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Heart of Darkness

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He broke off. Flames glided in the river, small green flames, red flames, white flames, pursuing, overtaking, joining, crossing each other—then separating slowly or hastily. The traffic of the great city went on in the deepening night upon the sleepless river. We looked on, waiting patiently—there was nothing else to do till the end of the flood; but it was only after a long silence, when he said, in a hesitating voice, “I suppose you fellows remember I did once turn fresh-water sailor for a bit,” that we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences. He stopped talking. Reflections in the water looked like green and red and white flames dancing around each other. Life in the great city went on in the dark night. The river didn’t rest. We sat there patiently. There was nothing else to do until the tide changed. After a long pause, he said, in a shaky voice, “I guess you guys know that I once worked on a river boat.” We knew then that our fates were sealed. We were going to hear about one of Marlow’s strange experiences.
“I don’t want to bother you much with what happened to me personally,” he began, showing in this remark the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would like best to hear; “yet to understand the effect of it on me you ought to know how I got out there, what I saw, how I went up that river to the place where I first met the poor chap. It was the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me—and into my thoughts. It was sombre enough, too—and pitiful—not extraordinary in any way—not very clear either. No, not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light. “I don’t want to talk about my personal life,” he said, apparently unaware that that’s what we would have liked most. “But to understand what happened you need to know how I got out there, what I saw, and how I went up the river to the place where I first met the poor fellow. It was as far as you could sail up the river and it was what all of my experiences there were leading up to. It put everything else I saw in a new light, a light that showed me my own thoughts differently. It was depressing and not very clear. No, not very clear. But somehow it seemed to cast a new light on everything.
“I had then, as you remember, just returned to London after a lot of Indian Ocean, Pacific, China Seas—a regular dose of the East—six years or so, and I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you. It was very fine for a time, but after a bit I did get tired of resting. Then I began to look for a ship—I should think the hardest work on earth. But the ships wouldn’t even look at me. And I got tired of that game, too. “I’d just gotten back to London after sailing all over the East—the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the China Seas. I was kind of hanging around, not doing much but staying with friends and bothering them, almost like I was a missionary invading their land. It was fine for a little bit, but after a while I got tired of resting. I began to look for a ship, which is hard work. But no ship would have me, and that got old fast.
“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’ The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off. Other places were scattered about the hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and... well, we won’t talk about that. But there was one yet—the biggest, the most blank, so to speak—that I had a hankering after. “When I was a kid, I really liked maps. I would spend hours looking at South America or Africa or Australia and daydreaming about being a great explorer. There were many blank spaces on the map then, and when I saw one that seemed interesting (but they all look like that), I’d put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up, I will go there.’ The North Pole was one of those places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet and won’t try to go now. It doesn’t seem as exotic anymore. Other places were scattered all over the globe. I’ve been in some of them, and . . . well, we won’t talk about that. But there was one spot that was the biggest and blankest, and that’s where I wanted to go the most.

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