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Heart of Darkness

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“One evening as I was lying flat on the deck of my steamboat, I heard voices approaching—and there were the nephew and the uncle 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 uncle. ‘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 frightful?’ 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 hoarsely. ‘Ivory,’ jerked the nephew; ‘lots of it—prime sort—lots—most annoying, from him.’ ‘And with that?’ questioned the heavy rumble. ‘Invoice,’ was the reply fired out, so to speak. Then silence. They had been talking about Kurtz. “One evening I was lying on the deck of my steamboat and I heard voices nearby. It was the station manager and his uncle, the leader of the expedition. I was drifting off to sleep when I heard the manager say, ‘I am as harmless as a child, but I don’t like to be told what to do. I’m the manager, right? I was ordered to send him there. It’s unbelievable.’ I realized that they were standing beside my boat, just below my head. I was too tired to move. ‘It’s unpleasant,’ grunted the uncle. ‘He asked the Administration to be sent there,’ said the manager, ‘because he wants to show them what he can do. And they ordered me to help him. He must have so much influence. It’s almost scary, isn’t it?’ They agreed it was scary. I was drifting off to sleep, so I only caught bits of the next few sentences. ‘Make rain and fine weather . . . one man . . . the Council . . . by the nose,’ and so on. Hearing these strange bits of conversation woke me up. Then I heard the uncle clearly say, ‘The climate may solve your problems for you. Is he alone out there?’ ‘Yes,’ the manager replied. ‘He sent his assistant down the river to my station here with a sealed note. It said, “Send this devil home and don’t send me any more men like him. I’d rather be alone than have to deal with the kind of men you can send me.” That was more than a year ago. What nerve!’ ‘Have you heard anything from him since then?’ the uncle asked. ‘He sends ivory,’ spat the manager. ‘Lots of the very best ivory. And invoices for it.’ They were talking about Kurtz.
“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 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 with four paddlers, leaving the half-caste to continue down the river with the ivory. The two fellows there 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 news—strange rumours.’ 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 best.’ The fat man sighed. ‘Very sad.’ ‘And the pestiferous absurdity of his 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 incredible!’ ‘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 dishonouring 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. “I was wide awake by now, but I was very comfortable lying there, so I didn’t move. ‘How did he send all that ivory to you?’ asked the uncle, who seemed irritated about it. The manager explained that Kurtz sent the ivory downriver in a fleet of canoes led by his clerk. Kurtz had initially intended to return with them, but after traveling the first 300 miles, he decided to go back. He did so even though he was almost out of supplies at his station. He took four natives with him to paddle the boat and sent the clerk and his ivory on their way. The manager and his uncle seemed amazed that anyone would do such a thing. They couldn’t figure out what Kurtz was thinking. I felt like I saw Kurtz for the first time. I had a clear image of the lone white man turning his back on his headquarters and paddling towards his empty station with four savages. I didn’t know why he did it. Perhaps he was just a good man who stuck to his work. They hadn’t said his name—they only called him ‘that man.’ His clerk, who had completed a difficult journey, was referred to as ‘that scoundrel.’ The ‘scoundrel’ said that the ‘man’ had been very sick and was only partially recovered. The two men below me moved a few paces away. I heard, ‘Military post...doctor...two hundred miles...quite alone now...unavoidable delays...nine months...no news...strange rumors.’ They passed near my boat again, just as the manager was saying, ‘No one, as far as I know, unless it was a wandering trader stealing ivory from the natives.’ Who were they talking about now? I gathered from the bits I overheard that they were referring to some man who was supposed to be in Kurtz’s district. The manager didn’t like him. ‘We’ll keep having unfair competition until we hang one of those men as an example,’ he said. ‘Absolutely,’ grunted the other. ‘Hang him! Why not? You can do anything you want in this country. That’s what I say. Nobody here can challenge you, because you can stand the climate and they can’t. You outlast them all. The danger is back in Europe, but before I left I—’ They moved away, whispering, but then their voices rose again. ‘The craziest delays. Not my fault. I did my best. And the worst part is that he was such a pain when he was here. He was always going on about how “each station should be a light on the road toward civilization as well as a trading post, a center for humanizing and teaching.” Can you believe it? That jackass. And he wants to be the manager! No, it’s—’ He was too angry to continue. I looked up and saw that they were right next to me. I could have spat on their hats. They were staring at the ground, lost in thought. The manager was brushing his leg with a twig. His uncle asked, ‘Have you been feeling well since you came out this time?’ The other jumped. ‘Who? Me? Oh, yes. I’m charmed. But the others—God, they’re all sick. They die so quickly that I don’t have time to send them out of the country. It’s unbelievable.’ ‘Right,’ grunted the uncle. ‘Right. Leave it to this,’ he said, waving his short flipper of an arm at the forest, the creek, the mud, and the river. It was like he was calling to the evil hidden in the dark forest, calling it out to bring death to the station. It was so upsetting that I jumped up and looked at the forest like I expected it to answer. You have silly thoughts like that sometimes, I’m sure. But the still jungle remained still, as if it were waiting for the men to leave.

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