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by Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski)
The original, squashed down to read in about 35 minutes
Conrad and Congo postcards of his time (GH Collection)
King Leopold of Belgium, the man for whom the phrase 'crimes against humanity' was invented, murderously plundered his private African Congo for ivory and rubber under the pretence of promoting civilisation. It was there that the Polish Conrad served, briefly, as a riverboat captain, for, as he said, "Heart of Darkness is experience, pushed only very little beyond the actual facts." The book has been adapted into the movie 'Apocalypse Now', and is one of the most discussed and the most admired of all stories.
The Nellie, a cruising yawl, was at rest. The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
The Director of Companies was our captain and our host, there was the Lawyer, and the Accountant, and Marlow, leaning against the mizzen-mast. We exchanged a few words lazily. The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore.
"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth." Marlow was a seaman still, his home the ship and his country the sea. "I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here. Imagine the feelings of a commander ordered suddenly to the very end of the world. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, no proper food, and in some inland post, feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him."
"Mind," he began again, "What saves us is the devotion to efficiency. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind - as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only."
"I don't want to bother you much with what happened to me personally," he began, "yet, you ought to know how I got out there, what I saw, how I went up that river to the place where I first met the poor chap."
"I had just returned to London after a regular dose of the East and began to look for a ship. Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. And there was one mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, in a land still blank. Then I remembered there was a Company for trade on that river. Dash it all! Why shouldn't I? The snake had charmed me.
"Thanks to my aunt, who knew the wife of a very high personage in the Administration, I got my appointment.
"It appears that one of their captains - a Dane called Fresleven - had got a spear between the shoulder-blades after hammering a village chief over some trivial argument about two black hens. Oh, it didn't surprise me in the least to hear this, and at the same time to be told that Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs. No doubt he was; but a couple of years out there engaged in the noble cause, you know, and he probably felt the need of asserting his self-respect. Months later, when an opportunity offered at last to meet my predecessor, the grass growing through his ribs was tall enough to hide his bones. The supernatural being had not been touched after he fell. And the village was deserted, mad terror had scattered them, men, women, and children, through the bush, and they had never returned. What became of the hens I don't know.
"Before forty-eight hours I was crossing the Channel to sign the contract and arrived in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt. I had no difficulty in finding the Company's offices. It was the biggest thing in the town, and everybody I met was full of it. They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade.
"In the outer room two women knitted black wool feverishly. The secretary seemed uncanny and fateful. Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again - not half, by a long way.
"The old doctor felt my pulse, and produced a thing like callipers and got the dimensions of my head. 'In the interests of science.' he said. 'Ever any madness in your family?' I felt very annoyed. 'Adieu.' He lifted a warning forefinger. 'Keep calm, du calme. Adieu.'
"I left in a French steamer, which called at places with farcical names along coasts of monotonous grimness, in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.
"At last a rocky cliff appeared, mounds of turned-up earth by the shore, houses on a hill, others, with iron roofs, amongst a waste of excavations. A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants. A jetty projected into the river. 'There's your Company's station,' said the Swedish captain, pointing to three wooden barrack-like structures on the rocky slope. 'So. Farewell.'
"A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. Each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain, rhythmically clinking. They passed me within six inches, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages. Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondently, and seeing a white man, hoisted his weapon to his shoulder. For a moment I stood appalled, as though by a warning. Finally I descended the hill, obliquely, towards the trees I had seen.
"Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. A mine on the cliff went off. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.
"Brought from all the recesses of the coast, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. I found nothing else to do but to offer one of my good Swede's ship's biscuits I had in my pocket. Fingers closed slowly on it and held - there was no other movement and no other glance.
"I didn't want any more loitering, and made haste towards the station.
"When near the buildings I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision. I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clear necktie, and varnished boots. He was amazing, and had a penholder behind his ear.
"I shook hands with this miracle, and I learned he was the Company's chief accountant. Everything else in the station was in a muddle, - heads, things, buildings. Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed; a stream of manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads, and brass-wire, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory.
