A selection from
HEART OF DARKNESS
Narrated by Dick Hill
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running time is 25 minutes
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"I think I would have raised an outcry if I had believed my eyes. But I
didn't believe them at first—the thing seemed so impossible. The fact
is I was completely unnerved by a sheer blank fright, pure abstract
terror, unconnected with any distinct shape of physical danger. What
made this emotion so overpowering was—how shall I define it?—the moral
shock I received, as if something altogether monstrous, intolerable to
thought and odious to the soul, had been thrust upon me unexpectedly.
This lasted of course the merest fraction of a second, and then the
usual sense of commonplace, deadly danger, the possibility of a sudden
onslaught and massacre, or something of the kind, which I saw impending,
was positively welcome and composing. It pacified me, in fact, so much,
that I did not raise an alarm.
"There was an agent buttoned up inside an ulster and sleeping on a chair
on deck within three feet of me. The yells had not awakened him; he
snored very slightly; I left him to his slumbers and leaped ashore. I
did not betray Mr. Kurtz—it was ordered I should never betray him—it
was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice. I was
anxious to deal with this shadow by myself alone,—and to this day I
don't know why I was so jealous of sharing with anyone the peculiar
blackness of that experience.
"As soon as I got on the bank I saw a trail—a broad trail through the
grass. I remember the exultation with which I said to myself, 'He can't
walk—he is crawling on all-fours—I've got him.' The grass was wet
with dew. I strode rapidly with clenched fists. I fancy I had some vague
notion of falling upon him and giving him a drubbing. I don't know. I
had some imbecile thoughts. The knitting old woman with the cat obtruded
herself upon my memory as a most improper person to be sitting at the
other end of such an affair. I saw a row of pilgrims squirting lead in
the air out of Winchesters held to the hip. I thought I would never get
back to the steamer, and imagined myself living alone and unarmed in the
woods to an advanced age. Such silly things—you know. And I remember
I confounded the beat of the drum with the beating of my heart, and was
pleased at its calm regularity.
"I kept to the track though—then stopped to listen. The night was very
clear: a dark blue space, sparkling with dew and starlight, in which
black things stood very still. I thought I could see a kind of motion
ahead of me. I was strangely cocksure of everything that night. I
actually left the track and ran in a wide semicircle (I verily believe
chuckling to myself) so as to get in front of that stir, of that motion
I had seen—if indeed I had seen anything. I was circumventing Kurtz as
though it had been a boyish game.
"I came upon him, and, if he had not heard me coming, I would have
fallen over him too, but he got up in time. He rose, unsteady, long,
pale, indistinct, like a vapor exhaled by the earth, and swayed
slightly, misty and silent before me; while at my back the fires loomed
between the trees, and the murmur of many voices issued from the forest.
I had cut him off cleverly; but when actually confronting him I seemed
to come to my senses, I saw the danger in its right proportion. It was
by no means over yet. Suppose he began to shout? Though he could hardly
stand, there was still plenty of vigor in his voice. 'Go away—hide
yourself,' he said, in that profound tone. It was very awful. I glanced
back. We were within thirty yards from the nearest fire. A black figure
stood up, strode on long black legs, waving long black arms, across the
glow. It had horns—antelope horns, I think—on its head. Some sorcerer,
some witch-man, no doubt: it looked fiend-like enough. 'Do you know what
you are doing?' I whispered. 'Perfectly,' he answered, raising his voice
for that single word: it sounded to me far off and yet loud, like a hail
through a speaking-trumpet. 'If he makes a row we are lost,' I thought
to myself. This clearly was not a case for fisticuffs, even apart from
the very natural aversion I had to beat that Shadow—this wandering and
tormented thing. 'You will be lost,' I said—'utterly lost.' One gets
sometimes such a flash of inspiration, you know. I did say the right
thing, though indeed he could not have been more irretrievably lost than
he was at this very moment, when the foundations of our intimacy were
being laid—to endure—to endure—even to the end—even beyond.
