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Produced by Judith Boss and David Widger


HEART OF DARKNESS

by Joseph Conrad


I


The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of
the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly
calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come
to and wait for the turn of the tide.

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of
an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded
together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails
of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red
clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A
haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness.
The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed
condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest,
and the greatest, town on earth.

The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We four
affectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking to
seaward. On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so
nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness
personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in
the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.

Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of
the sea. Besides holding our hearts together through long periods of
separation, it had the effect of making us tolerant of each other's
yarns - and even convictions. The Lawyer - the best of old fellows - had,
because of his many years and many virtues, the only cushion on deck,
and was lying on the only rug. The Accountant had brought out already a
box of dominoes, and was toying architecturally with the bones. Marlow
sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had
sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect,
and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an
idol. The director, satisfied the anchor had good hold, made his way
aft and sat down amongst us. We exchanged a few words lazily. Afterwards
there was silence on board the yacht. For some reason or other we did
not begin that game of dominoes. We felt meditative, and fit for nothing
but placid staring. The day was ending in a serenity of still and
exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a
speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the
Essex marsh was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded
rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the
gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre
every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.

And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and
from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat,
as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that
gloom brooding over a crowd of men.

Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the serenity became less
brilliant but more profound. The old river in its broad reach rested
unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the
race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a
waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth. We looked at the
venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and
departs for ever, but in the august light of abiding memories. And
indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes,
"followed the sea" with reverence and affection, that to evoke the
great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames. The tidal
current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories
of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles
of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is
proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled
and untitled - the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the
ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from
the _Golden Hind_ returning with her rotund flanks full of treasure, to be
visited by the Queen's Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale,
to the _Erebus_ and _Terror_, bound on other conquests - and that never
returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from
Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith - the adventurers and the settlers;
kings' ships and the ships of men on 'Change; captains, admirals, the
dark "interlopers" of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned "generals"
of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all
had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch,
messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the
sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river
into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed
of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear
along the shore. The Chapman light-house, a three-legged thing erect
on a mud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway - a
great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the
upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously
on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.

"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places
of the earth."

He was the only man of us who still "followed the sea." The worst that
could be said of him was that he did not represent his class. He was a
seaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most seamen lead, if one may
so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home
order, and their home is always with them - the ship; and so is their
country - the sea. One ship is very much like another, and the sea is
always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign
shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past,
veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance;
for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself,
which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny.
For the rest, after his hours of work, a casual stroll or a casual spree
on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent,
and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing. The yarns of seamen
have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the
shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity
to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not
inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it
out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these
misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination
of moonshine.

His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow.
It was accepted in silence. No one took the trouble to grunt even; and
presently he said, very slow - "I was thinking of very old times, when
the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago - the other day
. . . . Light came out of this river since - you say Knights? Yes; but
it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the
clouds. We live in the flicker - may it last as long as the old earth
keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings
of a commander of a fine - what d'ye call 'em? - trireme in the
Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the
Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft the legionaries - a
wonderful lot of handy men they must have been, too - used to build,
apparently by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we
read. Imagine him here - the very end of the world, a sea the colour
of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a
concertina - and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you
like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, - precious little to eat
fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian
wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in
a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay - cold, fog, tempests,
disease, exile, and death - death skulking in the air, in the water, in
the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. Oh, yes - he did
it. Did it very well, too, no doubt, and without thinking much about
it either, except afterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his
time, perhaps. They were men enough to face the darkness. And perhaps he
was cheered by keeping his eye on a chance of promotion to the fleet at
Ravenna by and by, if he had good friends in Rome and survived the awful
climate. Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga - perhaps too
much dice, you know - coming out here in the train of some prefect, or
tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp,
march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the
utter savagery, had closed round him - all that mysterious life of the
wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of
wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to
live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And
it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination
of the abomination - you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing
to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate."

He paused.

"Mind," he began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of the
hand outwards, so that, with his legs folded before him, he had the
pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a
lotus-flower - "Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves
us is efficiency - the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not
much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was
merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and
for that you want only brute force - nothing to boast of, when you have
it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of
others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to
be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great
scale, and men going at it blind - as is very proper for those who tackle
a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking
it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter
noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too
much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not
a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the
idea - something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a
sacrifice to. . . ."

He broke off. Flames glided in the river, small green flames, red
flames, white flames, pursuing, overtaking, joining, crossing each
other - then separating slowly or hastily. The traffic of the great city
went on in the deepening night upon the sleepless river. We looked on,
waiting patiently - there was nothing else to do till the end of
the flood; but it was only after a long silence, when he said, in
a hesitating voice, "I suppose you fellows remember I did once turn
fresh-water sailor for a bit," that we knew we were fated, before
the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow's inconclusive
experiences.

