless a species of wandering
trader—a pestilential fellow, snapping ivory from the natives.' Who was it they
were talking about now?
I gathered in snatches that this was
some man supposed to be in Kurtz's district, and of whom the manager did not
approve. 'We will not be free from unfair competition till one of these fellows
is hanged for an example,' he said.
'Certainly,' grunted the other; 'get him
hanged! Why not? Anything—anything can be done in this country. That's
what I say; nobody here, you understand, HERE, can endanger your position. And
why? You stand the climate—you outlast them all. The danger is in Europe; but
there before I left I took care to—'
They moved off and whispered, then their
voices rose again. 'The extraordinary series of delays is not my fault. I did my
The fat man sighed. 'Very sad.'
'And the pestiferous absurdity of his
[Kurtz’s] talk,' continued the other;
'he bothered me enough when he was here. "Each station should be like a
beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also
for humanizing, improving, instructing." Conceive you—that ass! And he wants
to be manager! No, it's—'
Here he got choked by excessive
indignation, and I lifted my head the least bit. I was surprised to see how near
they were—right under me. I could have spat upon their hats. They were looking
on the ground, absorbed in thought. The manager was switching his leg with a
slender twig: his sagacious relative lifted his head. 'You have been well since
you came out this time?' he asked.
The other gave a start. 'Who? I? Oh!
Like a charm—like a charm. But the rest—oh, my goodness! All sick. They die so
quick, too, that I haven't the time to send them out of the country—it's
'Hm'm. Just so,' grunted the uncle.
'Ah! my boy, trust to this—I say, trust to this.' I saw him extend his
short flipper of an arm for a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the
mud, the river—seemed to beckon with a dishonoring flourish before the sunlit
face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil,
to the profound darkness of its heart. It was so startling that I leaped to my feet
and looked back at the edge of the forest, as though I had expected an answer of
some sort to that black display of confidence. You know the foolish notions that
come to one sometimes. The high stillness confronted these two figures with its
ominous patience, waiting for the passing away of a fantastic invasion.
"They swore aloud together—out of sheer fright, I believe—then pretending not to
know anything of my existence, turned back to the station. The sun was low; and
leaning forward side by side, they seemed to be tugging painfully uphill their
two ridiculous shadows of unequal length, that trailed behind them slowly over
the tall grass without bending a single blade. [cf.
"In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that
closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver. Long afterwards the news came
that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less
valuable animals. They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved.
I did not inquire. I was then rather excited at the prospect of meeting Kurtz
very soon. When I say very soon I mean it comparatively. It was just two months
from the day we left the creek when we came to the
[river] bank below Kurtz's station.
"Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of
the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.
An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm,
thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long
stretches of the 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 once—somewhere—far away—in
another existence perhaps. There were moments when one's past came back to
one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare for yourself; but
it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder
amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water,
and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a
peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable
intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect. I got used to it
afterwards; I did not see it any more; I had no time. I had to keep guessing at
the channel; I had to discern, mostly by inspiration, the signs of hidden
banks; I watched for sunken stones; I was learning to clap my teeth smartly
before my heart flew out, when I shaved by a fluke some infernal sly old snag
that would have ripped the life out of the tin-pot steamboat and drowned all the
pilgrims; I had to keep a lookout for the signs of dead wood we could cut up in
the night for next day's steaming. When you have to attend to things of that
sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality—the reality, I tell
you—fades. The inner truth is hidden—luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the
same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks,
just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes
for—what is it? half-a-crown a tumble—" [cf.
"Try to be civil, Marlow," growled a voice, and I knew there was at least one
listener awake besides myself. [original
narrator, not Marlow]
2.7; Marlow resumes]
"I beg your pardon. I forgot the heartache which makes up the rest of the price.
And indeed what does the price matter, if the trick be well done? You do your
tricks very well. And I didn't do badly either, since I managed not to sink that
steamboat on my first trip. It's a wonder to me yet. Imagine a blindfolded man
set to drive a van over a bad road. I sweated and shivered over that business
considerably, I can tell you. After all, for a seaman, to scrape the bottom of
the thing that's supposed to float all the time under his care is the
unpardonable sin. No one may know of it, but you never forget the thump—eh? A
blow on the very heart. You remember it, you dream of it, you wake up at night
and think of it—years after—and go hot and cold all over.
I don't pretend to say that steamboat
floated all the time. More than once she had to wade for a bit, with twenty
cannibals splashing around and pushing. We had enlisted some of these
chaps on the way for a crew. Fine fellows—cannibals—in their place. They were
men one could work with, and I am grateful to them. And, after all, they did not
eat each other before my face: they had brought along a provision of hippo-meat
which went rotten, and made the mystery of the wilderness stink in my nostrils.
Phoo! I can sniff it now. I had the manager on board and three or four pilgrims
with their staves—all complete.
Sometimes we came upon a station close
by the bank, clinging to the skirts of the unknown, and the white men rushing
out of a tumble-down hovel, with great gestures of joy and surprise and
welcome, seemed very strange—had the appearance of being held there captive by a
spell. The word ivory would ring in the air for a while—and on we went again
into the silence, along empty reaches, round the still bends, between the
high walls of our winding way, reverberating in hollow claps the ponderous beat
of the stern-wheel [paddle-wheel in back].
Trees, trees, millions of trees,
massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against
the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling
on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet
it was not altogether depressing, that feeling. After all, if you were
small, the grimy beetle crawled on—which was just what you wanted it to do.
Where the pilgrims imagined it crawled to I don't know. To some place where they
expected to get something. I bet!
For me it
[the boat] crawled towards Kurtz—exclusively; but when the steam-pipes
started leaking we crawled very slow.
[steam-powered boat] The reaches
[stretches of open water] 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 us—who could tell? We were cut off from the
comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering
and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a
madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember
because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that
are gone, leaving hardly a sign—and no memories.
"The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form
of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and
free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you
know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It
would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid
faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like
yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.
Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to
yourself that there 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 you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why
The mind of man is capable of
anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.
What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage—who can
tell?—but truth—truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and
shudder—the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least
be as much of a man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own
true stuff—with his own in-born strength. Principles won't do. Acquisitions,
clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you
want a deliberate belief. An appeal to me in this fiendish row—is there? Very
well; I hear; I admit, but I have a voice, too, and for good or evil mine is the
speech that cannot be silenced. Of course, a fool, what with sheer fright
and fine sentiments, is always safe. Who's that grunting? You wonder I didn't go
ashore for a howl and a dance? Well, no—I didn't.
Fine sentiments, you say? Fine
sentiments, be hanged! I had no time. I had to mess about with white-lead and
strips of woolen blanket helping to put bandages on those leaky steam-pipes—I
tell you. I had to watch the steering, and circumvent those snags, and get the
tin-pot along by hook or by crook. There was surface-truth enough in these
things to save a wiser man.
