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Heart of Darkness

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Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the serenity became less brilliant but more profound. The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth. We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs for ever, but in the august light of abiding memories. And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, “followed the sea” with reverence and affection, that to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames. The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled—the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her rotund flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests—and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith—the adventurers and the settlers; kings’ ships and the ships of men on Change; captains, admirals, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned “generals” of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!... The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires. At once the water changed, becoming even calmer but less colorful. The old river rested peacefully at the end of the day, spreading calmly to the ends of the earth. For ages, the river has performed good service to the people who live on its banks. We looked at the river as only sailors could, with respect and affection and with an awareness of its great past. The river’s tides carry the memories of the men and ships they brought home or took into battle. The river has known and served all of the nation’s heroes, from

Sir Francis Drake

Sixteenth-century English sea captain who sailed around the world

Sir Francis Drake
to

Sir John Franklin

Nineteenth-century English sailor who disappeared while looking for a sea passage across the North American Arctic

Sir John Franklin
, all great knights of the sea. It had carried all the ships whose names live forever, like the

Golden Hind

Francis Drake’s ship

Golden Hind
, filled with treasure, or the

Erebus and Terror

John Franklin’s ships

Erebus and Terror
, ships that left and never returned. The river remembered the men as well as the ships. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, and from Erith. The sailors included kings and businessmen, captains, admirals, unsavory traders, and the so-called conquerors of the East Indies. Whether they were in search of gold or fame, they all left on that river carrying swords and often a spark from the sacred fire of civilization. Was there any greatness that had not passed down that river and out into the mysterious world? The dreams of men, the beginnings of nations, and the seeds of empires had all sailed its waters.
The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman light-house, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway—a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars. The sun set. The river grew dark and lights appeared along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, standing on three legs in the mud, shone strongly. The lights of many ships were visible in the distance, all jumbled together. Further west, the sky above the monstrous town was still gloomy and dark under the light of the stars.
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” “And this also,” said Marlow out of nowhere, “has been one of the darkest places of the earth.”
He was the only man of us who still “followed the sea.” The worst that could be said of him was that he did not represent his class. He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them—the ship; and so is their country—the sea. One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny. For the rest, after his hours of work, a casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing. The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine. He was the only one of us who spent all of his time as a sailor, with no fixed home. The worst thing you could say about him was that he was not like other sailors. He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer too. As strange as it may sound, the truth is most seamen lead sedentary lives. They are homebodies and their home—the ship—is always with them. They are citizens of the sea. One ship is just like any other and the sea is the same everywhere. Because their surroundings are always the same, they ignore the foreign lands and people they come across. The only mystery the seaman cares about is the sea itself, which controls his fate and cannot be predicted. After his work is done, the seaman takes a short walk on shore and believes that he has seen all of a continent that he needs to. Any other secrets a place may hold are not secrets that he thinks are worth finding out. Similarly, the stories seamen tell are simple and direct. They reveal their meaning as easily as a shell reveals its nut. But Marlow was different, though he sure liked to tell a tale. To him, the meaning of a story was not like a nut that could be easily removed from its shell. To Marlow, the point of a story was the shell itself—the narration. And just like light will reveal the haze, storytelling will bring things to light that you might not have seen otherwise.

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