США. Heart of Darkness

I

The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor

without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had

made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down

the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for

the turn of the tide.

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like

the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing

the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint,

and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges

drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red

clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished

sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea

in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend,

and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful

gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the

greatest, town on earth.

The Director of Companies was our captain and our

host. We four affectionately watched his back as he stood

in the bows looking to seaward. On the whole river there

was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a

pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It

was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the
 
luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding

gloom.

Between us there was, as I have already said

somewhere, the bond of the sea. Besides holding our

hearts together through long periods of separation, it had

the effect of making us tolerant of each other’s yarns—and

even convictions. The Lawyer—the best of old fellows—

had, because of his many years and many virtues, the only

cushion on deck, and was lying on the only rug. The

Accountant had brought out already a box of dominoes,

and was toying architecturally with the bones. Marlow sat

cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He

had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back,

an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of

hands outwards, resembled an idol. The director, satisfied

the anchor had good hold, made his way aft and sat down

amongst us. We exchanged a few words lazily. Afterwards

there was silence on board the yacht. For some reason or

other we did not begin that game of dominoes. We felt

meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring. The day

was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance.

The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was

a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on

the Essex marsh was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung

from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores

in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding

over the upper reaches, became more sombre every

minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.

And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun

sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red

without rays and without heat, as if about to go out

suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom

brooding over a crowd of men.

Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the

serenity became less brilliant but more profound. The old

river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of

day, after ages of good service done to the race that

peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a

waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth. We

looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a

short day that comes and departs for ever, but in the

august light of abiding memories. And indeed nothing is

easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, ‘followed the

sea’ with reverence and affection, that to evoke the great

spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames.

The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service,

 
crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to

the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known

and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from

Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled

and untitled—the great knights-errant of the sea. It had

borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in

the night of time, from the GOLDEN HIND returning

with her rotund flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the

Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to

the EREBUS and TERROR, bound on other

conquests— and that never returned. It had known the

ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from

Greenwich, from Erith— the adventurers and the settlers;

kings’ ships and the ships of men on ‘Change; captains,

admirals, the dark ‘interlopers’ of the Eastern trade, and

the commissioned ‘generals’ of East India fleets. Hunters

for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that

stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers

of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the

sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of

that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The

dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of

empires.

 
The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights

began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse,

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-athome

order, and their home is always with them—the

ship; and so is their country—the sea. One ship is very

much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the

immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the

foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past,

veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful

ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman

unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his

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