Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad
The Nellie, a little ship for cruises, was still and waiting for the tide. We were on the river Thames. The air was dark and foggy. Our captain was the director of the company. He looked as a pilot.
The sea kept us together and we were tolerant to each other.
Marlow was sitting at prow with his legs crossed. His face was thin and yellow, his back straight and his hands showed their palms ….he looked like an idol. We sat together, with the director, thinking.
The water was brilliant at sunset. The river was calm. It had been working for men for centuries. It had seen men like Sir Francis Drake and John Franklin, great men and great ships. Kings, knights, pioneers who left England for glory or for gold……..germs of empires.
The lights illuminated the river and the profile of the town was at the horizon.
Marlow said “This is a dark place on earth”
He was different from the other sailors: he lived to wander…
For the mariners the ship is their house and the sea their country. They are not curious of new continents and people.
For Marlow every experience had a meaning.
He continued: “Think about the Romans. They arrived here nineteen centuries ago. Think about their commanders…. on this dark sea for the first time. They had no food and only the water of the Thames to drink. A lot of them died. Think about a Roman in a toga in the forests, in desolate lands, among wild men. He felt the attraction of the unknown. We cannot have the same feelings. We are organized. They were colonists. They only knew the brute force. They were conquerors and took what they could. But they had an ideal…..”
We were silent, looking at the sea. Then Marlow started again “You remember that once I was a young sailor…” He was going to tell us one of his inconclusive stories “I had an experience that illuminated my mind. I met a poor man. It was a strange experience, very important”.
His story started
“I was back from the East after six years. I rested a little then I looked for a ship again. When I was a child I had a passion for maps….I was attracted by the blank spaces…..like the North Pole. One place in particular attracted me. It was not blank; it was full of lakes and rivers. It was a dark place, but that river fascinated me ….like a snake fascinates a bird. So I decided to go to the
companies that worked on that river. The seat of those companies was on the continent, and I had a lot of relatives living there. I began to ask them for a help. It was unusual for me, but that river attracted me… I had an aunt that knew the right person. And I got the command of the steamboat.
The old captain was killed by the natives because of a discussions on two hens. When I went there to take his place I saw the tall grass that was hiding his bones. His body was still there.
My job was to navigate along that river and take back a man.
I had the nomination and after forty-eight hours I went to the city to sign the contract. That town looked like a white sepulchre to me. I went to the company’s offices: it was a great building because they were working for an Empire. I opened a door. There were two women inside: one thin and the other fat, knitting black wool. They showed me the waiting room. There was a map on the wall, all coloured – I was going into the yellow country, where there was a serpent-like-river. I signed documents, but I felt uneasy. I thought to be part of a plot. There were other men with me. Many of them will not come back…. Then I had to go to the doctor’s.
“A simple formality” a secretary told me.
The doctor asked me the permission to measure my head.
I was surprised and asked “Do you measure the head of the people also when they come back?”
“I never see them. Are you going there? No one mad in your family?
“Are you asking me these questions for science?” I asked
“The changes are inside the head. It could be interesting to study mental changes in people there! Good bye. Adieu.”
Then I said goodbye to my dear aunt. She was exultant. I was a very special man and a hard worker for her. She spoke about civilization and savages.
Women live in their world, a particular world, a beautiful one.
I promised her to write then I left.
On the street I felt anxious: I was going to the centre of earth.
I left the following day on a French steamer. During the journey I watched the coasts. We stopped very often to land soldiers and custom officers. I was so different from these men. Only the voice of the waves was familiar and natural to me. From time to time we met boats4 led by black men. They were savages, but with a wild vitality, natural and true.
Once we met a French war-ship. It was bombing the bush. It seemed to be a crazy action even if a man on board told us there was a camp of native-enemies.
On the ship, men were dying of fever, three every day. We gave them some letters.
After thirty days we saw the beginning of a great river.
