Heart of Darkness

by: Joseph Conrad

  Part 2 Page 7

page Part 2: Page 7

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“I went forward, and ordered the chain to be hauled in short, so as to be ready to trip the anchor and move the steamboat at once if necessary. ‘Will they attack?’ whispered an awed voice. ‘We will be all butchered in this fog,’ murmured another. The faces twitched with the strain, the hands trembled slightly, the eyes forgot to wink. It was very curious to see the contrast of expressions of the white men and of the black fellows of our crew, who were as much strangers to that part of the river as we, though their homes were only eight hundred miles away. The whites, of course greatly discomposed, had besides a curious look of being painfully shocked by such an outrageous row. The others had an alert, naturally interested expression; but their faces were essentially quiet, even those of the one or two who grinned as they hauled at the chain. Several exchanged short, grunting phrases, which seemed to settle the matter to their satisfaction. Their headman, a young, broad-chested black, severely draped in dark-blue fringed cloths, with fierce nostrils and his hair all done up artfully in oily ringlets, stood near me. ‘Aha!’ I said, just for good fellowship’s sake. ‘Catch ’im,’ he snapped, with a bloodshot widening of his eyes and a flash of sharp teeth—‘catch ’im. Give ’im to us.’ ‘To you, eh?’ I asked; ‘what would you do with them?’ ‘Eat ‘im!’ he said curtly, and, leaning his elbow on the rail, looked out into the fog in a dignified and profoundly pensive attitude. I would no doubt have been properly horrified, had it not occurred to me that he and his chaps must be very hungry: that they must have been growing increasingly hungry for at least this month past. They had been engaged for six months (I don’t think a single one of them had any clear idea of time, as we at the end of countless ages have. They still belonged to the beginnings of time—had no inherited experience to teach them as it were), and of course, as long as there was a piece of paper written over in accordance with some farcical law or other made down the river, it didn’t enter anybody’s head to trouble how they would live. Certainly they had brought with them some rotten hippo-meat, which couldn’t have lasted very long, anyway, even if the pilgrims hadn’t, in the midst of a shocking hullabaloo, thrown a considerable quantity of it overboard. It looked like a high-handed proceeding; but it was really a case of legitimate self-defence. You can’t breathe dead hippo waking, sleeping, and eating, and at the same time keep your precarious grip on existence. Besides that, they had given them every week three pieces of brass wire, each about nine inches long; and the theory was they were to buy their provisions with that currency in riverside villages. You can see how that worked. There were either no villages, or the people were hostile, or the director, who like the rest of us fed out of tins, with an occasional old he-goat thrown in, didn’t want to stop the steamer for some more or less recondite reason. So, unless they swallowed the wire itself, or made loops of it to snare the fishes with, I don’t see what good their extravagant salary could be to them. I must say it was paid with a regularity worthy of a large and honourable trading company. For the rest, the only thing to eat—though it didn’t look eatable in the least—I saw in their possession was a few lumps of some stuff like half-cooked dough, of a dirty lavender colour, they kept wrapped in leaves, and now and then swallowed a piece of, but so small that it seemed done more for the looks of the thing than for any serious purpose of sustenance. Why in the name of all the gnawing devils of hunger they didn’t go for us—they were thirty to five—and have a good tuck-in for once, amazes me now when I think of it. They were big powerful men, with not much capacity to weigh the consequences, with courage, with strength, even yet, though their skins were no longer glossy and their muscles no longer hard. And I saw that something restraining, one of those human secrets that baffle probability, had come into play there. I looked at them with a swift quickening of interest—not because it occurred to me I might be eaten by them before very long, though I own to you that just then I perceived—in a new light, as it were—how unwholesome the pilgrims looked, and I hoped, yes, I positively hoped, that my aspect was not so—what shall I say?