Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad
No Fear Part 1 Page 10
No Fear Part 1: Page 10

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“A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent. It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea. All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages. Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondently, carrying a rifle by its middle. He had a uniform jacket with one button off, and seeing a white man on the path, hoisted his weapon to his shoulder with alacrity. This was simple prudence, white men being so much alike at a distance that he could not tell who I might be. He was speedily reassured, and with a large, white, rascally grin, and a glance at his charge, seemed to take me into partnership in his exalted trust. After all, I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings. “I heard a clinking noise behind me. Six black men were walking single-file up the path. They were walking slowly, balancing small baskets full of dirt on their heads. Their only clothes were black rags wrapped around their waists, with bits of fabric hanging down in the back like tails. I could see every rib and every joint. Each man had an iron collar on his neck, and they were all chained together. The chains clinked as they walked. Another explosion from the dynamite made me think about the warship I had seen firing into a continent. It was the same sound. By no stretch of the imagination could these men be called enemies. They were called criminals. They broke laws they never heard of, laws that came, like the cannonballs crashing into the jungle, from the mysterious strangers who arrived from the sea. All the men panted, their nostrils shook, and their eyes stared uphill. They passed within six inches of me without a glance. They were as indifferent as death. Behind the chained men came another black man, this one a soldier, forced to guard his brothers. He looked heartbroken and sloppy, but when he saw that there was a white man on the path, he stood up straight. White men looked so similar to him from far away that he couldn’t tell if I was one of his bosses or not. When he saw that I was not, he grinned and relaxed, like we were partners. After all, we were both part of this noble and just business.
“Instead of going up, I turned and descended to the left. My idea was to let that chain-gang get out of sight before I climbed the hill. You know I am not particularly tender; I’ve had to strike and to fend off. I’ve had to resist and to attack sometimes—that’s only one way of resisting—without counting the exact cost, according to the demands of such sort of life as I had blundered into. I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men—men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther. For a moment I stood appalled, as though by a warning. Finally I descended the hill, obliquely, towards the trees I had seen. “Instead of going up, I turned and went down the other side of the hill. I didn’t want to follow the chain gang up to the top. I’m not usually emotional or sensitive. All my life I’ve had to fight and defend myself without caring much about feelings. But as I stood on that hillside I was overwhelmed by what a terrible and colossal mistake this all was. I’ve seen violence, greed, and ruthless desire, but the lusty greed and heartlessness of the men who ran this system was astounding. Standing on that hillside, I just knew I would find out how terrible all of this greedy, treacherous, and pitiless undertaking really was. I would find all of this out several months later and a thousand miles away. But at that moment I was frozen, as if I had heard a horrible warning. I walked down the hill and wandered toward the shady spot I’d seen earlier.