Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad
No Fear Part 1 Page 6
No Fear Part 1: Page 6

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“I flew around like mad to get ready, and before forty-eight hours I was crossing the Channel to show myself to my employers, and sign the contract. In a very few hours I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt. I had no difficulty in finding the Company’s offices. It was the biggest thing in the town, and everybody I met was full of it. They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade. “I ran around like crazy getting ready, and in less than two days I crossed the Channel to sign my contract. I soon arrived in

a city

referring to Brussels, Belgium

a city
that always makes me think of a giant white tomb. That’s probably prejudice on my part. It was easy to find the Company’s office. It was the biggest thing in town and everybody I met was talking about it. They said they were going to have an empire and make more money than you could count.
“A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence, grass sprouting right and left, immense double doors standing ponderously ajar. I slipped through one of these cracks, went up a swept and ungarnished staircase, as arid as a desert, and opened the first door I came to. Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool. The slim one got up and walked straight at me—still knitting with downcast eyes—and only just as I began to think of getting out of her way, as you would for a somnambulist, stood still, and looked up. Her dress was as plain as an umbrella-cover, and she turned round without a word and preceded me into a waiting-room. I gave my name, and looked about. Deal table in the middle, plain chairs all round the walls, on one end a large shining map, marked with all the colours of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red—good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However, I wasn’t going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river was there—fascinating—deadly—like a snake. Ough! A door opened, ya white-haired secretarial head, but wearing a compassionate expression, appeared, and a skinny forefinger beckoned me into the sanctuary. Its light was dim, and a heavy writing-desk squatted in the middle. From behind that structure came out an impression of pale plumpness in a frock-coat. The great man himself. He was five feet six, I should judge, and had his grip on the handle-end of ever so many millions. He shook hands, I fancy, murmured vaguely, was satisfied with my French. Bon Voyage. “I went down a narrow, dark, deserted street that was lined with high houses, all with their blinds drawn. Everything was silent and there was grass growing everywhere. The Company’s building had two huge double doors that were slightly open. I slipped through the crack, went up a clean, undecorated staircase that was as lifeless as a desert. I opened the first door I came to. Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on stools, knitting black wool. The slim one got up and walked straight to me. She kept her eyes on her knitting and I was about to step out of her way, like you would for a sleepwalker, when she stopped and looked up. Her dress was a plain as an umbrella, and she turned around without saying anything and led me into a waiting room. I gave my name and looked around. There was a table in the middle of the room, plain chairs lined up on the walls, and at one end, a large map marked with all the colors of the rainbow. There was a vast amount of

red on the map

on maps of the time, countries that were part of the British Empire were marked in red

red on the map
, which was good to see because it meant that something good was happening in those places. There was

a lot of blue

indicating countries that were part of the French Empire

a lot of blue
,

a little green

indicating countries that were part of the Italian Empire

a little green
,

some smears of orange

indicating countries that were part of the Portuguese Empire

some smears of orange
, and, on the East Coast,

a purple patch

indicating German East Africa

a purple patch
showing where happy pioneers were drinking lager. But I wasn’t going to any of those places. I was going into

the yellow

indicating the Congo Free State, under the control of Belgium’s King Leopold II

the yellow
. It was dead in the center of the map. And the river was there, as fascinating and deadly as a snake. A door opened and a secretary poked her white but friendly head out and called me in with a wave of a skinny finger. The light was low and a heavy writing desk squatted in the middle of the room. Behind it was a pale blob in a dress coat. It was the great man himself. He was about five foot six inches and had millions at his fingertips. He shook hands, mumbled vaguely, and was satisfied with my French. Bon voyage.
“In about forty-five seconds I found myself again in the waiting-room with the compassionate secretary, who, full of desolation and sympathy, made me sign some document. I believe I undertook amongst other things not to disclose any trade secrets. Well, I am not going to. “In about forty-five seconds I was back in the waiting room with the friendly-looking secretary, who made me sign some document. I think I agreed not to reveal any Company secrets. Well, I’m not going to.
“I began to feel slightly uneasy. You know I am not used to such ceremonies, and there was something ominous in the atmosphere. It was just as though I had been let into some conspiracy—I don’t know—something not quite right; and I was glad to get out. In the outer room the two women knitted black wool feverishly. People were arriving, and the younger one was walking back and forth introducing them. The old one sat on her chair. Her flat cloth slippers were propped up on a foot-warmer, and a cat reposed on her lap. She wore a starched white affair on her head, had a wart on one cheek, and silver-rimmed spectacles hung on the tip of her nose. She glanced at me above the glasses. The swift and indifferent placidity of that look troubled me. Two youths with foolish and cheery countenances were being piloted over, and she threw at them the same quick glance of unconcerned wisdom. She seemed to know all about them and about me, too. An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes. Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again—not half, by a long way. “I began to feel a little nervous. I’m not used to all those formalities, and the atmosphere in there was frightening. It was like I’d been brought into some conspiracy, something not quite right, and I was glad to get out. In the outer room the two women were still knitting the black wool. People were arriving, and the younger woman was walking back and forth introducing them. The older one sat on her chair. Her flat cloth slippers were propped up on a foot-warmer and she a cat was laying in her lap. She wore some starched white thing on her head, had a wart on one cheek, and silver-rimmed glasses hung on the tip of her nose. She glanced at me above the glasses. The quick and uninterested calm of that look troubled me. Two young guys with foolish but happy faces were being brought over, and she looked at them with the same quick glance of bored wisdom. She seemed to know all about them and all about me too. An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed mysterious and significant, almost symbolic. Later, when I was far away from there, I would often think about those two women, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool for a funeral veil, one forever introducing people to the unknown, the other glancing up at those foolish and happy faces with unconcerned old eyes. Hail, old knitter of black wool, we who are about to die salute you! Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again. Not even half.