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“We gave her her letters (I heard the men in that lonely ship were dying of fever at the rate of three a day) and went on. We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb; all along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair. Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularized impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares. “We carried some mail out to the warship and sailed on. I heard that the men on that ship were dying of fever at a rate of three a day. We stopped at some more places with ridiculous names, places where the only things happening were death and trade. The shoreline was jagged and twisted, as if Nature herself was trying to keep intruders out. We never stopped long enough in any one place to get a real sense of it. I had only a vague feeling of wonder and fear.
“It was upward of thirty days before I saw the mouth of the big river. We anchored off the seat of the government. But my work would not begin till some two hundred miles farther on. So as soon as I could I made a start for a place thirty miles higher up. “It was nearly thirty days before I saw the big river. We stopped near the government outpost at the coast, but my job on the riverboat was 200 miles upstream. So as soon as I could, I started making my way up the river.
“I had my passage on a little sea-going steamer. Her captain was a Swede, and knowing me for a seaman, invited me on the bridge. He was a young man, lean, fair, and morose, with lanky hair and a shuffling gait. As we left the miserable little wharf, he tossed his head contemptuously at the shore. ‘Been living there?’ he asked. I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Fine lot these government chaps—are they not?’ he went on, speaking English with great precision and considerable bitterness. ‘It is funny what some people will do for a few francs a month. I wonder what becomes of that kind when it goes upcountry?’ I said to him I expected to see that soon. ‘So-o-o!’ he exclaimed. He shuffled athwart, keeping one eye ahead vigilantly. ‘Don’t be too sure,’ he continued. ‘The other day I took up a man who hanged himself on the road. He was a Swede, too.’ ‘Hanged himself! Why, in God’s name?’ I cried. He kept on looking out watchfully. ‘Who knows? The sun too much for him, or the country perhaps.’ “I hitched a ride on a little steamship. The captain was a Swede who invited me up on the bridge when he saw that I was a sailor. He was a skinny and sad young man. As we started sailing, he looked at the government outpost on the bank with disgust. ‘Been staying there?’ he asked me. I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘A fine bunch of guys those are, huh?’ he said, speaking with bitter sarcasm. ‘It’s funny what some people will do for money. I wonder what happens to those kinds of people when they go into the jungle?’ I told him that I was about to find out. ‘Ha!’ he exclaimed, shuffling from side to side while keeping one eye on the river ahead. ‘Don’t be too sure. The other day I transported a man who hanged himself on the road. He was Swedish too.’ ‘Hanged himself! Why?’ I cried. He kept looking straight ahead at the river. ‘Who knows? The sun was too much for him, or maybe the country was.’
“At last we opened a reach. A rocky cliff appeared, mounds of turned-up earth by the shore, houses on a hill, others with iron roofs, amongst a waste of excavations, or hanging to the declivity. A continuous noise of the rapids above hovered over this scene of inhabited devastation. A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants. A jetty projected into the river. A blinding sunlight drowned all this at times in a sudden recrudescence of glare. ‘There’s your Company’s station,’ said the Swede, pointing to three wooden barrack-like structures on the rocky slope. ‘I will send your things up. Four boxes did you say? So. Farewell.’ “A rocky cliff appeared up ahead, and we could see houses on a hill, some with iron roofs. There was work going on all around, black men digging and hauling soil. It looked like a wasteland. There were rapids in the river here, and the sound of rushing water drowned out everything else. The glare of the sun on the river made it hard to see. ‘There’s your Company’s station,’ said the Swede, pointing to three wooden shacks on the hill. ‘I’ll send your things up. You have four boxes, right? So, goodbye.’
“I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass, then found a path leading up the hill. It turned aside for the boulders, and also for an undersized railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was off. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal. I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, a stack of rusty rails. To the left a clump of trees made a shady spot, where dark things seemed to stir feebly. I blinked, the path was steep. A horn tooted to the right, and I saw the black people run. A heavy and dull detonation shook the ground, a puff of smoke came out of the cliff, and that was all. No change appeared on the face of the rock. They were building a railway. The cliff was not in the way or anything; but this objectless blasting was all the work going on. “As I walked up the hill, I passed a train engine and a railway car lying in the grass next to a boulder. The car was upside down, with one wheel missing. It looked like a dead animal. I passed more pieces of rusty machinery. In the shade off to the side I saw dark shapes moving around. I blinked and looked at the steep path. A horn tooted and the black people scattered. A heavy explosion shook the ground and a puff of smoke came out of the rocks. The cliff wasn’t changed. They were building a railway, or trying to, anyway. The cliff didn’t appear to be in the way, but they were blasting it anyway.