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Joseph Conrad: The Heart of Darkness

 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, brood-
ing 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 trust-
worthiness 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 some-
where, 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 mizzenmast. He had sunken cheeks, a
yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect,
and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands out-
wards, 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. After-
wards there was silence on board the yacht. For some
reason or other we did not begin that game of domi-
noes. 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 pacifi-
cally; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immen-
sity 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, than to evoke the great spirit of the past
upon the lower reaches of the Thames. The tidal cur-
rent 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 round 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 sur-
roundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the
changLng immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by
a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful igno-
rance; 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 illuminination 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, or-
dered 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 skulk-
ing 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 pro-
motion 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 sur-
render, 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 pre-
tence 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, over-
taking, 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 hap-
pened 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
best like 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 experi-
ence. 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 Equator, and in every sort of
latitude all over the two 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 dark-
ness. 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 remem-
bered 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
 "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! We]l, you
see, the notion drove me. I had an aunt, a dear enthu-
siastic 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 influ-
ence with,' etc., 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 re-
cover 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 al-
ready 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 Fres-
leven 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 en-
dosures. 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 snow
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 between the stones, im-
posing carriage archways right and left, immense
double doors standing ponderously ajar. I slipped
through one of these cracks, went up a swept and un-
garnished 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, a white-haired se

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