Skip over navigation

Heart of Darkness

Original Text

Modern Text

“On the contrary. It appears their intercourse had been very much broken by various causes. He had, as he informed me proudly, managed to nurse Kurtz through two illnesses (he alluded to it as you would to some risky feat), but as a rule Kurtz wandered alone, far in the depths of the forest. ‘Very often coming to this station, I had to wait days and days before he would turn up,’ he said. ‘Ah, it was worth waiting for!—sometimes.’ ‘What was he doing? exploring or what?’ I asked. ‘Oh, yes, of course’; he had discovered lots of villages, a lake, too—he did not know exactly in what direction; it was dangerous to inquire too much—but mostly his expeditions had been for ivory. ‘But he had no goods to trade with by that time,’ I objected. ‘There’s a good lot of cartridges left even yet,’ he answered, looking away. ‘To speak plainly, he raided the country,’ I said. He nodded. ‘Not alone, surely!’ He muttered something about the villages round that lake. ‘Kurtz got the tribe to follow him, did he?’ I suggested. He fidgeted a little. ‘They adored him,’ he said. The tone of these words was so extraordinary that I looked at him searchingly. It was curious to see his mingled eagerness and reluctance to speak of Kurtz. The man filled his life, occupied his thoughts, swayed his emotions. ‘What can you expect?’ he burst out; ‘he came to them with thunder and lightning, you know—and they had never seen anything like it—and very terrible. He could be very terrible. You can’t judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man. No, no, no! Now—just to give you an idea—I don’t mind telling you, he wanted to shoot me, too, one day—but I don’t judge him.’ ‘Shoot you!’ I cried ‘What for?’ ‘Well, I had a small lot of ivory the chief of that village near my house gave me. You see I used to shoot game for them. Well, he wanted it, and wouldn’t hear reason. He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased. And it was true, too. I gave him the ivory. What did I care! But I didn’t clear out. No, no. I couldn’t leave him. I had to be careful, of course, till we got friendly again for a time. He had his second illness then. Afterwards I had to keep out of the way; but I didn’t mind. He was living for the most part in those villages on the lake. When he came down to the river, sometimes he would take to me, and sometimes it was better for me to be careful. This man suffered too much. He hated all this, and somehow he couldn’t get away. When I had a chance I begged him to try and leave while there was time; I offered to go back with him. And he would say yes, and then he would remain; go off on another ivory hunt; disappear for weeks; forget himself amongst these people—forget himself—you know.’ ‘Why! he’s mad,’ I said. He protested indignantly. Mr. Kurtz couldn’t be mad. If I had heard him talk, only two days ago, I wouldn’t dare hint at such a thing.... I had taken up my binoculars while we talked, and was looking at the shore, sweeping the limit of the forest at each side and at the back of the house. The consciousness of there being people in that bush, so silent, so quiet—as silent and quiet as the ruined house on the hill—made me uneasy. There was no sign on the face of nature of this amazing tale that was not so much told as suggested to me in desolate exclamations, completed by shrugs, in interrupted phrases, in hints ending in deep sighs. The woods were unmoved, like a mask—heavy, like the closed door of a prison—they looked with their air of hidden knowledge, of patient expectation, of unapproachable silence. The Russian was explaining to me that it was only lately that Mr. Kurtz had come down to the river, bringing along with him all the fighting men of that lake tribe. He had been absent for several months—getting himself adored, I suppose—and had come down unexpectedly, with the intention to all appearance of making a raid either across the river or down stream. Evidently the appetite for more ivory had got the better of the—what shall I say?—less material aspirations. However he had got much worse suddenly. ‘I heard he was lying helpless, and so I came up—took my chance,’ said the Russian. ‘Oh, he is bad, very bad.’ I directed my glass to the house. There were no signs of life, but there was the ruined roof, the long mud wall peeping above the grass, with three little square window-holes, no two of the same size; all this brought within reach of my hand, as it were. And then I made a brusque movement, and one of the remaining posts of that vanished fence leaped up in the field of my glass. You remember I told you I had been struck at the distance by certain attempts at ornamentation, rather remarkable in the ruinous aspect of the place. Now I had suddenly a nearer view, and its first result was to make me throw my head back as if before a blow. Then I went carefully from post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake. These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing—food for thought and also for vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. I was not so shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really nothing but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber. “They hadn’t been together the whole time. They hardly saw each other. He had, he said proudly, managed to nurse Kurtz through two illnesses (he made it sound like some risky feat), but as a rule Kurtz wandered alone, deep in the forest. ‘I frequently had to wait for days for him to turn up,’ he said. ‘But it was worth waiting for . . . sometimes.’ ‘Was he exploring?’ I asked. ‘Oh, yes, of course,’ he said. Apparently Kurtz discovered many villages and even one lake, though he couldn’t say where exactly they were. It was dangerous to ask Kurtz too many questions. But mostly his expeditions had been for ivory. ‘But he didn’t have anything to trade for the ivory,’ I objected. ‘There’s a lot of ammunition still left,’ the Russian answered, looking away. ‘So Kurtz raided the country,’ I said. He nodded. ‘By himself?’ He muttered something about the villages round that lake. ‘So Kurtz got the tribe to follow him?’ I suggested. He fidgeted a little. ‘They adored him,’ he said. The tone of these words was so strange that I stared at him, waiting for an explanation. It was amazing how much he wanted to talk about Kurtz but also how afraid he was of the man. Kurtz filled his life, influencing all his feelings and thoughts. ‘What do you expect?’ he burst out. ‘They had never seen guns before. They thought he controlled thunder and lightning. He could be very terrible. You can’t judge Mr. Kurtz by the same standards as you would an ordinary man. No, no, no! Just to give you an idea of his greatness, he threatened to shoot me one day, but I don’t judge him.’ ‘Shoot you! Why?’ I cried. ‘Well, I had a little bit of ivory I got from a chief near my house. The chief gave it to me because I gave his village some meat. Well, Kurtz wanted it and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He said he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and left the country. He said he would do it just because he enjoyed it, and there was no one who could stop him from killing whoever he wanted. And it was true, too. I gave him the ivory. What did I care! But I didn’t leave. No, no. I couldn’t leave him. I had to be careful until we were became friends again. That was when he got sick for the second time. Afterward I had to stay away, but I didn’t mind. He spent most of his time in those villages on the lake. When he came down to the river, sometimes he was friendly and sometimes I had to stay out of his way. This man suffered too much. He hated all this, but somehow he couldn’t get away. I begged him to leave while he still could. I offered to go back with him. He would say yes, but then he would go off for weeks looking for ivory. He would forget who he was when he was with the natives.’ ‘So he’s losing his mind,’ I said. The Russian denied this angrily. Mr. Kurtz couldn’t be crazy. If I had heard him talk, just two days ago, I wouldn’t dare say such a thing. . . . I had picked up my binoculars while we talked, and was looking at the shore and the edge of the forest. Knowing that there were people out there, invisible and silent, made me nervous. The jungle gave no sign that this amazing tale the Russian had been struggling to tell was true. The woods were like a mask, revealing nothing. They hid their secrets. The Russian said that Mr. Kurtz had only recently come down to the river, bringing along with him all the warriors from that lake tribe. He had been gone for several months—getting more natives to worship him, I suppose—and had come down unexpectedly. It looked as though Kurtz was planning a raid either across the river or down stream. His appetite for more ivory apparently overwhelmed all his other desires. But then he suddenly fell ill. ‘I heard he was sick, and so I came up—took my chance,’ said the Russian. ‘Oh, he is sick, very sick.’ I looked at the house through my binoculars. Everything was still. The roof was decaying, the long mud wall was peeping above the grass, with three little square windows of different sizes. My binoculars brought all of it close to me. And then I jerked my hand, and one of the fence posts came into focus. You remember I told you that, when I first saw the house from farther away, I had been impressed because it looked like someone had tried to decorate it, despite its obvious decay. Now that I was closer, the sight made my head snap back as if I’d been punched. I looked carefully at each fence post through my binoculars and realized what they truly were. These round knobs were not mere decorations. They were symbols. They were expressive but mysterious, impressive but disturbing. They were food for thought and also food for vultures if there had been any nearby. In any case they were food for ants, which were busily climbing the poles. They were human heads on stakes. They would have been even more impressive if they had not been turned towards the house. The first head I had seen was the only one facing my way. I was not as shocked as you may think. The snap of my head was just a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there. I slowly moved the binoculars back to the first head. It was black and dried and caving in. Its eyelids were closed so it almost looked like it was sleeping on top of the pole. Its shrunken dry lips were slightly open, revealing a narrow white line of teeth. It was smiling, endlessly amused by the dreams of eternal sleep.

More Help

Previous Next