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Heart of Darkness

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“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 so suddenly that you would have thought the earth had opened to let an avenging fire consume all that trash. I was smoking my pipe quietly by my dismantled steamer, and saw them all cutting capers in the light, with their arms lifted high, when the stout man with moustaches came tearing down to the river, a tin pail in his hand, assured me that everybody was ‘behaving splendidly, splendidly,’ dipped about a quart of water and tore back again. I noticed there was a hole in the bottom of his pail. “Oh, those months! Well, never mind. Time passed and things happened. One night a grass shed full of cloth and beads caught on fire so suddenly it was like the end of the world. I was smoking my pipe when the fat man with the black moustache came running down to the river with a tin bucket and told me that everything was OK. He scooped up about a quart of water and ran back. He didn’t see it, but there was a hole in the bottom of his bucket.
“I strolled up. There was no hurry. You see the thing had gone off like a box of matches. It had been hopeless from the very first. The flame had leaped high, driven everybody back, lighted up everything—and collapsed. The shed was already a heap of embers glowing fiercely. A nigger was being beaten near by. They said he had caused the fire in some way; be that as it may, he was screeching most horribly. I saw him, later, for several days, sitting in a bit of shade looking very sick and trying to recover himself; afterwards he arose and went out—and the wilderness without a sound took him into its bosom again. As I approached the glow from the dark I found myself at the back of two men, talking. I heard the name of Kurtz pronounced, then the words, ‘take advantage of this unfortunate accident.’ One of the men was the manager. I wished him a good evening. ‘Did you ever see anything like it—eh? it is incredible,’ he said, and walked off. The other man remained. He was a first-class agent, young, gentlemanly, a bit reserved, with a forked little beard and a hooked nose. He was stand-offish with the other agents, and they on their side said he was the manager’s spy upon them. As to me, I had hardly ever spoken to him before. We got into talk, and by and by we strolled away from the hissing ruins. Then he asked me to his room, which was in the main building of the station. He struck a match, and I perceived that this young aristocrat had not only a silver-mounted dressing-case but also a whole candle all to himself. Just at that time the manager was the only man supposed to have any right to candles. Native mats covered the clay walls; a collection of spears, assegais, shields, knives was hung up in trophies. The business intrusted to this fellow was the making of bricks—so I had been informed; but there wasn’t a fragment of a brick anywhere in the station, and he had been there more than a year—waiting. It seems he could not make bricks without something, I don’t know what—straw maybe. Anyway, it could not be found there and as it was not likely to be sent from Europe, it did not appear clear to me what he was waiting for. An act of special creation perhaps. However, they were all waiting—all the sixteen or twenty pilgrims of them—for something; and upon my word it did not seem an uncongenial occupation, from the way they took it, though the only thing that ever came to them was disease—as far as I could see. They beguiled the time by back-biting and intriguing against each other in a foolish kind of way. There was an air of plotting about that station, but nothing came of it, of course. It was as unreal as everything else—as the philanthropic pretence of the whole concern, as their talk, as their government, as their show of work. The only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages. They intrigued and slandered and hated each other only on that account—but as to effectually lifting a little finger—oh, no. By heavens! there is something after all in the world allowing one man to steal a horse while another must not look at a halter. Steal a horse straight out. Very well. He has done it. Perhaps he can ride. But there is a way of looking at a halter that would provoke the most charitable of saints into a kick. “I strolled up to the fire. There wasn’t any hurry, since the thing flamed up like a box of matches. It was useless to try to save it. The flames leapt up and drove everyone back before collapsing. The shed was a pile of ash. A black man was being beaten nearby. They said he started the fire somehow. He was screaming terribly. For a few days afterward he sat in the shade looking awful. Then he got up and wandered off into the jungle. We never saw him again. As I got close to the fire I heard two men talking. They said Kurtz’s name and ‘take advantage of this unfortunate accident.’ One of the men was the manager. I said hello. ‘Did you ever see anything like it? It’s incredible,’ he said, and walked off. The other man stayed behind. He was a young agent with a forked beard and a hooked nose. He was cold to the other agents, who thought he was the manager’s spy. I’d hardly spoken to him before. We started talking and strolled away from the fire. He asked me to come back to his room in the main building of the station. He lit a match and I saw that this young aristocrat had nice furniture and a whole candle all to himself. At that time, the manager was supposed to be the only person with candles. There were native mats hanging on the walls, as well as spears, shields, and knives. They were like hunting trophies. This man’s job was making bricks, but there weren’t any bricks anywhere in the station. He’d been there a year, waiting for all of the materials to arrive that he needed to make bricks. Since whatever the material was couldn’t be found in the country and wasn’t on its way from Europe, I didn’t know why he bothered to keep waiting. Maybe he thought the material would simply appear out of thin air. But it seemed like all of the agents were waiting for something. It didn’t seem to be a half-bad job, judging from all of the lounging around they did. But the only thing that ever came for them was disease. They spent their days complaining and plotting against each other. It was stupid. There was an atmosphere of plotting at the station, but nothing ever came of it. It was as fake as everything else, as fake as the claim that the whole operation was actually helping the natives, as fake as everything they said, as fake as their government, and as fake as their show of work. Their only true feeling was the desire to be assigned to a trading post with a lot of ivory, so they could make more money. They plotted against each other only to get ahead, but they never did any real work. There is something terrible about a world that lets one man steal a horse while another man isn’t allowed to even look at a horse’s halter.

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