"'I had immense plans,' he muttered irresolutely. 'Yes,' said I; 'but if
you try to shout I'll smash your head with—' There was not a stick or
a stone near. 'I will throttle you for good,' I corrected myself. 'I was
on the threshold of great things,' he pleaded, in a voice of longing,
with a wistfulness of tone that made my blood run cold. 'And now for
this stupid scoundrel—' 'Your success in Europe is assured in any
case,' I affirmed, steadily. I did not want to have the throttling of
him, you understand—and indeed it would have been very little use for
any practical purpose. I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell
of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the
awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified
and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out
to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the
throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled
his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations. And, don't
you see, the terror of the position was not in being knocked on the
head—though I had a very lively sense of that danger too—but in this,
that I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the
name of anything high or low. I had to invoke
him—himself his own exalted and incredible degradation. There was
nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself
loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to
pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood
on the ground or floated in the air. I've been telling you what we
said—repeating the phrases we pronounced,—but what's the good? They
were common everyday words,—the familiar, vague sounds exchanged on
every waking day of life. But what of that? They had behind them, to my
mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases
spoken in nightmares. Soul! If anybody had ever struggled with a soul,
I am the man. And I wasn't arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me
or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear—concentrated, it is true,
upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my only
chance—barring, of course, the killing him there and then, which wasn't
so good, on account of unavoidable noise. But his soul was mad. Being
alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I
tell you, it had gone mad. I had—for my sins, I suppose—to go through
the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so
withering to one's belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity.
He struggled with himself, too. I saw it,—I heard it. I saw the
inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and
no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself. I kept my head pretty well;
but when I had him at last stretched on the couch, I wiped my forehead,
while my legs shook under me as though I had carried half a ton on my
back down that hill. And yet I had only supported him, his bony arm
clasped round my neck—and he was not much heavier than a child.
"When next day we left at noon, the crowd, of whose presence behind the
curtain of trees I had been acutely conscious all the time, flowed out
of the woods again, filled the clearing, covered the slope with a mass
of naked, breathing, quivering, bronze bodies. I steamed up a bit, then
swung down-stream, and two thousand eyes followed the evolutions of
the splashing, thumping, fierce river-demon beating the water with its
terrible tail and breathing black smoke into the air. In front of the
first rank, along the river, three men, plastered with bright red earth
from head to foot, strutted to and fro restlessly. When we came abreast
again, they faced the river, stamped their feet, nodded their horned
heads, swayed their scarlet bodies; they shook towards the fierce
river-demon a bunch of black feathers, a mangy skin with a pendent
tail—something that looked like a dried gourd; they shouted
periodically together strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds
of human language; and the deep murmurs of the crowd, interrupted
suddenly, were like the response of some satanic litany.
"We had carried Kurtz into the pilot-house: there was more air there.
Lying on the couch, he stared through the open shutter. There was an
eddy in the mass of human bodies, and the woman with helmeted head and
tawny cheeks rushed out to the very brink of the stream. She put out her
hands, shouted something, and all that wild mob took up the shout in a
roaring chorus of articulated, rapid, breathless utterance.
"'Do you understand this?' I asked.
"He kept on looking out past me with fiery, longing eyes, with a mingled
expression of wistfulness and hate. He made no answer, but I saw a
smile, a smile of indefinable meaning, appear on his colorless lips
that a moment after twitched convulsively. 'Do I not?' he said slowly,
gasping, as if the words had been torn out of him by a supernatural
"I pulled the string of the whistle, and I did this because I saw the
pilgrims on deck getting out their rifles with an air of anticipating a
jolly lark. At the sudden screech there was a movement of abject terror
through that wedged mass of bodies. 'Don't! Don't you frighten them
away,' cried someone on deck disconsolately. I pulled the string
time after time. They broke and ran, they leaped, they crouched, they
swerved, they dodged the flying terror of the sound. The three red chaps
had fallen flat, face down on the shore, as though they had been shot
dead. Only the barbarous and superb woman did not so much as flinch,
and stretched tragically her bare arms after us over the somber and
"And then that imbecile crowd down on the deck started their little fun,
and I could see nothing more for smoke.
