Heart of Darkness

by: Joseph Conrad

  Part 2 Page 11

page Part 2: Page 11

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“We tore slowly along the overhanging bushes in a whirl of broken twigs and flying leaves. The fusillade below stopped short, as I had foreseen it would when the squirts got empty. I threw my head back to a glinting whizz that traversed the pilot-house, in at one shutter-hole and out at the other. Looking past that mad helmsman, who was shaking the empty rifle and yelling at the shore, I saw vague forms of men running bent double, leaping, gliding, distinct, incomplete, evanescent. Something big appeared in the air before the shutter, the rifle went overboard, and the man stepped back swiftly, looked at me over his shoulder in an extraordinary, profound, familiar manner, and fell upon my feet. The side of his head hit the wheel twice, and the end of what appeared a long cane clattered round and knocked over a little camp-stool. It looked as though after wrenching that thing from somebody ashore he had lost his balance in the effort. The thin smoke had blown away, we were clear of the snag, and looking ahead I could see that in another hundred yards or so I would be free to sheer off, away from the bank; but my feet felt so very warm and wet that I had to look down. The man had rolled on his back and stared straight up at me; both his hands clutched that cane. It was the shaft of a spear that, either thrown or lunged through the opening, had caught him in the side, just below the ribs; the blade had gone in out of sight, after making a frightful gash; my shoes were full; a pool of blood lay very still, gleaming dark-red under the wheel; his eyes shone with an amazing lustre. The fusillade burst out again. He looked at me anxiously, gripping the spear like something precious, with an air of being afraid I would try to take it away from him. I had to make an effort to free my eyes from his gaze and attend to the steering. With one hand I felt above my head for the line of the steam whistle, and jerked out screech after screech hurriedly. The tumult of angry and warlike yells was checked instantly, and then from the depths of the woods went out such a tremulous and prolonged wail of mournful fear and utter despair as may be imagined to follow the flight of the last hope from the earth. There was a great commotion in the bush; the shower of arrows stopped, a few dropping shots rang out sharply—then silence, in which the languid beat of the stern-wheel came plainly to my ears. I put the helm hard a-starboard at the moment when the pilgrim in pink pyjamas, very hot and agitated, appeared in the doorway. ‘The manager sends me—’ he began in an official tone, and stopped short. ‘Good God!’ he said, glaring at the wounded man. “We tore through the overhanging branches. The gunfire stopped. Something whizzed through the cabin, in one window and out the other. The helmsman had run out of bullets and was shaking the gun at the shore, where I saw vague shapes running. Some large object appeared in the air. The helmsman suddenly dropped the gun overboard, looked at me in a strange, profound, and familiar way, and fell to the floor. His head hit the steering wheel twice. He’d tried to grab some sort of pole from someone onshore and lost his balance. The smoke from the guns was lifting and I could see that we were clearing the snag and could move away from the bank in another hundred yards or so. I felt something warm at my feet and looked down. The helmsman was on his back staring up at me with shiny eyes, both hands still holding that pole. I realized that it wasn’t a pole. It was a spear that was stuck in his side, just below the ribs. My shoes were filling with his blood. The agents started firing again. The helmsman looked at me anxiously. He held the spear like he was afraid I was going to take it away from him. I had to force myself to stop staring at him and focus on steering. With one hand I reached up and grabbed the cord of the steam whistle. I jerked on it repeatedly, sending out screech after screech. The yells from the shore stopped and we heard a wail of terror, like all hope had been drained from the earth. There was a lot of commotion in the bush and the shower of arrows stopped. I was turning the wheel sharply when the agent in pajamas came in and said, ‘The manager asked me—Good God!’ He interrupted himself at the sight of the helmsman’s body on the floor.
“We two whites stood over him, and his lustrous and inquiring glance enveloped us both. I declare it looked as though he would presently put to us some questions in an understandable language; but he died without uttering a sound, without moving a limb, without twitching a muscle. Only in the very last moment, as though in response to some sign we could not see, to some whisper we could not hear, he frowned heavily, and that frown gave to his black death-mask an inconceivably sombre, brooding, and menacing expression. The lustre of inquiring glance faded swiftly into vacant glassiness. ‘Can you steer?’ I asked the agent eagerly. He looked very dubious; but I made a grab at his arm, and he understood at once I meant him to steer whether or no. To tell you the truth, I was morbidly anxious to change my shoes and socks. ‘He is dead,’ murmured the fellow, immensely impressed. ‘No doubt about it,’ said I, tugging like mad at the shoe-laces. ‘And by the way, I suppose Mr. Kurtz is dead as well by this time.’ “We stood over him and his shining eyes focused on both of us. It looked like he was about to ask us a question, but he died without making a sound. At the last moment, he frowned, which made his face look angry and threatening. The shininess left his eyes. ‘Can you steer?’ I asked the agent. He looked unsure, but I grabbed his arm in a way that made him realize that he was going to steer whether he knew how or not. To tell you the truth, I was mostly concerned with changing my shoes and socks. ‘He’s dead,’ mumbled the agent. ‘No doubt about it,’ I said, tugging at my shoelaces. ‘And I suppose Mr. Kurtz is dead by now as well.’