And between whiles I had to look
after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up
a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at
him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat,
walking on his hind-legs. [< compare
Dr. Samuel Johnson on
a woman preaching] A few months of training had done for that really
fine chap. He squinted at the steam-gauge and at the water-gauge with an evident
effort of intrepidity—and he had filed teeth, too, the poor devil, and
the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars
on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his
feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange
witchcraft, full of improving knowledge. He was useful because he had been
instructed; and what he knew was this—that should the water in that transparent
thing disappear, the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the
greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance. So he sweated and fired
up and watched the glass fearfully (with an impromptu charm, made of rags, tied
to his arm, and a piece of polished bone, as big as a watch, stuck flatways
through his lower lip), while the wooded banks slipped past us slowly, the short
noise was left behind, the interminable miles of silence—and we crept on,
towards Kurtz. But the snags were thick, the water was treacherous and shallow,
the boiler seemed indeed to have a sulky devil in it, and thus neither that
fireman nor I had any time to peer into our creepy thoughts.
[Paragraph 2.8: significance of writing as order, good work,
"Some fifty miles below the Inner Station
[Kurtz’s HQ] we came upon a hut of reeds, an inclined and melancholy
pole, with the unrecognizable tatters of what had been a flag of some sort
flying from it, and a neatly stacked wood-pile. This was unexpected. We
came to the bank, and on the stack of firewood found a flat piece of board
with some faded pencil-writing on it. When deciphered it said: 'Wood for
you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously.' There was a signature, but it was
illegible—not Kurtz—a much longer word.
'Hurry up.' Where? Up the river?
'Approach cautiously.' We had not done so. But the warning could not have been
meant for the place where it could be only found after approach. Something was
wrong above. But what—and how much? That was the question. We commented
adversely upon the imbecility of that telegraphic style. The bush around said
nothing, and would not let us look very far, either. A torn curtain of red
twill hung in the doorway of the hut, and flapped sadly in our faces. The
dwelling was dismantled; but we could see a white man had lived there not very
long ago. There remained a rude table—a plank on two posts; a heap of rubbish
reposed in a dark corner, and by the door I picked up a book.
It had lost its covers, and the pages
had been thumbed into a state of extremely dirty softness; but the back had
been lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread, which looked clean
yet. It was an extraordinary find. Its title was, AN INQUIRY INTO SOME POINTS
OF SEAMANSHIP, by a man Towser, Towson—some such name—Master in his
Majesty's Navy. The matter looked dreary reading enough, with illustrative
diagrams and repulsive tables of figures, and the copy was sixty years
old. I handled this amazing antiquity with the greatest possible tenderness,
lest it should dissolve in my hands.
Within, Towson or Towser was inquiring
earnestly into the breaking strain of ships' chains and tackle, and other such
matters. Not a very enthralling book; but at the first glance you could see
there a singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going
to work, which made these humble pages, thought out so many years ago, luminous
with another than a professional light. The simple old sailor, with his talk
of chains and purchases, made me forget the jungle and the pilgrims in a
delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real. Such a book
being there was wonderful enough; but still more astounding were the notes
pencilled in the margin, and plainly referring to the text. I couldn't believe
my eyes! They were in cipher! [code]
Yes, it looked like cipher. Fancy a man lugging with him a book of
that description into this nowhere and studying it—and making notes—in cipher at
that! It was an extravagant mystery.
"I had been dimly aware for some time of a worrying noise, and when I lifted my
eyes I saw the wood-pile was gone, and the manager, aided by all the pilgrims,
was shouting at me from the riverside. I slipped the book into my pocket. I
assure you to leave off reading was like tearing myself away from the shelter
of an old and solid friendship.
"I started the lame engine ahead. 'It must be this miserable trader—this
intruder [i.e., Kurtz],' exclaimed the manager, looking back malevolently
at the place we had left. 'He must be English,' I said. 'It will not save him
from getting into trouble if he is not careful,' muttered the manager darkly. I
observed with assumed innocence that no man was safe from trouble in this world.
"The current was more rapid now, the steamer seemed at her last gasp, the
stern-wheel flopped languidly, and I caught myself listening on tiptoe for the
next beat of the boat, for in sober truth I expected the wretched thing to give
up every moment. It was like watching the last flickers of a life. But still we
crawled. Sometimes I would pick out a tree a little way ahead to measure our
progress towards Kurtz by, but I lost it invariably before we got abreast.
To keep the eyes so long on one thing was too much for human patience. The
manager displayed a beautiful resignation. I fretted and fumed and took to
arguing with myself whether or no I would talk openly with Kurtz; but before I
could come to any conclusion it occurred to me that my speech or my silence,
indeed any action of mine, would be a mere futility. What did it matter what any
one knew or ignored? What did it matter who was manager? One gets sometimes such
a flash of insight. The essentials of this affair lay deep under the surface,
beyond my reach, and beyond my power of meddling.
"Towards the evening of the second day we judged ourselves about eight miles
from Kurtz's station. I wanted to push on; but the manager looked grave, and
told me the navigation up there was so dangerous that it would be advisable, the
sun being very low already, to wait where we were till next morning. Moreover,
he pointed out that if the warning to approach cautiously were to be followed,
we must approach in daylight—not at dusk or in the dark. This was sensible
enough. Eight miles meant nearly three hours' steaming for us, and I could also
see suspicious ripples at the upper end of the reach. Nevertheless, I was
annoyed beyond expression at the delay, and most unreasonably, too, since one
night more could not matter much after so many months.
As we had plenty of wood, and caution
was the word, I brought up in the middle of the stream. The reach
[visible area of water] was narrow,
straight, with high sides like a railway cutting.
[Forest-lined river resembles a railroad cut through a high embankment.]
The dusk came gliding into it long before the sun had set. The current ran
smooth and swift, but a dumb immobility sat on the banks. The living trees,
lashed together by the creepers and every living bush of the undergrowth, might
have been changed into stone, even to the slenderest twig, to the lightest leaf.
It was not sleep—it seemed unnatural, like a state of trance. Not the
faintest sound of any kind could be heard. You looked on amazed, and began to
suspect yourself of being deaf—then the night came suddenly, and struck you
blind as well. About three in the morning some large fish leaped, and the
loud splash made me jump as though a gun had been fired.
When the sun rose there was a white
fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not
shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something
solid. At eight or nine, perhaps, it lifted as a shutter lifts. We had a
glimpse of the towering multitude of trees, of the immense matted jungle,
with the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it—all perfectly still—and
then the white shutter came down again, smoothly, as if sliding in greased
I ordered the chain
[to the anchor], 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 clamor, modulated in savage discords,
filled our ears. The sheer unexpectedness of it made my hair stir under my cap.
I don't know how it struck the others: to me it seemed as though the mist itself
had screamed, so suddenly, and apparently from all sides at once, did this
tumultuous and mournful uproar arise. It culminated in a hurried outbreak of
almost intolerably excessive shrieking, which stopped short, leaving us
stiffened in a variety of silly attitudes, and obstinately listening to the
nearly as appalling and excessive silence.
'Good God! What is the meaning—'
stammered at my elbow one of the pilgrims—a little fat man, with sandy hair and
red whiskers, who wore sidespring boots [boots w/
side-fasteners], and pink pyjamas tucked into his socks. Two others
remained open-mouthed a minute, then dashed into the little cabin, to rush out
incontinently and stand darting scared glances, with Winchesters at 'ready' in
their hands. What we could see was just the steamer we were on, her outlines
blurred as though she had been on the point of dissolving, and a misty strip
of water, perhaps two feet broad, around her—and that was all. The rest of the
world was nowhere, as far as our eyes and ears were concerned. Just nowhere.
