Heart of Darkness

by: Joseph Conrad

  Part 2 Page 10

page Part 2: Page 10

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“I was looking down at the sounding-pole, and feeling much annoyed to see at each try a little more of it stick out of that river, when I saw my poleman give up on the business suddenly, and stretch himself flat on the deck, without even taking the trouble to haul his pole in. He kept hold on it though, and it trailed in the water. At the same time the fireman, whom I could also see below me, sat down abruptly before his furnace and ducked his head. I was amazed. Then I had to look at the river mighty quick, because there was a snag in the fairway. Sticks, little sticks, were flying about—thick: they were whizzing before my nose, dropping below me, striking behind me against my pilot-house. All this time the river, the shore, the woods, were very quiet—perfectly quiet. I could only hear the heavy splashing thump of the stern-wheel and the patter of these things. We cleared the snag clumsily. Arrows, by Jove! We were being shot at! I stepped in quickly to close the shutter on the landside. That fool-helmsman, his hands on the spokes, was lifting his knees high, stamping his feet, champing his mouth, like a reined-in horse. Confound him! And we were staggering within ten feet of the bank. I had to lean right out to swing the heavy shutter, and I saw a face amongst the leaves on the level with my own, looking at me very fierce and steady; and then suddenly, as though a veil had been removed from my eyes, I made out, deep in the tangled gloom, naked breasts, arms, legs, glaring eyes—the bush was swarming with human limbs in movement, glistening of bronze colour. The twigs shook, swayed, and rustled, the arrows flew out of them, and then the shutter came to. ‘Steer her straight,’ I said to the helmsman. He held his head rigid, face forward; but his eyes rolled, he kept on lifting and setting down his feet gently, his mouth foamed a little. ‘Keep quiet!’ I said in a fury. I might just as well have ordered a tree not to sway in the wind. I darted out. Below me there was a great scuffle of feet on the iron deck; confused exclamations; a voice screamed, ‘Can you turn back?’ I caught sight of a V-shaped ripple on the water ahead. What? Another snag! A fusillade burst out under my feet. The pilgrims had opened with their Winchesters, and were simply squirting lead into that bush. A deuce of a lot of smoke came up and drove slowly forward. I swore at it. Now I couldn’t see the ripple or the snag either. I stood in the doorway, peering, and the arrows came in swarms. They might have been poisoned, but they looked as though they wouldn’t kill a cat. The bush began to howl. Our wood-cutters raised a warlike whoop; the report of a rifle just at my back deafened me. I glanced over my shoulder, and the pilot-house was yet full of noise and smoke when I made a dash at the wheel. The fool-nigger had dropped everything, to throw the shutter open and let off that Martini-Henry. He stood before the wide opening, glaring, and I yelled at him to come back, while I straightened the sudden twist out of that steamboat. There was no room to turn even if I had wanted to, the snag was somewhere very near ahead in that confounded smoke, there was no time to lose, so I just crowded her into the bank—right into the bank, where I knew the water was deep. “I was watching with annoyance as the water got shallower and shallower, when I noticed that the man holding the pole we used to tell the depth had decided to lie down on the deck. He didn’t even bother to haul in the pole, which was still in his hand but dragging in the water. Then I saw the man in charge of the boiler sit down and cover his head. I had no idea what was going on. I thought we’d hit some of the overhanging branches, because little sticks were falling all over the deck. The river, the shore, and the woods were completely quiet. All I could hear was the thump of our paddlewheel and the sound of those little sticks falling. Then it hit me: arrows! We were being shot at! I stepped into my cabin and closed the shutter facing the shore. That fool helmsman had his hands on the wheel but was stamping his feet up and down like a horse. Damn him! And we were less than ten feet from the shore. As I leaned out to close the shutter, I saw a face among the leaves. It was staring fiercely at me. And then I could see clearly all sorts of arms and legs and eyes in the dark trees. The bush was swarming with them. The leaves rustled and arrows flew out of them. I managed to close the shutter and said to the helmsman, ‘Steer her straight.’ He kept his head perfectly still but his eyes rolled and he was practically foaming at the mouth in fear. ‘Calm down!’ I said angrily. I may as well have told a tree not to sway in the wind. I ran out onto the deck. I heard a voice scream, ‘Turn back!’ and I saw another snag in the river up ahead. The agents were blasting their rifles, squirting lead into the bush. Their guns were smoking so much that I couldn’t see ahead anymore. The little arrows came in swarms. They may have been poisoned, but they looked like they couldn’t kill a cat. There was howling from the bush, and then a roar of gunfire in my ear. I turned around and saw that the helmsman had let go of the wheel and was blasting away with the machine gun. I grabbed the wheel and saw that there wasn’t time to turn us away from the snag, so I steered the boat straight toward the bank, where I knew the water was deepest.