My work was at three hundred and seventy kilometres from there. I had a passage on a sea-going steamer. The captain was a Swede. He showed despise for the men at the government. We arrived at the station of my company. I reached the hill among pieces of machinery in decay and rusty bars. I saw many black and naked men, who were building a railway. There were six black men queuing with baskets full of earth on their heads. They were kept together with chains like criminals. I am not particularly tender; I know violence, power and desire, but that captain was a rapacious and pitiless demon. In a little wood I found black men, tired, and desperate. They were dying. They were there to be free to die. Their eyes were empty, staring at nothing. I did not want to walk in that shadow and I went back to the station.
Near the houses I found a man, a white man, very elegant: he had a white collar, a white cuff, a white jacket, white trousers, a clear tie and vanished shoes. His hair was well brushed. He repaired himself from the sun with an umbrella. He was like a vision.
That man was the company chief accountant. I felt respect for him: I respected his carefulness. He had personality and strength.
“I have lived here for three years, and I have taught a native woman to keep everything in order, but it is so difficult. They don’t learn” these were the first words he told me
Everything in the station was out of order, except for the accountant. And everything meant money, ivory. I waited there for ten days. I spent most of the time in the office of the accountant. I sat on the floor while I was working. There was a man dying in the office and his laments disturbed the accountant.
One day he told me “You’ll meet Mr Kurtz in the interior. He is a very remarkable person. He is the chief of an important trading-post and he sends a lot of ivory”.
Suddenly a caravan arrived with a great noise and stopped our conversation, but he soon continued “He’ll have a career- he’ll go above”.
The following day I left the station with my carriers. We had to travel about 300 km through silent, lonely paths. There was nobody there.
We had to camp, cook, rest and work. Only the noise of far off drums was our company at night. The only companion I had was a boy, a quite fat boy who unfortunately became ill. The carriers refused to carry him as he was too heavy. I remembered the doctor in Brussels and his words about the changes in a man’s mind.
At last, on the fifteenth day we arrived at the central station near a great river. The central station….white men with long staves and ruined buildings.
Men with long staves and ruined buildings
The director was waiting for me. My steamer was at the bottom of the river. It was broken and there were no tools to repair it.
The director was quite a common man, middle size, cold eyes. His mouth had a kind smile, unconscious. He tried to make the words he said inscrutable and he inspired uneasiness.
Everything in the station was badly ordered. Probably he had been successful because he was never ill. He could only make things go on.
He started speaking as soon as he saw me: “The situation is very bad, here. Our chief is ill, Mr Kurtz is ill. He is the best agent, a very important man for the company.”
Then he added: “It will take you a long time to put the steamer in order. Perhaps three months”
And he was right. I started working the following day. Only working I could keep in touch with reality because that place seemed unreal.
White men walked around with staves like pilgrims without faith. Outside there was the wild earth. One evening a hut burnt in a moment and a black man was beaten.
“He caused the fire” they said.
It was that night that I met a first class agent suspected to be the director’s spy. His task was to make bricks. He thought I had important contacts on the continent and wanted me to speak. He was curious. In his room I noticed a little picture in oils, a woman with a torch.
“Mr Kurtz painted it last year” he explained.
“Who is Mr Kurtz?” I asked
“The chief of the inner station – he answered first – an ambassador of pity and science and progress. We need his guide for our cause. He will become the general manager.”
We went out and he started speaking about himself. I understood that Mr Kurtz’s coming had disturbed him and his director. But I let him speak. I was looking at the forest. Was it calling or menacing me? Could we control it? What was there? I knew about ivory. I heard of Mr Kurtz. But he was only a word for me. He was like a dream and you can’t give the sensation of a dream.
We were on the Thames, board of the ship. Marlow continued speaking.
“The man told me about his work, but I stopped him.
“Where can I find the rivets to put the steamer in order? I know there are some boxes of them along the river; can you send a carrier to take them?” I asked
The man did not answer. He said something about hippopotamus, then stood up and went away.
On the deck of the steamer there was the foreman, a good worker, a widower with six children and a passion for pigeons.
I told him “We’ll have our rivets” and he started jumping of joy “They’ll arrive in three weeks” I added.
But instead of the rivers at the station arrived the members of the Eldorado Exploring Expeditions: buccaneers, voracious man who only wanted to get the treasure of the land.
