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His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow. It was accepted in silence. No one took the trouble to grunt even; and presently he said, very slow—“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago—the other day.... Light came out of this river since—you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine—what d’ye call ‘em?—trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft the legionaries—a wonderful lot of handy men they must have been, too—used to build, apparently by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine him here—the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina—and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages,—precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay—cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death—death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. Oh, yes—he did it. Did it very well, too, no doubt, and without thinking much about it either, except afterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his time, perhaps. They were men enough to face the darkness. And perhaps he was cheered by keeping his eye on a chance of promotion to the fleet at Ravenna by and by, if he had good friends in Rome and survived the awful climate. Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga—perhaps too much dice, you know—coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.” His remark wasn’t really surprising. In fact, it was just like him to say something like that. No one even bothered to grunt in response. So he said, very slowly, “I was thinking of when the Romans first came here 1,900 years ago—it might as well have been a day ago, considering to the long history of the earth. Great men may have come down this river, but really that greatness is like a flash of lightning in the clouds. All of life is in that brief flicker of light, and hopefully it will last as long as the old earth keeps rolling. But we should remember that from the earth’s perspective, it was dark only yesterday. Imagine what it must have been like to be a Roman sea-captain, suddenly sent here from home. He had to travel all the way across Europe on foot and sail in one of those boats that Roman soldiers supposedly could build hundreds of in a month. Imagine him here. This was the very end of the world then. The sea was the color of lead and the sky was the color of smoke. His ship was about as sturdy as a heavy piano on thin legs. And he had to sail up this river with supplies, passing forests and swamps and savages, with almost nothing to eat and nothing to drink but water from the river. He didn’t have any of that great Roman wine. He couldn’t go ashore. Every once in a while he would pass a military camp lost in the wilderness, like a needle in a haystack. He sailed on through cold, fog, storms, disease, and death. Death lurked around in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. Oh, yes, he did it. He probably did it very well, too, and without thinking much about it except for the stories he could brag about later. They were men enough to face the darkness. And maybe he was encouraged by the possibility that he’d get promoted if he survived and knew the right people back in Rome. Or think of a decent young Roman citizen in a toga, someone who’d lost his fortune gambling, maybe, and was coming out here to make some money. He lands in a swamp, marches through the woods, and in some post deep in the country, he’s struck by how totally savage everything is around him. He is surrounded by all the mysterious life stirring in the forest, in the jungles, and in the hearts of the wild men. Nothing can prepare a man for that life. He just has to start living in it one day, in the middle of all of that awful confusion. But he’s drawn to that crazy savage life as well. Horrible things can be so fascinating. He starts to feel regret. He longs to go home but is disgusted by his powerlessness to escape. Then he surrenders to it all and fills with hate.”
He paused. He paused.
“Mind,” he began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of the hand outwards, so that, with his legs folded before him, he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower—“Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency—the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to....” “Of course,” he said, shifting his pose so that he looked like Buddha dressed in European clothes, “none of us would feel exactly that same way. What keeps us from feeling that way is that we’re modern and organized. Really, those Roman guys weren’t all that great. They were powerful and strong and defeated their enemies, but they couldn’t rule faraway places. All they did was steal. And even strength is relative. Everyone else at that time was just so weak. The Romans stole what they could because they could get away with it. It was nothing but violent robbery, aggravated murder on a grand scale, and the robbers were blind, which is fitting since they were attacking a land of darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from people with different colored skin or flatter noses, is not a pretty thing when you think about it. The only good thing about it is the idea behind it. Not some pretty words you can use to describe it, but a real and powerful idea that men will unselfishly sacrifice themselves for—something that men will bow down to and worship. . .”