"I don't want to bother you much with what happened to me personally,"
he began, showing in this remark the weakness of many tellers of tales
who seem so often unaware of what their audience would like best to
hear; "yet to understand the effect of it on me you ought to know how I
got out there, what I saw, how I went up that river to the place where I
first met the poor chap. It was the farthest point of navigation and the
culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind
of light on everything about me - and into my thoughts. It was sombre
enough, too - and pitiful - not extraordinary in any way - not very clear
either. No, not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light.

"I had then, as you remember, just returned to London after a lot of
Indian Ocean, Pacific, China Seas - a regular dose of the East - six years
or so, and I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and
invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to
civilize you. It was very fine for a time, but after a bit I did get
tired of resting. Then I began to look for a ship - I should think the
hardest work on earth. But the ships wouldn't even look at me. And I got
tired of that game, too.

"Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for
hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all
the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on
the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map
(but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When
I grow up I will go there.' The North Pole was one of these places, I
remember. Well, I haven't been there yet, and shall not try now. The
glamour's off. Other places were scattered about the hemispheres. I
have been in some of them, and . . . well, we won't talk about that. But
there was one yet - the biggest, the most blank, so to speak - that I had
a hankering after.

"True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled
since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be
a blank space of delightful mystery - a white patch for a boy to dream
gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it
one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map,
resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its
body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the
depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window,
it fascinated me as a snake would a bird - a silly little bird. Then I
remembered there was a big concern, a Company for trade on that river.
Dash it all! I thought to myself, they can't trade without using some
kind of craft on that lot of fresh water - steamboats! Why shouldn't I
try to get charge of one? I went on along Fleet Street, but could not
shake off the idea. The snake had charmed me.

"You understand it was a Continental concern, that Trading society; but
I have a lot of relations living on the Continent, because it's cheap
and not so nasty as it looks, they say.

"I am sorry to own I began to worry them. This was already a fresh
departure for me. I was not used to get things that way, you know. I
always went my own road and on my own legs where I had a mind to go. I
wouldn't have believed it of myself; but, then - you see - I felt somehow
I must get there by hook or by crook. So I worried them. The men said
'My dear fellow,' and did nothing. Then - would you believe it? - I tried
the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work - to get a job.
Heavens! Well, you see, the notion drove me. I had an aunt, a dear
enthusiastic soul. She wrote: 'It will be delightful. I am ready to do
anything, anything for you. It is a glorious idea. I know the wife of a
very high personage in the Administration, and also a man who has lots
of influence with,' etc. She was determined to make no end of fuss to
get me appointed skipper of a river steamboat, if such was my fancy.

"I got my appointment - of course; and I got it very quick. It appears
the Company had received news that one of their captains had been killed
in a scuffle with the natives. This was my chance, and it made me the
more anxious to go. It was only months and months afterwards, when I
made the attempt to recover what was left of the body, that I heard the
original quarrel arose from a misunderstanding about some hens. Yes,
two black hens. Fresleven - that was the fellow's name, a Dane - thought
himself wronged somehow in the bargain, so he went ashore and started to
hammer the chief of the village with a stick. Oh, it didn't surprise
me in the least to hear this, and at the same time to be told that
Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two
legs. No doubt he was; but he had been a couple of years already out
there engaged in the noble cause, you know, and he probably felt the
need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way. Therefore he
whacked the old nigger mercilessly, while a big crowd of his people
watched him, thunderstruck, till some man - I was told the chief's
son - in desperation at hearing the old chap yell, made a tentative jab
with a spear at the white man - and of course it went quite easy between
the shoulder-blades. Then the whole population cleared into the forest,
expecting all kinds of calamities to happen, while, on the other hand,
the steamer Fresleven commanded left also in a bad panic, in charge of
the engineer, I believe. Afterwards nobody seemed to trouble much
about Fresleven's remains, till I got out and stepped into his shoes. I
couldn't let it rest, though; but when an opportunity offered at last to
meet my predecessor, the grass growing through his ribs was tall enough
to hide his bones. They were all there. The supernatural being had not
been touched after he fell. And the village was deserted, the huts gaped
black, rotting, all askew within the fallen enclosures. A calamity
had come to it, sure enough. The people had vanished. Mad terror had
scattered them, men, women, and children, through the bush, and they had
never returned. What became of the hens I don't know either. I should
think the cause of progress got them, anyhow. However, through this
glorious affair I got my appointment, before I had fairly begun to hope
for it.

"I flew around like mad to get ready, and before forty-eight hours I
was crossing the Channel to show myself to my employers, and sign the
contract. In a very few hours I arrived in a city that always makes me
think of a whited sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt. I had no difficulty in
finding the Company's offices. It was the biggest thing in the town,
and everybody I met was full of it. They were going to run an over-sea
empire, and make no end of coin by trade.

