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“You should have seen the pilgrims stare! They had no heart to grin, or even to revile me: but I believe they thought me gone mad—with fright, maybe. I delivered a regular lecture. My dear boys, it was no good bothering. Keep a lookout? Well, you may guess I watched the fog for the signs of lifting as a cat watches a mouse; but for anything else our eyes were of no more use to us than if we had been buried miles deep in a heap of cotton-wool. It felt like it, too—choking, warm, stifling. Besides, all I said, though it sounded extravagant, was absolutely true to fact. What we afterwards alluded to as an attack was really an attempt at repulse. The action was very far from being aggressive—it was not even defensive, in the usual sense: it was undertaken under the stress of desperation, and in its essence was purely protective. “You should have seen the agents staring at me! I think they thought I’d gone crazy. I practically lectured them. My dear boys, I said, there was no point in keeping a lookout. Sure, I watched the fog for signs that it was lifting, but beyond that we may as well have been buried beneath miles of cotton, for all the good our eyes were doing us. Though it might sound strange, what I said was true. And what happened later, what we called an attack, was really an attempt at protection.
“It developed itself, I should say, two hours after the fog lifted, and its commencement was at a spot, roughly speaking, about a mile and a half below Kurtz’s station. We had just floundered and flopped round a bend, when I saw an islet, a mere grassy hummock of bright green, in the middle of the stream. It was the only thing of the kind; but as we opened the reach more, I perceived it was the head of a long sand-bank, or rather of a chain of shallow patches stretching down the middle of the river. They were discoloured, just awash, and the whole lot was seen just under the water, exactly as a man’s backbone is seen running down the middle of his back under the skin. Now, as far as I did see, I could go to the right or to the left of this. I didn’t know either channel, of course. The banks looked pretty well alike, the depth appeared the same; but as I had been informed the station was on the west side, I naturally headed for the western passage. “It happened about two hours after the fog lifted, roughly a mile and a half downriver from Kurtz’s station. We had just come around a bend when I saw a little grassy island in the middle of the river. It was part of a shoal, a chain of shallow patches in the water. We could see the bottom right under the water, just like you can see a man’s spine under his skin. I could steer to the right or left of this. Obviously, I was unfamiliar with the river thereabouts, but the water looked the same on either side. Since I knew Kurtz’s station was on the west side of the river, I took the western route around the shallow patch.
“No sooner had we fairly entered it than I became aware it was much narrower than I had supposed. To the left of us there was the long uninterrupted shoal, and to the right a high, steep bank heavily overgrown with bushes. Above the bush the trees stood in serried ranks. The twigs overhung the current thickly, and from distance to distance a large limb of some tree projected rigidly over the stream. It was then well on in the afternoon, the face of the forest was gloomy, and a broad strip of shadow had already fallen on the water. In this shadow we steamed up—very slowly, as you may imagine. I sheered her well inshore—the water being deepest near the bank, as the sounding-pole informed me. “As soon as we entered the channel on the west side I realized that it was much narrow than it looked. We were sandwiched between the shoal and a high, step bank covered with thick bushes. Behind the bushes were countless trees, and their branches hung out over the river. It was late in the afternoon and the forest looked very dark. There was already a long shadow on the river. We sailed through it slowly. I kept the boat near the shore, since the water was deepest there.
“One of my hungry and forbearing friends was sounding in the bows just below me. This steamboat was exactly like a decked scow. On the deck, there were two little teakwood houses, with doors and windows. The boiler was in the fore-end, and the machinery right astern. Over the whole there was a light roof, supported on stanchions. The funnel projected through that roof, and in front of the funnel a small cabin built of light planks served for a pilot-house. It contained a couch, two camp-stools, a loaded Martini-Henry leaning in one corner, a tiny table, and the steering-wheel. It had a wide door in front and a broad shutter at each side. All these were always thrown open, of course. I spent my days perched up there on the extreme fore-end of that roof, before the door. At night I slept, or tried to, on the couch. An athletic black belonging to some coast tribe and educated by my poor predecessor, was the helmsman. He sported a pair of brass earrings, wore a blue cloth wrapper from the waist to the ankles, and thought all the world of himself. He was the most unstable kind of fool I had ever seen. He steered with no end of a swagger while you were by; but if he lost sight of you, he became instantly the prey of an abject funk, and would let that cripple of a steamboat get the upper hand of him in a minute. “The boat had two little cabins on its deck, with doors and windows. The boiler was in the front of the boat, and the machinery was on the right side. The whole boat had a thin metal roof on poles stretched over it. In my captain’s cabin, there was a couch, two stools, a loaded machine gun, a tiny table, and the steering wheel. It had a wide door in the front and shuttered windows on each side, which I always kept open. I spent my days sitting there, and my nights sleeping on the couch. An athletic native who belonged to one of the tribes from the coast was in charge of the wheel. He wore brass earrings and a long blue skirt and thought the world of himself. He was an unstable fool of a helmsman. If you were nearby, he steered the boat with a swagger, but if he was alone in the cabin, he lost control of the boat quickly.