Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad
No Fear Part 3 Page 9
No Fear Part 3: Page 9

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“I kept to the track though—then stopped to listen. The night was very clear; a dark blue space, sparkling with dew and starlight, in which black things stood very still. I thought I could see a kind of motion ahead of me. I was strangely cocksure of everything that night. I actually left the track and ran in a wide semicircle (I verily believe chuckling to myself) so as to get in front of that stir, of that motion I had seen—if indeed I had seen anything. I was circumventing Kurtz as though it had been a boyish game. “I stopped to listen. The night was clear and blue, and in the starlight I thought I saw something moving ahead. I was strangely confident that night. I ran off the trail in a large semicircle, trying to get ahead of the motion that I had seen. It was like Kurtz and I were playing a children’s game.
“I came upon him, and, if he had not heard me coming, I would have fallen over him, too, but he got up in time. He rose, unsteady, long, pale, indistinct, like a vapour exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent before me; while at my back the fires loomed between the trees, and the murmur of many voices issued from the forest. I had cut him off cleverly; but when actually confronting him I seemed to come to my senses, I saw the danger in its right proportion. It was by no means over yet. Suppose he began to shout? Though he could hardly stand, there was still plenty of vigour in his voice. ‘Go away—hide yourself,’ he said, in that profound tone. It was very awful. I glanced back. We were within thirty yards from the nearest fire. A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving long black arms, across the glow. It had horns—antelope horns, I think—on its head. Some sorcerer, some witch-man, no doubt: it looked fiendlike enough. ‘Do you know what you are doing?’ I whispered. ‘Perfectly,’ he answered, raising his voice for that single word: it sounded to me far off and yet loud, like a hail through a speaking-trumpet. ‘If he makes a row we are lost,’ I thought to myself. This clearly was not a case for fisticuffs, even apart from the very natural aversion I had to beat that Shadow—this wandering and tormented thing. ‘You will be lost,’ I said—‘utterly lost.’ One gets sometimes such a flash of inspiration, you know. I did say the right thing, though indeed he could not have been more irretrievably lost than he was at this very moment, when the foundations of our intimacy were being laid—to endure—to endure—even to the end—even beyond. “I nearly ran him over, but he stood up just in time. He was unsteady on his feet, swaying slightly like a ghost. Many voices murmured in the forest behind me. I realized what a dangerous spot I was in. What would the natives do if he started shouting? Though he could hardly stand, his voice was strong. ‘Go away—hide yourself,’ he said in a deep tone. It was awful. I looked back and saw a man with long black legs and arms and horns on his head moving in front of the fire. He was a sorcerer or something along those lines, wearing antelope horns on his head. ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ I whispered to Kurtz. ‘Perfectly,’ he said. His voice sounded far away but loud. ‘If he calls out we’re all dead,’ I thought to myself. I couldn’t attack him even if I had wanted to. ‘You’ll be lost,’ I said, ‘completely lost.’ I said the right thing, though he couldn’t possibly be more lost than he was at that moment, when the foundation for our intimacy was being laid.
“‘I had immense plans,’ he muttered irresolutely. ‘Yes,’ said I; ‘but if you try to shout I’ll smash your head with—’ There was not a stick or a stone near. ‘I will throttle you for good,’ I corrected myself. ‘I was on the threshold of great things,’ he pleaded, in a voice of longing, with a wistfulness of tone that made my blood run cold. ‘And now for this stupid scoundrel—’ ‘Your success in Europe is assured in any case,’ I affirmed steadily. I did not want to have the throttling of him, you understand—and indeed it would have been very little use for any practical purpose. I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations. And, don’t you see, the terror of the position was not in being knocked on the head—though I had a very lively sense of that danger, too—but in this, that I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low. I had, even like the niggers, to invoke him—himself—his own exalted and incredible degradation. There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air. I’ve been telling you what we said—repeating the phrases we pronounced—but what’s the good? They were common everyday words—the familiar, vague sounds exchanged on every waking day of life. But what of that? They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares. Soul! If anybody ever struggled with a soul, I am the man. And I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear—concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my only chance—barring, of course, the killing him there and then, which wasn’t so good, on account of unavoidable noise. But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had—for my sins, I suppose—to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it—I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself. I kept my head pretty well; but when I had him at last stretched on the couch, I wiped my forehead, while my legs shook under me as though I had carried half a ton on my back down that hill. And yet I had only supported him, his bony arm clasped round my neck—and he was not much heavier than a child. “‘I had grand plans,’ he muttered. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but if you try to shout, I’ll kill you.’ ‘I was on the verge of great things,’ he said, in a voice that was so sad it made my blood run cold. ‘But now this stupid scoundrel—’ ‘Your reputation in Europe is secure in any case,’ I said. I didn’t want to kill him, you see, and it wouldn’t have served any practical purpose. I tried to break the spell of the wilderness, which held him in its grasp, reminding him of how he had satisfied his monstrous desires. I was convinced that his dark and secret feelings and instincts were what had brought him out to the jungle in the first place, where he could be beyond the rules of society. The terror I felt was not the fear of being killed—though I did feel that too—but the awareness that Kurtz was not a man with whom I could reason, a man who shared any of my values. Like the natives, I could only appeal to his sense of himself and his power. Out here, there was nothing above him or below him—he was the only standard. He had broken free of the earth. Damn him! He had broken the very earth to pieces. He was alone and defenseless but I still didn’t feel on firm ground with him. I’ve been telling you what we said to each other, but what’s the use? We said common, everyday words, the same vague, familiar sounds we make every day. But then and there those words sounded like phrases spoken in nightmares, words that meant much more than they seemed. If anyone ever came face to face with another soul—not a man, but a soul—I did. His mind was clear, even if it was focused exclusively on himself. His soul, however, was mad. Alone in the wilderness, it had looked at itself and what it saw drove it mad. I had to look at it myself, and it felt like I was being punished for all of my sins. Nothing could destroy one’s faith in humanity as quickly as his soul and the final burst of feeling that came from it. His soul, which had known no restraint, which had been able to give in to all its darkest desires, struggled with itself. It was inconceivable. I walked him back to the boat with his arm wrapped around my neck. He was not much heavier than a child, but it felt like I was carrying half a ton on my back. As I put him down on the cot in the cabin, my legs were shaking.