Their leader was our manager’s uncle.
I couldn’t work, so I started thinking about Mr. Kurtz.
I was curious to see how a man with his moral ideas could work in this place.
The ivory arrived with a fleet of canoes led by an Englishman that Kurt had with him.
Kurtz appeared for the first time in my mind: that man alone who did not want to come back
The two men did not mention his name: he was “that man”. The English man said that Mr. Kurtz was ill. The uncle asked if the manager was always well.
“Yes, yes” was the answer “But the others are all ill”.
Then they went away. The Eldorado expedition left. Only a long time after we knew that all the donkeys were dead. But we did not know about the other animals.
I started my journey on the river.
It was a journey at the beginning of the world. There were only trees. A great silence, an impenetrable forest. No joy in the sun that was shining; it seemed to live another existence. But that silence and stillness were not peace. They belonged to a terrible force with an aspect of revenge.
I had a lot to do. I had to find the right canal, without rocks.
I was with the director and three or four pilgrims on the boat. I did not know where they wanted to go. We met some villages and often heard the word ivory. Sometimes there was the noise of drums in the air, but we did not understand the meaning. Sometimes we saw men jumping and shouting to us on coast.
There was honesty and joy in those noises: I did not go to dance with them just because I had so much to do.
A savage helped me, he was the fireman. He was good, but looking at him was like looking a trained dog. He had dirty teeth, ornamental hair and scars on his face. Instead of jumping and shouting on the bank he was working carefully. He was instructed.
One day we saw a hut and a pile of wood. We landed. On a board there were written some words: ‘Wood for you. Be cautions.’
Probably there were troubles above. The forest did not permit us to see far away. In the hut I found a book. An inquiry into some points on seamanship by Towsen Thompson. I took the book. It was shocking to find that book there. And there were notes on it. It seemed a code!
The director called me “It must be that Englishman!” he said
The steamer was going on.
Two days later we were 8 miles from Kurtz’s station. I wanted to go on, but the director told me to be careful. The navigation was very dangerous in that point at night. So we stopped in the middle of the river.
No noises: we thought to be deaf. The night came suddenly. I thought I was becoming blind.
The following morning there was a fog all around us. We were going to leave when there was a loud cry. It seemed to me that the fog was crying. The cry culminated in other violent cries that stopped suddenly.
We were paralysed. The pilgrims went into their cabins and took their Winchesters. We could only see the borders of our steamer. It was curious to see the different attitudes of white and blacks on our steamer. The whites were frightened; the blacks were alert, interested but quiet.
Their chief told the other “Catch him” towards me. Then he said “Eat him”. They were hungry.
During that month they had only got some rotten hippopotamus meat. Their contract was for six months, but they had not got the idea of time. Their pay was a piece of brass wire to buy their food. But there were no villages, and the director did not want to stop. I was surprised they did not attack. They were thirty big, powerful men, but they did not attack. I couldn’t understand how they could control themselves when they felt so hungry.
The director behind me said: “I am worried about Mr. Kurtz. I am afraid something can happen to him before our arrival”. He was a man who wanted to save the appearances.
We could not go on because we did not know where we were.
“Do you think they will attack us?” I asked
“No, I don’t think so,” was the answer.
The cry come out of the fog was a cry of pain, not of violence.
“We mustn’t worry,” he said.
It was quite useless to look at something in that fog.
Two hours later the fog went away and the people on the bank attacked.
We were near the bank because the water was deep there. The helmsman was a black man. He was very self-important when I was near him, and very afraid when I was far. Suddenly I saw the pole-man lying on the deck and the fireman bending his head. Little sticks were flying around us. They were arrows. The helmsman was shouting and jumping for fear and I had to rule the steamer. It was at that moment that I saw the men in the forest. The pilgrims started shooting. The result was smoke…and we could not see where we were going. I was avoiding a stick and going far from the bank when the helmsman fell at my feet. A spear caught him and he was looking at me. I rang the steamer whistle and the tumult from the forest stopped. The arrows stopped. The helmsman died without saying a word. I put the pilgrims at the steering wheel and took off my shoes and socks full of the man’s blood. I thought Mr. Kurtz was dead and I was disappointed. At that moment I understood that I wanted to speak with him. That man was a voice for me. He was a great man and his ability was to talk…
“Give me some tobacco, please” Marlowe asked. And I saw his face under the light of a match…
But I was wrong – he continued after a moment of silence – I heard him, I heard too much… He had a girl, his intended he said – but she did not know…. He was so bald: like an ivory ball. His heart was full of ivory. I think he was taking all the ivory in the world. ‘My intended, my ivory, my station, my river, – my…….’ He had everything. But did he belong to anyone? We have our earth under our feet; we know what we have around us. He was alone. This is the difference in the primordial world.
