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“One thing more remained to do—say good-bye to my excellent aunt. I found her triumphant. I had a cup of tea—the last decent cup of tea for many days—and in a room that most soothingly looked just as you would expect a lady’s drawing-room to look, we had a long quiet chat by the fireside. In the course of these confidences it became quite plain to me I had been represented to the wife of the high dignitary, and goodness knows to how many more people besides, as an exceptional and gifted creature—a piece of good fortune for the Company—a man you don’t get hold of every day. Good heavens! and I was going to take charge of a two-penny-half-penny river-steamboat with a penny whistle attached! It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital—you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’ till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit. “The only thing I had left to do was say goodbye to my aunt, who’d been so helpful. She was proud of her success at getting me the job. I had a cup of tea, the last decent cup for a long time. We had a long quiet chat by the fire in her dainty living room. It became clear to me that she had described me to all sorts of important people as an uncommonly exceptional and gifted man, such that the Company would be lucky to have. Good God! All I was doing was taking over a cheap riverboat with a little whistle! Apparently, however, I was also a Worker, with a capital W. In her eyes I was practically a saint, bringing civilization and truth to the poor ignorant natives. People were saying a lot of stuff like that at the time, and the poor woman got carried away by it all. She talked so much about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’ that she made uncomfortable. I hinted that the Company existed to make money.
“‘You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire,’ she said, brightly. It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over. “‘You forget, dear Charlie, that the worker is worthy of his pay,’ she said with a smile. It’s weird how out of touch with truth women are. They live in their own world, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It’s too beautiful to be real, and if they tried to make it happen it would fall apart before the first sunset. Some well-known fact that we men have been living with since the beginning of time would come and knock the whole thing over.
“After this I got embraced, told to wear flannel, be sure to write often, and so on—and I left. In the street—I don’t know why—a queer feeling came to me that I was an imposter. Odd thing that I, who used to clear out for any part of the world at twenty-four hours’ notice, with less thought than most men give to the crossing of a street, had a moment—I won’t say of hesitation, but of startled pause, before this commonplace affair. The best way I can explain it to you is by saying that, for a second or two, I felt as though, instead of going to the centre of a continent, I were about to set off for the centre of the earth. “After this she hugged me and told me to wear flannel, be sure to write often, and so on. I don’t know why, but in the street I felt like an imposter. It was strange. I was used to taking off for any part of the world at a day’s notice without a second thought, but now I paused. The best way I can explain it to you is by saying that, for a second or two, I felt like I was about to head off to the center of the earth rather than the center of a continent.
“I left in a French steamer, and she called in every blamed port they have out there, for, as far as I could see, the sole purpose of landing soldiers and custom-house officers. I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you—smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, ‘Come and find out.’ This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam. Here and there greyish-whitish specks showed up clustered inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps. Settlements some centuries old, and still no bigger than pinheads on the untouched expanse of their background. We pounded along, stopped, landed soldiers; went on, landed custom-house clerks to levy toll in what looked like a God-forsaken wilderness, with a tin shed and a flag-pole lost in it; landed more soldiers—to take care of the custom-house clerks, presumably. Some, I heard, got drowned in the surf; but whether they did or not, nobody seemed particularly to care. They were just flung out there, and on we went. Every day the coast looked the same, as though we had not moved; but we passed various places—trading places—with names like Gran’ Bassam, Little Popo; names that seemed to belong to some sordid farce acted in front of a sinister back-cloth. The idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform sombreness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion. The voice of the surf heard now and then was a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother. It was something natural, that had its reason, that had a meaning. Now and then a boat from the shore gave one a momentary contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows. You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening. They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks—these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at. For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long. Something would turn up to scare it away. Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hidden out of sight somewhere. “I left in a French steam ship. It stopped in every damn port along the way just so that the soldiers and custom house clerks could go ashore. I watched the coast. Watching the land slip by the ship is like thinking about a mystery. There it is in front of you, smiling or frowning or savage or whatever, and it’s always whispering, ‘Come and find out.’ The landscape was grim and featureless, like it was still being formed. The huge dark jungle came right up to the beach and stretched as far as the eye could see. The sun was fierce and the land looked like it was sweating. Every once in a while, a grayish-white speck with a little flag over it became visible. These were settlements from centuries past. They looked like mere dots in the enormous jungle. We kept sailing and dropping off soldiers and clerks at little tin sheds in the wilderness. The soldiers, I assume, were there to protect the clerks. I heard that some drowned making their way ashore, but nobody seemed to know for sure or even care. They were just flung into the wilderness as we passed. The coast looked the same day in and day out. It seemed like we weren’t moving at all. The trading posts we passed had names like Gran’ Bassam and Little Popo—they sounded like names out of a bad play. I felt far away from everything happening around me. The sound of the waves was comforting, like the voice of a brother. It was something natural and meaningful. Now and then a boat from the shore brought me back in touch with reality. It was being paddled by black fellows. You could see the whites of their eyes glistening from far away. They shouted and sang, and their bodies dripped with sweat. They had faces like bizarre masks, but they had a natural energy and life, like the sea itself. Their presence didn’t need to be explained. They were very comforting to look at. For a while I would feel that the world made sense and was full of straightforward facts. That feeling would not last long, however. Something would always scare it away. Once, I remember, we met a warship anchored off the coast. There was no settlement visible, but the ship was firing its guns into the forest. Apparently the French were fighting some war near there. The boat’s flag hung limp like a rag while the hull, with guns sticking out over it, rose gently and fell on the greasy, slimy waves. The ship was a tiny speck firing away into a continent. It was pointless and impossible to understand. The guns would pop, a small flame would appear from their barrels, a little white smoke would puff out, and nothing would happen. Nothing could happen. It was insane, and it only seemed more insane when someone swore to me that there was a camp of natives (or ‘enemies,’ as he called them) hidden in the jungle.