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“They swore aloud together—out of sheer fright, I believe—then pretending not to know anything of my existence, turned back to the station. The sun was low; and leaning forward side by side, they seemed to be tugging painfully uphill their two ridiculous shadows of unequal length, that trailed behind them slowly over the tall grass without bending a single blade. “They both jumped and swore. I had scared them. Then they pretended like they hadn’t heard me and walked back up to the station. The sun was setting and it looked like they were dragging ridiculously long shadows after them.
“In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver. Long afterwards the news came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals. They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved. I did not inquire. I was then rather excited at the prospect of meeting Kurtz very soon. When I say very soon I mean it comparatively. It was just two months from the day we left the creek when we came to the bank below Kurtz’s station. “In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the wilderness, which swallowed them like the sea swallows a diver. A long time later we heard that all of the donkeys had died. I never heard anything about the less valuable animals. I’m sure they, like the rest of us, got what they deserved. I didn’t ask. I was excited by the possibility of meeting Kurtz. It was two months to the day from when we left the main station to when we pulled up at the bank near Kurtz’s station.
“Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sand-banks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare for yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect. I got used to it afterwards; I did not see it any more; I had no time. I had to keep guessing at the channel; I had to discern, mostly by inspiration, the signs of hidden banks; I watched for sunken stones; I was learning to clap my teeth smartly before my heart flew out, when I shaved by a fluke some infernal sly old snag that would have ripped the life out of the tin-pot steamboat and drowned all the pilgrims; I had to keep a lookout for the signs of dead wood we could cut up in the night for next day’s steaming. When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality—the reality, I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden—luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for—what is it? half-a-crown a tumble—” “Going up that river was like traveling back to the beginning of the world, when the plants ran wild and the trees were kings. We sailed up an empty river into a great and silent forest. The air was thick and heavy. The sun was bright but not joyful. The river stretched out as far as we could see. Hippos and crocodiles sunned themselves on the banks. The river was so wide that it had islands in the middle. We often lost our way as we would if we were in a desert. We kept running into shoals and getting turned around. It felt like we’d been cursed to wander the river, cut off from everything we’d known in our previous life. There were moments when we were reminded of life before our journey, but those reminders were like strange dreams that we could hardly believe. The stillness all around us was not peaceful. It was the stillness of something powerful lying in wait, its intentions unknown. It looked at you like it wanted revenge. I got used to it after a while. I didn’t have time to think about it, because I had to keep steering the boat, looking for the right passageway through the islands and hidden banks and rocks. I learned to clamp my mouth shut to keep my heart from flying out when I passed the boat close to a snag in the water that would have ripped it apart and drowned us all. I had to keep an eye out for driftwood that we could cut up and use to fuel the engines the next day. When you have to pay attention to all of those things, everything else fades away. Reality fades away. But I felt it anyway. I felt it watching me, just like it watches you men, doing your jobs for a little bit of money, waiting for you to stumble—”