His mother was half-English and his father half-French. All Europe took part in his creation. He wrote a report for the International Society for the suppression of Savage Customs. .. I read it. He wrote it before his nerves went wrong. He saw certain midnight dances with tremendous rites offered to him. The report began with the assertion that for those savage people we – white men –
‘we are like supernatural beings, divinities’. So we could help them. It was full of benevolence and altruistic sentiment, but the end was ‘Exterminate all the brutes’. He asked me to keep it carefully, because it could be useful for his career. I had to care about his memory.
And he was not a common man. I cannot forget him, but I lost the life of a man to get to him.
Yes, I missed the helmsman. A man who worked with me and I had to throw him out of the steamer into the water. The director and the pilgrims were shocked, but I did not want the cannibals to eat him. The pilgrims thought their shots killed many savages, but they were not able to shoot. The savages ran away because of the whistle.
We got to the station. I saw a building and a path on a hill. At the top of it there was a decaying building. There were little pales around it with balls on them. The forest covered everything.
On the bank there was a white man. He shouted “Come! Everything is all right now. I am glad”.
He looked like a harlequin… His clothes were full of patches of all colours. His face was that of a boy with little blue eyes, without beard. He changed mood every minute: he smiled and soon got depressed…
“He is over t here” he said pointing at the hill.
The director and the pilgrims went away, full of arms. He came on board. He said the savages did not want to attack us. And he suggested me to blow the whistle in case of danger.
“They are simple people” he spoke very quickly. He was silent for a long time. “You must listen to Mr Kurtz, don’t talk to him.”
He was a Russian, son of an arch-priest and asked me for some smoke. The pipe calmed him. He left school and then left Russia on a Russian ship. Then he served on English ships.
“I needed new experiences, to enlarge my mind” he said “And here, here I met Mr. Kurtz.”
A Dutch trading company gave him food and goods and he left for the interior. Alone for two years. I gave him the book by Towsend.
“I didn’t loose it! Thank you!”
The words in code were Russian.
“Why did those savages attack us?” I asked.
“They don’t want him to go”.
“They don’t want …” I repeated.
“He enlarged my mind.” He cried again, and again.
I looked around: the vegetation and the river appeared impenetrable to me, to any human thought.
He said he cured Mr Kurtz twice. Usually Kurtz walked alone in the forest and discovered lots of villages. Once he found a lake. He went there to find ivory.
“What did he give for the ivory?” I asked
“He gave cartridges. The savages loved him, followed him.” he said and went on “you cannot judge him. He is not an ordinary man. Once he wanted to shoot me if I didn’t give him the ivory I had got from a village chief. I gave it to him and I didn’t leave him. He was ill again and I cured him. He suffered too much. He hated everything, nevertheless he couldn’t go away, and I asked him to leave with me. He said ‘yes’ and then disappeared for weeks looking for ivory.”
“He is mad” I said, but the Harlequin protested.
I was uneasy: everything was silent and calm, but I perceived people in the bush.
The ‘wood’ seemed to look at us: they were like masks. They knew and waited in silence. Mr Kurtz was there, just arrived with some men of the lake tribe with ivory. But he was ill.
The Russian said “I heard he was ill and I came here. He is very bad.”
I looked at the house again with my glass. I fixed those little balls at the top of the poles and suddenly I understood. They were heads turned to the house. They seemed to be sleeping with a smile on their mouths. They showed Mr Kurtz’s weakness. The wilderness owned him and revealed things he did not know about himself.
