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He was silent for a while. Marlow was silent for a while.
“... No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone....” “No, it’s impossible. It’s impossible to tell anyone what it feels like to be you. It’s impossible. We live the same way that we dream—alone.”
He paused again as if reflecting, then added: He stopped again, like he was thinking. Then he went added.
“Of course in this you fellows see more than I could then. You see me, whom you know....” “Of course you can see more than I saw then. You can see me, who you know.”
It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see one another. For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice. There was not a word from anybody. The others might have been asleep, but I was awake. I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river. It had become so pitch dark that we could hardly see one another. For a long time Marlow had been nothing but a voice. No one said anything. The other sailors might have been asleep, but I was awake. I listened, hoping for something that would help me understand the uneasy feeling I got listening to this story that seemed to come straight from the night air of the river.
“... Yes—I let him run on,” Marlow began again, “and think what he pleased about the powers that were behind me. I did! And there was nothing behind me! There was nothing but that wretched, old, mangled steamboat I was leaning against, while he talked fluently about ‘the necessity for every man to get on.’ ‘And when one comes out here, you conceive, it is not to gaze at the moon.’ Mr. Kurtz was a ‘universal genius,’ but even a genius would find it easier to work with ‘adequate tools—intelligent men.’ He did not make bricks—why, there was a physical impossibility in the way—as I was well aware; and if he did secretarial work for the manager, it was because ‘no sensible man rejects wantonly the confidence of his superiors.’ Did I see it? I saw it. What more did I want? What I really wanted was rivets, by heaven! Rivets. To get on with the work—to stop the hole. Rivets I wanted. There were cases of them down at the coast—cases—piled up—burst—split! You kicked a loose rivet at every second step in that station-yard on the hillside. Rivets had rolled into the grove of death. You could fill your pockets with rivets for the trouble of stooping down—and there wasn’t one rivet to be found where it was wanted. We had plates that would do, but nothing to fasten them with. And every week the messenger, a long negro, letter-bag on shoulder and staff in hand, left our station for the coast. And several times a week a coast caravan came in with trade goods—ghastly glazed calico that made you shudder only to look at it, glass beads value about a penny a quart, confounded spotted cotton handkerchiefs. And no rivets. Three carriers could have brought all that was wanted to set that steamboat afloat. “ . . . Yes, I let the brickmaker keep talking,” Marlow said, “and think whatever he wanted about my influence in Europe. I did! But I didn’t have any influence behind me. There was nothing behind me but the wrecked steamboat I was leaning against. He kept talking about ‘the necessity for every man to get ahead.’ He added that ‘when you come out here, it’s not to sit around and look at the moon.’ He said that Mr. Kurtz was a ‘universal genius,’ but even a genius would have an easier time if he had the right tools—that is, the right men. He didn’t make bricks because he didn’t have the right materials. If he was spying for the manager, it was because ‘no one in their right mind would turn down an offer to do so from their superior.’ Did I understand what he meant? I saw it. What more did I want? What I really wanted was rivets, darn it! I needed to patch the hole in the steamboat. There were cases and cases of rivets back down at the coast. There were so many rivets downriver that you kicked them when you walked. But there weren’t any rivets here, where I needed them. We had metal pieces that could patch the hold in the boat, but no way to fasten them on. Every week the messenger left our station for the coast carrying back my request for rivets. And every week a caravan came in from the coast. They brought ugly cloth, cheap beads, and cotton handkerchiefs to give to the natives for ivory. But no rivets. Three men could have brought all the rivets I needed to get the boat up and running.
“He was becoming confidential now, but I fancy my unresponsive attitude must have exasperated him at last, for he judged it necessary to inform me he feared neither God nor devil, let alone any mere man. I said I could see that very well, but what I wanted was a certain quantity of rivets—and rivets were what really Mr. Kurtz wanted, if he had only known it. Now letters went to the coast every week.... ‘My dear sir,’ he cried, ‘I write from dictation.’ I demanded rivets. There was a way—for an intelligent man. He changed his manner; became very cold, and suddenly began to talk about a hippopotamus; wondered whether sleeping on board the steamer (I stuck to my salvage night and day) I wasn’t disturbed. There was an old hippo that had the bad habit of getting out on the bank and roaming at night over the station grounds. The pilgrims used to turn out in a body and empty every rifle they could lay hands on at him. Some even had sat up o’ nights for him. All this energy was wasted, though. ‘That animal has a charmed life,’ he said; ‘but you can say this only of brutes in this country. No man—you apprehend me?—no man here bears a charmed life.’ He stood there for a moment in the moonlight with his delicate hooked nose set a little askew, and his mica eyes glittering without a wink, then, with a curt Good-night, he strode off. I could see he was disturbed and considerably puzzled, which made me feel more hopeful than I had been for days. It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to my influential friend, the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. I clambered on board. She rang under my feet like an empty Huntley & Palmer biscuit-tin kicked along a gutter; she was nothing so solid in make, and rather less pretty in shape, but I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means. “The bricklayer told me that he wasn’t afraid of God or the devil, let alone some man. I said I could see that, but what I wanted were rivets and Mr. Kurtz would also want rivets, if he knew the situation. I demanded rivets and argued that there must be some way for an intelligent man to get them. This made him get very standoffish. He started talking about a hippopotamus that lived in the river nearby. He asked whether it bothered me when I slept on my boat at night (I was always at the boat). This old hippo would wander around the station at night while the white men shot at him. It was a waste of time. ‘That animal has a charmed life,’ he said. ‘But only beasts have charmed lives here. Men can’t.’ He stood there in the moonlight for a moment, then said goodnight and walked away. I could see that he was confused and irritated, which made me feel better than I had in days. I was happy to shift my attention to my dear friend, the battered steamboat. I climbed on board. She sounded as hollow as a cookie tin. She was cheaply built and ugly, but I’d spent so much time working on her that I’d come to love her. No influential friend back in Europe would have done more for me than she did. She had given me a chance to come out here and find out what I was made of. I don’t like work anymore than the next man, but I like how work gives you a chance to find yourself. When you’re working, you’re in your own world, no one else’s. Other men can only see the outside. They can’t tell you what it really means.