"I had to wait in the station for ten days - an eternity. I lived in a hut in the yard, but to be out of the chaos I would sometimes get into the accountant's office. One day he remarked, 'In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr. Kurtz. He is a very remarkable person. Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together ... .' He began to write again. The flies buzzed in a great peace; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still tree-tops of the grove of death.
"Next day I left that station at last, with a caravan of sixty men, for a two-hundred-mile tramp.
"I passed through several abandoned villages. There's something pathetically childish in the ruins of grass walls. Now and then a carrier dead in harness, at rest in the long grass near the path. A great silence around and above. Perhaps on some quiet night the tremor of far-off drums, sinking, swelling, a tremor vast, faint; a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild - and perhaps with as profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian country. Once a white man in an unbuttoned uniform, very hospitable and festive - not to say drunk. Was looking after the upkeep of the road, he declared. Can't say I saw any road or any upkeep, unless the body of a middle-aged negro, with a bullet-hole in the forehead, upon which I absolutely stumbled three miles farther on, may be considered as a permanent improvement. On the fifteenth day I came in sight of the big river again, and hobbled into the Central Station. White men with long staves in their hands appeared languidly. One of them, a stout, excitable chap with black moustaches, informed me with great volubility and many digressions, that my steamer was at the bottom of the river. I was thunderstruck.
"Still, it presented itself simply as a confounded nuisance. I had to set about it the very next day.
"My first interview with the manager was curious. He was a common trader - nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust - just uneasiness - nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a ... a ... faculty can be.
"He began to speak as soon as he saw me. The up-river stations had to be relieved. There were rumours that a very important station was in jeopardy, and its chief, Mr. Kurtz, was ill. Hoped it was not true. He was a chattering idiot.
"Oh, these months! Well, never mind. Various things happened. One evening a grass shed full of calico, cotton prints, beads, and I don't know what else, burst into a blaze.
"I strolled up. A nigger was being beaten. As I approached the glow I found myself at the back of two men, talking. I heard the name of Kurtz pronounced, then the words, 'take advantage of this unfortunate accident.' One of the men was a first-class agent, young, gentlemanly, a bit reserved, with a forked little beard and a hooked nose. He asked me to his room, which was in the main building of the station. He struck a match, and I perceived that this young aristocrat had not only a silver-mounted dressing-case but also a whole candle all to himself. Native mats covered the clay walls; a collection of spears, assegais, shields, knives was hung up in trophies. I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. 'Tell me, pray,' said I, 'who is this Mr. Kurtz?'
"'The chief of the Inner Station,' he answered in a short tone. 'He is a prodigy, an emissary of pity, and science, and progress' he began to declaim, 'for the guidance of the cause intrusted to us by Europe, so to speak.'
Mr. Kurtz was a 'universal genius,' but even a genius would find it easier to work with 'adequate tools - intelligent men.' Did I see it? I saw it. What more did I want? What I really wanted was rivets, by heaven!
"But instead of rivets there came an invasion of white men on donkeys calling themselves the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.
"One evening as I was lying flat on the deck of my steamboat, I heard voices approaching. I laid my head on my arm when somebody said in my ear, as it were: 'Am I the manager - or am I not? ... I was ordered to send him there. - It is unpleasant. - 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'. Then silence. They had been talking about Kurtz. 'We will not be free from unfair competition till one of these fellows is hanged for an example,' '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.'
"They swore aloud together, then turned back to the station.
"In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver.
"Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side.
"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, 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 stank. I had the manager on board and three or four pilgrims with their staves - all complete. The earth seemed unearthly. And we crept on, towards Kurtz.