I put down the glass and the poles were again very distant from me.
The harlequin said “I don’t dare to take away those symbols. He is not afraid of the savages. They are devoted to him”
“I don’t want to know about their devotion” I said
The harlequin was surprised and remarked: “Those heads were rebels’ heads. You don’t understand Mr Kurtz’s life. He must live here”
“And you? “I asked
“I am simple. I have no great thoughts. You can’t compare me with him. They have abandoned him”.
They, the civilisation.
It was evening. Everything was in the dark. Suddenly a group of men appeared with a stretcher. Instantly we heard a cry and many, many human beings appeared with spears, bows and shields. Through my glass I saw the man on the stretcher sit down and lift an arm. He spoke but I could not hear. Our lives depended on his words.
Kurtz means ‘short’ in German. But it was not right for him. He appeared tall. I saw the bones of his body as an image of ivory. He opened his mouth and seemed to swallow everything, the air, the earth.
I heard a deep voice. Then he fell down again and the savages vanished.
The pilgrims brought him into a little cabin and gave him the correspondence. He looked one of them and told me
“I am glad”
I understood a letter announced my arrival. The sound of his voice was very ….grave and deep.
The manager appeared on the door and I went away.
On the bank I could see figures of men. Then a woman came. She walked proudly, covered with ornaments. She was wild and magnificent. The earth seemed to watch at her: she mirrored the image of the passionate and tenebrous soul of that wilderness.
She looked at us without moving, silent. Then she opened her arms and threw them over her head as to touch the sky and left.
“She tries everyday to stay with Mr Kurtz. She was furious because I mended his clothes” the harlequin explained.
At that moment we heard Kurtz’s voice “Save me. You want to save my ivory. I am ill, but not so much as you believe. I’ll show you what we can do here.”
The manager went out and spoke to me: “He is down. But he is dangerous now for our company. He used too vigorous methods…”
“He didn’t have any method…anyway he is a remarkable man” I said
The director underlined “He was” and went away
I was wrong, he did not agree with me.
I thought about the wilderness, and the manager appeared to be vile in that atmosphere.
The young Russian came near me and said he suspected the white men did not like him.
“I heard them saying they want to hang you” I advised him. I remembered the conversation of the manager with his uncle.
“It is better for me to go away – he said – but I am worried about Mr Kurtz’s reputation. You know, it was Kurtz who ordered the savages to attack the steamer. He doesn’t want to go away and wanted to scare you. But I don’t want anybody to know about all this…”
“Mr Kurtz’s reputation is safe” is said taking some cartridges and some tobacco. Then I gave him an old pair of shoes.
“He enlarged my mind” he said and vanished.
Sometimes I ask myself if I really met him. Or if he was a fruit of my imagination.
I wake up in the night and I look around …
In the forest there were red lights and black shapes moving.
The drums were rolling.
Suddenly a cry, then everything calm again.
I looked into the cabin, but Kurtz was not there. It seemed impossible. An abstract terror caught me. I went down the bank. Kurtz could not walk, he was crawling.
Strange feelings pervaded my soul and my mind when I was alone, walking on the path. I saw something moving in the grass. It was Kurtz. He heard me and got up. He was long, pale, and unsteady. He told me to hide. A black ma was coming towards us, he was a watchman.
“You’ll be lost” I told him. It was the right word.
“I had immense plans” he confessed.
Kurtz was attracted by the spell of the forest with its passions and instincts. I was speaking with a soul. A frightened soul. A soul that looked into itself and was becoming mad.
I took him to his cabin. He was as heavy as a child, nevertheless my legs were trembling.
The day after, at noon, we left.
Those black people appeared again on the banks. They shouted and cried.
Kurtz was in the pilot house now because there was more air. On the couch he looked out. The black woman cried, followed by her people. “Do you understand? “I asked
“Do I not?” he answered smiling.
I blew the whistle.
The pilgrims had their rifles in their hands. The black men on the bank ran away. Only the woman stood, motionless. She opened her mouth as to swallow the whole earth. The pilgrims started shooting and the smoke covered everything.