Gone, disappeared; swept off without leaving a whisper or a shadow behind.
"I went forward, and ordered the chain to be hauled in short, so as to be ready
to trip the anchor and move the steamboat at once if necessary.
'Will they attack?' whispered an awed
'We will be all butchered in this fog,'
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 [Africans] 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
'Catch 'im,' he snapped, with a
bloodshot widening of his eyes and a flash of sharp teeth—'catch 'im. Give 'im
'To you, eh?' I asked; 'what would you
do with them?'
'Eat 'im!' he said curtly, and,
leaning his elbow on the rail, looked out into the fog in a dignified and
profoundly pensive attitude.
I would no doubt have been properly
horrified, had it not occurred to me that he and his chaps must be very hungry:
that they must have been growing increasingly hungry for at least this month
past. They had been engaged for six months (I don't think a single one of them
had any clear idea of time, as we at the end of countless ages have. They still belonged to the beginnings of
time—had no inherited experience to teach them as it were), and of course, as
long as there was a piece of paper written over in accordance with some farcical
law or other made down the river, it didn't enter anybody's head to trouble
how they would live. Certainly they had brought with them some rotten
hippo-meat, which couldn't have lasted very long, anyway, even if the pilgrims
hadn't, in the midst of a shocking hullabaloo, thrown a considerable quantity of
it over-board. It looked like a high-handed proceeding; but it was really a case
of legitimate self-defense. You can't breathe dead hippo waking, sleeping, and
eating, and at the same time keep your precarious grip on existence.
Besides that, they had given them every
week three pieces of brass wire, each about nine inches long; and the theory was
they were to buy their provisions with that currency in riverside villages. You
can see how that worked. There were either no villages, or the people
were hostile, or the director, who like the rest of us fed out of tins, with an
occasional old he-goat thrown in, didn't want to stop the steamer for some more
or less recondite reason. So, unless they swallowed the wire itself, or made
loops of it to snare the fishes with, I don't see what good their extravagant
salary could be to them. I must say it was paid with a regularity worthy of a
large and honorable trading company.
For the rest, the only thing to
eat—though it didn't look eatable in the least—I saw in their possession was a
few lumps of some stuff like half-cooked dough, of a dirty lavender color, they
kept wrapped in leaves, and now and then swallowed a piece of, but so small that
it seemed done more for the looks of the thing than for any serious purpose of
sustenance. Why in the name of all the gnawing devils of hunger they didn't
go for us—they were thirty to five—and have a good tuck-in for once, amazes me
now when I think of it. They were big powerful men, with not much capacity
to weigh the consequences, with courage, with strength, even yet, though their
skins were no longer glossy and their muscles no longer hard. And I saw that
something restraining, one of those human secrets that baffle probability, had
come into play there. I looked at them with a swift quickening of
interest—not because it occurred to me I might be eaten by them before very
long, though I own to you that just then I perceived—in a new light, as it
were—how unwholesome the pilgrims looked, and I hoped, yes, I positively hoped,
that my aspect was not so—what shall I say?—so—unappetizing: a touch of
fantastic vanity which fitted well with the dream-sensation that pervaded all my
days at that time.
Perhaps I had a little fever, too. One can't live with one's finger
everlastingly on one's pulse. I had often 'a little fever,' or a little touch of
other things—the playful paw-strokes of the wilderness, the preliminary trifling
before the more serious onslaught which came in due course.
[Illnesses contracted at the Congo permanently
weakened Conrad’s own health] Yes; I looked at them
[the Africans aboard] as you would on any
human being, with a curiosity of their impulses, motives, capacities,
weaknesses, when brought to the test of an inexorable physical necessity.
Restraint! What possible restraint? Was it superstition, disgust, patience,
fear—or some kind of primitive honor? No fear can stand up to hunger, no
patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as
to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than
chaff in a breeze. Don't you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its
exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its somber and brooding ferocity?
Well, I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly.
It's really easier to face bereavement, dishonor, and the perdition of one's
soul—than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true. And these chaps
[Africans aboard], too, had no earthly
reason for any kind of scruple. Restraint! I would just as soon have expected
restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield. But there
was the fact facing me—the fact dazzling, to be seen, like the foam on the
depths of the sea, like a ripple on an unfathomable enigma, a mystery
greater—when I thought of it—than the curious, inexplicable note of desperate
grief in this savage clamor that had swept by us on the river-bank, behind the
blind whiteness of the fog. [Great Conradian
sentence, relating external symbols or facts into narrative extension of
"Two pilgrims were quarrelling in hurried whispers as to which bank
[of the river gave forth the clamor and cry].
‘No, no; how can you? Right, right, of
'It is very serious,' said the manager's
voice behind me; 'I would be desolated if anything should happen to Mr. Kurtz
before we came up.'
I looked at him, and had not the
slightest doubt he was sincere. He was just the kind of man who would wish to
preserve appearances. That was his restraint. But when he muttered something
about going on at once, I did not even take the trouble to answer him. I knew,
and he knew, that it was impossible. Were we to let go our hold of the bottom
[i.e., lift anchor], we would be
absolutely in the air—in space. We wouldn't be able to tell where we were going
to—whether up or down stream, or across—till we fetched against one bank or the
other—and then we wouldn't know at first which it was. Of course I made no move.
I had no mind for a smash-up. You couldn't imagine a more deadly place for a
shipwreck. Whether we drowned at once or not, we were sure to perish speedily in
one way or another.
'I authorize you to take all the risks,'
he said, after a short silence.
'I refuse to take any,' I said shortly;
which was just the answer he expected, though its tone might have surprised him.
'Well, I must defer to your judgment.
You are captain,' he said with marked civility.
I turned my shoulder to him in sign
of my appreciation, and looked into the fog. How long would it last? It was
the most hopeless lookout. The approach to this Kurtz grubbing for
the wretched bush was beset by as many dangers as though he had been an
enchanted princess sleeping in a fabulous castle.
'Will they attack, do you think?' asked
the manager, in a confidential tone.
"I did not think they would attack, for several obvious reasons. The thick fog
was one. If they left the bank in their canoes they would get lost in it, as we
would be if we attempted to move. Still, I had also judged the jungle of both
banks quite impenetrable—and yet eyes were in it, eyes that had seen us. The
riverside bushes were certainly very thick; but the undergrowth behind was
evidently penetrable. However, during the short lift I had seen no canoes
anywhere in the reach—certainly not abreast of the steamer. But what made the
idea of attack inconceivable to me was the nature of the noise—of the cries we
had heard. They had not the fierce character boding immediate hostile intention.
Unexpected, wild, and violent as they had been, they had given me an
irresistible impression of sorrow. The glimpse of the steamboat had for some
reason filled those savages with unrestrained grief. The danger, if any, I
expounded, was from our proximity to a great human passion let loose. Even
extreme grief may ultimately vent itself in violence—but more generally takes
the form of apathy. . . .
