Heart of Darkness

by: Joseph Conrad

  Part 2 Page 8

page Part 2: Page 8

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“Two pilgrims were quarrelling in hurried whispers as to which bank. ‘Left.’ ‘no, no; how can you? Right, right, of course.’ ‘It is very serious,’ said the manager’s voice behind me; ‘I would be desolated if anything should happen to Mr. Kurtz before we came up.’ I looked at him, and had not the slightest doubt he was sincere. He was just the kind of man who would wish to preserve appearances. That was his restraint. But when he muttered something about going on at once, I did not even take the trouble to answer him. I knew, and he knew, that it was impossible. Were we to let go our hold of the bottom, we would be absolutely in the air—in space. We wouldn’t be able to tell where we were going to—whether up or down stream, or across—till we fetched against one bank or the other—and then we wouldn’t know at first which it was. Of course I made no move. I had no mind for a smash-up. You couldn’t imagine a more deadly place for a shipwreck. Whether we drowned at once or not, we were sure to perish speedily in one way or another. ‘I authorize you to take all the risks,’ he said, after a short silence. ‘I refuse to take any,’ I said shortly; which was just the answer he expected, though its tone might have surprised him. ‘Well, I must defer to your judgment. You are captain,’ he said with marked civility. I turned my shoulder to him in sign of my appreciation, and looked into the fog. How long would it last? It was the most hopeless lookout. The approach to this Kurtz grubbing for ivory in the wretched bush was beset by as many dangers as though he had been an enchanted princess sleeping in a fabulous castle. ‘Will they attack, do you think?’ asked the manager, in a confidential tone. “Two agents were bickering about which bank of the river the sounds had come from. ‘Left,’ said one. ‘No, no. How can you tell? It’s the right.’ From behind me, the manager said, ‘This is very serious. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to Mr. Kurtz before we came up.’ I looked at him and didn’t have the slightest doubt about whether he was lying. He was the sort of man who wanted to keep up appearances. That was his restraint. But when he muttered something about us sailing on, I didn’t even bother answering him. Both of us knew that was impossible. If we pulled up our anchor, we would be completely lost, like we were floating in space. We wouldn’t be able to tell whether we were going upstream or downstream or across, at least until we hit something. Of course I did nothing. I wasn’t in the mood to wreck the boat. You couldn’t imagine a deadlier place for a shipwreck. Even if we didn’t drown immediately, we would certainly die. ‘I authorize you to take any risks necessary,’ he said. ‘I refuse to take any,’ I replied, which was exactly what he knew I would say. ‘Well, you’re the captain,’ he said. I turned my shoulder toward him and looked into the fog. How long would it last? It seemed completely hopeless. There were so many dangers on the way to Kurtz that it was as though he was a princess protected in a magic castle, rather than a man collecting ivory in the bush. ‘Do you think they’ll attack?’ asked the manager.
“I did not think they would attack, for several obvious reasons. The thick fog was one. If they left the bank in their canoes they would get lost in it, as we would be if we attempted to move. Still, I had also judged the jungle of both banks quite impenetrable—and yet eyes were in it, eyes that had seen us. The riverside bushes were certainly very thick; but the undergrowth behind was evidently penetrable. However, during the short lift I had seen no canoes anywhere in the reach—certainly not abreast of the steamer. But what made the idea of attack inconceivable to me was the nature of the noise—of the cries we had heard. They had not the fierce character boding immediate hostile intention. Unexpected, wild, and violent as they had been, they had given me an irresistible impression of sorrow. The glimpse of the steamboat had for some reason filled those savages with unrestrained grief. The danger, if any, I expounded, was from our proximity to a great human passion let loose. Even extreme grief may ultimately vent itself in violence—but more generally takes the form of apathy.... “I didn’t think they would attack, for some obvious reasons. For starters, the fog was too thick. If they tried to row their canoes from the bank to our ship, they would get lost, just like we would if we moved. Then again, I couldn’t see anything on the banks, but clearly they had seen us. The bushes right along the river were very thick, but apparently people could move behind them. But earlier, when the fog lifted for a moment, I didn’t see any canoes anywhere. What made the idea of an attack impossible for me to imagine was the terrible scream we’d heard. That wasn’t a war-cry. Yes, it was wild and violent, but it was filled with sorrow, not hostility. For some reason the momentary sight of our boat had filled the savages on the riverbank with uncontrollable grief. The danger, I thought, was not from an attack but from being so close to such strong emotion. Even extreme grief can ultimately lead to violence.