"Some fifty miles below the Inner Station we came upon a hut of reeds, an inclined and melancholy pole, with the unrecognisable tatters of what had been a flag of some sort flying from it. This was unexpected. We came to the bank, and on a stack of firewood found a flat piece of board with some faded pencil-writing on it. It said: 'Hurry up. Approach cautiously.' Where? Up the river? 'Approach cautiously.' We had not done so. The bush around said nothing. By the door I picked up a book; 'An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship' by Tower, Towson - some such name. 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. They were in cipher! It was an extravagant mystery.
"I started the lame engine ahead. 'It must be some miserable trader - an intruder,' exclaimed the manager, looking back malevolently at the place we had left.
"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 to wait till next morning. This was sensible enough, but sleep seemed unnatural, like a state of trance.
When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. Then - I don't know how it struck the others - to me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed. A hurried outbreak of almost intolerably excessive shrieking. 'Good God! What is the meaning - ?' 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. 'Will they attack, do you think?' asked the manager, in a confidential tone.
"I was looking down at the sounding-pole, when I saw my poleman give up the business suddenly, and stretch himself flat on the deck. At the same time the fireman, sat down abruptly before his furnace. I was amazed. Then, sticks, little sticks, were flying about - thick: they were whizzing before my nose, dropping below me. Arrows, by Jove! We were being shot at! 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.
"My helmsman lay dead, and, by the way, I supposed Mr. Kurtz to be dead as well by this time.
"The original Kurtz had been educated partly in England, and by-and-by I learned that the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had intrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance. I've read it. It was eloquent, vibrating with eloquence. 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 as of a deity. By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,' &c., &c. From that point he soared, and took me with him. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, except a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand. 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!' He won't be forgotten.
"'The station!' cried the manager, and on the water-side I saw a white man under a hat like a cart-wheel beckoning persistently with his whole arm. The fellow looked like a harlequin. His clothes were covered with patches all over, with bright patches, blue, red, and yellow; and the sunshine made him look extremely wonderfully neat withal.
"When the manager, escorted by the pilgrims, all of them armed to the teeth, had gone to the house, this chap came on board. He rattled away at such a rate he seemed to be trying to make up for lots of silence. '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 ... Brother sailor ... honour ... pleasure ... delight ... introduce myself ... Russian ... son of an arch-priest ... Government of Tambov ... What? Excellent English tobacco!'
"I gave him Towson's book. 'I thought I had lost it,' he said, looking at it ecstatically. 'You made notes in Russian?' I asked. He nodded. 'I thought they were written in cipher,' I said. He laughed, then became serious. 'Why did they attack us?' I asked. He hesitated, then said shamefacedly, 'They are simple people, they don't want him to go. I tell you,' he cried, 'this man has enlarged my mind.'
"I looked at him, lost in astonishment. 'You take Kurtz away quick - quick - I tell you.'
"I suppose Kurtz wanted an audience, because on a certain occasion, when encamped in the forest, it seems 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. Everything! Of love too.' 'Ah, he talked to you of love!' I said, much amused. 'It isn't what you think,' he cried, almost passionately. 'It was in general. He made me see things - things.' 'And, ever since, you have been with him, of course?' I said.
"He had, as he informed me proudly, managed to nurse Kurtz through two illnesses, but as a rule Kurtz wandered alone, far in the depths of the forest. There he had discovered lots of villages, a lake too - but mostly his expeditions had been for ivory. 'But he had no goods to trade with,' I objected. 'There's a good lot of cartridges left even yet,' he answered, looking away. 'To speak plainly, he raided the country,' I said. He nodded. 'Not alone, surely!' He muttered something about the villages round that lake. 'Kurtz got the tribe to follow him, did he?' I suggested. He fidgeted a little. 'They adored him,' he said. The tone of these words was so extraordinary that I looked at him searchingly. It was curious to see his mingled eagerness and reluctance to speak of Kurtz. The man filled his life, occupied his thoughts, swayed his emotions.
I had taken up my binoculars while we talked and was looking at the shore. I directed my glass to the house. I had been struck at the distance by certain attempts at ornamentation, rather remarkable in the ruinous aspect of the place. Now 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 the vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house.
