Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad
No Fear Part 3 Page 8
No Fear Part 3: Page 8

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“When I woke up shortly after midnight his warning came to my mind with its hint of danger that seemed, in the starred darkness, real enough to make me get up for the purpose of having a look round. On the hill a big fire burned, illuminating fitfully a crooked corner of the station-house. One of the agents with a picket of a few of our blacks, armed for the purpose, was keeping guard over the ivory; but deep within the forest, red gleams that wavered, that seemed to sink and rise from the ground amongst confused columnar shapes of intense blackness, showed the exact position of the camp where Mr. Kurtz’s adorers were keeping their uneasy vigil. The monotonous beating of a big drum filled the air with muffled shocks and a lingering vibration. A steady droning sound of many men chanting each to himself some weird incantation came out from the black, flat wall of the woods as the humming of bees comes out of a hive, and had a strange narcotic effect upon my half-awake senses. I believe I dozed off leaning over the rail, till an abrupt burst of yells, an overwhelming outbreak of a pent-up and mysterious frenzy, woke me up in a bewildered wonder. It was cut short all at once, and the low droning went on with an effect of audible and soothing silence. I glanced casually into the little cabin. A light was burning within, but Mr. Kurtz was not there. “When I woke up just after midnight I looked around cautiously, remembering the Russian’s hints of danger. A big fire was burning on the hill, lighting up one corner of the station-house. One of the agents was guarding the ivory with a group of armed natives. From deeper within the forest red gleams shone between the trees where Mr. Kurtz’s native followers were making camp. A repeating drumbeat made the air vibrate, and I could hear the natives chanting through the black wall of the woods. It was like the sound of bees humming inside a hive. I was starting to doze off when a burst of frenzied yelling woke me up. It stopped immediately and the chanting returned. I glanced into the cabin. A light was burning within, but Mr. Kurtz was not there.
“I think I would have raised an outcry if I had believed my eyes. But I didn’t believe them at first—the thing seemed so impossible. The fact is I was completely unnerved by a sheer blank fright, pure abstract terror, unconnected with any distinct shape of physical danger. What made this emotion so overpowering was—how shall I define it?—the moral shock I received, as if something altogether monstrous, intolerable to thought and odious to the soul, had been thrust upon me unexpectedly. This lasted of course the merest fraction of a second, and then the usual sense of commonplace, deadly danger, the possibility of a sudden onslaught and massacre, or something of the kind, which I saw impending, was positively welcome and composing. It pacified me, in fact, so much that I did not raise an alarm. “I would have raised an alarm if I had believed my eyes. But I didn’t believe them at first. It seemed so impossible that I was terrified. It was as if something monstrous had been thrust before me for a fraction of a second. Then I became aware of the real, deadly possibility that we would be attacked. This realization was practically a relief compared to my horror at Kurtz’s absence, and so I didn’t raise an alarm.
“There was an agent buttoned up inside an ulster and sleeping on a chair on deck within three feet of me. The yells had not awakened him; he snored very slightly; I left him to his slumbers and leaped ashore. I did not betray Mr. Kurtz—it was ordered I should never betray him—it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice. I was anxious to deal with this shadow by myself alone—and to this day I don’t know why I was so jealous of sharing with any one the peculiar blackness of that experience. “There was an agent sleeping in a chair on the deck three feet from me. He had slept through the yells. I let him keep sleeping and leapt ashore. I didn’t betray Mr. Kurtz. I had to be loyal to the nightmare I had chosen. I wanted to deal with him alone, though to this day I don’t know why.
“As soon as I got on the bank I saw a trail—a broad trail through the grass. I remember the exultation with which I said to myself, ‘He can’t walk—he is crawling on all-fours—I’ve got him.’ The grass was wet with dew. I strode rapidly with clenched fists. I fancy I had some vague notion of falling upon him and giving him a drubbing. I don’t know. I had some imbecile thoughts. The knitting old woman with the cat obtruded herself upon my memory as a most improper person to be sitting at the other end of such an affair. I saw a row of pilgrims squirting lead in the air out of Winchesters held to the hip. I thought I would never get back to the steamer, and imagined myself living alone and unarmed in the woods to an advanced age. Such silly things—you know. And I remember I confounded the beat of the drum with the beating of my heart, and was pleased at its calm regularity. “As soon as I got on the bank I saw a broad trail through the grass. I saw that Kurtz had been crawling, and I knew I would catch him. I walked quickly through the wet grass with clenched fists. I had crazy thoughts of attacking and beating him. I realized how preposterous it was that this situation began with an old woman knitting outside an office in Europe. I imagined the agents firing into the bush, and I imagined myself living out the rest of my days alone in the woods. I confused the beat of the drum with the beat of my heart and was calmed by how regular it sounded.