"A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable
windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence, grass sprouting right and
left, immense double doors standing ponderously ajar. I slipped through
one of these cracks, went up a swept and ungarnished staircase, as arid
as a desert, and opened the first door I came to. Two women, one fat and
the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool. The
slim one got up and walked straight at me - still knitting with downcast
eyes - and only just as I began to think of getting out of her way, as
you would for a somnambulist, stood still, and looked up. Her dress was
as plain as an umbrella-cover, and she turned round without a word and
preceded me into a waiting-room. I gave my name, and looked about. Deal
table in the middle, plain chairs all round the walls, on one end a
large shining map, marked with all the colours of a rainbow. There was a
vast amount of red - good to see at any time, because one knows that some
real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green,
smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where
the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However, I
wasn't going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in
the centre. And the river was there - fascinating - deadly - like a snake.
Ough! A door opened, ya white-haired secretarial head, but wearing a
compassionate expression, appeared, and a skinny forefinger beckoned me
into the sanctuary. Its light was dim, and a heavy writing-desk squatted
in the middle. From behind that structure came out an impression of pale
plumpness in a frock-coat. The great man himself. He was five feet
six, I should judge, and had his grip on the handle-end of ever so many
millions. He shook hands, I fancy, murmured vaguely, was satisfied with
my French. _Bon Voyage_.

"In about forty-five seconds I found myself again in the waiting-room
with the compassionate secretary, who, full of desolation and sympathy,
made me sign some document. I believe I undertook amongst other things
not to disclose any trade secrets. Well, I am not going to.

"I began to feel slightly uneasy. You know I am not used to such
ceremonies, and there was something ominous in the atmosphere. It
was just as though I had been let into some conspiracy - I don't
know - something not quite right; and I was glad to get out. In the outer
room the two women knitted black wool feverishly. People were arriving,
and the younger one was walking back and forth introducing them. The
old one sat on her chair. Her flat cloth slippers were propped up on
a foot-warmer, and a cat reposed on her lap. She wore a starched
white affair on her head, had a wart on one cheek, and silver-rimmed
spectacles hung on the tip of her nose. She glanced at me above the
glasses. The swift and indifferent placidity of that look troubled me.
Two youths with foolish and cheery countenances were being piloted over,
and she threw at them the same quick glance of unconcerned wisdom. She
seemed to know all about them and about me, too. An eerie feeling came
over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought
of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for
a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown,
the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old
eyes. _Ave!_ Old knitter of black wool. _Morituri te salutant_. Not
many of those she looked at ever saw her again - not half, by a long way.

"There was yet a visit to the doctor. 'A simple formality,' assured me
the secretary, with an air of taking an immense part in all my sorrows.
Accordingly a young chap wearing his hat over the left eyebrow, some
clerk I suppose - there must have been clerks in the business, though
the house was as still as a house in a city of the dead - came from
somewhere up-stairs, and led me forth. He was shabby and careless, with
inkstains on the sleeves of his jacket, and his cravat was large and
billowy, under a chin shaped like the toe of an old boot. It was a
little too early for the doctor, so I proposed a drink, and thereupon he
developed a vein of joviality. As we sat over our vermouths he glorified
the Company's business, and by and by I expressed casually my surprise
at him not going out there. He became very cool and collected all at
once. 'I am not such a fool as I look, quoth Plato to his disciples,'
he said sententiously, emptied his glass with great resolution, and we
rose.

"The old doctor felt my pulse, evidently thinking of something else
the while. 'Good, good for there,' he mumbled, and then with a certain
eagerness asked me whether I would let him measure my head. Rather
surprised, I said Yes, when he produced a thing like calipers and got
the dimensions back and front and every way, taking notes carefully. He
was an unshaven little man in a threadbare coat like a gaberdine, with
his feet in slippers, and I thought him a harmless fool. 'I always ask
leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going
out there,' he said. 'And when they come back, too?' I asked. 'Oh, I
never see them,' he remarked; 'and, moreover, the changes take place
inside, you know.' He smiled, as if at some quiet joke. 'So you are
going out there. Famous. Interesting, too.' He gave me a searching
glance, and made another note. 'Ever any madness in your family?' he
asked, in a matter-of-fact tone. I felt very annoyed. 'Is that question
in the interests of science, too?' 'It would be,' he said, without
taking notice of my irritation, 'interesting for science to watch the
mental changes of individuals, on the spot, but . . .' 'Are you an
alienist?' I interrupted. 'Every doctor should be - a little,' answered
that original, imperturbably. 'I have a little theory which you
messieurs who go out there must help me to prove. This is my share
in the advantages my country shall reap from the possession of such a
magnificent dependency. The mere wealth I leave to others. Pardon my
questions, but you are the first Englishman coming under my observation
. . .' I hastened to assure him I was not in the least typical. 'If I
were,' said I, 'I wouldn't be talking like this with you.' 'What you


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