Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad
No Fear Part 1 Page 13
No Fear Part 1: Page 13

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“One day he remarked, without lifting his head, ‘In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr. Kurtz.’ On my asking who Mr. Kurtz was, he said he was a first-class agent; and seeing my disappointment at this information, he added slowly, laying down his pen, ‘He is a very remarkable person.’ Further questions elicited from him that Mr. Kurtz was at present in charge of a trading-post, a very important one, in the true ivory-country, at ‘the very bottom of there. Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together...’ He began to write again. The sick man was too ill to groan. The flies buzzed in a great peace. “One day he said, ‘In the interior you will probably meet Mr. Kurtz.’ When I asked who Kurtz was, he said that he was a great agent for the Company. When he saw that I wasn’t impressed, he put down his pen and said, ‘He is a very remarkable person.’ He told me that Kurtz was in charge of a trading post deep in the jungle. ‘He sends in as much ivory as all of the other agents put together.’ The accountant started writing again. The man on the cot was too sick to groan. The flies buzzed all around.
“Suddenly there was a growing murmur of voices and a great tramping of feet. A caravan had come in. A violent babble of uncouth sounds burst out on the other side of the planks. All the carriers were speaking together, and in the midst of the uproar the lamentable voice of the chief agent was heard ‘giving it up’ tearfully for the twentieth time that day.... He rose slowly. ‘What a frightful row,’ he said. He crossed the room gently to look at the sick man, and returning, said to me, ‘He does not hear.’ ‘What! Dead?’ I asked, startled. ‘No, not yet,’ he answered, with great composure. Then, alluding with a toss of the head to the tumult in the station-yard, ‘When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages—hate them to the death.’ He remained thoughtful for a moment. ‘When you see Mr. Kurtz’ he went on, ‘tell him from me that everything here’—he glanced at the deck—’ is very satisfactory. I don’t like to write to him—with those messengers of ours you never know who may get hold of your letter—at that Central Station.’ He stared at me for a moment with his mild, bulging eyes. ‘Oh, he will go far, very far,’ he began again. ‘He will be a somebody in the Administration before long. They, above—the Council in Europe, you know—mean him to be.’ “Suddenly I heard voices and the sounds of many people approaching. A caravan had come in. All of the black laborers were babbling in an ugly language. The man on the cot groaned and the accountant stood up. ‘What a racket,’ he said. He checked on the sick man and said to me, ‘He can’t hear them.’ ‘Is he dead?’ I asked. ‘No, not yet.’ He glanced outside at the shouting men. ‘When you need peace and quiet to keep the books, you come to hate those savages to death.’ He thought for a second. ‘When you see Mr. Kurtz, tell him from me that everything here is okay. I don’t like to write to him. You never know if the letter will fall into the wrong hands.’ He stared at me for a moment with his bulging eyes. ‘Oh, he will go far, very far,’ he said. ‘He will be an important man in the Company someday. The people running things back in Europe know it.’
“He turned to his work. The noise outside had ceased, and presently in going out I stopped at the door. In the steady buzz of flies the homeward-bound agent was lying finished and insensible; the other, bent over his books, was making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still tree-tops of the grove of death. “He went back to work. It was quiet outside and as I left I stopped to look back at the office. The flies were buzzing. The sick agent was taking his last breaths. The accountant was bent over his books, making sure all of the numbers were correct. Fifty feet away I could see that shady area where men were dying.
“Next day I left that station at last, with a caravan of sixty men, for a two-hundred-mile tramp. “I left the next day with a caravan of sixty men. We were going on a 200-mile walk.