"The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us
down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and
Kurtz's life was running swiftly too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart
into the sea of inexorable time. The manager was very placid, he had
no vital anxieties now, he took us both in with a comprehensive and
satisfied glance: the 'affair' had come off as well as could be wished.
I saw the time approaching when I would be left alone of the party of
'unsound method.' The pilgrims looked upon me with disfavor. I was,
so to speak, numbered with the dead. It is strange how I accepted this
unforeseen partnership, this choice of nightmares forced upon me in the
tenebrous land invaded by these mean and greedy phantoms.
"Kurtz discoursed. A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It
survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the
barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes
of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth
and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of
noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my
ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated
sentiments. The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of
the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mold of
primeval earth. But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of
the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that
soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham
distinction, of all the appearances of success and power.
"Sometimes he was contemptibly childish. He desired to have kings meet
him at railway-stations on his return from some ghastly Nowhere, where
he intended to accomplish great things. 'You show them you have in you
something that is really profitable, and then there will be no limits to
the recognition of your ability,' he would say. 'Of course you must take
care of the motives—right motives—always.' The long reaches that were
like one and the same reach, monotonous bends that were exactly alike,
slipped past the steamer with their multitude of secular trees looking
patiently after this grimy fragment of another world, the forerunner
of change, of conquest, of trade, of massacres, of blessings. I looked
ahead—piloting. 'Close the shutter,' said Kurtz suddenly one day; 'I
can't bear to look at this.' I did so. There was a silence. 'Oh, but I
will wring your heart yet!' he cried at the invisible wilderness.
"We broke down—as I had expected—and had to lie up for repairs at the
head of an island. This delay was the first thing that shook
Kurtz's confidence. One morning he gave me a packet of papers and a
photograph,—the lot tied together with a shoe-string. 'Keep this for
me,' he said. 'This noxious fool' (meaning the manager) 'is capable of
prying into my boxes when I am not looking.' In the afternoon I saw him.
He was lying on his back with closed eyes, and I withdrew quietly, but
I heard him mutter, 'Live rightly, die, die . . .' I listened. There was
nothing more. Was he rehearsing some speech in his sleep, or was it a
fragment of a phrase from some newspaper article? He had been writing
for the papers and meant to do so again, 'for the furthering of my
ideas. It's a duty.'
"His was an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at
a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never
shines. But I had not much time to give him, because I was helping the
engine-driver to take to pieces the leaky cylinders, to straighten a
bent connecting-rod, and in other such matters. I lived in an
infernal mess of rust, filings, nuts, bolts, spanners, hammers,
ratchet-drills—things I abominate, because I don't get on with them. I
tended the little forge we fortunately had aboard; I toiled wearily in a
wretched scrap-heap—unless I had the shakes too bad to stand.
"One evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him say a
little tremulously, 'I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.'
The light was within a foot of his eyes. I forced myself to murmur, 'Oh,
nonsense!' and stood over him as if transfixed.
"Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have
never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched.
I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that
ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven
terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again
in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme
moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at
some vision,—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—
"'The horror! The horror!'
"I blew the candle out and left the cabin. The pilgrims were dining in
the mess-room, and I took my place opposite the manager, who lifted his
eyes to give me a questioning glance, which I successfully ignored.
He leaned back, serene, with that peculiar smile of his sealing the
unexpressed depths of his meanness. A continuous shower of small flies
streamed upon the lamp, upon the cloth, upon our hands and faces.
Suddenly the manager's boy put his insolent black head in the doorway,
and said in a tone of scathing contempt—
"'Mistah Kurtz—he dead.'
"All the pilgrims rushed out to see. I remained, and went on with my
dinner. I believe I was considered brutally callous. However, I did not
eat much. There was a lamp in there—light, don't you know—and outside
it was so beastly, beastly dark. I went no more near the remarkable man
who had pronounced a judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this
earth. The voice was gone. What else had been there? But I am of course
aware that next day the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole.
And then they very nearly buried me.
"However, as you see, I did not go to join Kurtz there and then. I did
not. I remained to dream the nightmare out to the end...
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