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Heart of Darkness

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“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. “One evening I came into the cabin with a candle and heard him say, ‘I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.’ I forced myself to say, ‘Nonsense.’ I stood over him as if in a trance.
“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. 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. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “I was fascinated by the horrible look his face. It was as though a veil had been torn. I saw beneath his ivory skin a mix of pride, power, ruthlessness, terror, and despair. Was he realizing all of the horrible desires he had satisfied during his life? Some sort of vision passed before his eyes and he whispered a cry:
“‘The horror! The horror!’ “‘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, which I successfully ignored. He leaned back, serene, with that peculiar smile of his sealing the unexpressed depths of his meanness. A continuous shower of small flies streamed upon the lamp, upon the cloth, upon our hands and faces. Suddenly the manager’s boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt: “I blew out the candle and left the cabin. The agents were in the dining room. I sat across from the manager and ignored his looks. He leaned back and smiled meanly. Flies swarmed around inside, crawling over every surface, including our faces and hands. Suddenly the boy whom the manager kept as a sort of assistant poked his black head in the doorway and said:
“‘Mistah Kurtz—he dead.’ “‘Mister Kurtz—he’s dead.’
“All the pilgrims rushed out to see. I remained, and went on with my dinner. I believe I was considered brutally callous. However, I did not eat much. There was a lamp in there—light, don’t you know—and outside it was so beastly, beastly dark. I went no more near the remarkable man who had pronounced a judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this earth. The voice was gone. What else had been there? But I am of course aware that next day the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole. “Everyone rushed out to see. I stayed behind and ate my dinner. I think they thought I was heartless. I didn’t eat much. There was a lamp in there and it was nice to have a light in that beastly darkness. I didn’t go near Kurtz. His voice was gone. What else had been left of him? Whatever it was, the agents buried it in a muddy hole the next day.
“And then they very nearly buried me. “And then they very nearly buried me.
“However, as you see, I did not go to join Kurtz there and then. I did not. I remained to dream the nightmare out to the end, and to show my loyalty to Kurtz once more. Destiny. My destiny! Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be. I was within a hair’s breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up—he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate. And it is not my own extremity I remember best—a vision of greyness without form filled with physical pain, and a careless contempt for the evanescence of all things—even of this pain itself. No! It is his extremity that I seem to have lived through. True, he had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot. And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible. Perhaps! I like to think my summing-up would not have been a word of careless contempt. Better his cry—much better. It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory! That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last, and even beyond, when a long time after I heard once more, not his own voice, but the echo of his magnificent eloquence thrown to me from a soul as translucently pure as a cliff of crystal. “But I didn’t join Kurtz. I stayed behind to keep dreaming the nightmare I had chosen, to show my loyalty to Kurtz. It was my destiny! Life is funny. Things happen mysteriously and come to nothing. The most you can hope is that you learn something about yourself. But even that happens too late, when you’re full of regrets. I’ve wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting battle you can imagine. There is no glory, no audience, not even strong feelings. You don’t even believe in yourself or your opponent. If that’s how we get wisdom, life is a harder puzzle than some of us think. I was within a hair’s breath of death and I didn’t have anything to say. This is why I say Kurtz was such a great man. He had something to say and he said it. He stared at all of life and passed judgment on it and on all the hearts that beat in the darkness: ‘The horror!’ He was a great man. After all, he believed what he said when he judged life. I don’t remember my own feelings. All I remember is how he felt at that moment. Maybe all of life’s wisdom is found in that moment when we step over the edge of life and into death. Maybe. I hope I’ll be able to sum up life with something better than hatred. But his cry of despair was a victory of sorts, a victory of his morals over his life. But it was a victory all the same. That’s why I’ve stayed loyal to Kurtz. I stayed loyal even after hearing a shadow of his eloquence coming from a soul as pure as any you’ll find.

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