Heart of Darkness

by: Joseph Conrad

  Part 2 Page 6

page Part 2: Page 6

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“I started the lame engine ahead. ‘It must be this miserable trader—this intruder,’ exclaimed the manager, looking back malevolently at the place we had left. ‘He must be English,’ I said. ‘It will not save him from getting into trouble if he is not careful,’ muttered the manager darkly. I observed with assumed innocence that no man was safe from trouble in this world. “I started the engine. ‘This must belong to that damn trader, the intruder,’ said the manager, looking back at the hut. ‘He must be English,’ I said. ‘That won’t protect him if he’s not careful,’ muttered the manager. I acted like I didn’t know what he was talking about and said that no man was safe from trouble in this world.
“The current was more rapid now, the steamer seemed at her last gasp, the stern-wheel flopped languidly, and I caught myself listening on tiptoe for the next beat of the boat, for in sober truth I expected the wretched thing to give up every moment. It was like watching the last flickers of a life. But still we crawled. Sometimes I would pick out a tree a little way ahead to measure our progress towards Kurtz by, but I lost it invariably before we got abreast. To keep the eyes so long on one thing was too much for human patience. The manager displayed a beautiful resignation. I fretted and fumed and took to arguing with myself whether or no I would talk openly with Kurtz; but before I could come to any conclusion it occurred to me that my speech or my silence, indeed any action of mine, would be a mere futility. What did it matter what any one knew or ignored? What did it matter who was manager? One gets sometimes such a flash of insight. The essentials of this affair lay deep under the surface, beyond my reach, and beyond my power of meddling. “The current was strong against us. The boat seemed like it was breathing its last breath. I expected it to give up at any moment. But we kept moving. I tried to keep track of our progress by watching the trees, but I couldn’t keep them straight. Watching one thing for so long is too much for human patience. The manager didn’t seem to be in a hurry. I was upset by the journey and wondered whether I would get to speak with Kurtz, but I realized that it didn’t matter. What difference did it make if we talked? What difference did it make who was the manager? The truth of what was going on there was buried too deep for me to see it. It was beyond my reach.
“Towards the evening of the second day we judged ourselves about eight miles from Kurtz’s station. I wanted to push on; but the manager looked grave, and told me the navigation up there was so dangerous that it would be advisable, the sun being very low already, to wait where we were till next morning. Moreover, he pointed out that if the warning to approach cautiously were to be followed, we must approach in daylight—not at dusk or in the dark. This was sensible enough. Eight miles meant nearly three hours’ steaming for us, and I could also see suspicious ripples at the upper end of the reach. Nevertheless, I was annoyed beyond expression at the delay, and most unreasonably, too, since one night more could not matter much after so many months. As we had plenty of wood, and caution was the word, I brought up in the middle of the stream. The reach was narrow, straight, with high sides like a railway cutting. The dusk came gliding into it long before the sun had set. The current ran smooth and swift, but a dumb immobility sat on the banks. The living trees, lashed together by the creepers and every living bush of the undergrowth, might have been changed into stone, even to the slenderest twig, to the lightest leaf. It was not sleep—it seemed unnatural, like a state of trance. Not the faintest sound of any kind could be heard. You looked on amazed, and began to suspect yourself of being deaf—then the night came suddenly, and struck you blind as well. About three in the morning some large fish leaped, and the loud splash made me jump as though a gun had been fired. When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something solid. At eight or nine, perhaps, it lifted as a shutter lifts. We had a glimpse of the towering multitude of trees, of the immense matted jungle, with the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it—all perfectly still—and then the white shutter came down again, smoothly, as if sliding in greased grooves. I ordered the chain, which we had begun to heave in, to be paid out again. Before it stopped running with a muffled rattle, a cry, a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation, soared slowly in the opaque air. It ceased. A complaining clamour, modulated in savage discords, filled our ears. The sheer unexpectedness of it made my hair stir under my cap. I don’t know how it struck the others: to me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed, so suddenly, and apparently from all sides at once, did this tumultuous and mournful uproar arise. It culminated in a hurried outbreak of almost intolerably excessive shrieking, which stopped short, leaving us stiffened in a variety of silly attitudes, and obstinately listening to the nearly as appalling and excessive silence. ‘Good God! What is the meaning—’ stammered at my elbow one of the pilgrims—a little fat man, with sandy hair and red whiskers, who wore sidespring boots, and pink pyjamas tucked into his socks. Two others remained open-mouthed a while minute, then dashed into the little cabin, to rush out incontinently and stand darting scared glances, with Winchesters at ‘ready’ in their hands. What we could see was just the steamer we were on, her outlines blurred as though she had been on the point of dissolving, and a misty strip of water, perhaps two feet broad, around her—and that was all. The rest of the world was nowhere, as far as our eyes and ears were concerned. Just nowhere. Gone, disappeared; swept off without leaving a whisper or a shadow behind. “By the next evening, we figured we were about 8 miles from Kurtz’s station. I wanted to keep going, but the manager said that it would be too dangerous in the dark. He added that if we were going to follow the mysterious warning to be careful, we should only approach during the day. That made sense. It would take us three hours to go eight miles, and I could see that there were snags in the water ahead. But I was still annoyed by the delay, even though another night could hardly make any difference. Since we had plenty of wood and were trying to be careful, I stopped the boat in the middle of the river. It was narrow there and the banks were high, like we were in a trench. It was very dark. The trees were so still they could have been made of stone. It was like being in a trance. We couldn’t hear a thing. We were deaf and blind. Around three o’clock in the morning, some large fish leaped and the sound of them splashing made me jump like someone had shot a gun. When the sun rose, everything was covered in fog. It surrounded you like something solid. Around 8 or 9, it lifted like a shutter. We got a glimpse of the huge trees and endless jungle, then the shutter came down again, like someone was sliding it. There was a loud, desperate cry that trailed off, followed by the sounds of the natives speaking to each other. It was so surprising it made my hair stand up under my hat. I don’t know how it seemed to others, but to me it was like the fog itself had screamed from all sides at once. Then came a series of horrible shrieks that were suddenly cut short. We froze. ‘Good God! What was—’ said a fat little agent in pajamas who was standing near me. Two other agents stood with their mouths hanging open for a minute, then rushed into the cabin and came back with rifles. All we could see was the boat we were standing on and a narrow band of water surrounding it. Everything seemed to dissolve into the fog. As far as we could tell, there was nothing else in the entire world. We were nowhere. Just nowhere. It was like we had been swept away without leaving a shadow behind.