"You should have seen the pilgrims stare! They had no heart to grin, or even to
revile me: but I believe they thought me gone mad—with fright, maybe. I
delivered a regular lecture. My dear boys, it was no good bothering. Keep a
lookout? Well, you may guess I watched the fog for the signs of lifting as a cat
watches a mouse; but for anything else our eyes were of no more use to us than
if we had been buried miles deep in a heap of cotton-wool. It felt like it,
too—choking, warm, stifling. Besides, all I said, though it sounded extravagant,
was absolutely true to fact. What we afterwards alluded to as an attack was
really an attempt at repulse. The action was very far from being aggressive—it
was not even defensive, in the usual sense: it was undertaken under the stress
of desperation, and in its essence was purely protective.
"It [the attack or action by the local Africans]
developed itself, I should say, two hours after the fog lifted, and its
commencement was at a spot, roughly speaking, about a mile and a half below
Kurtz's station. We had just floundered and flopped round a bend, when I saw
an islet, a mere grassy hummock of bright green, in the middle of the stream. It
was the 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 discolored, just awash,
and the whole lot was seen just under the water, exactly as a man's backbone is
seen running down the middle of his back under the skin. Now, as far as I did
see, I could go to the right or to the left of this. I didn't know either
channel, of course. The banks looked pretty well alike, the depth appeared
the same; but as I had been informed the station was on the west side, I
naturally headed for the western passage.
"No 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 [serried = serrated, saw- or comb-like]. The twigs overhung the
current thickly, and from distance to distance a large limb of some tree
projected rigidly over the stream. It was then well on in the afternoon, the
face of the forest was gloomy, and a broad strip of shadow had already fallen on
the water. In this shadow we steamed up—very slowly, as you may imagine. I
sheered her well inshore—the water being deepest near the bank, as the
sounding-pole informed me.
"One of my hungry and forbearing friends
[Africans on boat] was sounding in the bows just below me. This steamboat
was exactly like a decked scow. [scow =
flat-bottomed, blunt-bowed boat; deck = floor covering hull] On the deck,
there were two little teakwood houses, with doors and windows.
[teak = South Asian hardwood] The boiler
was in the fore-end, and the machinery right astern
[just behind the boiler up front]. Over
the whole there was a light roof, supported on stanchions
[posts]. The funnel [chimney or
boiler-vent] 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
[rifle standard in British Empire after 1871] 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. [The African helmsman fulfills a
sentimental 19th-century African stereotype featuring childlike
excess in movements, comical strutting, etc. Compare “shoeshine boys” in 20c
"I 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
[fire-tender for steam engine], 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 [part-sunk tree or branch] in
the fairway [channel].
Sticks, little sticks, were flying
about—thick: they were whizzing before my nose, dropping below me, striking
behind me against my pilot-house. All this time the river, the shore, the woods,
were very quiet—perfectly quiet. I could only hear the heavy splashing thump of
the stern-wheel [paddle-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 eyes—the bush was swarming with human limbs in movement,
glistening. of bronze color. 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! [<part-sunk tree or branch]
A fusillade [simultaneous fire from weapons]
burst out under my feet. The pilgrims had opened with their Winchesters,
and were simply squirting lead into that bush. A deuce of a lot of smoke came up
and drove slowly forward. I swore at it. Now I couldn't see the ripple or the
snag either. I stood in the doorway, peering, and the arrows came in swarms.
They might have been poisoned, but they looked as though they wouldn't kill a
cat. The bush began to howl. Our wood-cutters
[Africans aboard who cut wood for fuel] raised a warlike whoop; the
report [explosive noise] 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
[rifle]. 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
[boat] into the bank—right into the bank, where I knew the water was
"We 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
[helmsman] 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 luster. The fusillade
[simultaneous firing] 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.
[<millennial imagery] There was a great commotion in the bush; the shower
of arrows stopped, a few dropping shots rang out sharply—then silence, in which
the languid beat of the stern-wheel came plainly to my ears. I put the helm hard
a-starboard at the moment when the pilgrim in pink pyjamas, very hot and
agitated, appeared in the doorway. 'The manager sends me—' he began in an
official tone, and stopped short. 'Good God!' he said, glaring at the wounded
"We 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 somber, brooding, and menacing expression. The luster 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 [agent], 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.'
"For the moment that was the dominant thought. There was a sense of extreme
disappointment, as though I had found out I had been striving after something
altogether without a substance. I couldn't have been more disgusted if I had
traveled all this way for the sole purpose of talking with Mr. Kurtz. Talking
with . . . I flung one shoe overboard, and became aware that that was exactly
what I had been looking forward to—a talk with Kurtz. I made the strange
discovery that I had never imagined him as doing, you know, but as discoursing.
I didn't say to myself, 'Now I will never see him,' or 'Now I will never shake
him by the hand,' but, 'Now I will never hear him.' The man presented himself
as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of
action. Hadn't I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he
had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more
ivory than all the other
agents together? That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted
creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that
carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the
gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the
most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the
heart of an impenetrable darkness.
"The other shoe went flying unto the devil-god of that river. I thought, 'By
Jove! it's all over. We are too late; he has vanished—the gift has vanished, by
means of some spear, arrow, or club. I will never hear that chap speak after
all'—and my sorrow had a startling extravagance of emotion, even such as I had
noticed in the howling sorrow of these savages in the bush. I couldn't have felt
more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed
my destiny in life. . . . Why do you sigh in this beastly way, somebody? Absurd?
Well, absurd. Good Lord! mustn't a man ever—Here, give me some tobacco." . . .
[narrative returns to yawl on Thames in London]
2.26: original narrator, not Marlow,
There was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow's
lean face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids,
with an aspect of concentrated attention; and as he took vigorous draws at his
pipe, it seemed to retreat and advance out of the night in the regular
flicker of tiny flame. The match went out.
"Absurd!" he [Marlow] cried. "This is the
worst of trying to tell. . . . Here you all are, each moored with two good
addresses, like a hulk [ship that floats but cannot go to sea]
with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another,
excellent appetites, and temperature normal—you hear—normal from year's end to
year's end. And you say, Absurd! Absurd be—exploded! Absurd! My dear boys,
what can you expect from a man who out of sheer nervousness had just flung
overboard a pair of new shoes! Now I think of it, it is amazing I did not shed
tears. I am, upon the whole, proud of my fortitude. I was cut to the quick
at the idea of having lost the inestimable privilege of listening to the
gifted Kurtz. Of course I was wrong. The privilege was waiting for me. Oh,
yes, I heard more than enough. And I was right, too. A voice. He was very
little more than a voice. And I heard—him—it—this voice—other voices—all of them
were so little more than voices—and the memory of that time itself lingers
around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly,
atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense. Voices,
voices—even the girl herself—now—" [text’s
first reference to Kurtz’s “Intended” or fiancée]
2.28; original narrator speaks] He was silent for a long time.