—so—unappetizing: a touch of fantastic vanity which fitted well with the dream-sensation that pervaded all my days at that time. Perhaps I had a little fever, too. One can’t live with one’s finger everlastingly on one’s pulse. I had often ‘a little fever,’ or a little touch of other things—the playful paw-strokes of the wilderness, the preliminary trifling before the more serious onslaught which came in due course. Yes; I looked at them as you would on any human being, with a curiosity of their impulses, motives, capacities, weaknesses, when brought to the test of an inexorable physical necessity. Restraint! What possible restraint? Was it superstition, disgust, patience, fear—or some kind of primitive honour? No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well, I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition of one’s soul—than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true. And these chaps, too, had no earthly reason for any kind of scruple. Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield. But there was the fact facing me—the fact dazzling, to be seen, like the foam on the depths of the sea, like a ripple on an unfathomable enigma, a mystery greater—when I thought of it—than the curious, inexplicable note of desperate grief in this savage clamour that had swept by us on the river-bank, behind the blind whiteness of the fog. “I ordered the men to prepare to lift the anchor in case we had to leave suddenly. ‘Will they attack?’ whispered a voice. ‘We’ll be butchered in this fog,’ said another. Our hands trembled, our eyes forgot to blink. It was interesting to contrasting expressions on the white men and the black fellows, who were just as unfamiliar with that part of the river as we were. The whites were clearly upset and shaken, and looked shocked by such outrageous noises. The black men, on the other hand, looked alert but generally calm. Two of the men were even smiling as they prepared the anchor. Their headman was standing near me. ‘Hmm,’ I said. ‘Catch him,’ he said, flashing his sharp teeth. ‘Catch him and give him to us.’ ‘What would you do with him?’ ‘Eat him!’ he said, as he looked out into the fog. I would have been horrified, but it occurred to me that the natives onboard must have been very hungry. They belonged to the beginning of time, so the ridiculous contracts they were forced to sign, which said they had to work for six months, were meaningless to them. I don’t think anyone ever bothered to wonder if they knew they needed enough food for that length of time. They’d brought a lot of hippo meat aboard, but the agents hated the smell and threw much of it away. That sounds cruel, but really it was self-defense. You can’t smell hippo meat every second of the day and keep your sanity. They were each paid three pieces of brass wire every week, the idea being that they would go ashore and trade that for food in the villages we passed. You can imagine how well that worked. There were no villages, or the villagers were hostile, or the manager didn’t want to stop for whatever reason. (Like the rest of us white men, the manager ate canned food that had been brought on board, as well as the occasional goat.) So unless they ate the wire or made it into loops to catch fish, I don’t see what good it did them. I will say that it was paid regularly, as though we were in a large and distinguished company. I also saw them eat something like looked like half-cooked dough, which they kept rolled up in leaves, but it looked so unappetizing and small that I don’t understand how it kept them going. I’ll never know why on earth they didn’t kill us white men and eat us. They outnumbered us thirty to five, and they were big, powerful men, even though they were growing weak from the voyage. I saw that something was restraining them, some unlikely bit of secret humanity. I looked at them with new interest. I did so not because I thought they would eat me, though at that moment I noticed that the agents looked, well, unappetizing, and in my vanity I hoped I looked more wholesome. Perhaps that strange hope was caused by a slight fever, or simply the pressure of constantly worrying about my own health, wondering when some jungle illness would take me. In any case, I looked at them like you’d look at any other human being. I was curious about their impulses, motives, abilities, and weaknesses, especially when pushed to their physical limits. What could possibly be restraining them from eating us? Was it superstition, disgust, patience, fear, or some code of honor? No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can outlast it, and if you’re hungry enough you can’t feel disgust anymore. As for superstition or beliefs, they are like dust in the wind when faced with starvation. Do you know what sorts of evil thoughts come into your mind when you’re starving? I do. It takes all of your inner strength to fight them off. It’s easier to face a deep personal loss or dishonor or even damnation than to face prolonged hunger. Sad, but true. And these men had no reason for any restraint. I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling among the corpses on a battlefield. But there they were, standing in front of me, restrained. Their behavior was even more of a mystery than the terrible screams we’d heard through the whiteness of the fog.