The current flew fast out of the heart of darkness. Kurtz’s life was flowing quickly, too. The manager calmed down. He had no reason to be worried now.
Kurtz spoke. What a voice! He was scaring. Visions of fame and richness. Hatred and love were fighting in a man who was going to have his grave in the primitive earth.
He spoke about his ivory, his intended, his ideas.
“Motives are important, the right motives” he said.
Once Kurtz exclaimed “Close the shutters. I cannot bare that sight. But I will have your heart one day!”
The steamer broke down and we had to repair it. Kurtz gave me a packet of papers and photographs. He did not want the manager to see them. He was in his darkness. I could not stay with him longer as I had to repair the engine.
One evening I heard him saying ‘I am here in the dark, waiting for death’.
“Oh, nonsense” I murmured and stayed with him, paralyzed.
I saw the features of his face change. Expressions of pride, power, terror and despair. Perhaps he was living again every moment of his life. He cried twice, a cry that was a breath: ‘The horror! The horror!’
I had dinner with the others. The manager looked at me. Then a boy arrived and said
“Mistah Kurtz – he dead!” everybody went out. I stayed there, there was a lot of light in the cabin and outside darkness.
The voice disappeared. The pilgrims buried his body in a hole.
Now I am here to think about that nightmare, to show my loyalty to Kurtz. Destiny: we adapt ourselves to it. We can only hope we can know ourselves during our life. I fought against death, but it was not exciting. You are alone. For this reason Kurtz is a remarkable man: he had something to say. He had ideas, he saw the truth. He stepped over the edge. I didn’t. For this reason I remain loyal to Kurtz.
I found myself again in the white, sepulchral city, crowded of people running after money and silly dreams of glory.They did not know what I knew. They were proud of their self-importance.
I was not well in that period and my aunt tried to help me. But my body did not need any help, my mind needed. I had that Kurtz’s papers. He had no more parents and I did not know whom to give them.
One day a man came to take the documents. The Company wanted them, needed them.I did not give him those papers. I only showed a report about ‘the suppression of savage customs’ taking away the last part.He went away unsatisfied…
Two days later a cousin of Mr Kurtz’s came. He told me Kurtz was a great musician. He was a universal genius.
Last, a journalist came a journalist; he wanted to know everything about Mr Kurtz. He was his colleague, on the political side. He confessed Kurtz was not a great writer. But he could talk. He had a faith. He could be the leader of an extremist party.
“Did you know why he was in that darkness?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I answered and gave him the report.
I was now with those letters and photographs of the girl. His intended. I decide to take them to her, personally. I was curious. I wanted to see his past. And then I wanted to leave him forever.
When I got in front of the big door, I remembered him on the stretcher opening his mouth. That vision entered the house with me. I heard him crying ‘The Horror! The horror!’
She came all in black. Pale, fair. Her eyes were confident, deep, sincere. After a year since Kurtz’s death, she was till in black.
‘She will wear black forever. Kurtz died yesterday, for her’ I thought and saw them together
“I am still living” she said and put her hand on the letters on the table “Did you know him well?” she asked
“It is easy to be intimate there” I answered.
“Did you admire him? It is impossible to know him without loving him” she went on
“He was a remarkable man” I said.
“I knew him best.”
While she was talking, I thought to have the wrong papers with me.
Her family did not want him. He was not rich enough. Probably he left because he couldn’t stand his poverty
She went on “Who heard him, his voice, became his friend.”
She was so proud, so faithful. I could not tell anything else, but “we will always remember him, his words…”
“…his example – she added – I cannot believe I will not see him again.”
She said these words and put out her arms. I remembered the other woman, the black woman on the bank
“He died as he lived” I said.
“Were you with him when he died? Was he alone? Did you hear his last words?” she anxiously asked.
“His last words were ….your name” I forced myself to tell her.
“I knew it. I was sure!” she said and I heard her crying.
I thought the heaven could fall on me. I could not tell her the truth. It was too dark!
Marlowe stopped and remained as silent as a Buddha. Nobody moved. The horizon was full of clouds and the river seemed to lead us into the heart of darkness.