2.29: this enormous
paragraph is so free-associational as to defy
"I 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 it—completely. They—the
women, I mean—are out of it—should be out of it. We must help them to stay in
that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse. Oh, she had to be
out of it. You should have heard the disinterred body of Mr. Kurtz saying,
'My Intended.' You would have perceived directly then how completely she was
out of it. And the lofty frontal bone [forehad]
of Mr. Kurtz! They say the hair goes on growing sometimes, but
this—ah—specimen, was impressively bald. The wilderness had patted him on the
head, and, behold, it was like a ball—an ivory ball
[prefigures skulls glimpsed in par. 2.33 below];
it had caressed him, and—lo!—he had withered; it
[wilderness] 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
favorite. Ivory? I should think so. Heaps of it, stacks of it. The old mud
shanty was bursting with it. You would think there was not a single tusk left
either above or below the ground in the whole country. 'Mostly fossil,' the
manager had remarked, disparagingly. It was no more fossil than I am; but
they call it fossil when it is dug up. It appears these niggers do bury the
tusks sometimes—but evidently they couldn't bury this parcel deep enough to save
the gifted Mr. Kurtz from his fate. We filled the steamboat with it
[ivory], 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 favor had remained with him to the last. You should have
heard him say, 'My ivory.' Oh, yes, I heard him. 'My Intended, my
my station, my river, my—' everything belonged to him. It made me hold my
breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of
laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places. Everything
belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged
to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was the
reflection that made you creepy all over. It was impossible—it was not good for
one either—trying to imagine. He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of
the land—I mean literally. You can't understand. How could you?—with solid
pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to
fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the
holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how can you imagine
what particular region of the first ages a man's untrammeled feet may take him
into by the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman—by the way of
silence—utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard
whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference.
When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your
own capacity for faithfulness. Of course you may be too much of a fool to go
wrong—too dull even to know you are being assaulted by the powers of darkness. I
take it, no fool ever made a bargain for his soul with the devil; the fool is
too much of a fool, or the devil too much of a devil—I don't know which. Or you
may be such a thunderingly exalted creature as to be altogether deaf and blind
to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Then the earth for you is only a
standing place—and whether to be like this is your loss or your gain I won't
pretend to say. But most of us are neither one nor the other.
[fool or angel?] The earth for us is a
place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells,
too, by Jove!—breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated. And
there, don't you see? Your strength comes in, the faith in your ability for the
digging of unostentatious holes to bury the stuff in—your power of devotion, not
to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking business. And that's difficult
enough. Mind, I am not trying to excuse or even explain—I am trying to
account to myself for—for—Mr. Kurtz—for the shade of Mr. Kurtz. This
initiated wraith [ghost, spectre] from the
back of Nowhere honored me with its amazing confidence before it vanished
altogether. This was because it could speak English to me. The original Kurtz
had been educated partly in England, and—as he was good enough to say
himself—his sympathies were in the right place. His mother was half-English, his
father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz; and
by and by I learned that, most appropriately, the International Society for
the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report,
for its future guidance. And he had written it, too. I've seen it. I've read it.
It was eloquent, vibrating with eloquence, but too high-strung, I think.
Seventeen pages of close writing he had found time for! But this must have been
before his—let us say—nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain
midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which—as far as I reluctantly
gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you
understand?—to Mr. Kurtz himself. But it was a beautiful piece of writing.
The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me
now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of
development we had arrived at, 'must necessarily appear to them
[savages] in the
nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,' and
so on, and so on. 'By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for
good practically unbounded,' etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me
with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you
know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august
Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power
of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words. There were no practical hints
to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot
of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be
regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of
that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous
and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the
brutes!' The curious part was that he had apparently forgotten all about
that valuable postscriptum, because, later on, when he in a sense came to
himself, he repeatedly entreated me to take good care of 'my pamphlet' (he
called it), as it was sure to have in the future a good influence upon his
career. I had full information about all these things, and, besides, as it
turned out, I was to have the care of his memory. I've done enough for it to
give me the indisputable right to lay it, if I choose, for an everlasting rest
in the dust-bin of progress, amongst all the sweepings and, figuratively
speaking, all the dead cats of civilization. But then, you see, I can't
choose. He won't be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common. He had
the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance
in his honor; he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter
misgivings: he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in
the world that was neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking. No; I
can't forget him, though I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly
worth the life we lost in getting to him. I missed my late helmsman awfully—I
missed him even while his body was still lying in the pilot-house. Perhaps
you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more
account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don't you see, he had done
something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back—a help—an instrument.
It was a kind of partnership. He steered for me—I had to look after him, I
worried about his deficiencies, and thus a subtle bond had been created, of
which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken. And the intimate
profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day
in my memory—like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.
"Poor fool! If he had only left that shutter alone.
[see end of par. 2.21 above.] He had no
restraint, no restraint—just like Kurtz—a tree swayed by the wind. As soon
as I had put on a dry pair of slippers, I dragged him out, after first jerking
the spear out of his side, which operation I confess I performed with my eyes
shut tight. His heels leaped together over the little doorstep; his shoulders
were pressed to my breast; I hugged him from behind desperately. Oh! he was
heavy, heavy; heavier than any man on earth, I should imagine. Then without more
ado I tipped him overboard. The current snatched him as though he had been a
wisp of grass, and I saw the body roll over twice before I lost sight of it for
ever. All the pilgrims and the manager were then congregated on the
awning-deck about the pilot-house, chattering at each other like a flock of
excited magpies, and there was a scandalized murmur at my heartless
promptitude. What they wanted to keep that body hanging about for I can't
guess. Embalm it, maybe. But I had also heard another, and a very ominous,
murmur on the deck below. My friends the wood-cutters were likewise scandalized,
and with a better show of reason—though I admit that the reason itself was
quite inadmissible. Oh, quite! I had made up my mind that if my late helmsman
was to be eaten, the fishes alone should have him. He had been a very
second-rate helmsman while alive, but now he was dead he might have become a
first-class temptation, and possibly cause some startling trouble. Besides, I
was anxious to take the wheel, the man in pink pyjamas showing himself a
hopeless duffer at the business.
"This I did directly the simple funeral was over. We were going half-speed,
keeping right in the middle of the stream, and I listened to the talk about me.
They had given up Kurtz, they had given up the station; Kurtz was dead, and the
station had been burnt—and so on—and so on. The red-haired pilgrim was
beside himself with the thought that at least this poor Kurtz had been properly
avenged. 'Say! We must have made a glorious slaughter of them in the bush.
Eh? What do you think? Say?' He positively danced, the bloodthirsty little
gingery beggar. And he had nearly fainted when he saw the wounded man! I
could not help saying, 'You made a glorious lot of smoke, anyhow.' I had
seen, from the way the tops of the bushes rustled and flew, that almost all the
shots had gone too high. You can't hit anything unless you take aim and fire
from the shoulder; but these chaps fired from the hip with their eyes shut. The
retreat, I maintained—and I was right—was caused by the screeching of the steam
whistle. Upon this they forgot Kurtz, and began to howl at me with indignant
"The manager stood by the wheel murmuring confidentially about the necessity of
getting well away down the river before dark at all events, when I saw in the
distance a clearing on the riverside and the outlines of some sort of building.
'What's this?' I asked. He clapped his hands in wonder. 'The station!' he
cried. I edged in at once, still going half-speed.
"Through 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.