"The admirer of Mr. Kurtz 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 ascendency was extraordinary. 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. I suppose it did not occur to him Mr. Kurtz was no idol of mine. 'I am a simple man. I don't understand,' he groaned. 'I've been doing my best to keep him alive, and that's enough'
"Suddenly round the corner of the house a group of men appeared, as though they had come up from the ground, bearing an improvised stretcher in their midst. Instantly, in the emptiness of the landscape, a cry arose whose shrillness pierced the still air; and, as if by enchantment, streams of naked human beings were poured into the clearing by the dark-faced and pensive forest.
"'Now, if he does not say the right thing to them we are all done for,' said the Russian at my elbow. The knot of men with the stretcher had stopped too, half-way to the steamer, as if petrified. I saw the man on the stretcher sit up and fall back suddenly.
"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.
"Dark human shapes could be made out in the distance, leaning on tall spears, and from along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; innumerable necklaces of glass beads, 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. She looked at us all as if her life had depended upon the unswerving steadiness of her glance. She turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left.
"At this moment I heard Kurtz's deep voice behind the curtain, 'Save me! - save the ivory, you mean. Sick! Not so sick as you would like to believe. I will return. I ... '
"The manager came out. 'He is very low, very low,' he said. 'We have done all we could for him - haven't we? I said with emphasis.
"The Russian tapped me on the shoulder. I heard him mumbling something about 'brother seaman - couldn't conceal - thinking of Mr. Kurtz's reputation' 'All right,' said I. 'Mr. Kurtz's reputation is safe with me.' I did not know how truly I spoke.
"He 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.
"I woke up shortly after midnight, and got up for the purpose of having a look round. One of the agents with a picket of a few of our blacks, armed for the purpose, was keeping guard over the ivory; but deep within the forest, red gleams that wavered, that seemed to sink and rise from the ground amongst confused columnar shapes of intense blackness, showed the exact position of the camp where Mr. 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. I glanced casually into the little cabin. A light was burning within, but Mr. Kurtz was not there.
"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.'
"I came upon him, and, he rose, unsteady, long, pale, indistinct, like a vapour exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent before me; while at my back the fires loomed between the trees, and the murmur of many voices issued from the forest. I glanced back. 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. 'Do you know what you are doing?' I whispered. 'Perfectly,' he answered.
"'I had immense plans,' he muttered irresolutely. Confound the man! Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear, but his soul was mad.
When I had him at last stretched on the couch, 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. In front of the first rank, three men, plastered with bright red earth from head to foot, strutted to and fro restlessly. 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 response of some satanic litany.
"We had carried Kurtz into the pilot-house: there was more air there. 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.
"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.
"Sometimes he was contemptibly childish. He desired to have kings meet him at railway-stations on his return from some ghastly Nowhere, where he intended to accomplish great things. '
"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.'
"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.
"It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror - of an intense and hopeless despair. He cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath -
"'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. Suddenly the manager's boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt -
"'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. But I am of course aware that next day the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole.
"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 concluded I would go and give her back her portrait and those letters myself. Curiosity? I don't know. I can't tell. But I went.
"I rang the bell before a mahogany door on the first floor, and she came forward, all in black. 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 for ever.
"'You were his friend,' she said. 'I feel I can speak to you - and oh! I am proud to know I understood him better than anyone on earth - he told me so himself.'
"'We shall always remember him,' I said, hastily.
"'No!' she cried. 'It is impossible that such a life should be sacrificed to leave nothing. You know what vast plans he had. Men looked up to him - his goodness shone in every act. His example...You were with him - to the last?'
"'To the very end,' I said, shakily. 'I heard his very last words ...' I stopped in a fright.
"'Repeat them,' she said in a heart-broken tone.
"I was on the point of crying at her, 'Don't you hear them? The horror! The horror!'
"I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.
"'The last word he pronounced was - your name.'
"The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. But I couldn't 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. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
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