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?Creach 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?ªand even convictions. The Lawyer?ªthe best of old fellows?ªhad, 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?Clegged right aft, leaning against the mizzen?Cmast. 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 changthe 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?ªand that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith?ªthe 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?Chouse, a three?Clegged thing erect on a mud?Cflat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway?ªa 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?Cat?Chome order, and their home is always with them?ªthe ship; and so is their country?ªthe sea. One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutabicity, 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?ª??I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago?ªthe other day. . . . Light came out of this river since?ªyou 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?ªmay it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine?ªwhat d??ye call ??em??ªtrireme 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?ªa wonderful lot of handy men they must have been, too?ªused to build, apparently by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine him here?ªthe 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?ªand going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand?Cbanks, marshes, forests, savages,?ªprecious 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?ªcold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death?ªdeath skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. Oh, yes?ªhe 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?ªperhaps too much dice, you know?ªcoming out hct, or tax?Cgatherer, 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?ªall 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?ªyou know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.??
??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?Cflower?ª??Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency?ªthe 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?ªnothing 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?ªas 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?ªsomething 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?ªthen 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?ªthere 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?Cwater 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
??I had then, as you remember, just returned to London after a lot of Indian Ocean, Pacific, China Seas?ªa regular dose of the East?ªsix 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?ªI 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?ªthe biggest, the most blank, so to speak?ªthat 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?ªa 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?Cwindow, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird?ªa 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?ªsteamboats! 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 woul
??I got my appointment?ªof 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?ªthat was the fellow??s name, a Dane?ªthought 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?Crespect in some way. Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly, while a big crowd of his people watched him, thunderstruck, till some man?ªI was told the chief??s son?ªin desperation at hearing the old chap yell, made a tentative jab with a spear at the white man?ªand of course it went quite easy between the shoulder?Cblades. 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 flew around like mad to get ready, and before forty?Ceight 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?Csea 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?Cbottomed chairs, knitting black wool. The slim one got up and walked straight at me?ªstill knitting with downcast eyes?ªand 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?Ccover, and she turned round without a word and preceded me into a waiting?Croom. 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?ªgood 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?Cbeer. However, I wasn??t going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river was there?ªfascinating?ªdeadly?ªlike a snake. Ough! A door opened, ya white?Chaired 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?Cdesk squatted in the middle. From behind that structure came out an impression of pale plumpness in a frock?Ccoat. The great man himself. He was five feet six, I should judge, and had his grip on the handle?Cend of ever so many millions. He shook hands, I fancy, murmured vaguely, was satisfied with my French. BON VOYAGE.
??In about forty?Cfive seconds I found myself again in the waiting?Croom 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?ªI don??t know?ªsomething not quite right; and I was glad to get out. In the out 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?ªnot 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?ªthere must have been clerks in the business, though the house was as still as a house in a city of the dead?ªcame from somewhere up?Cstairs, 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 searchterests 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?ªa 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 say is rather profound, and probably erroneous,?? he said, with a laugh. ??Avoid irritation more than exposure to the sun. Adieu. How do you English say, eh? Good?Cbye. Ah! Good?Cbye. Adieu. In the tropics one must before everything keep calm.?? . . . He lifted a warning forefinger. . . . ??DU CALME, DU CALME. ADIEU.??
??One thing more remained to do?ªsay good?Cbye to my excellent aunt. I found her triumphant. I had a cup of tea?ªthe last decent cup of tea for many days?ªand in a room that most soothingly looked just as you would expect a lady??s drawing?Croom to look, we had a long quiet chat by the fireside. In the course of these confidences it became quite plain to me I had been represented to the wife of the high dignitary, and goodness knows to how many more people besides, as an exceptional and gifted creature?ªa piece of good fortune for the Company?ªa man you don??t get hold of every day. Good heavens! and I was going to take
charge of a two?Cpenny?Chalf?Cpenny river?Csteamboat with a penny whistle attached! It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital?ªyou know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about ??weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,?? till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.
????You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire,?? she said, brightly. It??s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock
??After this I got embraced, told to wear flannel, be sure to write often, and so on?ªand I left. In the street?ªI don??t know why?ªa queer feeling came to me that I was an imposter. Odd thing that I, who used to clear out for any part of the world at twenty?Cfour hours?? notice, with less thought than most men give to the crossing of a street, had a moment?ªI won??t say of hesitation, but of startled pause, before this commonplace affair. The best way I can explain it to you is by saying that, for a second or two, I felt as though, instead of going to the centre of a continent, I were about to set off for the centre of the earth.
??I left in a French steamer, and she called in every blamed port they have out there, for, as far as I could see, the sole purpose of landing soldiers and custom?Chouse officers. I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you?ª smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, ??Come and find out.?? This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark?Cgreen as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam. Here and there greyish?Cwhitish specks showed up clustered inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps. Settlements some centuries old, and still no bigger than pinheads on the untouched expanse of their background. We pounded along, stopped, landed soldiers; went on, landed custom?Chouse clerks to levy toll in
what looked like a God?Cforsaken wilderness, with a tin shed and a flag?Cpole lost in it; landed more soldiers?ªto take care of the custom?Chouse clerks, presumably. Some, I heard, got drowned in the surf; but whether they did or not, nobody seemed particularly to care. They were just flung out there, and on we went. Every day the coast looked the same, as though we had not moved; but we passed various places?ªtrading places?ªwith names like Gran?? Bassam, Little Popo; names that seemed to belong to some sordid farce acted in front of a sinister back?Ccloth. The idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform sombreness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion. The voice of the surf heard now and then was a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother. It was something natural, that had its reason, that had a meaning. Now and then a boat from the shore gave one a momentary contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows. You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening. They shch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six?Cinch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech?ªand nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives?ªhe called them enemies!?ªhidden out of sight somewhere.
??We gave her her letters (I heard the men in that lonely ship were dying of fever at the rate of three a day) and went on. We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb; all along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair. Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularized impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares.
??It was upward of thirty days before I saw the mouth of the big river. We anchored off the seat of the government. But my work would not begin till some two hundred miles farther on. So as soon as I could I made