[<cf. par. 2.29 above] The rails, or whatever there had been between, had
disappeared. Of course the forest surrounded all that. The river-bank was clear,
and on the waterside I saw a white man under a hat like a cart-wheel
beckoning persistently with his whole arm. Examining the edge of the
forest above and below, I was almost certain I could see movements—human
forms gliding here and there. I steamed past prudently, then stopped the
engines and let her drift down. The man on the shore began to shout, urging us
to land. 'We have been attacked,' screamed the manager. 'I know—I know. It's all
right,' yelled back the other, as cheerful as you please. 'Come along. It's all
right. I am glad.'
"His aspect reminded me of something I had seen—something funny I had seen
somewhere. As I maneuvered 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
[linen fabric from flax] probably, but it
was covered with patches all over, with bright patches, blue, red, and
yellow—patches on the back, patches on the front, patches on elbows, on knees;
colored 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.
[<again Marlow prizes good workmanship] A
beardless, boyish face, very fair, no features to speak of, nose peeling, little
blue eyes, smiles and frowns chasing each other over that open countenance like
sunshine and shadow on a wind-swept plain.
'Look out, captain!' he cried; 'there's
a snag lodged in here last night.'
What! Another snag? I confess I swore
shamefully. I had nearly holed my cripple, to finish off that charming trip.
The harlequin on the bank turned his
little pug-nose up to me. 'You English?' he asked, all smiles.
'Are you?' I shouted from the wheel.
The smiles vanished, and he shook his
head as if sorry for my disappointment. Then he brightened up. 'Never mind!' he
'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.
"When the manager, escorted by the pilgrims, all of them armed to the teeth, had
gone to the house this chap came on board. 'I say, I don't like this. These
natives are in the bush,' I said.
He assured me earnestly it was all
right. 'They are simple people,' he added; 'well, I am glad you came. It took me
all my time to keep them off.'
'But you said it was all right,' I
'Oh, they meant no harm,' he said; and
as I stared he corrected himself, 'Not exactly.' Then vivaciously, 'My faith,
your pilot-house wants a clean-up!'
In the next breath he advised me to keep
enough steam on the boiler to blow the whistle in case of any trouble. 'One good
screech will do more for you than all your rifles. They are simple people,' he
repeated. He rattled away at such a rate he quite overwhelmed me. He seemed to
be trying to make up for lots of silence, and actually hinted, laughing, that
such was the case.
'Don't you talk with Mr. Kurtz?' I said.
'You don't talk with that man—you listen
to him,' he exclaimed with severe exaltation. 'But now—' He waved his arm, and
in the twinkling of an eye was in the 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 . . . honor . . . pleasure
. . . delight . . . introduce myself . . . Russian . . . son of an arch-priest
. . Government of Tambov . . . What? Tobacco! English tobacco; the excellent
English tobacco! Now, that's brotherly. Smoke? Where's a sailor that does not
"The 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 favorite
dog, so he gave me some cheap things and a few guns, and told me he hoped he
would never see my face again. Good old Dutchman, Van Shuyten. I've sent him one
small lot of ivory a year ago, so that he can't call me a little thief when I
get back. I hope he got it. And for the rest I don't care. I had some wood
stacked for you. That was my old house. Did you see?'
"I gave him Towson's book [on seamanship, par.
2.8]. He made as though he would kiss me, but
restrained himself. 'The only book I had left, and I thought I had lost it,'
he said, looking at it ecstatically. 'So many accidents happen to a man
going about alone, you know. Canoes get upset sometimes—and sometimes you've got
to clear out so quick when the people get angry.' He thumbed the pages.
'You made notes in Russian?' I asked.
'I thought they were written in cipher
[code],' 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
He hesitated, then said shamefacedly,
'They don't want him to go.'
'Don't they?' I said curiously.
He nodded a nod full of mystery and
wisdom. 'I tell you,' he cried, 'this man has enlarged my mind.' He opened
his arms wide, staring at me with his little blue eyes that were perfectly
"I looked at him, lost in astonishment. There he was before me, in motley
multi-colored patches like a jester’s], 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 remain—why he did not instantly disappear.
'I went a little farther,' he said, 'then still a little farther—till I had gone
so far that I don't know how I'll ever get back. Never mind. Plenty time. I can
manage. You take Kurtz away quick—quick—I tell you.' The glamour of youth
enveloped his parti-coloured rags, his destitution, his loneliness, the
essential desolation of his futile wanderings. For months—for years—his life
hadn't been worth a day's 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
admiration—like 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 he—the man before your
eyes—who 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.
"They 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,
'It isn't what you think,' he cried,
almost passionately. 'It was in general. He made me see things—things.'
"He [the Russian youth] threw his arms up.
We were on deck at the time, and the headman of my wood-cutters, lounging
nearby, turned upon him his heavy and glittering eyes. I looked around, and
I don't 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.
"On 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
[the Russian youth] said. 'Ah, it was
worth waiting for!—sometimes.'
'What was he doing? exploring or what?'
'Oh, yes, of course'; he had discovered
lots of villages, a lake, too—he did not know exactly in what direction; it was
dangerous to inquire too much—but mostly his expeditions had been for
'But he had no goods to trade with by
that time,' I objected.
'There's a good lot of cartridges
[ammunition] left even yet,' he answered, looking away.
'To speak plainly, he raided the
country,' I said.
'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 know—and they had never seen
anything like it—and very terrible. He could be very terrible. You can't
judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man. No, no, no! Now—just to
give you an idea—I don't mind telling you, he wanted to shoot me, too, one
day—but I don't judge him.' [This highlighted
passage + next below may evoke, from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s
Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-85), the “superman” or “overman” prophesied by
evolution and the death of God may appear no longer bound by conventional
morality; Kurtz’s “eloquence” may be another identifier with this figure.]
'Shoot you!' I cried 'What for?'
'Well, I had a small lot of
chief of that village near my house gave me. You see I used to shoot game for
them. Well, he wanted it, and wouldn't 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 didn't clear out. No, no. I couldn't
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 didn't 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 couldn't 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 people—forget himself—you know.'
'Why! he's mad,' I said.
He protested indignantly. Mr. Kurtz
couldn't be mad. If I had heard him talk, only two days ago, I wouldn't 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 quiet—as silent and quiet as the ruined house on the
hill—made 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 mask—heavy, like the closed door of a prison—they
looked with their air of hidden knowledge, of patient expectation, of
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
months—getting himself adored, I suppose—and 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 the—what
shall I say?—less material aspirations. However he had got much worse suddenly.
[Compare Marlow’s aunt’s spiritual aspirations]
'I heard he was lying helpless, and so I
came up—took my chance,' said the Russian. 'Oh, he is bad, very bad.'
I directed my glass
[binoculars] 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 [binoculars]. 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 disturbing—food 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 seen—and there it
was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids—a 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.
"I am not disclosing any trade secrets. In fact, the manager said afterwards
that Mr. Kurtz's 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 him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not
be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency
himself I can't say. I think the knowledge came to him at last—only 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 solitude—and 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 distance.
"The admirer of Mr. Kurtz [the Russian]
was a bit crestfallen. In a hurried, indistinct voice he began to assure me he
had not dared to take these—say, symbols—down. 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 don't 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. Kurtz's 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 exist—obviously—in the
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 hadn't heard any of these splendid monologues on, what was it? on
love, justice, conduct of life—or 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, workers—and these were rebels.