“No use telling you much about that. Paths, paths, everywhere; a stamped-in network of paths spreading over the empty land, through the long grass, through burnt grass, through thickets, down and up chilly ravines, up and down stony hills ablaze with heat; and a solitude, a solitude, nobody, not a hut. The population had cleared out a long time ago. Well, if a lot of mysterious niggers armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to travelling on the road between Deal and Gravesend, catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon. Only here the dwellings were gone, too. Still I passed through several abandoned villages. There’s something pathetically childish in the ruins of grass walls. Day after day, with the stamp and shuffle of sixty pair of bare feet behind me, each pair under a 60-lb. load. Camp, cook, sleep, strike camp, march. Now and then a carrier dead in harness, at rest in the long grass near the path, with an empty water-gourd and his long staff lying by his side. A great silence around and above. Perhaps on some quiet night the tremor of far-off drums, sinking, swelling, a tremor vast, faint; a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild—and perhaps with as profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian country. Once a white man in an unbuttoned uniform, camping on the path with an armed escort of lank Zanzibaris, very hospitable and festive—not to say drunk. Was looking after the upkeep of the road, he declared. Can’t say I saw any road or any upkeep, unless the body of a middle-aged negro, with a bullet-hole in the forehead, upon which I absolutely stumbled three miles farther on, may be considered as a permanent improvement. I had a white companion, too, not a bad chap, but rather too fleshy and with the exasperating habit of fainting on the hot hillsides, miles away from the least bit of shade and water. Annoying, you know, to hold your own coat like a parasol over a man’s head while he is coming to. I couldn’t help asking him once what he meant by coming there at all. ‘To make money, of course. What do you think?’ he said, scornfully. Then he got fever, and had to be carried in a hammock slung under a pole. As he weighed sixteen stone I had no end of rows with the carriers. They jibbed, ran away, sneaked off with their loads in the night—quite a mutiny. So, one evening, I made a speech in English with gestures, not one of which was lost to the sixty pairs of eyes before me, and the next morning I started the hammock off in front all right. An hour afterwards I came upon the whole concern wrecked in a bush—man, hammock, groans, blankets, horrors. The heavy pole had skinned his poor nose. He was very anxious for me to kill somebody, but there wasn’t the shadow of a carrier near. I remembered the old doctor—‘It would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot.’ I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting. However, all that is to no purpose. On the fifteenth day I came in sight of the big river again, and hobbled into the Central Station. It was on a back water surrounded by scrub and forest, with a pretty border of smelly mud on one side, and on the three others enclosed by a crazy fence of rushes. A neglected gap was all the gate it had, and the first glance at the place was enough to let you see the flabby devil was running that show. White men with long staves in their hands appeared languidly from amongst the buildings, strolling up to take a look at me, and then retired out of sight somewhere. One of them, a stout, excitable chap with black moustaches, informed me with great volubility and many digressions, as soon as I told him who I was, that my steamer was at the bottom of the river. I was thunderstruck. What, how, why? Oh, it was ‘all right.’ The ‘manager himself’ was there. All quite correct. ‘Everybody had behaved splendidly! splendidly!’—‘you must,’ he said in agitation, ‘go and see the general manager at once. He is waiting!’ “There’s no point in talking about that. There were footpaths everywhere we went, leading in all sorts of directions. We didn’t see anyone else, or even any huts. The people had left a long time ago. If a lot of mysterious black guys with strange weapons started walking around England rounding up the locals and making them carry heavy loads all over the place, I bet the natives would run away too. Only here their houses were gone as well. Eventually we passed some abandoned villages. There’s something pathetic about the ruins of a grass hut. We kept walking, day after day. I could hear sixty pairs of bare feet behind me, each man carrying a sixty-pound load. All we did was camp, cook, sleep, and march. Every once in a while we’d pass a dead body in chains near the path. It was so quiet everywhere. On some nights we could hear drums far away. The sound was weird and wild, though to the natives it probably sounded no different from church bells in a Christian country. Once we passed a white man in a uniform camping near the path with an armed escort of black men. They’d been drinking and were in a giddy mood. The white man said that his job was taking care of the road. I didn’t see any road to speak of, and the only thing that had been taken care of was a middle-aged black man, who was lying next to the path with a bullet hole in his forehead. There was another white man traveling with me. He was a pretty good guy, but he was fat and kept fainting. It’s annoying to have to hold your own coat like an umbrella over a man who’s passed out. I couldn’t help asking him why on Earth he’d come there. ‘Why do you think? To make money, of course,’ he said. Then he got a fever and had to be carried by the porters, who kept complaining that he was too fat to lift. They started running away in the middle of the night. So I threatened them with severe punishments. The next day I put the hammock with the fat man out in front. Things started off okay, but an hour later I came across the hammock and the fat man wrecked in the bushes. He’d gotten nicked on the nose. He wanted me to kill one of the porters as an example, but they’d all run away by that point. I remembered what the old doctor said: ‘It would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals on the spot.’ I felt like I was becoming scientifically interesting. But that’s all beside the point. After fifteen days we met back up with the big river and hobbled into the Central Station. It was surrounded by forest and had a mud wall on one side and a fence of branches on the other three sides. There was a hole in the fence instead of a gate. The fat devil of greed was running the place. White men carrying staves wandered lazily up to look at me and then wandered off. A fat man with a black moustache came up to me. I told him I was the steamboat captain and loudly told me that my boat was sunk at the bottom of the river. Stunned, I asked what happened. ‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘The manager is here. Everything’s in order. Everybody did well. You must go see the manager now. He’s waiting for you.’