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“Try to be civil, Marlow,” growled a voice, and I knew there was at least one listener awake besides myself. “Be nice, Marlow,” growled a voice on deck. I realized I wasn’t the only one awake.
“I beg your pardon. I forgot the heartache which makes up the rest of the price. And indeed what does the price matter, if the trick be well done? You do your tricks very well. And I didn’t do badly either, since I managed not to sink that steamboat on my first trip. It’s a wonder to me yet. Imagine a blindfolded man set to drive a van over a bad road. I sweated and shivered over that business considerably, I can tell you. After all, for a seaman, to scrape the bottom of the thing that’s supposed to float all the time under his care is the unpardonable sin. No one may know of it, but you never forget the thump—eh? A blow on the very heart. You remember it, you dream of it, you wake up at night and think of it—years after—and go hot and cold all over. I don’t pretend to say that steamboat floated all the time. More than once she had to wade for a bit, with twenty cannibals splashing around and pushing. We had enlisted some of these chaps on the way for a crew. Fine fellows—cannibals—in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them. And, after all, they did not eat each other before my face: they had brought along a provision of hippo-meat which went rotten, and made the mystery of the wilderness stink in my nostrils. Phoo! I can sniff it now. I had the manager on board and three or four pilgrims with their staves—all complete. Sometimes we came upon a station close by the bank, clinging to the skirts of the unknown, and the white men rushing out of a tumble-down hovel, with great gestures of joy and surprise and welcome, seemed very strange—had the appearance of being held there captive by a spell. The word ivory would ring in the air for a while—and on we went again into the silence, along empty reaches, round the still bends, between the high walls of our winding way, reverberating in hollow claps the ponderous beat of the stern-wheel. Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing, that feeling. After all, if you were small, the grimy beetle crawled on—which was just what you wanted it to do. Where the pilgrims imagined it crawled to I don’t know. To some place where they expected to get something. I bet! For me it crawled towards Kurtz—exclusively; but when the steam-pipes started leaking we crawled very slow. The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air high over our heads, till the first break of day. Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer we could not tell. The dawns were heralded by the descent of a chill stillness; the wood-cutters slept, their fires burned low; the snapping of a twig would make you start. We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign—and no memories. “I’m sorry. I forgot how much it hurts to hear it. You men do well. And I didn’t do too badly, since I managed not to sink the boat. I still don’t know how I did it. Imagine a blindfolded man driving a carriage over a bad road. It made me sweat, that’s for sure. After all, scraping the bottom of the boat is the worst thing a sailor can do. You might not have ever told anyone about it, but you never forget the sound it makes when you hit the bottom. It’s like being hit on the heart. You remember it, you dream about it, you wake up in a cold sweat about it years later. I’m not saying the boat was always floating. Sometimes we had the natives get out and push us through shallow water. We grabbed some of those men on the way to work as a crew on the boat. Cannibals are fine people when they’re in their place. I could work with them, and I’m grateful to them for that. And after all, they didn’t eat anyone in front of me. They brought along some hippo meat, which went bad and smelled horrible. I can still smell it now. I had the manager on board as well, along with three or four of the agents. Sometimes we came across stations huddled against the bank. The white men we saw there were overjoyed to see us, but they seemed strange. They looked like prisoners held captive by a spell. They would talk to us about ivory for a while, then we would sail on. There were millions of trees lining the river like a wall. They were massive and made our boat feel like a little bug. It made you feel very small and very lost, but it wasn’t depressing exactly. After all, we had to keep crawling along. I don’t know where the agents thought they would crawl to in the end. I was crawling towards Kurtz. The steam pipes started leaking, so we crawled very slowly. The river seemed to shrink behind us and get larger in front, like we were being closed in. We sailed deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet. Sometimes we would hear drums in the distance all night and into the morning. We couldn’t tell what they meant. In the morning it was chilly and perfectly quiet. A twig snapping would make you jump. We were wandering around an unknown and prehistoric planet. We were like the first men on earth, but all the land was cursed. But then we’d come around a bend and see a village. People would yell and clap and sway around. It was like prehistoric men cursing us or praying to us or welcoming us. We couldn’t tell. We couldn’t understand our surroundings. We sailed past like ghosts, curious but horrified, as sane men would be watching a riot in an asylum. We couldn’t understand because we’d gone too far. We were traveling in the first night on Earth. There were no memories.