Those rebellious heads looked very subdued to me on their sticks.
'You don't know how such a life tries a
man like Kurtz,' cried Kurtz's 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 don't understand,' he groaned. 'I've been doing
my best to keep him alive, and that's enough. I had no hand in all this. I have
no abilities. There hasn't been a drop of medicine or a mouthful of invalid
[convalescent] food for months here. He was shamefully
abandoned. A man like this, with such ideas. Shamefully! Shamefully! I—I—haven't
slept for the last ten nights . . .'
"His [the Russian’s] 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 splendor, with a
murky and overshadowed bend above and below. Not a living soul was seen on
the shore. The bushes did not rustle.
"Suddenly 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 beings—of naked human beings—with
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.
"'Now, if he [Kurtz] 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
'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 dishonoring 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.
Kurtz—Kurtz—that means short in
German—don't it? Well, the name was as true as everything else in his life—and
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 wide—it 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
"Some of the pilgrims behind the stretcher carried his arms—two shot-guns, a
heavy rifle, and a light revolver-carbine—the 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 cabins—just 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.
"He 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 him—factitious
[artificial] no doubt—to very nearly make
an end of us, as you shall hear directly.
"The 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.
"Dark 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.
"She 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 soul. [ ]
"She came abreast of the steamer, stood still, and faced us. Her long shadow
fell to the water's 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.
"She 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.
"'If 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 wasn't 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 don't 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 don't understand.
. . . No—it's too much for me. Ah, well, it's all over now.'
"At this moment I heard Kurtz's deep voice behind the curtain: 'Save
me!—save the ivory, you mean. Don't tell me. Save ME! Why, I've had to save you.
You are interrupting my plans now. Sick! Sick! Not so sick as you would like to
believe. Never mind. I'll carry my ideas out yet—I will return. I'll show you
what can be done. You with your little peddling notions—you are interfering
with me. I will return. I. . . .'
"The manager came out. He did me the honor to take me under the arm and lead
'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 him—haven't 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, cautiously—that's 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 don't deny there is a remarkable quantity of
ivory—mostly fossil. We must save it, at all events—but look how precarious the
position is—and why? Because the method is unsound.'
'Do you,' said I, looking at the shore,
'call it "unsound method?"'
'Without doubt,' he exclaimed hotly.
'Don't you?' . . .
'No method at all,' I murmured after a
'Exactly,' he exulted. 'I anticipated
this. Shows a complete want of judgment. It is my duty to point it out in the
'Oh,' said I, 'that fellow—what's 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 relief—positively 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 favor
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.
"I 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 seaman—couldn't conceal—knowledge of matters that
would affect Mr. Kurtz's 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. Kurtz's friend—in a way.'
"He [the Russian] 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
[Kurtz] 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 overheard. 'The manager thinks you ought to be
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. What's to stop them? There's a military post three hundred miles from
'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
people—and I want nothing, you know.' He stood biting his lip, then: 'I don't
want any harm to happen to these whites here, but of course I was thinking of
Mr. Kurtz's reputation—but you are a brother seaman and—'
'All right,' said I, after a time. 'Mr.
Kurtz's reputation is safe with me.' I did not know how truly I spoke.
"He [the Russian] 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 away—and then
again. . . . But I don't understand these matters. I am a simple man. He thought
it would scare you away—that 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
'Ye-e-es,' he muttered, not very
'Thanks,' said I; 'I shall keep my eyes
'But quiet—eh?' he urged anxiously. 'It
would be awful for his reputation if anybody here—'
I promised a complete discretion with
'I have a canoe and three black fellows
waiting not very far. I am off. Could you give me a few Martini-Henry
I could, and did, with proper secrecy.
He helped himself, with a wink at me, to a handful of my tobacco. 'Between
sailors—you know—good English tobacco.'
At the door of the pilot-house he turned
round—'I say, haven't you a pair of shoes you could spare?' He raised one leg.
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 'Towson's
Inquiry,' etc., etc. He seemed to think himself excellently well equipped for a
renewed encounter with the wilderness.
Russian speaks of Kurtz:] 'Ah! I'll never, never meet such a man again.
You ought to have heard him recite poetry—his 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 him—whether it was
possible to meet such a phenomenon! . . .
"When I woke up shortly after midnight his warning
[Russian’s warning of hostilities between Kurtz’s
Africans and manager’s whites] 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
[sentry post] 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. Kurtz's 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.
"I think I would have raised an outcry if I had believed my eyes. But I
didn't believe them at first—the 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 was—how 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 an alarm.
"There was an agent buttoned up inside an ulster
[overcoat] 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.
Kurtz—it was ordered I should never betray him—it was written I should be loyal
to the nightmare of my choice. I was anxious to deal with this shadow by
myself alone—and to this day I don't know why I was so jealous of sharing
with any one the peculiar blackness of that experience.
"As soon as I got on the bank I saw a trail—a broad trail through the grass.
I remember the exultation with which I said to myself, 'He can't walk—he is
crawling on all-fours—I've 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 [beating]. I
don't 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 things—you know. And I remember I confounded the beat
of the drum with the beating of my heart, and was pleased at its calm
"I kept to the track though—then 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 [overconfident]
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 seen—if indeed I had seen anything. I was
circumventing Kurtz as though it had been a boyish game.
"I came upon him [Kurtz], 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 vapor 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 vigor in his voice. 'Go away—hide 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 horns—antelope horns, I
think—on its head. Some sorcerer, some witch-man, no doubt: it looked fiendlike
'Do you know what you are doing?' I
'Perfectly,' he answered, raising his
voice for that single word: it sounded to me far off and yet loud, like a hail
[a summons] through a speaking-trumpet
'If he makes a row
[quarrel] 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 Shadow—this wandering and tormented
'You will be lost,' I said—'utterly
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 laid—to endure—to endure—even to the
"'I had immense plans,' he [Kurtz]
'Yes,' said I; 'but if you try to shout
I'll 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 understand—and indeed it would have been very little use for any practical
purpose. I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the
wilderness—that 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, don't you see, the terror of the position
was not in being knocked on the head—though I had a very lively sense of that
danger, too—but 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 him—himself—his own exalted and incredible degradation. There was nothing
either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the
Confound the man! he had kicked the
very earth to pieces. [millennial theme]
He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the
ground or floated in the air. I've been telling you what we said—repeating
the phrases we pronounced—but what's the good? They were common everyday
words—the 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 wasn't arguing with a lunatic
either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear—concentrated, it
is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my
only chance—barring, of course, the killing him there and then, which wasn't 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 had—for my sins, I suppose—to go through the ordeal of looking into
it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one's belief in mankind
as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it—I
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 [Marlow
has returned Kurtz to his hut], 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 neck—and he was not
much heavier than a child.
"When 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 i.e., the steamboat]
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
tail—something 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
"We 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.
2.69] "'Do you understand this?' I asked.
"He [Kurtz] 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 colorless 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
"I 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. 'Don't! don't you frighten them away,' cried someone
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 somber
and glittering river.
