Heart of Darkness

by: Joseph Conrad

  Part 1 Page 5

page Part 1: Page 5

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“True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery—a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird—a silly little bird. Then I remembered there was a big concern, a Company for trade on that river. Dash it all! I thought to myself, they can’t trade without using some kind of craft on that lot of fresh water—steamboats! Why shouldn’t I try to get charge of one? I went on along Fleet Street, but could not shake off the idea. The snake had charmed me. “Actually, by the time of my story, it wasn’t a blank space anymore. In the time since I was a child, it had been filled in with rivers and lakes and names. It stopped being a blank space of delightful mystery, a white patch for a boy to dream about. It had become a place of darkness. But there was one special river in it,

a huge river

referring to the Congo

a huge river
that looked like a giant snake with its head in the sea, its body curling over a vast land, and its tail disappearing somewhere deep in the country. I stared at a map of this land in a store window, looking something like a silly bird staring at a snake. That’s when I remembered that there was a big company that did business on that river. Well, hell, I thought, they can’t buy and sell anything on the river without using steamboats, and I could sail one of those. As I walked away I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The snake had charmed me.
“You understand it was a Continental concern, that Trading society; but I have a lot of relations living on the Continent, because it’s cheap and not so nasty as it looks, they say. “The company had its headquarters on the European Continent, not in London. I have a lot of relatives who live on the Continent because it’s cheap and not as nasty as it looks, according to them.
“I am sorry to own I began to worry them. This was already a fresh departure for me. I was not used to get things that way, you know. I always went my own road and on my own legs where I had a mind to go. I wouldn’t have believed it of myself; but, then—you see—I felt somehow I must get there by hook or by crook. So I worried them. The men said ‘My dear fellow,’ and did nothing. Then—would you believe it?—I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work—to get a job. Heavens! Well, you see, the notion drove me. I had an aunt, a dear enthusiastic soul. She wrote: ‘It will be delightful. I am ready to do anything, anything for you. It is a glorious idea. I know the wife of a very high personage in the Administration, and also a man who has lots of influence with,’ etc. She was determined to make no end of fuss to get me appointed skipper of a river steamboat, if such was my fancy. “I’m embarrassed to admit that I started pestering them about getting me a job with the Company. This was new to me. I wasn’t used to getting work that way; I always took care of myself. But I felt like I had to do everything I could to get to that river. So I pestered them. The men said ‘My dear fellow’ and did nothing. Then, if you can believe it, I asked the women. I, Charlie Marlow, put the women to work getting me a job. Good God! Well, you see, I was obsessed. I had an aunt, a sweet old woman. She wrote: ‘It will be delightful. I am ready to do anything for you. It is a glorious idea. I know the wife of a very important man in the Administration, and a man who has lots of influence with so-and-so,’ and so on. She was determined to get me a job as the captain of a river steamboat if that’s what I wanted.
“I got my appointment—of course; and I got it very quick. It appears the Company had received news that one of their captains had been killed in a scuffle with the natives. This was my chance, and it made me the more anxious to go. It was only months and months afterwards, when I made the attempt to recover what was left of the body, that I heard the original quarrel arose from a misunderstanding about some hens. Yes, two black hens. Fresleven—that was the fellow’s name, a Dane—thought himself wronged somehow in the bargain, so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village with a stick. Oh, it didn’t surprise me in the least to hear this, and at the same time to be told that Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs. No doubt he was; but he had been a couple of years already out there engaged in the noble cause, you know, and he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way. Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly, while a big crowd of his people watched him, thunderstruck, till some man—I was told the chief’s son—in desperation at hearing the old chap yell, made a tentative jab with a spear at the white man—and of course it went quite easy between the shoulder-blades. Then the whole population cleared into the forest, expecting all kinds of calamities to happen, while, on the other hand, the steamer Fresleven commanded left also in a bad panic, in charge of the engineer, I believe. Afterwards nobody seemed to trouble much about Fresleven’s remains, till I got out and stepped into his shoes. I couldn’t let it rest, though; but when an opportunity offered at last to meet my predecessor, the grass growing through his ribs was tall enough to hide his bones. They were all there. The supernatural being had not been touched after he fell. And the village was deserted, the huts gaped black, rotting, all askew within the fallen enclosures. A calamity had come to it, sure enough. The people had vanished. Mad terror had scattered them, men, women, and children, through the bush, and they had never returned. What became of the hens I don’t know either. I should think the cause of progress got them, anyhow. However, through this glorious affair I got my appointment, before I had fairly begun to hope for it. “I got the job, of course, and I got it very quickly. Apparently one of the steamboat captains had been killed in a fight with the natives. This was my big break and it made me all the more excited about going. It was only months and months later, while attempting to recover what was left of the captain’s body, that I found out that the fight was over some hens. Yes, two black hens. Fresleven was the guy’s name; he was Danish. He thought he got a raw deal, so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village with a stick. I wasn’t surprised to hear this and at the same time hear that Fresleven was the nicest, quietest guy they’d ever met. I’m sure he was. But he’d already been out there in the jungle on his ‘noble mission’ for a couple of years and probably needed to make himself feel big. So he beat the chief in front of a big crowd of stunned villagers until one of them, supposedly the chief’s son, tried jabbing the white man with a spear. It worked, of course: he got Fresleven right between the shoulder blades and killed him. All the villagers ran off into the forest, afraid that something terrible would happen because they’d killed a white man. Fresleven’s crew also panicked and ran away. Nobody seemed to care about picking up the body until I showed up and stepped into his shoes. I felt like I shouldn’t let it sit there, but when I finally had a chance to meet the man whose job I now had, the grass growing through his ribs was tall enough to hide his bones, which were all there. The natives had thought white men had magical powers, so they hadn’t touched his body. And they had apparently fled the village. Their huts were rotting and falling down. Something terrible had happened after all. Terror had sent them running through the bush and they never returned. I don’t know what happened to the hens either. ‘Progress’ probably got them too. In any case, because of this fiasco, I got my job.