"And then that imbecile crowd down on the deck started their little fun, and
I could see nothing more for smoke.
"The 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 Kurtz's 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
disfavor. 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.
"Kurtz 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 now—images of wealth and fame
revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty
expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these 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.
"Sometimes he [Kurtz] 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 motives—right motives—always.' 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
ahead—piloting. 'Close the shutter,' said Kurtz suddenly one day; 'I can't bear
to look at this.' I did so. There was a silence. 'Oh, but I will wring your
heart yet!' he cried at the invisible wilderness.
"We broke down—as I had expected—and had to lie up for repairs at the head
of an island. This delay was the first thing that shook Kurtz's confidence. One
morning he gave me a packet of papers and a photograph—the 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. It's a
"His 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-drills—things I abominate, because I don't
get on with them. I tended the little forge we fortunately had aboard; I
toiled wearily in a wretched scrap-heap—unless I had the shakes too bad to
"One 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.
"Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never
seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was
fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that
the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of 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 vision—he cried out
twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
2.80] "'The horror! The horror!'
"I 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 manager's boy put his insolent black head
in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt:
2.82] "'Mistah Kurtz—he dead.'
"All 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 there—light, don't you know—and 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.
2.84] "And then they very nearly buried me.
"However, 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 is—that
mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can
hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a 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 clamor,
without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of
defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, 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 hair's 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 up—he had judged. 'The horror!'
He was a remarkable man. After all, this
was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it
had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a
glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate. And it is not my
own extremity I remember best—a vision of greyness without form filled with
physical pain, and a careless contempt for the evanescence of all things—even 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 cry—much 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.
"No, 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 [Brussels, Belgium]
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 streets—there were various affairs to settle—grinning
bitterly at perfectly respectable persons. I admit my behavior was inexcusable,
but then my temperature was seldom normal in these days.
My dear aunt's endeavors 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
[Kurtz’s fiancée]. 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 [quarrels] 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. Kurtz's knowledge of unexplored
regions must have been necessarily extensive and peculiar—owing to his great
abilities and to the deplorable circumstances in which he had been placed:
I assured him Mr. Kurtz's knowledge,
however extensive, did not bear upon the problems of commerce or administration.
Company official] 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.
[postscript = “Exterminate all the brutes!”; see
par. 2.29] 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 Kurtz's
cousin, appeared two days later, and was anxious to hear all the details about
his dear relative's 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 Kurtz's profession, whether he
ever had any—which 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 paint—but
even the cousin (who took snuff during the interview) could not tell me what he
had been—exactly. He was a universal genius—on 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 Kurtz's 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 couldn't write a bit—'but heavens! how that man could talk.
He electrified large meetings. He had faith—don't you see?—he had the faith.
He could get himself to believe anything—anything. He would have been a splendid
leader of an extreme party.'
'What party?' I asked.
'Any party,' answered the other. 'He was
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.
"Thus I was left at last with a slim packet of letters and the girl's
portrait. She struck me as beautiful—I 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 Kurtz's 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 Intended—and I wanted to give that up, too, to the
past, in a way—to surrender personally all that remained of him with me to that
oblivion which is the last word of our common fate. I don't 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 don't know. I can't
tell. But I went.
"I thought his memory was like the other memories of the dead that
accumulate in every man's life—a 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 lived—a 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 me—the 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 heart—the 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. H'm. It is a difficult case. What do you think I
ought to do—resist? Eh? I want no more than justice.' . . . He wanted no more
than justice—no 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
panel—stare with that wide and immense stare embracing, condemning, loathing all
the universe. I seemed to hear the whispered cry, "The horror! The horror!"
"The 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
[be-draped, shrouded] 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 somber
and polished sarcophagus. A high door opened—closed. I rose.
"She 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 young—I 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,
'I—I 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 yesterday—nay, this very
minute. I saw her and him in the same instant of time—his death and her
sorrow—I saw her sorrow in the very moment of his death. Do you understand? I
saw them together—I 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
2.91] "'Intimacy grows quickly out there,' I said. 'I knew him as well as
it is possible for one man to know another.'
2.92] "'And you admired him,' she said. 'It was impossible to know him
and not to admire him. Was it?'
2.93] "'He 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—'
2.94] "'Love 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.'
2.95] "'You 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.
2.96] "'You 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 you—and oh! I must speak. I want you—you who have
heard his last words—to 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 earth—he
told me so himself. And since his mother died I have had no one—no one—to—to—'
2.97] "I 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 wasn't rich enough
or something. And indeed I don't 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.
2.98] "'. . . 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 heard—the ripple
of the river, the soughing [sighing] 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!'
2.99] "'Yes, 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 her—from which I could not
even defend myself.
2.100] "'What a loss to me—to 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 tears—of tears that
would not fall.
2.101] "'I have been very happy—very fortunate—very proud,' she went on.
'Too fortunate. Too happy for a little while. And now I am unhappy for—for
2.102] "She stood up; her fair hair seemed to catch all the remaining
light in a glimmer of gold. I rose, too.
2.103] "'And 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
remains—nothing but a memory. You and I—'
2.104] "'We shall always remember him,' I said hastily.
2.105] "'No!' she cried. 'It is impossible that all this should be
lost—that such a life should be sacrificed to leave nothing—but sorrow. You know
what vast plans he had. I knew of them, too—I could not perhaps understand—but
others knew of them. Something must remain. His words, at least, have not
2.106] "'His words will remain,' I said.
2.107] "'And his example,' she whispered to herself. 'Men looked up to
him—his goodness shone in every act. His example—'
2.108] "'True,' I said; 'his example, too. Yes, his example. I forgot
2.109] "But I do not. I cannot—I cannot believe—not yet. I cannot believe
that I shall never see him again, that no-body will see him again, never, never,
2.110] "She 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.' [In the next-to-last sentence,
Marlow compares the Intended’s posture with that of the African woman who, when
the boat started downriver, “opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above
her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky” (par. 2.52)]
2.111] "'His end,' said I, with dull anger stirring in me, 'was in every
way worthy of his life.'
2.112] "'And I was not with him,' she murmured. My anger subsided before
a feeling of infinite pity.
2.113] "'Everything that could be done—' I mumbled.
2.114] "'Ah, but I believed in him more than any one on earth—more than
his own mother, more than—himself. He needed me! Me! I would have treasured
every sigh, every word, every sign, every glance.'
2.115] "I felt like a chill grip on my chest. 'Don't,' I said, in a
2.116] "'Forgive me. I—I have mourned so long in silence—in silence. . .
. You were with him—to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near
to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear. . . .'
2.117] "'To the very end,' I said, shakily. 'I heard his very last
words. . . .' I stopped in a fright.
2.118] "'Repeat them,' she murmured in a heart-broken tone. 'I
want—I want—something—something—to—to live with.'
2.119] "I was on the point of crying at her, 'Don't 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!'
2.120] "'His last word—to live with,' she insisted. 'Don't you understand
I loved him—I loved him—I loved him!'
2.121] "I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.
2.122] "'The last word he pronounced was—your name.'
"I 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 it—I 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? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn't. I could not tell
her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether. . . ."
Marlow 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
[horizon] was barred by a black bank of
clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth
flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense