Лучшие повести британских и американских писателей / Best Short Novels by British & American Authors
«Иностранный язык: учимся у классиков» – это только оригинальные тексты лучших произведений мировой литературы. Эти книги станут эффективным и увлекательным пособием для изучающих иностранный язык на хорошем «продолжающем» и «продвинутом» уровне. Они помогут эффективно расширить словарный запас, подскажут, где и как правильно употреблять устойчивые выражения и грамматические конструкции, просто подарят радость от чтения. В конце книги дана краткая информация о культуроведческих, страноведческих, исторических и географических реалиях описываемого периода, которая поможет лучше ориентироваться в тексте произведения.
Серия «Иностранный язык: учимся у классиков» адресована широкому кругу читателей, хорошо владеющих английским языком и стремящихся к его совершенствованию.
Лучшие повести британских и американских писателей / Best Short Novels by British & American Authors
В оформлении обложки использована иллюстрация: FairytaleDesign / Istockphoto / Thinkstock / Gettyimages.ru
© ООО «Издательство «Эксмо», 2015
The First Narrative
Introductory Statement of the Facts by Percy Fairbank
‘Hullo, there! Hostler! Hullo-o-o!’
‘My dear! why don’t you look for the bell?’
‘I have looked – there is no bell.’
‘And nobody in the yard. How very extraordinary! Call again, dear.’
‘Hostler! Hullo, there! Hostler-r-r!’
My second call echoes through empty space, and rouses nobody – produces, in short, no visible result. I am at the end of my resources – I don’t know what to say or what to do next. Here I stand in the solitary inn yard of а strange town, with two horses to hold, and а lady to take care of. By way of adding to my responsibilities, it so happens that one of the horses is dead lame, and that the lady is my wife.
Who am I? – you will ask.
There is plenty of time to answer the question. Nothing happens; and nobody appears to receive us. Let me introduce myself and my wife.
I am Percy Fairbank – English gentleman – age (let us say) forty – no profession – moderate politics – middle height – fair complexion – easy character – plenty of money.
My wife is а French lady. She was Mademoiselle Clotilde Delorge – when I was first presented to her at her father’s house in France. I fell in love with her – I really don’t know why. It might have been because I was perfectly idle, and had nothing else to do at the time. Or it might have been because all my friends said she was the very last woman whom I ought to think of marrying. On the surface, I must own, there is nothing in common between Mrs. Fairbank and me. She is tall; she is dark; she is nervous, excitable, romantic; in all her opinions she proceeds to extremes. What could such а woman see in me? what could I see in her? I know no more than you do. In some mysterious manner we exactly suit each other. We have been man and wife for ten years, and our only regret is, that we have no children. I don’t know what you may think; I call that – upon the whole – а happy marriage.
So much for ourselves. The next question is – what has brought us into the inn yard? and why am I obliged to turn groom, and hold the horses?
We live for the most part in France – at the country house in which my wife and I first met. Occasionally, by way of variety, we pay visits to my friends in England. We are paying one of those visits now. Our host is an old college friend of mine, possessed of а fine estate in Somersetshire; and we have arrived at his house – called Farleigh Hall – toward the close of the hunting season.
On the day of which I am now writing – destined to be а memorable day in our calendar – the hounds meet at Farleigh Hall. Mrs. Fairbank and I are mounted on two of the best horses in my friend’s stables. We are quite unworthy of that distinction; for we know nothing and care nothing about hunting. On the other hand, we delight in riding, and we enjoy the breezy spring morning and the fair and fertile English landscape surrounding us on every side. While the hunt prospers, we follow the hunt. But when а check occurs – when time passes and patience is sorely tried; when the bewildered dogs run hither and thither, and strong language falls from the lips of exasperated sportsmen – we fail to take any further interest in the proceedings. We turn our horses’ heads in the direction of а grassy lane, delightfully shaded by trees. We trot merrily along the lane, and find ourselves on an open common. We gallop across the common, and follow the windings of а second lane. We cross а brook, we pass through а village, we emerge into pastoral solitude among the hills. The horses toss their heads, and neigh to each other, and enjoy it as much as we do. The hunt is forgotten. We are as happy as а couple of children; we are actually singing а French song – when in one moment our merriment comes to an end. My wife’s horse sets one of his forefeet on а loose stone, and stumbles. His rider’s ready hand saves him from falling. But, at the first attempt he makes to go on, the sad truth shows itself – а tendon is strained; the horse is lame.
What is to be done? We are strangers in а lonely part of the country. Look where we may, we see no signs of а human habitation. There is nothing for it but to take the bridle road up the hill, and try what we can discover on the other side. I transfer the saddles, and mount my wife on my own horse. He is not used to carry а lady; he misses the familiar pressure of а man’s legs on either side of him; he fidgets, and starts, and kicks up the dust. I follow on foot, at а respectful distance from his heels, leading the lame horse. Is there а more miserable object on the face of creation than а lame horse? I have seen lame men and lame dogs who were cheerful creatures; but I never yet saw а lame horse who didn’t look heartbroken over his own misfortune.
For half an hour my wife capers and curvets sideways along the bridle road. I trudge on behind her; and the heartbroken horse halts behind me. Hard by the top of the hill, our melancholy procession passes а Somersetshire peasant at work in а field. I summon the man to approach us; and the man looks at me stolidly, from the middle of the field, without stirring а step. I ask at the top of my voice how far it is to Farleigh Hall. The Somersetshire peasant answers at the top of his voice:
‘Vourteen mile. Gi’ oi а drap o’ zyder.’
I translate (for my wife’s benefit) from the Somersetshire language into the English language. We are fourteen miles from Farleigh Hall; and our friend in the field desires to be rewarded, for giving us that information, with а drop of cider. There is the peasant, painted by himself! Quite а bit of character, my dear! Quite а bit of character!
Mrs. Fairbank doesn’t view the study of agricultural human nature with my relish. Her fidgety horse will not allow her а moment’s repose; she is beginning to lose her temper.
‘We can’t go fourteen miles in this way,’ she says. ‘Where is the nearest inn? Ask that brute in the field!’
I take а shilling from my pocket and hold it up in the sun. The shilling exercises magnetic virtues. The shilling draws the peasant slowly toward me from the middle of the field. I inform him that we want to put up the horses and to hire а carriage to take us back to Farleigh Hall. Where can we do that? The peasant answers (with his eye on the shilling):
‘At Oonderbridge, to be zure.’ (At Underbridge, to be sure.)
‘Is it far to Underbridge?’
The peasant repeats, ‘Var to Oonderbridge?’ – and laughs at the question. ‘Hoo-hoo-hoo!’ (Underbridge is evidently close by – if we could only find it.) ‘Will you show us the way, my man?’ ‘Will you gi’ oi а drap of zyder?’ I courteously bend my head, and point to the shilling. The agricultural intelligence exerts itself. The peasant joins our melancholy procession. My wife is а fine woman, but he never once looks at my wife – and, more extraordinary still, he never even looks at the horses. His eyes are with his mind – and his mind is on the shilling.
We reach the top of the hill – and, behold on the other side, nestling in а valley, the shrine of our pilgrimage, the town of Underbridge! Here our guide claims his shilling, and leaves us to find out the inn for ourselves. I am constitutionally а polite man. I say ‘Good morning’ at parting. The guide looks at me with the shilling between his teeth to make sure that it is а good one. ‘Marnin!’ he says savagely – and turns his back on us, as if we had offended him. А curious product, this, of the growth of civilization. If I didn’t see а church spire at Underbridge, I might suppose that we had lost ourselves on а savage island.
Arriving at the town, we had no difficulty in finding the inn. The town is composed of one desolate street; and midway in that street stands the inn – an ancient stone building sadly out of repair. The painting on the sign-board is obliterated. The shutters over the long range of front windows are all closed. А cock and his hens are the only living creatures at the door. Plainly, this is one of the old inns of the stage-coach period, ruined by the railway. We pass through the open arched doorway, and find no one to welcome us. We advance into the stable yard behind; I assist my wife to dismount – and there we are in the position already disclosed to view at the opening of this narrative. No bell to ring. No human creature to answer when I call. I stand helpless, with the bridles of the horses in my hand. Mrs. Fairbank saunters gracefully down the length of the yard and does – what all women do, when they find themselves in а strange place. She opens every door as she passes it, and peeps in. On my side, I have just recovered my breath, I am on the point of shouting for the hostler for the third and last time, when I hear Mrs. Fairbank suddenly call to me:
‘Percy! come here!’
Her voice is eager and agitated. She has opened а last door at the end of the yard, and has started back from some sight which has suddenly met her view. I hitch the horses’ bridles on а rusty nail in the wall near me, and join my wife. She has turned pale, and catches me nervously by the arm.
‘Good heavens!’ she cries; ‘look at that!’
I look – and what do I see? I see а dingy little stable, containing two stalls. In one stall а horse is munching his corn. In the other а man is lying asleep on the litter.
A worn, withered, woebegone man in а hostler’s dress. His hollow wrinkled cheeks, his scanty grizzled hair, his dry yellow skin, tell their own tale of past sorrow or suffering. There is an ominous frown on his eyebrows – there is а painful nervous contraction on the side of his mouth. I hear him breathing convulsively when I first look in; he shudders and sighs in his sleep. It is not а pleasant sight to see, and I turn round instinctively to the bright sunlight in the yard. My wife turns me back again in the direction of the stable door.
‘Wait!’ she says. ‘Wait! he may do it again.’
‘Do what again?’
‘He was talking in his sleep, Percy, when I first looked in. He was dreaming some dreadful dream. Hush! he’s beginning again.’
I look and listen. The man stirs on his miserable bed. The man speaks in а quick, fierce whisper through his clinched teeth. ‘Wake up! Wake up, there! Murder!’
There is an interval of silence. He moves one lean arm slowly until it rests over his throat; he shudders, and turns on his straw; he raises his arm from his throat, and feebly stretches it out; his hand clutches at the straw on the side toward which he has turned; he seems to fancy that he is grasping at the edge of something. I see his lips begin to move again; I step softly into the stable; my wife follows me, with her hand fast clasped in mine. We both bend over him. He is talking once more in his sleep – strange talk, mad talk, this time.
‘Light gray eyes’ (we hear him say), ‘and а droop in the left eyelid – flaxen hair, with а gold-yellow streak in it – all right, mother! fair, white arms with а down on them – little, lady’s hand, with а reddish look round the fingernails – the knife – the cursed knife – first on one side, then on the other – aha, you she-devil! where is the knife?’
He stops and grows restless on а sudden. We see him writhing on the straw. He throws up both his hands and gasps hysterically for breath. His eyes open suddenly. For а moment they look at nothing, with а vacant glitter in them – then they close again in deeper sleep. Is he dreaming still? Yes; but the dream seems to have taken а new course. When he speaks next, the tone is altered; the words are few – sadly and imploringly repeated over and over again. ‘Say you love me! I am so fond of you. Say you love me! say you love me!’ He sinks into deeper and deeper sleep, faintly repeating those words. They die away on his lips. He speaks no more.
By this time Mrs. Fairbank has got over her terror; she is devoured by curiosity now. The miserable creature on the straw has appealed to the imaginative side of her character. Her illimitable appetite for romance hungers and thirsts for more. She shakes me impatiently by the arm.
‘Do you hear? There is а woman at the bottom of it, Percy! There is love and murder in it, Percy! Where are the people of the inn? Go into the yard, and call to them again.’
My wife belongs, on her mother’s side, to the South of France. The South of France breeds fine women with hot tempers. I say no more. Married men will understand my position. Single men may need to be told that there are occasions when we must not only love and honour – we must also obey – our wives.
I turn to the door to obey my wife, and find myself confronted by а stranger who has stolen on us unawares. The stranger is а tiny, sleepy, rosy old man, with а vacant pudding-face, and а shining bald head. He wears drab breeches and gaiters, and а respectable square-tailed ancient black coat. I feel instinctively that here is the landlord of the inn.
‘Good morning, sir,’ says the rosy old man. ‘I’m а little hard of hearing. Was it you that was a-calling just now in the yard?’
Before I can answer, my wife interposes. She insists (in а shrill voice, adapted to our host’s hardness of hearing) on knowing who that unfortunate person is sleeping on the straw. ‘Where does he come from? Why does he say such dreadful things in his sleep? Is he married or single? Did he ever fall in love with а murderess? What sort of а looking woman was she? Did she really stab him or not? In short, dear Mr. Landlord, tell us the whole story!’
Dear Mr. Landlord waits drowsily until Mrs. Fairbank has quite done – then delivers himself of his reply as follows:
‘His name’s Francis Raven. He’s an Independent Methodist. He was forty-five year old last birthday. And he’s my hostler. That’s his story.’
My wife’s hot southern temper finds its way to her foot, and expresses itself by а stamp on the stable yard.
The landlord turns himself sleepily round, and looks at the horses. ‘A fine pair of horses, them two in the yard. Do you want to put ‘em in my stables?’ I reply in the affirmative by а nod. The landlord, bent on making himself agreeable to my wife, addresses her once more. ‘I’m a-going to wake Francis Raven. He’s an Independent Methodist. He was forty-five year old last birthday. And he’s my hostler. That’s his story.’
Having issued this second edition of his interesting narrative, the landlord enters the stable. We follow him to see how he will wake Francis Raven, and what will happen upon that. The stable broom stands in а corner; the landlord takes it – advances toward the sleeping hostler – and coolly stirs the man up with а broom as if he was а wild beast in а cage. Francis Raven starts to his feet with а cry of terror – looks at us wildly, with а horrid glare of suspicion in his eyes – recovers himself the next moment – and suddenly changes into а decent, quiet, respectable serving-man.
‘I beg your pardon, ma’am. I beg your pardon, sir.’
The tone and manner in which he makes his apologies are both above his apparent station in life. I begin to catch the infection of Mrs. Fairbank’s interest in this man. We both follow him out into the yard to see what he will do with the horses. The manner in which he lifts the injured leg of the lame horse tells me at once that he understands his business. Quickly and quietly, he leads the animal into an empty stable; quickly and quietly, he gets а bucket of hot water, and puts the lame horse’s leg into it. ‘The warm water will reduce the swelling, sir. I will bandage the leg afterwards.’ All that he does is done intelligently; all that he says, he says to the purpose.
Nothing wild, nothing strange about him now. Is this the same man whom we heard talking in his sleep? – the same man who woke with that cry of terror and that horrid suspicion in his eyes? I determine to try him with one or two questions.
‘Not much to do here,’ I say to the hostler.
‘Very little to do, sir,’ the hostler replies.
‘Anybody staying in the house?’
‘The house is quite empty, sir.’
‘I thought you were all dead. I could make nobody hear me.’
‘The landlord is very deaf, sir, and the waiter is out on an errand.’
‘Yes; and you were fast asleep in the stable. Do you often take а nap in the daytime?’
The worn face of the hostler faintly flushes. His eyes look away from my eyes for the first time. Mrs. Fairbank furtively pinches my arm. Are we on the eve of а discovery at last? I repeat my question. The man has no civil alternative but to give me an answer. The answer is given in these words:
‘I was tired out, sir. You wouldn’t have found me asleep in the daytime but for that.’
‘Tired out, eh? You had been hard at work, I suppose?’
‘What was it, then?’
He hesitates again, and answers unwillingly, ‘I was up all night.’
‘Up all night? Anything going on in the town?’
‘Nothing going on, sir.’
‘Nobody ill, sir.’
That reply is the last. Try as I may, I can extract nothing more from him. He turns away and busies himself in attending to the horse’s leg. I leave the stable to speak to the landlord about the carriage which is to take us back to Farleigh Hall. Mrs. Fairbank remains with the hostler, and favors me with а look at parting. The look says plainly, ‘I mean to find out why he was up all night. Leave him to Me.’
The ordering of the carriage is easily accomplished. The inn possesses one horse and one chaise. The landlord has а story to tell of the horse, and а story to tell of the chaise. They resemble the story of Francis Raven – with this exception, that the horse and chaise belong to no religious persuasion. ‘The horse will be nine year old next birthday. I’ve had the shay for four-and-twenty year. Mr. Max, of Underbridge, he bred the horse; and Mr. Pooley, of Yeovil, he built the shay. It’s my horse and my shay. And that’s their story!’ Having relieved his mind of these details, the landlord proceeds to put the harness on the horse. By way of assisting him, I drag the chaise into the yard. Just as our preparations are completed, Mrs. Fairbank appears. А moment or two later the hostler follows her out. He has bandaged the horse’s leg, and is now ready to drive us to Farleigh Hall. I observe signs of agitation in his face and manner, which suggest that my wife has found her way into his confidence. I put the question to her privately in а corner of the yard. ‘Well? Have you found out why Francis Raven was up all night?’
Mrs. Fairbank has an eye to dramatic effect. Instead of answering plainly, Yes or No, she suspends the interest and excites the audience by putting а question on her side.
‘What is the day of the month, dear?’
‘The day of the month is the first of March.’
‘The first of March, Percy, is Francis Raven’s birthday.’
I try to look as if I was interested – and don’t succeed.
‘Francis was born,’ Mrs. Fairbank proceeds gravely, ‘at two o’clock in the morning.’
I begin to wonder whether my wife’s intellect is going the way of the landlord’s intellect. ‘Is that all?’ I ask.
‘It is not all,’ Mrs. Fairbank answers. ‘Francis Raven sits up on the morning of his birthday because he is afraid to go to bed.’
‘And why is he afraid to go to bed?’
‘Because he is in peril of his life.’
‘On his birthday?’
‘On his birthday. At two o’clock in the morning. As regularly as the birthday comes round.’
There she stops. Has she discovered no more than that? No more this far. I begin to feel really interested by this time. I ask eagerly what it means. Mrs. Fairbank points mysteriously to the chaise – with Francis Raven (hitherto our hostler, now our coachman) waiting for us to get in. The chaise has а seat for two in front, and а seat for one behind. My wife casts а warning look at me, and places herself on the seat in front.
The necessary consequence of this arrangement is that Mrs. Fairbank sits by the side of the driver during а journey of two hours and more. Need I state the result? It would be an insult to your intelligence to state the result. Let me offer you my place in the chaise. And let Francis Raven tell his terrible story in his own words.
The Second Narrative
The Hostler’s Story – Told by Himself
It is now ten years ago since I got my first warning of the great trouble of my life in the Vision of а Dream.
I shall be better able to tell you about it if you will please suppose yourselves to be drinking tea along with us in our little cottage in Cambridgeshire, ten years since.
The time was the close of day, and there were three of us at the table, namely, my mother, myself, and my mother’s sister, Mrs. Chance. These two were Scotchwomen by birth, and both were widows. There was no other resemblance between them that I can call to mind. My mother had lived all her life in England, and had no more of the Scotch brogue on her tongue than I have. My aunt Chance had never been out of Scotland until she came to keep house with my mother after her husband’s death. And when she opened her lips you heard broad Scotch, I can tell you, if you ever heard it yet!
As it fell out, there was а matter of some consequence in debate among us that evening. It was this: whether I should do well or not to take а long journey on foot the next morning.
Now the next morning happened to be the day before my birthday; and the purpose of the journey was to offer myself for а situation as groom at а great house in the neighboring county to ours. The place was reported as likely to fall vacant in about three weeks’ time. I was as well fitted to fill it as any other man. In the prosperous days of our family, my father had been manager of а training stable, and he had kept me employed among the horses from my boyhood upward. Please to excuse my troubling you with these small matters. They all fit into my story farther on, as you will soon find out. My poor mother was dead against my leaving home on the morrow.
‘You can never walk all the way there and all the way back again by to-morrow night,’ she says. ‘The end of it will be that you will sleep away from home on your birthday. You have never done that yet, Francis, since your father’s death, I don’t like your doing it now. Wait а day longer, my son – only one day.’
For my own part, I was weary of being idle, and I couldn’t abide the notion of delay. Even one day might make all the difference. Some other man might take time by the forelock, and get the place.
‘Consider how long I have been out of work,’ I says, ‘and don’t ask me to put off the journey. I won’t fail you, mother. I’ll get back by to-morrow night, if I have to pay my last sixpence for а lift in а cart.’
My mother shook her head. ‘I don’t like it, Francis – I don’t like it!’ There was no moving her from that view. We argued and argued, until we were both at а deadlock. It ended in our agreeing to refer the difference between us to my mother’s sister, Mrs. Chance.
While we were trying hard to convince each other, my aunt Chance sat as dumb as а fish, stirring her tea and thinking her own thoughts. When we made our appeal to her, she seemed as it were to wake up. ‘Ye baith refer it to my puir judgment?’ she says, in her broad Scotch. We both answered Yes. Upon that my aunt Chance first cleared the tea-table, and then pulled out from the pocket of her gown а pack of cards.
Don’t run away, if you please, with the notion that this was done lightly, with а view to amuse my mother and me. My aunt Chance seriously believed that she could look into the future by telling fortunes on the cards. She did nothing herself without first consulting the cards. She could give no more serious proof of her interest in my welfare than the proof which she was offering now. I don’t say it profanely; I only mention the fact – the cards had, in some incomprehensible way, got themselves jumbled up together with her religious convictions. You meet with people nowadays who believe in spirits working by way of tables and chairs. On the same principle (if there is any principle in it) my aunt Chance believed in Providence working by way of the cards.
‘Whether you are right, Francie, or your mither – whether ye will do weel or ill, the morrow, to go or stay – the cairds will tell it. We are a’ in the hands of Proavidence. The cairds will tell it.’
Hearing this, my mother turned her head aside, with something of а sour look in her face. Her sister’s notions about the cards were little better than flat blasphemy to her mind. But she kept her opinion to herself. My aunt Chance, to own the truth, had inherited, through her late husband, а pension of thirty pounds а year. This was an important contribution to our housekeeping, and we poor relations were bound to treat her with а certain respect. As for myself, if my poor father never did anything else for me before he fell into difficulties, he gave me а good education, and raised me (thank God) above superstitions of all sorts. However, а very little amused me in those days; and I waited to have my fortune told, as patiently as if I believed in it too!
My aunt began her hocus pocus by throwing out all the cards in the pack under seven. She shuffled the rest with her left hand for luck; and then she gave them to me to cut. ‘Wi’ yer left hand, Francie. Mind that! Pet your trust in Proavidence – but dinna forget that your luck’s in yer left hand!’ а long and roundabout shifting of the cards followed, reducing them in number until there were just fifteen of them left, laid out neatly before my aunt in а half circle. The card which happened to lie outermost, at the right-hand end of the circle, was, according to rule in such cases, the card chosen to represent Me. By way of being appropriate to my situation as а poor groom out of employment, the card was – the King of Diamonds.
‘I tak’ up the King o’ Diamants,’ says my aunt. ‘I count seven cairds fra’ richt to left; and I humbly ask а blessing on what follows.’ My aunt shut her eyes as if she was saying grace before meat, and held up to me the seventh card. I called the seventh card – the Queen of Spades. My aunt opened her eyes again in а hurry, and cast а sly look my way. ‘The Queen o’ Spades means а dairk woman. Ye’ll be thinking in secret, Francie, of а dairk woman?’
When а man has been out of work for more than three months, his mind isn’t troubled much with thinking of women – light or dark. I was thinking of the groom’s place at the great house, and I tried to say so. My aunt Chance wouldn’t listen. She treated my interpretation with contempt. ‘Hoot-toot! there’s the caird in your hand! If ye’re no thinking of her the day, ye’ll be thinking of her the morrow. Where’s the harm of thinking of а dairk woman! I was ance а dairk woman myself, before my hair was gray. Haud yer peace, Francie, and watch the cairds.’
I watched the cards as I was told. There were seven left on the table. My aunt removed two from one end of the row and two from the other, and desired me to call the two outermost of the three cards now left on the table. I called the Ace of Clubs and the Ten of Diamonds. My aunt Chance lifted her eyes to the ceiling with а look of devout gratitude which sorely tried my mother’s patience. The Ace of Clubs and the Ten of Diamonds, taken together, signified – first, good news (evidently the news of the groom’s place); secondly, а journey that lay before me (pointing plainly to my journey to-morrow!); thirdly and lastly, а sum of money (probably the groom’s wages!) waiting to find its way into my pockets. Having told my fortune in these encouraging terms, my aunt declined to carry the experiment any further. ‘Eh, lad! it’s а clean tempting o’ Proavidence to ask mair o’ the cairds than the cairds have tauld us noo. Gae yer ways to-morrow to the great hoose. А dairk woman will meet ye at the gate; and she’ll have а hand in getting ye the groom’s place, wi’ a’ the gratifications and pairquisites appertaining to the same. And, mebbe, when yer poaket’s full o’ money, ye’ll no’ be forgetting yer aunt Chance, maintaining her ain unblemished widowhood – wi’ Proavidence assisting – on thratty punds а year!’
I promised to remember my aunt Chance (who had the defect, by the way, of being а terribly greedy person after money) on the next happy occasion when my poor empty pockets were to be filled at last. This done, I looked at my mother. She had agreed to take her sister for umpire between us, and her sister had given it in my favor. She raised no more objections. Silently, she got on her feet, and kissed me, and sighed bitterly – and so left the room. My aunt Chance shook her head. ‘I doubt, Francie, yer puir mither has but а heathen notion of the vairtue of the cairds!’
By daylight the next morning I set forth on my journey. I looked back at the cottage as I opened the garden gate. At one window was my mother, with her handkerchief to her eyes. At the other stood my aunt Chance, holding up the Queen of Spades by way of encouraging me at starting. I waved my hands to both of them in token of farewell, and stepped out briskly into the road. It was then the last day of February. Be pleased to remember, in connection with this, that the first of March was the day and two o’clock in the morning the hour of my birth.
Now you know how I came to leave home. The next thing to tell is, what happened on the journey.
I reached the great house in reasonably good time considering the distance. At the very first trial of it, the prophecy of the cards turned out to be wrong. The person who met me at the lodge gate was not а dark woman – in fact, not а woman at all – but а boy. He directed me on the way to the servants’ offices; and there again the cards were all wrong. I encountered, not one woman, but three – and not one of the three was dark. I have stated that I am not superstitious, and I have told the truth. But I must own that I did feel а certain fluttering at the heart when I made my bow to the steward, and told him what business had brought me to the house. His answer completed the discomfiture of aunt Chance’s fortune-telling. My ill-luck still pursued me. That very morning another man had applied for the groom’s place, and had got it.
I swallowed my disappointment as well as I could, and thanked the steward, and went to the inn in the village to get the rest and food which I sorely needed by this time.
Before starting on my homeward walk I made some inquiries at the inn, and ascertained that I might save а few miles, on my return, by following а new road. Furnished with full instructions, several times repeated, as to the various turnings I was to take, I set forth, and walked on till the evening with only one stoppage for bread and cheese. Just as it was getting toward dark, the rain came on and the wind began to rise; and I found myself, to make matters worse, in а part of the country with which I was entirely unacquainted, though I guessed myself to be some fifteen miles from home. The first house I found to inquire at, was а lonely roadside inn, standing on the outskirts of а thick wood. Solitary as the place looked, it was welcome to а lost man who was also hungry, thirsty, footsore, and wet. The landlord was civil and respectable-looking; and the price he asked for а bed was reasonable enough. I was grieved to disappoint my mother. But there was no conveyance to be had, and I could go no farther afoot that night. My weariness fairly forced me to stop at the inn.
I may say for myself that I am а temperate man. My supper simply consisted of some rashers of bacon, а slice of home-made bread, and а pint of ale. I did not go to bed immediately after this moderate meal, but sat up with the landlord, talking about my bad prospects and my long run of ill-luck, and diverging from these topics to the subjects of horse-flesh and racing. Nothing was said, either by myself, my host, or the few laborers who strayed into the tap-room, which could, in the slightest degree, excite my mind, or set my fancy – which is only а small fancy at the best of times – playing tricks with my common sense.
At а little after eleven the house was closed. I went round with the landlord, and held the candle while the doors and lower windows were being secured. I noticed with surprise the strength of the bolts, bars, and iron-sheathed shutters.
‘You see, we are rather lonely here,’ said the landlord. ‘We never have had any attempts to break in yet, but it’s always as well to be on the safe side. When nobody is sleeping here, I am the only man in the house. My wife and daughter are timid, and the servant girl takes after her missuses. Another glass of ale, before you turn in? – No! – Well, how such а sober man as you comes to be out of а place is more than I can understand for one. – Here’s where you’re to sleep. You’re the only lodger to-night, and I think you’ll say my missus has done her best to make you comfortable. You’re quite sure you won’t have another glass of ale? – Very well. Good night.’
It was half-past eleven by the clock in the passage as we went upstairs to the bedroom. The window looked out on the wood at the back of the house.
I locked my door, set my candle on the chest of drawers, and wearily got me ready for bed. The bleak wind was still blowing, and the solemn, surging moan of it in the wood was very dreary to hear through the night silence. Feeling strangely wakeful, I resolved to keep the candle alight until I began to grow sleepy. The truth is, I was not quite myself. I was depressed in mind by my disappointment of the morning; and I was worn out in body by my long walk. Between the two, I own I couldn’t face the prospect of lying awake in the darkness, listening to the dismal moan of the wind in the wood.
Sleep stole on me before I was aware of it; my eyes closed, and I fell off to rest, without having so much as thought of extinguishing the candle.
The next thing that I remember was а faint shivering that ran through me from head to foot, and а dreadful sinking pain at my heart, such as I had never felt before. The shivering only disturbed my slumbers – the pain woke me instantly. In one moment I passed from а state of sleep to а state of wakefulness – my eyes wide open – my mind clear on а sudden as if by а miracle. The candle had burned down nearly to the last morsel of tallow, but the unsnuffed wick had just fallen off, and the light was, for the moment, fair and full.
Between the foot of the bed and the closet door, I saw а person in my room. The person was а woman, standing looking at me, with а knife in her hand. It does no credit to my courage to confess it – but the truth is the truth. I was struck speechless with terror. There I lay with my eyes on the woman; there the woman stood (with the knife in her hand) with her eyes on me.
She said not а word as we stared each other in the face; but she moved after а little – moved slowly toward the left-hand side of the bed.
The light fell full on her face. А fair, fine woman, with yellowish flaxen hair, and light gray eyes, with а droop in the left eyelid. I noticed these things and fixed them in my mind, before she was quite round at the side of the bed. Without saying а word; without any change in the stony stillness of her face; without any noise following her footfall, she came closer and closer; stopped at the bed-head; and lifted the knife to stab me. I laid my arm over my throat to save it; but, as I saw the blow coming, I threw my hand across the bed to the right side, and jerked my body over that way, just as the knife came down, like lightning, within а hair’s breadth of my shoulder.
My eyes fixed on her arm and her hand – she gave me time to look at them as she slowly drew the knife out of the bed. А white, well-shaped arm, with а pretty gown lying lightly over the fair skin. А delicate lady’s hand, with а pink flush round the finger nails.
She drew the knife out, and passed back again slowly to the foot of the bed; she stopped there for а moment looking at me; then she came on without saying а word; without any change in the stony stillness of her face; without any noise following her footfall – came on to the side of the bed where I now lay.
Getting near me, she lifted the knife again, and I drew myself away to the left side. She struck, as before right into the mattress, with а swift downward action of her arm; and she missed me, as before; by а hair’s breadth. This time my eyes wandered from her to the knife. It was like the large clasp knives which laboring men use to cut their bread and bacon with. Her delicate little fingers did not hide more than two thirds of the handle; I noticed that it was made of buckhorn, clean and shining as the blade was, and looking like new.
For the second time she drew the knife out of the bed, and suddenly hid it away in the wide sleeve of her gown. That done, she stopped by the bedside watching me. For an instant I saw her standing in that position – then the wick of the spent candle fell over into the socket. The flame dwindled to а little blue point, and the room grew dark.
A moment, or less, if possible, passed so – and then the wick flared up, smokily, for the last time. My eyes were still looking for her over the right-hand side of the bed when the last flash of light came. Look as I might, I could see nothing. The woman with the knife was gone.
I began to get back to myself again. I could feel my heart beating; I could hear the woeful moaning of the wind in the wood; I could leap up in bed, and give the alarm before she escaped from the house. ‘Murder! Wake up there! Murder!’
Nobody answered to the alarm. I rose and groped my way through the darkness to the door of the room. By that way she must have got in. By that way she must have gone out.
The door of the room was fast locked, exactly as I had left it on going to bed! I looked at the window. Fast locked too!
Hearing а voice outside, I opened the door. There was the landlord, coming toward me along the passage, with his burning candle in one hand, and his gun in the other.
‘What is it?’ he says, looking at me in no very friendly way.
I could only answer in а whisper, ‘A woman, with а knife in her hand. In my room. А fair, yellow-haired woman. She jabbed at me with the knife, twice over.’
He lifted his candle, and looked at me steadily from head to foot. ‘She seems to have missed you – twice over.’
‘I dodged the knife as it came down. It struck the bed each time. Go in, and see.’
The landlord took his candle into the bedroom immediately. In less than а minute he came out again into the passage in а violent passion.
‘The devil fly away with you and your woman with the knife! There isn’t а mark in the bedclothes anywhere. What do you mean by coming into а man’s place and frightening his family out of their wits by а dream?’
A dream? The woman who had tried to stab me, not а living human being like myself? I began to shake and shiver. The horrors got hold of me at the bare thought of it.
‘I’ll leave the house,’ I said. ‘Better be out on the road in the rain and dark, than back in that room, after what I’ve seen in it. Lend me the light to get my clothes by, and tell me what I’m to pay.’
The landlord led the way back with his light into the bedroom. ‘Pay?’ says he. ‘You’ll find your score on the slate when you go downstairs. I wouldn’t have taken you in for all the money you’ve got about you, if I had known your dreaming, screeching ways beforehand. Look at the bed – where’s the cut of а knife in it? Look at the window – is the lock bursted? Look at the door (which I heard you fasten yourself) – is it broke in? а murdering woman with а knife in my house! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!’
My eyes followed his hand as it pointed first to the bed – then to the window – then to the door. There was no gainsaying it. The bed sheet was as sound as on the day it was made. The window was fast. The door hung on its hinges as steady as ever. I huddled my clothes on without speaking. We went downstairs together. I looked at the clock in the bar-room. The time was twenty minutes past two in the morning. I paid my bill, and the landlord let me out. The rain had ceased; but the night was dark, and the wind was bleaker than ever. Little did the darkness, or the cold, or the doubt about the way home matter to me. My mind was away from all these things. My mind was fixed on the vision in the bedroom. What had I seen trying to murder me? The creature of а dream? Or that other creature from the world beyond the grave, whom men call ghost? I could make nothing of it as I walked along in the night; I had made nothing by it by midday – when I stood at last, after many times missing my road, on the doorstep of home.
My mother came out alone to welcome me back. There were no secrets between us two. I told her all that had happened, just as I have told it to you. She kept silence till I had done. And then she put а question to me.
‘What time was it, Francis, when you saw the Woman in your Dream?’
I had looked at the clock when I left the inn, and I had noticed that the hands pointed to twenty minutes past two. Allowing for the time consumed in speaking to the landlord, and in getting on my clothes, I answered that I must have first seen the Woman at two o’clock in the morning. In other words, I had not only seen her on my birthday, but at the hour of my birth.
My mother still kept silence. Lost in her own thoughts, she took me by the hand, and led me into the parlor. Her writing-desk was on the table by the fireplace. She opened it, and signed to me to take а chair by her side.
‘My son! your memory is а bad one, and mine is fast failing me. Tell me again what the Woman looked like. I want her to be as well known to both of us, years hence, as she is now.’
I obeyed; wondering what strange fancy might be working in her mind. I spoke; and she wrote the words as they fell from my lips:
‘Light gray eyes, with а droop in the left eyelid. Flaxen hair, with а golden-yellow streak in it. White arms, with а down upon them. Little, lady’s hands, with а rosy-red look about the finger nails.’
‘Did you notice how she was dressed, Francis?’
‘Did you notice the knife?’
‘Yes. А large clasp knife, with а buckhorn handle, as good as new.’
My mother added the description of the knife. Also the year, month, day of the week, and hour of the day when the Dream-Woman appeared to me at the inn. That done, she locked up the paper in her desk.
‘Not а word, Francis, to your aunt. Not а word to any living soul. Keep your Dream а secret between you and me.’
The weeks passed, and the months passed. My mother never returned to the subject again. As for me, time, which wears out all things, wore out my remembrance of the Dream. Little by little, the image of the Woman grew dimmer and dimmer. Little by little, she faded out of my mind.
The story of the warning is now told. Judge for yourself if it was а true warning or а false, when you hear what happened to me on my next birthday.
In the Summer time of the year, the Wheel of Fortune turned the right way for me at last. I was smoking my pipe one day, near an old stone quarry at the entrance to our village, when а carriage accident happened, which gave а new turn, as it were, to my lot in life. It was an accident of the commonest kind – not worth mentioning at any length. А lady driving herself; а runaway horse; а cowardly man-servant in attendance, frightened out of his wits; and the stone quarry too near to be agreeable – that is what I saw, all in а few moments, between two whiffs of my pipe. I stopped the horse at the edge of the quarry, and got myself а little hurt by the shaft of the chaise. But that didn’t matter. The lady declared I had saved her life; and her husband, coming with her to our cottage the next day, took me into his service then and there. The lady happened to be of а dark complexion; and it may amuse you to hear that my aunt Chance instantly pitched on that circumstance as а means of saving the credit of the cards. Here was the promise of the Queen of Spades performed to the very letter, by means of ‘A dark woman,’ just as my aunt had told me. ‘In the time to come, Francis, beware o’ pettin’ yer ain blinded intairpretation on the cairds. Ye’re ower ready, I trow, to murmur under dispensation of Proavidence that ye canna fathom – like the Eesraelites of auld. I’ll say nae mair to ye. Mebbe when the mony’s powering into yer poakets, ye’ll no forget yer aunt Chance, left like а sparrow on the housetop, wi’ а sma’ annuitee o’ thratty punds а year.’
I remained in my situation (at the West-end of London) until the Spring of the New Year. About that time, my master’s health failed. The doctors ordered him away to foreign parts, and the establishment was broken up. But the turn in my luck still held good. When I left my place, I left it – thanks to the generosity of my kind master – with а yearly allowance granted to me, in remembrance of the day when I had saved my mistress’s life. For the future, I could go back to service or not, as I pleased; my little income was enough to support my mother and myself.
My master and mistress left England toward the end of February. Certain matters of business to do for them detained me in London until the last day of the month. I was only able to leave for our village by the evening train, to keep my birthday with my mother as usual. It was bedtime when I got to the cottage; and I was sorry to find that she was far from well. To make matters worse, she had finished her bottle of medicine on the previous day, and had omitted to get it replenished, as the doctor had strictly directed. He dispensed his own medicines, and I offered to go and knock him up. She refused to let me do this; and, after giving me my supper, sent me away to my bed.
I fell asleep for а little, and woke again. My mother’s bed-chamber was next to mine. I heard my aunt Chance’s heavy footsteps going to and fro in the room, and, suspecting something wrong, knocked at the door. My mother’s pains had returned upon her; there was а serious necessity for relieving her sufferings as speedily as possible, I put on my clothes, and ran off, with the medicine bottle in my hand, to the other end of the village, where the doctor lived. The church clock chimed the quarter to two on my birthday just as I reached his house. One ring of the night bell brought him to his bedroom window to speak to me. He told me to wait, and he would let me in at the surgery door. I noticed, while I was waiting, that the night was wonderfully fair and warm for the time of year. The old stone quarry where the carriage accident had happened was within view. The moon in the clear heavens lit it up almost as bright as day.
In а minute or two the doctor let me into the surgery. I closed the door, noticing that he had left his room very lightly clad. He kindly pardoned my mother’s neglect of his directions, and set to work at once at compounding the medicine. We were both intent on the bottle; he filling it, and I holding the light – when we heard the surgery door suddenly opened from the street.
Who could possibly be up and about in our quiet village at the second hour of the morning?
The person who opened the door appeared within range of the light of the candle. To complete our amazement, the person proved to be а woman! She walked up to the counter, and standing side by side with me, lifted her veil. At the moment when she showed her face, I heard the church clock strike two. She was а stranger to me, and а stranger to the doctor. She was also, beyond all comparison, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life.
‘I saw the light under the door,’ she said. ‘I want some medicine.’
She spoke quite composedly, as if there was nothing at all extraordinary in her being out in the village at two in the morning, and following me into the surgery to ask for medicine! The doctor stared at her as if he suspected his own eyes of deceiving him. ‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘How do you come to be wandering about at this time in the morning?’
She paid no heed to his questions. She only told him coolly what she wanted. ‘I have got а bad toothache. I want а bottle of laudanum.’
The doctor recovered himself when she asked for the laudanum. He was on his own ground, you know, when it came to а matter of laudanum; and he spoke to her smartly enough this time.
‘Oh, you have got the toothache, have you? Let me look at the tooth.’
She shook her head, and laid а two-shilling piece on the counter. ‘I won’t trouble you to look at the tooth,’ she said. ‘There is the money. Let me have the laudanum, if you please.’
The doctor put the two-shilling piece back again in her hand. ‘I don’t sell laudanum to strangers,’ he answered. ‘If you are in any distress of body or mind, that is another matter. I shall be glad to help you.’
She put the money back in her pocket. ‘You can’t help me,’ she said, as quietly as ever. ‘Good morning.’
With that, she opened the surgery door to go out again into the street. So far, I had not spoken а word on my side. I had stood with the candle in my hand (not knowing I was holding it) – with my eyes fixed on her, with my mind fixed on her like а man bewitched. Her looks betrayed, even more plainly than her words, her resolution, in one way or another, to destroy herself. When she opened the door, in my alarm at what might happen I found the use of my tongue.
‘Stop!’ I cried out. ‘Wait for me. I want to speak to you before you go away.’ She lifted her eyes with а look of careless surprise and а mocking smile on her lips.
‘What can you have to say to me?’ She stopped, and laughed to herself. ‘Why not?’ she said. ‘I have got nothing to do, and nowhere to go.’ She turned back а step, and nodded to me. ‘You’re а strange man – I think I’ll humor you – I’ll wait outside.’ The door of the surgery closed on her. She was gone.
I am ashamed to own what happened next. The only excuse for me is that I was really and truly а man bewitched. I turned me round to follow her out, without once thinking of my mother. The doctor stopped me.
‘Don’t forget the medicine,’ he said. ‘And if you will take my advice, don’t trouble yourself about that woman. Rouse up the constable. It’s his business to look after her – not yours.’
I held out my hand for the medicine in silence: I was afraid I should fail in respect if I trusted myself to answer him. He must have seen, as I saw, that she wanted the laudanum to poison herself. He had, to my mind, taken а very heartless view of the matter. I just thanked him when he gave me the medicine – and went out.
She was waiting for me as she had promised; walking slowly to and fro – а tall, graceful, solitary figure in the bright moonbeams. They shed over her fair complexion, her bright golden hair, her large gray eyes, just the light that suited them best. She looked hardly mortal when she first turned to speak to me.
‘Well?’ she said. ‘And what do you want?’
In spite of my pride, or my shyness, or my better sense – whichever it might be – all my heart went out to her in а moment. I caught hold of her by the hands, and owned what was in my thoughts, as freely as if I had known her for half а lifetime.
‘You mean to destroy yourself,’ I said. ‘And I mean to prevent you from doing it. If I follow you about all night, I’ll prevent you from doing it.’
She laughed. ‘You saw yourself that he wouldn’t sell me the laudanum. Do you really care whether I live or die?’ She squeezed my hands gently as she put the question: her eyes searched mine with а languid, lingering look in them that ran through me like fire. My voice died away on my lips; I couldn’t answer her.
She understood, without my answering. ‘You have given me а fancy for living, by speaking kindly to me,’ she said. ‘Kindness has а wonderful effect on women, and dogs, and other domestic animals. It is only men who are superior to kindness. Make your mind easy – I promise to take as much care of myself as if I was the happiest woman living! Don’t let me keep you here, out of your bed. Which way are you going?’
Miserable wretch that I was, I had forgotten my mother – with the medicine in my hand! ‘I am going home,’ I said. ‘Where are you staying? At the inn?’
She laughed her bitter laugh, and pointed to the stone quarry. ‘There is my inn for to-night,’ she said. ‘When I got tired of walking about, I rested there.’
We walked on together, on my way home. I took the liberty of asking her if she had any friends.
‘I thought I had one friend left,’ she said, ‘or you would never have met me in this place. It turns out I was wrong. My friend’s door was closed in my face some hours since; my friend’s servants threatened me with the police. I had nowhere else to go, after trying my luck in your neighborhood; and nothing left but my two-shilling piece and these rags on my back. What respectable innkeeper would take me into his house? I walked about, wondering how I could find my way out of the world without disfiguring myself, and without suffering much pain. You have no river in these parts. I didn’t see my way out of the world, till I heard you ringing at the doctor’s house. I got а glimpse at the bottles in the surgery, when he let you in, and I thought of the laudanum directly. What were you doing there? Who is that medicine for? Your wife?’
‘I am not married!’
She laughed again. ‘Not married! If I was а little better dressed there might be а chance for ME. Where do you live? Here?’
We had arrived, by this time, at my mother’s door. She held out her hand to say good-by. Houseless and homeless as she was, she never asked me to give her а shelter for the night. It was my proposal that she should rest, under my roof, unknown to my mother and my aunt. Our kitchen was built out at the back of the cottage: she might remain there unseen and unheard until the household was astir in the morning. I led her into the kitchen, and set а chair for her by the dying embers of the fire. I dare say I was to blame – shamefully to blame, if you like. I only wonder what you would have done in my place. On your word of honor as а man, would you have let that beautiful creature wander back to the shelter of the stone quarry like а stray dog? God help the woman who is foolish enough to trust and love you, if you would have done that!
I left her by the fire, and went to my mother’s room.
If you have ever felt the heartache, you will know what I suffered in secret when my mother took my hand, and said, ‘I am sorry, Francis, that your night’s rest has been disturbed through me.’ I gave her the medicine; and I waited by her till the pains abated. My aunt Chance went back to her bed; and my mother and I were left alone. I noticed that her writing-desk, moved from its customary place, was on the bed by her side. She saw me looking at it. ‘This is your birthday, Francis,’ she said. ‘Have you anything to tell me?’ I had so completely forgotten my Dream, that I had no notion of what was passing in her mind when she said those words. For а moment there was а guilty fear in me that she suspected something. I turned away my face, and said, ‘No, mother; I have nothing to tell.’ She signed to me to stoop down over the pillow and kiss her. ‘God bless you, my love!’ she said; ‘and many happy returns of the day.’ She patted my hand, and closed her weary eyes, and, little by little, fell off peaceably into sleep.
I stole downstairs again. I think the good influence of my mother must have followed me down. At any rate, this is true: I stopped with my hand on the closed kitchen door, and said to myself: ‘Suppose I leave the house, and leave the village, without seeing her or speaking to her more?’
Should I really have fled from temptation in this way, if I had been left to myself to decide? Who can tell? As things were, I was not left to decide. While my doubt was in my mind, she heard me, and opened the kitchen door. My eyes and her eyes met. That ended it.
We were together, unsuspected and undisturbed, for the next two hours. Time enough for her to reveal the secret of her wasted life. Time enough for her to take possession of me as her own, to do with me as she liked. It is needless to dwell here on the misfortunes which had brought her low; they are misfortunes too common to interest anybody.
Her name was Alicia Warlock. She had been born and bred а lady. She had lost her station, her character, and her friends. Virtue shuddered at the sight of her; and Vice had got her for the rest of her days. Shocking and common, as I told you. It made no difference to me. I have said it already – I say it again – I was а man bewitched. Is there anything so very wonderful in that? Just remember who I was. Among the honest women in my own station in life, where could I have found the like of her? Could they walk as she walked? and look as she looked? When they gave me а kiss, did their lips linger over it as hers did? Had they her skin, her laugh, her foot, her hand, her touch? She never had а speck of dirt on her: I tell you her flesh was а perfume. When she embraced me, her arms folded round me like the wings of angels; and her smile covered me softly with its light like the sun in heaven. I leave you to laugh at me, or to cry over me, just as your temper may incline. I am not trying to excuse myself – I am trying to explain. You are gentle-folks; what dazzled and maddened me, is everyday experience to you. Fallen or not, angel or devil, it came to this – she was а lady; and I was а groom.
Before the house was astir, I got her away (by the workmen’s train) to а large manufacturing town in our parts.
Here – with my savings in money to help her – she could get her outfit of decent clothes and her lodging among strangers who asked no questions so long as they were paid. Here – now on one pretense and now on another – I could visit her, and we could both plan together what our future lives were to be. I need not tell you that I stood pledged to make her my wife. А man in my station always marries а woman of her sort.
Do you wonder if I was happy at this time? I should have been perfectly happy but for one little drawback. It was this: I was never quite at my ease in the presence of my promised wife.
I don’t mean that I was shy with her, or suspicious of her, or ashamed of her. The uneasiness I am speaking of was caused by а faint doubt in my mind whether I had not seen her somewhere, before the morning when we met at the doctor’s house. Over and over again, I found myself wondering whether her face did not remind me of some other face – what other I never could tell. This strange feeling, this one question that could never be answered, vexed me to а degree that you would hardly credit. It came between us at the strangest times – oftenest, however, at night, when the candles were lit. You have known what it is to try and remember а forgotten name – and to fail, search as you may, to find it in your mind. That was my case. I failed to find my lost face, just as you failed to find your lost name.
In three weeks we had talked matters over, and had arranged how I was to make а clean breast of it at home. By Alicia’s advice, I was to describe her as having been one of my fellow servants during the time I was employed under my kind master and mistress in London. There was no fear now of my mother taking any harm from the shock of а great surprise. Her health had improved during the three weeks’ interval. On the first evening when she was able to take her old place at tea time, I summoned my courage, and told her I was going to be married. The poor soul flung her arms round my neck, and burst out crying for joy. ‘Oh, Francis!’ she says, ‘I am so glad you will have somebody to comfort you and care for you when I am gone!’ As for my aunt Chance, you can anticipate what she did, without being told. Ah, me! If there had really been any prophetic virtue in the cards, what а terrible warning they might have given us that night! It was arranged that I was to bring my promised wife to dinner at the cottage on the next day.
I own I was proud of Alicia when I led her into our little parlor at the appointed time. She had never, to my mind, looked so beautiful as she looked that day. I never noticed any other woman’s dress – I noticed hers as carefully as if I had been а woman myself! She wore а black silk gown, with plain collar and cuffs, and а modest lavender-colored bonnet, with one white rose in it placed at the side. My mother, dressed in her Sunday best, rose up, all in а flutter, to welcome her daughter-in-law that was to be. She walked forward а few steps, half smiling, half in tears – she looked Alicia full in the face – and suddenly stood still. Her cheeks turned white in an instant; her eyes stared in horror; her hands dropped helplessly at her sides. She staggered back, and fell into the arms of my aunt, standing behind her. It was no swoon – she kept her senses. Her eyes turned slowly from Alicia to me. ‘Francis,’ she said, ‘does that woman’s face remind you of nothing?’
Before I could answer, she pointed to her writing-desk on the table at the fireside. ‘Bring it!’ she cried, ‘bring it!’.
At the same moment I felt Alicia’s hand on my shoulder, and saw Alicia’s face red with anger – and no wonder!
‘What does this mean?’ she asked. ‘Does your mother want to insult me?’
I said а few words to quiet her; what they were I don’t remember – I was so confused and astonished at the time. Before I had done, I heard my mother behind me.
My aunt had fetched her desk. She had opened it; she had taken а paper from it. Step by step, helping herself along by the wall, she came nearer and nearer, with the paper in her hand. She looked at the paper – she looked in Alicia’s face – she lifted the long, loose sleeve of her gown, and examined her hand and arm. I saw fear suddenly take the place of anger in Alicia’s eyes. She shook herself free of my mother’s grasp. ‘Mad!’ she said to herself, ‘and Francis never told me!’ With those words she ran out of the room.
I was hastening out after her, when my mother signed to me to stop. She read the words written on the paper. While they fell slowly, one by one, from her lips, she pointed toward the open door.
‘Light gray eyes, with а droop in the left eyelid. Flaxen hair, with а gold-yellow streak in it. White arms, with а down upon them. Little, lady’s hand, with а rosy-red look about the finger nails. The Dream Woman, Francis! The Dream Woman!’
Something darkened the parlor window as those words were spoken. I looked sidelong at the shadow. Alicia Warlock had come back! She was peering in at us over the low window blind. There was the fatal face which had first looked at me in the bedroom of the lonely inn. There, resting on the window blind, was the lovely little hand which had held the murderous knife. I had seen her before we met in the village. The Dream Woman! The Dream Woman!
I expect nobody to approve of what I have next to tell of myself. In three weeks from the day when my mother had identified her with the Woman of the Dream, I took Alicia Warlock to church, and made her my wife. I was а man bewitched. Again and again I say it – I was а man bewitched!
During the interval before my marriage, our little household at the cottage was broken up. My mother and my aunt quarreled. My mother, believing in the Dream, entreated me to break off my engagement. My aunt, believing in the cards, urged me to marry.
This difference of opinion produced а dispute between them, in the course of which my aunt Chance – quite unconscious of having any superstitious feelings of her own – actually set out the cards which prophesied happiness to me in my married life, and asked my mother how anybody but ‘A blinded heathen could be fule enough, after seeing those cairds, to believe in а dream!’ This was, naturally, too much for my mother’s patience; hard words followed on either side; Mrs. Chance returned in dudgeon to her friends in Scotland. She left me а written statement of my future prospects, as revealed by the cards, and with it an address at which а post-office order would reach her. ‘The day was not that far off,’ she remarked, ‘when Francie might remember what he owed to his aunt Chance, maintaining her ain unbleemished widowhood on thratty punds а year.’
Having refused to give her sanction to my marriage, my mother also refused to be present at the wedding, or to visit Alicia afterwards. There was no anger at the bottom of this conduct on her part. Believing as she did in this Dream, she was simply in mortal fear of my wife. I understood this, and I made allowances for her. Not а cross word passed between us. My one happy remembrance now – though I did disobey her in the matter of my marriage – is this: I loved and respected my good mother to the last.
As for my wife, she expressed no regret at the estrangement between her mother-in-law and herself. By common consent, we never spoke on that subject. We settled in the manufacturing town which I have already mentioned, and we kept а lodging-house. My kind master, at my request, granted me а lump sum in place of my annuity. This put us into а good house, decently furnished. For а while things went well enough. I may describe myself at this time of my life as а happy man.
My misfortunes began with а return of the complaint with which my mother had already suffered. The doctor confessed, when I asked him the question, that there was danger to be dreaded this time. Naturally, after hearing this, I was а good deal away at the cottage. Naturally also, I left the business of looking after the house, in my absence, to my wife. Little by little, I found her beginning to alter toward me. While my back was turned, she formed acquaintances with people of the doubtful and dissipated sort. One day, I observed something in her manner which forced the suspicion on me that she had been drinking. Before the week was out, my suspicion was а certainty. From keeping company with drunkards, she had grown to be а drunkard herself.
I did all а man could do to reclaim her. Quite useless! She had never really returned the love I felt for her: I had no influence; I could do nothing. My mother, hearing of this last worse trouble, resolved to try what her influence could do. Ill as she was, I found her one day dressed to go out.
‘I am not long for this world, Francis,’ she said. ‘I shall not feel easy on my deathbed, unless I have done my best to the last to make you happy. I mean to put my own fears and my own feelings out of the question, and go with you to your wife, and try what I can do to reclaim her. Take me home with you, Francis. Let me do all I can to help my son, before it is too late.’
How could I disobey her? We took the railway to the town: it was only half an hour’s ride. By one o’clock in the afternoon we reached my house. It was our dinner hour, and Alicia was in the kitchen. I was able to take my mother quietly into the parlor and then to prepare my wife for the visit. She had drunk but little at that early hour; and, luckily, the devil in her was tamed for the time.
She followed me into the parlor, and the meeting passed off better than I had ventured to forecast; with this one drawback, that my mother – though she tried hard to control herself – shrank from looking my wife in the face when she spoke to her. It was а relief to me when Alicia began to prepare the table for dinner.
She laid the cloth, brought in the bread tray, and cut some slices for us from the loaf. Then she returned to the kitchen. At that moment, while I was still anxiously watching my mother, I was startled by seeing the same ghastly change pass over her face which had altered it in the morning when Alicia and she first met. Before I could say а word, she started up with а look of horror.
‘Take me back! – home, home again, Francis! Come with me, and never go back more!’
I was afraid to ask for an explanation; I could only sign her to be silent, and help her quickly to the door. As we passed the bread tray on the table, she stopped and pointed to it.
‘Did you see what your wife cut your bread with?’ she asked.
‘No, mother; I was not noticing. What was it?’
I did look. А new clasp knife, with а buckhorn handle, lay with the loaf in the bread tray. I stretched out my hand to possess myself of it. At the same moment, there was а noise in the kitchen, and my mother caught me by the arm.
‘The knife of the Dream! Francis, I’m faint with fear – take me away before she comes back!’
I couldn’t speak to comfort or even to answer her. Superior as I was to superstition, the discovery of the knife staggered me. In silence, I helped my mother out of the house; and took her home.
I held out my hand to say good-by. She tried to stop me.
‘Don’t go back, Francis! don’t go back!’.
‘I must get the knife, mother. I must go back by the next train.’ I held to that resolution. By the next train I went back.
My wife had, of course, discovered our secret departure from the house. She had been drinking. She was in а fury of passion. The dinner in the kitchen was flung under the grate; the cloth was off the parlor table. Where was the knife?
I was foolish enough to ask for it. She refused to give it to me. In the course of the dispute between us which followed, I discovered that there was а horrible story attached to the knife. It had been used in а murder – years since – and had been so skillfully hidden that the authorities had been unable to produce it at the trial. By help of some of her disreputable friends, my wife had been able to purchase this relic of а bygone crime. Her perverted nature set some horrid unacknowledged value on the knife. Seeing there was no hope of getting it by fair means, I determined to search for it, later in the day, in secret. The search was unsuccessful. Night came on, and I left the house to walk about the streets. You will understand what а broken man I was by this time, when I tell you I was afraid to sleep in the same room with her!
Three weeks passed. Still she refused to give up the knife; and still that fear of sleeping in the same room with her possessed me. I walked about at night, or dozed in the parlor, or sat watching by my mother’s bedside. Before the end of the first week in the new month, the worst misfortune of all befell me – my mother died. It wanted then but а short time to my birthday. She had longed to live till that day. I was present at her death. Her last words in this world were addressed to me. ‘Don’t go back, my son – don’t go back!’
I was obliged to go back, if it was only to watch my wife. In the last days of my mother’s illness she had spitefully added а sting to my grief by declaring she would assert her right to attend the funeral. In spite of all that I could do or say, she held to her word. On the day appointed for the burial she forced herself, inflamed and shameless with drink, into my presence, and swore she would walk in the funeral procession to my mother’s grave.
This last insult – after all I had gone through already – was more than I could endure. It maddened me. Try to make allowances for а man beside himself. I struck her.
The instant the blow was dealt, I repented it. She crouched down, silent, in а corner of the room, and eyed me steadily. It was а look that cooled my hot blood in an instant. There was no time now to think of making atonement. I could only risk the worst, and make sure of her till the funeral was over. I locked her into her bedroom.
When I came back, after laying my mother in the grave, I found her sitting by the bedside, very much altered in look and bearing, with а bundle on her lap. She faced me quietly; she spoke with а curious stillness in her voice – strangely and unnaturally composed in look and manner.
‘No man has ever struck me yet,’ she said. ‘My husband shall have no second opportunity. Set the door open, and let me go.’
She passed me, and left the room. I saw her walk away up the street. Was she gone for good?
All that night I watched and waited. No footstep came near the house. The next night, overcome with fatigue, I lay down on the bed in my clothes, with the door locked, the key on the table, and the candle burning. My slumber was not disturbed. The third night, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, passed, and nothing happened. I lay down on the seventh night, still suspicious of something happening; still in my clothes; still with the door locked, the key on the table, and the candle burning.
My rest was disturbed. I awoke twice, without any sensation of uneasiness. The third time, that horrid shivering of the night at the lonely inn, that awful sinking pain at the heart, came back again, and roused me in an instant. My eyes turned to the left-hand side of the bed. And there stood, looking at me –
The Dream Woman again? No! My wife. The living woman, with the face of the Dream – in the attitude of the Dream – the fair arm up; the knife clasped in the delicate white hand.
I sprang upon her on the instant; but not quickly enough to stop her from hiding the knife. Without а word from me, without а cry from her, I pinioned her in а chair. With one hand I felt up her sleeve; and there, where the Dream Woman had hidden the knife, my wife had hidden it – the knife with the buckhorn handle, that looked like new.
What I felt when I made that discovery I could not realize at the time, and I can’t describe now. I took one steady look at her with the knife in my hand. ‘You meant to kill me?’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she answered; ‘I meant to kill you.’ She crossed her arms over her bosom, and stared me coolly in the face. ‘I shall do it yet,’ she said. ‘With that knife.’
I don’t know what possessed me – I swear to you I am no coward; and yet I acted like а coward. The horrors got hold of me. I couldn’t look at her – I couldn’t speak to her. I left her (with the knife in my hand), and went out into the night.
There was а bleak wind abroad, and the smell of rain was in the air. The church clocks chimed the quarter as I walked beyond the last house in the town. I asked the first policeman I met what hour that was, of which the quarter past had just struck.
The man looked at his watch, and answered, ‘Two o’clock.’ Two in the morning. What day of the month was this day that had just begun? I reckoned it up from the date of my mother’s funeral. The horrid parallel between the dream and the reality was complete – it was my birthday!
Had I escaped, the mortal peril which the dream foretold? or had I only received а second warning? As that doubt crossed my mind I stopped on my way out of the town. The air had revived me – I felt in some degree like my own self again. After а little thinking, I began to see plainly the mistake I had made in leaving my wife free to go where she liked and to do as she pleased.
I turned instantly, and made my way back to the house. It was still dark. I had left the candle burning in the bedchamber. When I looked up to the window of the room now, there was no light in it. I advanced to the house door. On going away, I remembered to have closed it; on trying it now, I found it open.
I waited outside, never losing sight of the house till daylight. Then I ventured indoors – listened, and heard nothing – looked into the kitchen, scullery, parlor, and found nothing – went up at last into the bedroom. It was empty.
A picklock lay on the floor, which told me how she had gained entrance in the night. And that was the one trace I could find of the Dream Woman.
I waited in the house till the town was astir for the day, and then I went to consult а lawyer. In the confused state of my mind at the time, I had one clear notion of what I meant to do: I was determined to sell my house and leave the neighborhood. There were obstacles in the way which I had not counted on. I was told I had creditors to satisfy before I could leave – I, who had given my wife the money to pay my bills regularly every week! Inquiry showed that she had embezzled every farthing of the money I had entrusted to her. I had no choice but to pay over again.
Placed in this awkward position, my first duty was to set things right, with the help of my lawyer. During my forced sojourn in the town I did two foolish things. And, as а consequence that followed, I heard once more, and heard for the last time, of my wife.
In the first place, having got possession of the knife, I was rash enough to keep it in my pocket. In the second place, having something of importance to say to my lawyer, at а late hour of the evening, I went to his house after dark – alone and on foot. I got there safely enough. Returning, I was seized on from behind by two men, dragged down а passage and robbed – not only of the little money I had about me, but also of the knife. It was the lawyer’s opinion (as it was mine) that the thieves were among the disreputable acquaintances formed by my wife, and that they had attacked me at her instigation. To confirm this view I received а letter the next day, without date or address, written in Alicia’s hand. The first line informed me that the knife was back again in her possession. The second line reminded me of the day when I struck her. The third line warned me that she would wash out the stain of that blow in my blood, and repeated the words, ‘I shall do it with the knife!’
These things happened а year ago. The law laid hands on the men who had robbed me; but from that time to this, the law has failed completely to find а trace of my wife.
My story is told. When I had paid the creditors and paid the legal expenses, I had barely five pounds left out of the sale of my house; and I had the world to begin over again. Some months since – drifting here and there – I found my way to Underbridge. The landlord of the inn had known something of my father’s family in times past. He gave me (all he had to give) my food, and shelter in the yard. Except on market days, there is nothing to do. In the coming winter the inn is to be shut up, and I shall have to shift for myself. My old master would help me if I applied to him – but I don’t like to apply: he has done more for me already than I deserve. Besides, in another year who knows but my troubles may all be at an end? Next winter will bring me nigh to my next birthday, and my next birthday may be the day of my death. Yes! it’s true I sat up all last night; and I heard two in the morning strike: and nothing happened. Still, allowing for that, the time to come is а time I don’t trust. My wife has got the knife – my wife is looking for me. I am above superstition, mind! I don’t say I believe in dreams; I only say, Alicia Warlock is looking for me. It is possible I may be wrong. It is possible I may be right. Who can tell?
The Third Narrative
The Story Continued by Percy Fairbank
We took leave of Francis Raven at the door of Farleigh Hall, with the understanding that he might expect to hear from us again.
The same night Mrs. Fairbank and I had а discussion in the sanctuary of our own room. The topic was ‘The Hostler’s Story’; and the question in dispute between us turned on the measure of charitable duty that we owed to the hostler himself.
The view I took of the man’s narrative was of the purely matter-of-fact kind. Francis Raven had, in my opinion, brooded over the misty connection between his strange dream and his vile wife, until his mind was in а state of partial delusion on that subject. I was quite willing to help him with а trifle of money, and to recommend him to the kindness of my lawyer, if he was really in any danger and wanted advice. There my idea of my duty toward this afflicted person began and ended.
Confronted with this sensible view of the matter, Mrs. Fairbank’s romantic temperament rushed, as usual, into extremes. ‘I should no more think of losing sight of Francis Raven when his next birthday comes round,’ says my wife, ‘than I should think of laying down а good story with the last chapters unread. I am positively determined, Percy, to take him back with us when we return to France, in the capacity of groom. What does one man more or less among the horses matter to people as rich as we are?’ In this strain the partner of my joys and sorrows ran on, perfectly impenetrable to everything that I could say on the side of common sense. Need I tell my married brethren how it ended? Of course I allowed my wife to irritate me, and spoke to her sharply.
Of course my wife turned her face away indignantly on the conjugal pillow, and burst into tears. Of course upon that, ‘Mr.’ made his excuses, and ‘Mrs.’ had her own way.
Before the week was out we rode over to Underbridge, and duly offered to Francis Raven а place in our service as supernumerary groom.
At first the poor fellow seemed hardly able to realize his own extraordinary good fortune. Recovering himself, he expressed his gratitude modestly and becomingly. Mrs. Fairbank’s ready sympathies overflowed, as usual, at her lips. She talked to him about our home in France, as if the worn, gray-headed hostler had been а child. ‘Such а dear old house, Francis; and such pretty gardens! Stables! Stables ten times as big as your stables here – quite а choice of rooms for you. You must learn the name of our house – Maison Rouge. Our nearest town is Metz. We are within а walk of the beautiful River Moselle. And when we want а change we have only to take the railway to the frontier, and find ourselves in Germany.’
Listening, so far, with а very bewildered face, Francis started and changed color when my wife reached the end of her last sentence. ‘Germany?’ he repeated.
‘Yes. Does Germany remind you of anything?’
The hostler’s eyes looked down sadly on the ground. ‘Germany reminds me of my wife,’ he replied.
‘She once told me she had lived in Germany – long before I knew her – in the time when she was а young girl.’
‘Was she living with relations or friends?’
‘She was living as governess in а foreign family.’
‘In what part of Germany?’
‘I don’t remember, ma’am. I doubt if she told me.’
‘Did she tell you the name of the family?’
‘Yes, ma’am. It was а foreign name, and it has slipped my memory long since. The head of the family was а wine grower in а large way of business – I remember that.’
‘Did you hear what sort of wine he grew? There are wine growers in our neighborhood. Was it Moselle wine?’
‘I couldn’t say, ma’am, I doubt if I ever heard.’
There the conversation dropped. We engaged to communicate with Francis Raven before we left England, and took our leave. I had made arrangements to pay our round of visits to English friends, and to return to Maison Rouge in the summer. On the eve of departure, certain difficulties in connection with the management of some landed property of mine in Ireland obliged us to alter our plans. Instead of getting back to our house in France in the Summer, we only returned а week or two before Christmas. Francis Raven accompanied us, and was duly established, in the nominal capacity of stable keeper, among the servants at Maison Rouge.
Before long, some of the objections to taking him into our employment, which I had foreseen and had vainly mentioned to my wife, forced themselves on our attention in no very agreeable form. Francis Raven failed (as I had feared he would) to get on smoothly with his fellow-servants. They were all French; and not one of them understood English. Francis, on his side, was equally ignorant of French. His reserved manners, his melancholy temperament, his solitary ways – all told against him. Our servants called him ‘the English Bear.’ He grew widely known in the neighborhood under his nickname. Quarrels took place, ending once or twice in blows. It became plain, even to Mrs. Fairbank herself, that some wise change must be made. While we were still considering what the change was to be, the unfortunate hostler was thrown on our hands for some time to come by an accident in the stables. Still pursued by his proverbial ill-luck, the poor wretch’s leg was broken by а kick from а horse.
He was attended to by our own surgeon, in his comfortable bedroom at the stables. As the date of his birthday drew near, he was still confined to his bed.
Physically speaking, he was doing very well. Morally speaking, the surgeon was not satisfied. Francis Raven was suffering under some mysterious mental disturbance, which interfered seriously with his rest at night. Hearing this, I thought it my duty to tell the medical attendant what was preying on the patient’s mind. As а practical man, he shared my opinion that the hostler was in а state of delusion on the subject of his Wife and his Dream. ‘Curable delusion, in my opinion,’ the surgeon added, ‘if the experiment could be fairly tried.’
‘How can it be tried?’ I asked. Instead of replying, the surgeon put а question to me, on his side.
‘Do you happen to know,’ he said, ‘that this year is Leap Year?’
‘Mrs. Fairbank reminded me of it yesterday,’ I answered. ‘Otherwise I might not have known it.’
‘Do you think Francis Raven knows that this year is Leap Year?’
(I began to see dimly what my friend was driving at.)
‘It depends,’ I answered, ‘on whether he has got an English almanac. Suppose he has not got the almanac – what then?’
‘In that case,’ pursued the surgeon, ‘Francis Raven is innocent of all suspicion that there is а twenty-ninth day in February this year. As а necessary consequence – what will he do? He will anticipate the appearance of the Woman with the Knife, at two in the morning of the twenty-ninth of February, instead of the first of March. Let him suffer all his superstitious terrors on the wrong day. Leave him, on the day that is really his birthday, to pass а perfectly quiet night, and to be as sound asleep as other people at two in the morning. And then, when he wakes comfortably in time for his breakfast, shame him out of his delusion by telling him the truth.’
I agreed to try the experiment. Leaving the surgeon to caution Mrs. Fairbank on the subject of Leap Year, I went to the stables to see Mr. Raven.
The poor fellow was full of forebodings of the fate in store for him on the ominous first of March. He eagerly entreated me to order one of the men servants to sit up with him on the birthday morning. In granting his request, I asked him to tell me on which day of the week his birthday fell. He reckoned the days on his fingers; and proved his innocence of all suspicion that it was Leap Year, by fixing on the twenty-ninth of February, in the full persuasion that it was the first of March. Pledged to try the surgeon’s experiment, I left his error uncorrected, of course. In so doing, I took my first step blindfold toward the last act in the drama of the Hostler’s Dream.
The next day brought with it а little domestic difficulty, which indirectly and strangely associated itself with the coming end.
My wife received а letter, inviting us to assist in celebrating the ‘Silver Wedding’ of two worthy German neighbors of ours – Mr. and Mrs. Beldheimer. Mr. Beldheimer was а large wine grower on the banks of the Moselle. His house was situated on the frontier line of France and Germany; and the distance from our house was sufficiently considerable to make it necessary for us to sleep under our host’s roof. Under these circumstances, if we accepted the invitation, а comparison of dates showed that we should be away from home on the morning of the first of March. Mrs. Fairbank – holding to her absurd resolution to see with her own eyes what might, or might not, happen to Francis Raven on his birthday – flatly declined to leave Maison Rouge. ‘It’s easy to send an excuse,’ she said, in her off-hand manner.
I failed, for my part, to see any easy way out of the difficulty. The celebration of а ‘Silver Wedding’ in Germany is the celebration of twenty-five years of happy married life; and the host’s claim upon the consideration of his friends on such an occasion is something in the nature of а royal ‘command.’ After considerable discussion, finding my wife’s obstinacy invincible, and feeling that the absence of both of us from the festival would certainly offend our friends, I left Mrs. Fairbank to make her excuses for herself, and directed her to accept the invitation so far as I was concerned. In so doing, I took my second step, blindfold, toward the last act in the drama of the Hostler’s Dream.
A week elapsed; the last days of February were at hand. Another domestic difficulty happened; and, again, this event also proved to be strangely associated with the coming end.
My head groom at the stables was one Joseph Rigobert. He was an ill-conditioned fellow, inordinately vain of his personal appearance, and by no means scrupulous in his conduct with women. His one virtue consisted of his fondness for horses, and in the care he took of the animals under his charge. In а word, he was too good а groom to be easily replaced, or he would have quitted my service long since. On the occasion of which I am now writing, he was reported to me by my steward as growing idle and disorderly in his habits. The principal offense alleged against him was, that he had been seen that day in the city of Metz, in the company of а woman (supposed to be an Englishwoman), whom he was entertaining at а tavern, when he ought to have been on his way back to Maison Rouge. The man’s defense was that ‘the lady’ (as he called her) was an English stranger, unacquainted with the ways of the place, and that he had only shown her where she could obtain some refreshments at her own request. I administered the necessary reprimand, without troubling myself to inquire further into the matter. In failing to do this, I took my third step, blindfold, toward the last act in the drama of the Hostler’s Dream.
On the evening of the twenty-eighth, I informed the servants at the stables that one of them must watch through the night by the Englishman’s bedside. Joseph Rigobert immediately volunteered for the duty – as а means, no doubt, of winning his way back to my favor. I accepted his proposal.
That day the surgeon dined with us. Toward midnight he and I left the smoking room, and repaired to Francis Raven’s bedside. Rigobert was at his post, with no very agreeable expression on his face. The Frenchman and the Englishman had evidently not got on well together so far. Francis Raven lay helpless on his bed, waiting silently for two in the morning and the Dream Woman.
‘I have come, Francis, to bid you good night,’ I said, cheerfully. ‘To-morrow morning I shall look in at breakfast time, before I leave home on а journey.’
‘Thank you for all your kindness, sir. You will not see me alive to-morrow morning. She will find me this time. Mark my words – she will find me this time.’
‘My good fellow! she couldn’t find you in England. How in the world is she to find you in France?’
‘It’s borne in on my mind, sir, that she will find me here. At two in the morning on my birthday I shall see her again, and see her for the last time.’
‘Do you mean that she will kill you?’
‘I mean that, sir, she will kill me – with the knife.’
‘And with Rigobert in the room to protect you?’
‘I am а doomed man. Fifty Rigoberts couldn’t protect me.’
‘And you wanted somebody to sit up with you?’
‘Mere weakness, sir. I don’t like to be left alone on my deathbed.’
I looked at the surgeon. If he had encouraged me, I should certainly, out of sheer compassion, have confessed to Francis Raven the trick that we were playing him. The surgeon held to his experiment; the surgeon’s face plainly said – ‘No.’
The next day (the twenty-ninth of February) was the day of the ‘Silver Wedding.’ The first thing in the morning, I went to Francis Raven’s room. Rigobert met me at the door.
‘How has he passed the night?’ I asked.
‘Saying his prayers, and looking for ghosts,’ Rigobert answered. ‘A lunatic asylum is the only proper place for him.’
I approached the bedside. ‘Well, Francis, here you are, safe and sound, in spite of what you said to me last night.’
His eyes rested on mine with а vacant, wondering look.
‘I don’t understand it,’ he said.
‘Did you see anything of your wife when the clock struck two?’
‘Did anything happen?’
‘Nothing happened, sir.’
‘Doesn’t this satisfy you that you were wrong?’
His eyes still kept their vacant, wondering look. He only repeated the words he had spoken already: ‘I don’t understand it.’
I made а last attempt to cheer him. ‘Come, come, Francis! keep а good heart. You will be out of bed in а fortnight.’
He shook his head on the pillow. ‘There’s something wrong,’ he said. ‘I don’t expect you to believe me, sir. I only say there’s something wrong – and time will show it.’
I left the room. Half an hour later I started for Mr. Beldheimer’s house; leaving the arrangements for the morning of the first of March in the hands of the doctor and my wife.
The one thing which principally struck me when I joined the guests at the ‘Silver Wedding’ is also the one thing which it is necessary to mention here. On this joyful occasion а noticeable lady present was out of spirits. That lady was no other than the heroine of the festival, the mistress of the house!
In the course of the evening I spoke to Mr. Beldheimer’s eldest son on the subject of his mother. As an old friend of the family, I had а claim on his confidence which the young man willingly recognized.
‘We have had а very disagreeable matter to deal with,’ he said; ‘and my mother has not recovered the painful impression left on her mind. Many years since, when my sisters were children, we had an English governess in the house. She left us, as we then understood, to be married. We heard no more of her until а week or ten days since, when my mother received а letter, in which our ex-governess described herself as being in а condition of great poverty and distress. After much hesitation she had ventured – at the suggestion of а lady who had been kind to her – to write to her former employers, and to appeal to their remembrance of old times. You know my mother: she is not only the most kind-hearted, but the most innocent of women – it is impossible to persuade her of the wickedness that there is in the world. She replied by return of post, inviting the governess to come here and see her, and inclosing the money for her traveling expenses. When my father came home, and heard what had been done, he wrote at once to his agent in London to make inquiries, inclosing the address on the governess’ letter. Before he could receive the agent’s reply the governess, arrived. She produced the worst possible impression on his mind. The agent’s letter, arriving а few days later, confirmed his suspicions. Since we had lost sight of her, the woman had led а most disreputable life. My father spoke to her privately: he offered – on condition of her leaving the house – а sum of money to take her back to England. If she refused, the alternative would be an appeal to the authorities and а public scandal. She accepted the money, and left the house. On her way back to England she appears to have stopped at Metz. You will understand what sort of woman she is when I tell you that she was seen the other day in а tavern, with your handsome groom, Joseph Rigobert.’
While my informant was relating these circumstances, my memory was at work. I recalled what Francis Raven had vaguely told us of his wife’s experience in former days as governess in а German family. А suspicion of the truth suddenly flashed across my mind. ‘What was the woman’s name?’ I asked.
Mr. Beldheimer’s son answered: ‘Alicia Warlock.’
I had but one idea when I heard that reply – to get back to my house without а moment’s needless delay. It was then ten o’clock at night – the last train to Metz had left long since. I arranged with my young friend – after duly informing him of the circumstances – that I should go by the first train in the morning, instead of staying to breakfast with the other guests who slept in the house.
At intervals during the night I wondered uneasily how things were going on at Maison Rouge. Again and again the same question occurred to me, on my journey home in the early morning – the morning of the first of March. As the event proved, but one person in my house knew what really happened at the stables on Francis Raven’s birthday. Let Joseph Rigobert take my place as narrator, and tell the story of the end to You – as he told it, in times past, to his lawyer and to Me.
The Fourth Narrative
Statement of Joseph Rigobert: Addressed to the Advocate Who Defended Him at His Trial
Respected Sir, – On the twenty-seventh of February I was sent, on business connected with the stables at Maison Rouge, to the city of Metz. On the public promenade I met а magnificent woman. Complexion, blond. Nationality, English. We mutually admired each other; we fell into conversation. (She spoke French perfectly – with the English accent.) I offered refreshment; my proposal was accepted. We had а long and interesting interview – we discovered that we were made for each other. So far, who is to blame?
Is it my fault that I am а handsome man – universally agreeable as such to the fair sex? Is it а criminal offense to be accessible to the amiable weakness of love? I ask again, who is to blame? Clearly, nature. Not the beautiful lady – not my humble self.
To resume. The most hard-hearted person living will understand that two beings made for each other could not possibly part without an appointment to meet again.
I made arrangements for the accommodation of the lady in the village near Maison Rouge. She consented to honor me with her company at supper, in my apartment at the stables, on the night of the twenty-ninth. The time fixed on was the time when the other servants were accustomed to retire – eleven o’clock.
Among the grooms attached to the stables was an Englishman, laid up with а broken leg. His name was Francis. His manners were repulsive; he was ignorant of the French language. In the kitchen he went by the nickname of the ‘English Bear.’ Strange to say, he was а great favorite with my master and my mistress. They even humored certain superstitious terrors to which this repulsive person was subject – terrors into the nature of which I, as an advanced freethinker, never thought it worth my while to inquire.
On the evening of the twenty-eighth the Englishman, being а prey to the terrors which I have mentioned, requested that one of his fellow servants might sit up with him for that night only. The wish that he expressed was backed by Mr. Fairbank’s authority. Having already incurred my master’s displeasure – in what way, а proper sense of my own dignity forbids me to relate – I volunteered to watch by the bedside of the English Bear. My object was to satisfy Mr. Fairbank that I bore no malice, on my side, after what had occurred between us. The wretched Englishman passed а night of delirium. Not understanding his barbarous language, I could only gather from his gesture that he was in deadly fear of some fancied apparition at his bedside. From time to time, when this madman disturbed my slumbers, I quieted him by swearing at him. This is the shortest and best way of dealing with persons in his condition.
On the morning of the twenty-ninth, Mr. Fairbank left us on а journey. Later in the day, to my unspeakable disgust, I found that I had not done with the Englishman yet. In Mr. Fairbank’s absence, Mrs. Fairbank took an incomprehensible interest in the question of my delirious fellow servant’s repose at night. Again, one or the other of us was to watch at his bedside, and report it, if anything happened. Expecting my fair friend to supper, it was necessary to make sure that the other servants at the stables would be safe in their beds that night. Accordingly, I volunteered once more to be the man who kept watch. Mrs. Fairbank complimented me on my humanity. I possess great command over my feelings. I accepted the compliment without а blush.
Twice, after nightfall, my mistress and the doctor (the last staying in the house in Mr. Fairbank’s absence) came to make inquiries. Once before the arrival of my fair friend – and once after. On the second occasion (my apartment being next door to the Englishman’s) I was obliged to hide my charming guest in the harness room. She consented, with angelic resignation, to immolate her dignity to the servile necessities of my position. А more amiable woman (so far) I never met with!
After the second visit I was left free. It was then close on midnight. Up to that time there was nothing in the behavior of the mad Englishman to reward Mrs. Fairbank and the doctor for presenting themselves at his bedside. He lay half awake, half asleep, with an odd wondering kind of look in his face. My mistress at parting warned me to be particularly watchful of him toward two in the morning. The doctor (in case anything happened) left me а large hand bell to ring, which could easily be heard at the house.
Restored to the society of my fair friend, I spread the supper table. А pâté, а sausage, and а few bottles of generous Moselle wine, composed our simple meal. When persons adore each other, the intoxicating illusion of Love transforms the simplest meal into а banquet. With immeasurable capacities for enjoyment, we sat down to table. At the very moment when I placed my fascinating companion in а chair, the infamous Englishman in the next room took that occasion, of all others, to become restless and noisy once more. He struck with his stick on the floor; he cried out, in а delirious access of terror, ‘Rigobert! Rigobert!’
The sound of that lamentable voice, suddenly assailing our ears, terrified my fair friend. She lost all her charming color in an instant. ‘Good heavens!’ she exclaimed. ‘Who is that in the next room?’
‘A mad Englishman.’
‘Compose yourself, my angel. I will quiet him.’
The lamentable voice called out on me again, ‘Rigobert! Rigobert!’
My fair friend caught me by the arm. ‘Who is he?’ she cried. ‘What is his name?’
Something in her face struck me as she put that question. А spasm of jealousy shook me to the soul. ‘You know him?’ I said.
‘His name!’ she vehemently repeated; ‘his name!’
‘Francis,’ I answered.
‘Francis – what?’
I shrugged my shoulders. I could neither remember nor pronounce the barbarous English surname. I could only tell her it began with an ‘R.’
She dropped back into the chair. Was she going to faint? No: she recovered, and more than recovered, her lost color. Her eyes flashed superbly. What did it mean? Profoundly as I understand women in general, I was puzzled by this woman!
‘You know him?’ I repeated.
She laughed at me. ‘What nonsense! How should I know him? Go and quiet the wretch.’
My looking-glass was near. One glance at it satisfied me that no woman in her senses could prefer the Englishman to Me. I recovered my self-respect. I hastened to the Englishman’s bedside.
The moment I appeared he pointed eagerly toward my room. He overwhelmed me with а torrent of words in his own language. I made out, from his gestures and his looks, that he had, in some incomprehensible manner, discovered the presence of my guest; and, stranger still, that he was scared by the idea of а person in my room. I endeavored to compose him on the system which I have already mentioned – that is to say, I swore at him in my language. The result not proving satisfactory, I own I shook my fist in his face, and left the bedchamber.
Returning to my fair friend, I found her walking backward and forward in а state of excitement wonderful to behold. She had not waited for me to fill her glass – she had begun the generous Moselle in my absence. I prevailed on her with difficulty to place herself at the table. Nothing would induce her to eat. ‘My appetite is gone,’ she said. ‘Give me wine.’
The generous Moselle deserves its name – delicate on the palate, with prodigious ‘body.’ The strength of this fine wine produced no stupefying effect on my remarkable guest. It appeared to strengthen and exhilarate her – nothing more. She always spoke in the same low tone, and always, turn the conversation as I might, brought it back with the same dexterity to the subject of the Englishman in the next room. In any other woman this persistency would have offended me. My lovely guest was irresistible; I answered her questions with the docility of а child. She possessed all the amusing eccentricity of her nation. When I told her of the accident which confined the Englishman to his bed, she sprang to her feet. An extraordinary smile irradiated her countenance. She said, ‘Show me the horse who broke the Englishman’s leg! I must see that horse!’ I took her to the stables. She kissed the horse – on my word of honor, she kissed the horse! That struck me. I said. ‘You do know the man; and he has wronged you in some way.’ No! she would not admit it, even then. ‘I kiss all beautiful animals,’ she said. ‘Haven’t I kissed you?’ With that charming explanation of her conduct, she ran back up the stairs. I only remained behind to lock the stable door again. When I rejoined her, I made а startling discovery. I caught her coming out of the Englishman’s room.
‘I was just going downstairs again to call you,’ she said. ‘The man in there is getting noisy once more.’
The mad Englishman’s voice assailed our ears once again. ‘Rigobert! Rigobert!’
He was а frightful object to look at when I saw him this time. His eyes were staring wildly; the perspiration was pouring over his face. In а panic of terror he clasped his hands; he pointed up to heaven. By every sign and gesture that а man can make, he entreated me not to leave him again. I really could not help smiling. The idea of my staying with him, and leaving my fair friend by herself in the next room!
I turned to the door. When the mad wretch saw me leaving him he burst out into а screech of despair – so shrill that I feared it might awaken the sleeping servants.
My presence of mind in emergencies is proverbial among those who know me. I tore open the cupboard in which he kept his linen – seized а handful of his handkerchiefs – gagged him with one of them, and secured his hands with the others. There was now no danger of his alarming the servants. After tying the last knot, I looked up.
The door between the Englishman’s room and mine was open. My fair friend was standing on the threshold – watching him as he lay helpless on the bed; watching me as I tied the last knot.
‘What are you doing there?’ I asked. ‘Why did you open the door?’
She stepped up to me, and whispered her answer in my ear, with her eyes all the time upon the man on the bed:
‘I heard him scream.’
‘I thought you had killed him.’
I drew back from her in horror. The suspicion of me which her words implied was sufficiently detestable in itself. But her manner when she uttered the words was more revolting still. It so powerfully affected me that I started back from that beautiful creature as I might have recoiled from а reptile crawling over my flesh.
Before I had recovered myself sufficiently to reply, my nerves were assailed by another shock. I suddenly heard my mistress’s voice calling to me from the stable yard.
There was no time to think – there was only time to act. The one thing needed was to keep Mrs. Fairbank from ascending the stairs, and discovering – not my lady guest only – but the Englishman also, gagged and bound on his bed. I instantly hurried to the yard. As I ran down the stairs I heard the stable clock strike the quarter to two in the morning.
My mistress was eager and agitated. The doctor (in attendance on her) was smiling to himself, like а man amused at his own thoughts.
‘Is Francis awake or asleep?’ Mrs. Fairbank inquired.
‘He has been а little restless, madam. But he is now quiet again. If he is not disturbed’ (I added those words to prevent her from ascending the stairs), ‘he will soon fall off into а quiet sleep.’
‘Has nothing happened since I was here last?’
The doctor lifted his eyebrows with а comical look of distress. ‘Alas, alas, Mrs. Fairbank!’ he said. ‘Nothing has happened! The days of romance are over!’
‘It is not two o’clock yet,’ my mistress answered, а little irritably.
The smell of the stables was strong on the morning air. She put her handkerchief to her nose and led the way out of the yard by the north entrance – the entrance communicating with the gardens and the house. I was ordered to follow her, along with the doctor. Once out of the smell of the stables she began to question me again. She was unwilling to believe that nothing had occurred in her absence. I invented the best answers I could think of on the spur of the moment; and the doctor stood by laughing. So the minutes passed till the clock struck two. Upon that, Mrs. Fairbank announced her intention of personally visiting the Englishman in his room. To my great relief, the doctor interfered to stop her from doing this.
‘You have heard that Francis is just falling asleep,’ he said. ‘If you enter his room you may disturb him. It is essential to the success of my experiment that he should have а good night’s rest, and that he should own it himself, before I tell him the truth. I must request, madam, that you will not disturb the man. Rigobert will ring the alarm bell if anything happens.’
My mistress was unwilling to yield. For the next five minutes, at least, there was а warm discussion between the two. In the end Mrs. Fairbank was obliged to give way – for the time. ‘In half an hour,’ she said, ‘Francis will either be sound asleep, or awake again. In half an hour I shall come back.’ She took the doctor’s arm. They returned together to the house.
Left by myself, with half an hour before me, I resolved to take the Englishwoman back to the village – then, returning to the stables, to remove the gag and the bindings from Francis, and to let him screech to his heart’s content. What would his alarming the whole establishment matter to me after I had got rid of the compromising presence of my guest?
Returning to the yard I heard а sound like the creaking of an open door on its hinges. The gate of the north entrance I had just closed with my own hand. I went round to the west entrance, at the back of the stables. It opened on а field crossed by two footpaths in Mr. Fairbank’s grounds. The nearest footpath led to the village. The other led to the highroad and the river.
Arriving at the west entrance I found the door open – swinging to and fro slowly in the fresh morning breeze. I had myself locked and bolted that door after admitting my fair friend at eleven o’clock. А vague dread of something wrong stole its way into my mind. I hurried back to the stables.
I looked into my own room. It was empty. I went to the harness room. Not а sign of the woman was there. I returned to my room, and approached the door of the Englishman’s bedchamber. Was it possible that she had remained there during my absence? An unaccountable reluctance to open the door made me hesitate, with my hand on the lock. I listened. There was not а sound inside. I called softly. There was no answer. I drew back а step, still hesitating. I noticed something dark moving slowly in the crevice between the bottom of the door and the boarded floor. Snatching up the candle from the table, I held it low, and looked. The dark, slowly moving object was а stream of blood!
That horrid sight roused me. I opened the door. The Englishman lay on his bed – alone in the room. He was stabbed in two places – in the throat and in the heart. The weapon was left in the second wound. It was а knife of English manufacture, with а handle of buckhorn as good as new.
I instantly gave the alarm. Witnesses can speak to what followed. It is monstrous to suppose that I am guilty of the murder. I admit that I am capable of committing follies: but I shrink from the bare idea of а crime. Besides, I had no motive for killing the man. The woman murdered him in my absence. The woman escaped by the west entrance while I was talking to my mistress. I have no more to say. I swear to you what I have here written is а true statement of all that happened on the morning of the first of March.
Accept, sir, the assurance of my sentiments of profound gratitude and respect.
Last Lines – Added by Percy Fairbank
Tried for the murder of Francis Raven, Joseph Rigobert was found Not Guilty; the papers of the assassinated man presented ample evidence of the deadly animosity felt toward him by his wife.
The investigations pursued on the morning when the crime was committed showed that the murderess, after leaving the stable, had taken the footpath which led to the river. The river was dragged – without result. It remains doubtful to this day whether she died by drowning or not. The one thing certain is – that Alicia Warlock was never seen again.
So – beginning in mystery, ending in mystery – the Dream Woman passes from your view. Ghost; demon; or living human creature – say for yourselves which she is. Or, knowing what unfathomed wonders are around you, what unfathomed wonders are in you, let the wise words of the greatest of all poets be explanation enough:
‘We are such stuff
As dreams are made of, and our little life
Is rounded with, a sleep.’
Heart of Darkness
The Nellie, а cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without а 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 а 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. А 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 а 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 а pilot, which to а 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 а 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, а yellow complexion, а 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 а 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 а serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without а speck, was а benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marsh was like а 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 а 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 а crowd of men.
Forthwith а 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 а waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth. We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of а short day that comes and departs for ever, but in the august light of abiding memories. And indeed nothing is easier for а 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 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 а 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, а three-legged thing erect on а mud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway – а 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, а brooding gloom in sunshine, а 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 а seaman, but he was а wanderer, too, while most seamen lead, if one may so express it, а 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 surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by а sense of mystery but by а slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to а 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, а casual stroll or а casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of а whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing. The yarns of seamen have а direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of а 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 а kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as а glow brings out а 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 – ‘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 а running blaze on а plain, like а 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 а commander of а fine – what d’ye call ’em? – trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in а hurry; put in charge of one of these craft the legionaries – а wonderful lot of handy men they must have been, too – used to build, apparently by the hundred, in а month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine him here – the very end of the world, а sea the colour of lead, а sky the colour of smoke, а kind of ship about as rigid as а 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 а civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there а military camp lost in а wilderness, like а needle in а bundle of hay – cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death – death skulking 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 а 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 а decent young citizen in а 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 а 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 а 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 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 а Buddha preaching in European clothes and without а 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 а 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 а great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have а different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not а pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not а sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer а sacrifice to. . . .’
He broke off. Flames glided in the river, small green flames, red flames, white flames, pursuing, overtaking, 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 а long silence, when he said, in а hesitating voice, ‘I suppose you fellows remember I did once turn fresh-water sailor for а 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 chap. It was the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw а 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 а kind of light.
‘I had then, as you remember, just returned to London after а lot of Indian Ocean, Pacific, China Seas – а 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 а heavenly mission to civilize you. It was very fine for а time, but after а bit I did get tired of resting. Then I began to look for а 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 а little chap I had а 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 а 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 – the biggest, the most blank, so to speak – that I had а hankering after.
‘True, by this time it was not а blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be а blank space of delightful mystery – а white patch for а boy to dream gloriously over. It had become а place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, а 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 а vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in а shop-window, it fascinated me as а snake would а bird – а silly little bird. Then I remembered there was а big concern, а 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 me.
‘You understand it was а Continental concern, that Trading society; but I have а 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 а 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 а 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 а job. Heavens! Well, you see, the notion drove me. I had an aunt, а dear enthusiastic soul. She wrote: “It will be delightful. I am ready to do anything, anything for you. It is а glorious idea. I know the wife of а very high personage in the Administration, and also а man who has lots of influence with,” etc. She was determined to make no end of fuss to get me appointed skipper of а 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 а 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 а misunderstanding about some hens. Yes, two black hens. Fresleven – that was the fellow’s name, а Dane – thought himself wronged somehow in the bargain, so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village with а 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 а 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-respect in some way. Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly, while а 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 а tentative jab with а 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 Fresleven commanded left also in а 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. А 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 show myself to my employers, and sign the contract. In а very few hours I arrived in а city that always makes me think of а 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, а dead silence, grass sprouting right and left, immense double doors standing ponderously ajar. I slipped through one of these cracks, went up а swept and ungarnished staircase, as arid as а 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 а somnambulist, stood still, and looked up. Her dress was as plain as an umbrella-cover, and she turned round without а word and preceded me into а waiting-room. I gave my name, and looked about. Deal table in the middle, plain chairs all round the walls, on one end а large shining map, marked with all the colours of а rainbow. There was а vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, а deuce of а lot of blue, а little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, а 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 а snake. Ough! а door opened, а white-haired secretarial head, but wearing а compassionate expression, appeared, and а skinny forefinger beckoned me into the sanctuary. Its light was dim, and а heavy writing-desk squatted in the middle. From behind that structure came out an impression of pale plumpness in а frock-coat. The great man himself. He was five feet six, I should judge, and had his grip on the handle-end of ever so many millions. He shook hands, I fancy, murmured vaguely, was satisfied with my French. BON VOYAGE.
‘In about forty-five seconds I found myself again in the waiting-room 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 – I don’t know – something not quite right; and I was glad to get out. In the outer room the two women knitted black wool feverishly. People were arriving, and the younger one was walking back and forth introducing them. The old one sat on her chair. Her flat cloth slippers were propped up on а foot-warmer, and а cat reposed on her lap. She wore а starched white affair on her head, had а wart on one cheek, and silver-rimmed spectacles hung on the tip of her nose. She glanced at me above the glasses. The swift and indifferent placidity of that look troubled me. Two youths with foolish and cheery countenances were being piloted over, and she threw at them the same quick glance of unconcerned wisdom. She seemed to know all about them and about me, too. An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for а 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 – not half, by а long way.
‘There was yet а visit to the doctor. “A simple formality,” assured me the secretary, with an air of taking an immense part in all my sorrows. Accordingly а young chap wearing his hat over the left eyebrow, some clerk I suppose – there must have been clerks in the business, though the house was as still as а house in а city of the dead – came from somewhere up-stairs, 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 а chin shaped like the toe of an old boot. It was а little too early for the doctor, so I proposed а drink, and thereupon he developed а 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 а 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 а certain eagerness asked me whether I would let him measure my head. Rather surprised, I said Yes, when he produced а thing like calipers and got the dimensions back and front and every way, taking notes carefully. He was an unshaven little man in а threadbare coat like а gaberdine, with his feet in slippers, and I thought him а 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 а searching glance, and made another note. “Ever any madness in your family?” he asked, in а matter-of-fact tone. I felt very annoyed. “Is that question in the interests 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 – а little,” answered that original, imperturbably. “I have а 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 а 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 а laugh. “Avoid irritation more than exposure to the sun. Adieu. How do you English say, eh? Good-bye. Ah! Good-bye. Adieu. In the tropics one must before everything keep calm.” … He lifted а warning forefinger… “DU CALME, DU CALME. ADIEU.”
‘One thing more remained to do – say good-bye to my excellent aunt. I found her triumphant. I had а cup of tea – the last decent cup of tea for many days – and in а room that most soothingly looked just as you would expect а lady’s drawing-room to look, we had а 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 – а piece of good fortune for the Company – а man you don’t get hold of every day. Good heavens! and I was going to take charge of а two-penny-half-penny river-steamboat with а penny whistle attached! It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with а capital – you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like а lower sort of apostle. There had been а 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 а 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 the whole thing over.
‘After this I got embraced, told to wear flannel, be sure to write often, and so on – and I left. In the street – I don’t know why – а 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-four hours’ notice, with less thought than most men give to the crossing of а street, had а moment – I 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 а second or two, I felt as though, instead of going to the centre of а continent, I were about to set off for the centre of the earth.
‘I left in а 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-house officers. I watched the coast. Watching а coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you – 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 а colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like а ruled line, far, far away along а blue sea whose glitter was blurred by а creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam. Here and there greyish-whitish specks showed up clustered inside the white surf, with а 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-house clerks to levy toll in what looked like а God-forsaken wilderness, with а tin shed and а flag-pole lost in it; landed more soldiers – to take care of the custom-house 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 – trading places – with names like Gran’ Bassam, Little Popo; names that seemed to belong to some sordid farce acted in front of а sinister back-cloth. The idleness of а 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 а mournful and senseless delusion. The voice of the surf heard now and then was а positive pleasure, like the speech of а brother. It was something natural, that had its reason, that had а meaning. Now and then а boat from the shore gave one а momentary contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows. You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening. They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks – these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, а wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were а great comfort to look at. For а time I would feel I belonged still to а world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long. Something would turn up to scare it away. Once, I remember, we came upon а man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even а shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like а rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch 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 а continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; а small flame would dart and vanish, а little white smoke would disappear, а tiny projectile would give а feeble screech – and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was а touch of insanity in the proceeding, а sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was а camp of natives – he called them enemies! – hidden 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 а day) and went on. We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in а 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 а particularized impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like а 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 а start for а place thirty miles higher up.
‘I had my passage on а little sea-going steamer. Her captain was а Swede, and knowing me for а seaman, invited me on the bridge. He was а young man, lean, fair, and morose, with lanky hair and а shuffling gait. As we left the miserable little wharf, he tossed his head contemptuously at the shore. “Been living there?” he asked. I said, “Yes.” “Fine lot these government chaps – are they not?” he went on, speaking English with great precision and considerable bitterness. ‘It is funny what some people will do for а few francs а month. I wonder what becomes of that kind when it goes upcountry?’ I said to him I expected to see that soon. “So-o-o!” he exclaimed. He shuffled athwart, keeping one eye ahead vigilantly. “Don’t be too sure,” he continued. “The other day I took up а man who hanged himself on the road. He was а Swede, too.” “Hanged himself! Why, in God’s name?” I cried. He kept on looking out watchfully. “Who knows? The sun too much for him, or the country perhaps.”
‘At last we opened а reach. А rocky cliff appeared, mounds of turned-up earth by the shore, houses on а hill, others with iron roofs, amongst а waste of excavations, or hanging to the declivity. А continuous noise of the rapids above hovered over this scene of inhabited devastation. А lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants. А jetty projected into the river. А blinding sunlight drowned all this at times in а sudden recrudescence of glare. “There’s your Company’s station,” said the Swede, pointing to three wooden barrack-like structures on the rocky slope. “I will send your things up. Four boxes did you say? So. Farewell.”
‘I came upon а boiler wallowing in the grass, then found а path leading up the hill. It turned aside for the boulders, and also for an undersized railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was off. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal. I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, а stack of rusty rails. To the left а clump of trees made а shady spot, where dark things seemed to stir feebly. I blinked, the path was steep. А horn tooted to the right, and I saw the black people run. А heavy and dull detonation shook the ground, а puff of smoke came out of the cliff, and that was all. No change appeared on the face of the rock. They were building а railway. The cliff was not in the way or anything; but this objectless blasting was all the work going on.
‘A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in а file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in а rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with а chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into а continent. It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea. All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without а glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages. Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondently, carrying а rifle by its middle. He had а uniform jacket with one button off, and seeing а white man on the path, hoisted his weapon to his shoulder with alacrity. This was simple prudence, white men being so much alike at а distance that he could not tell who I might be. He was speedily reassured, and with а large, white, rascally grin, and а glance at his charge, seemed to take me into partnership in his exalted trust. After all, I also was а part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings.
‘Instead of going up, I turned and descended to the left. My idea was to let that chain-gang get out of sight before I climbed the hill. You know I am not particularly tender; I’ve had to strike and to fend off. I’ve had to resist and to attack sometimes – that’s only one way of resisting – without counting the exact cost, according to the demands of such sort of life as I had blundered into. I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men – men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with а flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of а rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and а thousand miles farther. For а moment I stood appalled, as though by а warning. Finally I descended the hill, obliquely, towards the trees I had seen.
‘I avoided а vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine. It wasn’t а quarry or а sandpit, anyhow. It was just а hole. It might have been connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do. I don’t know. Then I nearly fell into а very narrow ravine, almost no more than а scar in the hillside. I discovered that а lot of imported drainage-pipes for the settlement had been tumbled in there. There wasn’t one that was not broken. It was а wanton smash-up. At last I got under the trees. My purpose was to stroll into the shade for а moment; but no sooner within than it seemed to me I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno. The rapids were near, and an uninterrupted, uniform, headlong, rushing noise filled the mournful stillness of the grove, where not а breath stirred, not а leaf moved, with а mysterious sound – as though the tearing pace of the launched earth had suddenly become audible.
‘Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. Another mine on the cliff went off, followed by а slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.
‘They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. These moribund shapes were free as air – and nearly as thin. I began to distinguish the gleam of the eyes under the trees. Then, glancing down, I saw а face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, а kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly. The man seemed young – almost а boy – but you know with them it’s hard to tell. I found nothing else to do but to offer him one of my good Swede’s ship’s biscuits I had in my pocket. The fingers closed slowly on it and held – there was no other movement and no other glance. He had tied а bit of white worsted round his neck – Why? Where did he get it? Was it а badge – an ornament – а charm – а propitiatory act? Was there any idea at all connected with it? It looked startling round his black neck, this bit of white thread from beyond the seas.
‘Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with а great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of а massacre or а pestilence. While I stood horror-struck, one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink. He lapped out of his hand, then sat up in the sunlight, crossing his shins in front of him, and after а time let his woolly head fall on his breastbone.
‘I didn’t want any more loitering in the shade, and I made haste towards the station. When near the buildings I met а white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for а sort of vision. I saw а high starched collar, white cuffs, а light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, а clean necktie, and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under а green-lined parasol held in а big white hand. He was amazing, and had а penholder behind his ear.
‘I shook hands with this miracle, and I learned he was the Company’s chief accountant, and that all the book-keeping was done at this station. He had come out for а moment, he said, ‘to get а breath of fresh air. The expression sounded wonderfully odd, with its suggestion of sedentary desk-life. I wouldn’t have mentioned the fellow to you at all, only it was from his lips that I first heard the name of the man who is so indissolubly connected with the memories of that time. Moreover, I respected the fellow. Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly that of а hairdresser’s dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That’s backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character. He had been out nearly three years; and, later, I could not help asking him how he managed to sport such linen. He had just the faintest blush, and said modestly, “I’ve been teaching one of the native women about the station. It was difficult. She had а distaste for the work.” Thus this man had verily accomplished something. And he was devoted to his books, which were in apple-pie order.
‘Everything else in the station was in а muddle – heads, things, buildings. Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed; а stream of manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads, and brass-wire set into the depths of darkness, and in return came а precious trickle of ivory.
‘I had to wait in the station for ten days – an eternity. I lived in а hut in the yard, but to be out of the chaos I would sometimes get into the accountant’s office. It was built of horizontal planks, and so badly put together that, as he bent over his high desk, he was barred from neck to heels with narrow strips of sunlight. There was no need to open the big shutter to see. It was hot there, too; big flies buzzed fiendishly, and did not sting, but stabbed. I sat generally on the floor, while, of faultless appearance (and even slightly scented), perching on а high stool, he wrote, he wrote. Sometimes he stood up for exercise. When а truckle-bed with а sick man (some invalid agent from upcountry) was put in there, he exhibited а gentle annoyance. ‘The groans of this sick person,’ he said, ‘distract my attention. And without that it is extremely difficult to guard against clerical errors in this climate.’
‘One day’ he remarked, without lifting his head, ‘In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr. Kurtz.’ On my asking who Mr. Kurtz was, he said he was а first-class agent; and seeing my disappointment at this information, he added slowly, laying down his pen, ‘He is а very remarkable person.’ Further questions elicited from him that Mr. Kurtz was at present in charge of а trading-post, а very important one, in the true ivory-country, at ‘the very bottom of there. Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together …’ He began to write again. The sick man was too ill to groan. The flies buzzed in а great peace.
‘Suddenly there was а growing murmur of voices and а great tramping of feet. А caravan had come in. А violent babble of uncouth sounds burst out on the other side of the planks. All the carriers were speaking together, and in the midst of the uproar the lamentable voice of the chief agent was heard “giving it up” tearfully for the twentieth time that day… He rose slowly. “What а frightful row,” he said. He crossed the room gently to look at the sick man, and returning, said to me, “He does not hear.” ‘What! Dead?” I asked, startled. “No, not yet,” he answered, with great composure. Then, alluding with а toss of the head to the tumult in the station-yard, “When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages – hate them to the death.” He remained thoughtful for а moment. “When you see Mr. Kurtz” he went on, “tell him from me that everything here” – he glanced at the deck – “is very satisfactory. I don’t like to write to him – with those messengers of ours you never know who may get hold of your letter – at that Central Station.” He stared at me for а moment with his mild, bulging eyes. “Oh, he will go far, very far,” he began again. “He will be а somebody in the Administration before long. They, above – the Council in Europe, you know – mean him to be.”
‘He turned to his work. The noise outside had ceased, and presently in going out I stopped at the door. In the steady buzz of flies the homeward-bound agent was lying finished and insensible; the other, bent over his books, was making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still tree-tops of the grove of death.
‘Next day I left that station at last, with а caravan of sixty men, for а two-hundred-mile tramp.
‘No use telling you much about that. Paths, paths, everywhere; а stamped-in network of paths spreading over the empty land, through the long grass, through burnt grass, through thickets, down and up chilly ravines, up and down stony hills ablaze with heat; and а solitude, а solitude, nobody, not а hut. The population had cleared out а long time ago. Well, if а lot of mysterious niggers armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to travelling on the road between Deal and Gravesend, catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon. Only here the dwellings were gone, too. Still I passed through several abandoned villages. There’s something pathetically childish in the ruins of grass walls. Day after day, with the stamp and shuffle of sixty pair of bare feet behind me, each pair under а 60-lb. load. Camp, cook, sleep, strike camp, march. Now and then а carrier dead in harness, at rest in the long grass near the path, with an empty water-gourd and his long staff lying by his side. А great silence around and above. Perhaps on some quiet night the tremor of far-off drums, sinking, swelling, а tremor vast, faint; а sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild – and perhaps with as profound а meaning as the sound of bells in а Christian country. Once а white man in an unbuttoned uniform, camping on the path with an armed escort of lank Zanzibaris, very hospitable and festive – not to say drunk. Was looking after the upkeep of the road, he declared. Can’t say I saw any road or any upkeep, unless the body of а middle-aged negro, with а bullet-hole in the forehead, upon which I absolutely stumbled three miles farther on, may be considered as а permanent improvement. I had а white companion, too, not а bad chap, but rather too fleshy and with the exasperating habit of fainting on the hot hillsides, miles away from the least bit of shade and water. Annoying, you know, to hold your own coat like а parasol over а man’s head while he is coming to. I couldn’t help asking him once what he meant by coming there at all. “To make money, of course. What do you think?” he said, scornfully. Then he got fever, and had to be carried in а hammock slung under а pole. As he weighed sixteen stone I had no end of rows with the carriers. They jibbed, ran away, sneaked off with their loads in the night – quite а mutiny. So, one evening, I made а speech in English with gestures, not one of which was lost to the sixty pairs of eyes before me, and the next morning I started the hammock off in front all right. An hour afterwards I came upon the whole concern wrecked in а bush – man, hammock, groans, blankets, horrors. The heavy pole had skinned his poor nose. He was very anxious for me to kill somebody, but there wasn’t the shadow of а carrier near. I remembered the old doctor – “It would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot.” I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting. However, all that is to no purpose. On the fifteenth day I came in sight of the big river again, and hobbled into the Central Station. It was on а back water surrounded by scrub and forest, with а pretty border of smelly mud on one side, and on the three others enclosed by а crazy fence of rushes. А neglected gap was all the gate it had, and the first glance at the place was enough to let you see the flabby devil was running that show. White men with long staves in their hands appeared languidly from amongst the buildings, strolling up to take а look at me, and then retired out of sight somewhere. One of them, а stout, excitable chap with black moustaches, informed me with great volubility and many digressions, as soon as I told him who I was, that my steamer was at the bottom of the river. I was thunderstruck. What, how, why? Oh, it was “all right.” The “manager himself” was there. All quite correct. “Everybody had behaved splendidly! splendidly!” – “You must,” he said in agitation, “go and see the general manager at once. He is waiting!”
‘I did not see the real significance of that wreck at once. I fancy I see it now, but I am not sure – not at all. Certainly the affair was too stupid – when I think of it – to be altogether natural. Still … But at the moment it presented itself simply as а confounded nuisance. The steamer was sunk. They had started two days before in а sudden hurry up the river with the manager on board, in charge of some volunteer skipper, and before they had been out three hours they tore the bottom out of her on stones, and she sank near the south bank. I asked myself what I was to do there, now my boat was lost. As а matter of fact, I had plenty to do in fishing my command out of the river. I had to set about it the very next day. That, and the repairs when I brought the pieces to the station, took some months.
‘My first interview with the manager was curious. He did not ask me to sit down after my twenty-mile walk that morning. He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold, and he certainly could make his glance fall on one as trenchant and heavy as an axe. But even at these times the rest of his person seemed to disclaim the intention. Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy – а smile – not а smile – I remember it, but I can’t explain. It was unconscious, this smile was, though just after he had said something it got intensified for an instant. It came at the end of his speeches like а seal applied on the words to make the meaning of the commonest phrase appear absolutely inscrutable. He was а common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts – nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not а definite mistrust – just uneasiness – nothing more. You have no idea how effective such а … a … faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. That was evident in such things as the deplorable state of the station. He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him – why? Perhaps because he was never ill … He had served three terms of three years out there … Because triumphant health in the general rout of constitutions is а kind of power in itself. When he went home on leave he rioted on а large scale – pompously. Jack ashore – with а difference – in externals only. This one could gather from his casual talk. He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going – that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such а man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such а suspicion made one pause – for out there there were no external checks. Once when various tropical diseases had laid low almost every “agent” in the station, he was heard to say, “Men who come out here should have no entrails.” He sealed the utterance with that smile of his, as though it had been а door opening into а darkness he had in his keeping. You fancied you had seen things – but the seal was on. When annoyed at meal-times by the constant quarrels of the white men about precedence, he ordered an immense round table to be made, for which а special house had to be built. This was the station’s mess-room. Where he sat was the first place – the rest were nowhere. One felt this to be his unalterable conviction. He was neither civil nor uncivil. He was quiet. He allowed his “boy” – an overfed young negro from the coast – to treat the white men, under his very eyes, with provoking insolence.
‘He began to speak as soon as he saw me. I had been very long on the road. He could not wait. Had to start without me. The up-river stations had to be relieved. There had been so many delays already that he did not know who was dead and who was alive, and how they got on – and so on, and so on. He paid no attention to my explanations, and, playing with а stick of sealing-wax, repeated several times that the situation was “very grave, very grave.” There were rumours that а very important station was in jeopardy, and its chief, Mr. Kurtz, was ill. Hoped it was not true. Mr. Kurtz was … I felt weary and irritable. Hang Kurtz, I thought. I interrupted him by saying I had heard of Mr. Kurtz on the coast. “Ah! So they talk of him down there,” he murmured to himself. Then he began again, assuring me Mr. Kurtz was the best agent he had, an exceptional man, of the greatest importance to the Company; therefore I could understand his anxiety. He was, he said, “very, very uneasy.” Certainly he fidgeted on his chair а good deal, exclaimed, “Ah, Mr. Kurtz!” broke the stick of sealing-wax and seemed dumfounded by the accident. Next thing he wanted to know “how long it would take to” … I interrupted him again. Being hungry, you know, and kept on my feet too. I was getting savage. “How can I tell?” I said. “I haven’t even seen the wreck yet – some months, no doubt.” All this talk seemed to me so futile. “Some months,” he said. “Well, let us say three months before we can make а start. Yes. That ought to do the affair.” I flung out of his hut (he lived all alone in а clay hut with а sort of verandah) muttering to myself my opinion of him. He was а chattering idiot. Afterwards I took it back when it was borne in upon me startlingly with what extreme nicety he had estimated the time requisite for the “affair.”
‘I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like а lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside а rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. А taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like а whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.
‘Oh, these months! Well, never mind. Various things happened. One evening а grass shed full of calico, cotton prints, beads, and I don’t know what else, burst into а blaze so suddenly that you would have thought the earth had opened to let an avenging fire consume all that trash. I was smoking my pipe quietly by my dismantled steamer, and saw them all cutting capers in the light, with their arms lifted high, when the stout man with moustaches came tearing down to the river, а tin pail in his hand, assured me that everybody was ‘behaving splendidly, splendidly,’ dipped about а quart of water and tore back again. I noticed there was а hole in the bottom of his pail.
‘I strolled up. There was no hurry. You see the thing had gone off like а box of matches. It had been hopeless from the very first. The flame had leaped high, driven everybody back, lighted up everything – and collapsed. The shed was already а heap of embers glowing fiercely. А nigger was being beaten near by. They said he had caused the fire in some way; be that as it may, he was screeching most horribly. I saw him, later, for several days, sitting in а bit of shade looking very sick and trying to recover himself; afterwards he arose and went out – and the wilderness without а sound took him into its bosom again. As I approached the glow from the dark I found myself at the back of two men, talking. I heard the name of Kurtz pronounced, then the words, “take advantage of this unfortunate accident.” One of the men was the manager. I wished him а good evening. “Did you ever see anything like it – eh? it is incredible,” he said, and walked off. The other man remained. He was а first-class agent, young, gentlemanly, а bit reserved, with а forked little beard and а hooked nose. He was stand-offish with the other agents, and they on their side said he was the manager’s spy upon them. As to me, I had hardly ever spoken to him before. We got into talk, and by and by we strolled away from the hissing ruins. Then he asked me to his room, which was in the main building of the station. He struck а match, and I perceived that this young aristocrat had not only а silver-mounted dressing-case but also а whole candle all to himself. Just at that time the manager was the only man supposed to have any right to candles. Native mats covered the clay walls; а collection of spears, assegais, shields, knives was hung up in trophies. The business intrusted to this fellow was the making of bricks – so I had been informed; but there wasn’t а fragment of а brick anywhere in the station, and he had been there more than а year – waiting. It seems he could not make bricks without something, I don’t know what – straw maybe. Anyway, it could not be found there and as it was not likely to be sent from Europe, it did not appear clear to me what he was waiting for. An act of special creation perhaps. However, they were all waiting – all the sixteen or twenty pilgrims of them – for something; and upon my word it did not seem an uncongenial occupation, from the way they took it, though the only thing that ever came to them was disease – as far as I could see. They beguiled the time by back-biting and intriguing against each other in а foolish kind of way. There was an air of plotting about that station, but nothing came of it, of course. It was as unreal as everything else – as the philanthropic pretence of the whole concern, as their talk, as their government, as their show of work. The only real feeling was а desire to get appointed to а trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages. They intrigued and slandered and hated each other only on that account – but as to effectually lifting а little finger – oh, no. By heavens! there is something after all in the world allowing one man to steal а horse while another must not look at а halter. Steal а horse straight out. Very well. He has done it. Perhaps he can ride. But there is а way of looking at а halter that would provoke the most charitable of saints into а kick.
‘I had no idea why he wanted to be sociable, but as we chatted in there it suddenly occurred to me the fellow was trying to get at something – in fact, pumping me. He alluded constantly to Europe, to the people I was supposed to know there – putting leading questions as to my acquaintances in the sepulchral city, and so on. His little eyes glittered like mica discs – with curiosity – though he tried to keep up а bit of superciliousness. At first I was astonished, but very soon I became awfully curious to see what he would find out from me. I couldn’t possibly imagine what I had in me to make it worth his while. It was very pretty to see how he baffled himself, for in truth my body was full only of chills, and my head had nothing in it but that wretched steamboat business. It was evident he took me for а perfectly shameless prevaricator. At last he got angry, and, to conceal а movement of furious annoyance, he yawned. I rose. Then I noticed а small sketch in oils, on а panel, representing а woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying а lighted torch. The background was sombre – almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister.
‘It arrested me, and he stood by civilly, holding an empty half-pint champagne bottle (medical comforts) with the candle stuck in it. To my question he said Mr. Kurtz had painted this – in this very station more than а year ago – while waiting for means to go to his trading post. “Tell me, pray,” said I, “who is this Mr. Kurtz?”
‘“The chief of the Inner Station,” he answered in а short tone, looking away. “Much obliged,” I said, laughing. “And you are the brickmaker of the Central Station. Every one knows that.” He was silent for а while. “He is а prodigy,” he said at last. “He is an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil knows what else. We want,” he began to declaim suddenly, “for the guidance of the cause entrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wide sympathies, а singleness of purpose.” “Who says that?” I asked. “Lots of them,” he replied. “Some even write that; and so HE comes here, а special being, as you ought to know.” “Why ought I to know?” I interrupted, really surprised. He paid no attention. “Yes. Today he is chief of the best station, next year he will be assistant-manager, two years more and … but I dare say you know what he will be in two years’ time. You are of the new gang – the gang of virtue. The same people who sent him specially also recommended you. Oh, don’t say no. I’ve my own eyes to trust.” Light dawned upon me. My dear aunt’s influential acquaintances were producing an unexpected effect upon that young man. I nearly burst into а laugh. “Do you read the Company’s confidential correspondence?” I asked. He hadn’t а word to say. It was great fun. “When Mr. Kurtz,” I continued, severely, “is General Manager, you won’t have the opportunity.”
‘He blew the candle out suddenly, and we went outside. The moon had risen. Black figures strolled about listlessly, pouring water on the glow, whence proceeded а sound of hissing; steam ascended in the moonlight, the beaten nigger groaned somewhere. “What а row the brute makes!” said the indefatigable man with the moustaches, appearing near us. “Serve him right. Transgression – punishment – bang! Pitiless, pitiless. That’s the only way. This will prevent all conflagrations for the future. I was just telling the manager …” He noticed my companion, and became crestfallen all at once. “Not in bed yet,” he said, with а kind of servile heartiness; “it’s so natural. Ha! Danger – agitation.” He vanished. I went on to the riverside, and the other followed me. I heard а scathing murmur at my ear, “Heap of muffs – go to.” The pilgrims could be seen in knots gesticulating, discussing. Several had still their staves in their hands. I verily believe they took these sticks to bed with them. Beyond the fence the forest stood up spectrally in the moonlight, and through that dim stir, through the faint sounds of that lamentable courtyard, the silence of the land went home to one’s very heart – its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life. The hurt nigger moaned feebly somewhere near by, and then fetched а deep sigh that made me mend my pace away from there. I felt а hand introducing itself under my arm. “My dear sir,” said the fellow, “I don’t want to be misunderstood, and especially by you, who will see Mr. Kurtz long before I can have that pleasure. I wouldn’t like him to get а false idea of my disposition…”
‘I let him run on, this papier-mâché Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but а little loose dirt, maybe. He, don’t you see, had been planning to be assistant-manager by and by under the present man, and I could see that the coming of that Kurtz had upset them both not а little. He talked precipitately, and I did not try to stop him. I had my shoulders against the wreck of my steamer, hauled up on the slope like а carcass of some big river animal. The smell of mud, of primeval mud, by Jove! was in my nostrils, the high stillness of primeval forest was before my eyes; there were shiny patches on the black creek. The moon had spread over everything а thin layer of silver – over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of а temple, over the great river I could see through а sombre gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without а murmur. All this was great, expectant, mute, while the man jabbered about himself. I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as а menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn’t talk, and perhaps was deaf as well. What was in there? I could see а little ivory coming out from there, and I had heard Mr. Kurtz was in there. I had heard enough about it, too – God knows! Yet somehow it didn’t bring any image with it – no more than if I had been told an angel or а fiend was in there. I believed it in the same way one of you might believe there are inhabitants in the planet Mars. I knew once а Scotch sailmaker who was certain, dead sure, there were people in Mars. If you asked him for some idea how they looked and behaved, he would get shy and mutter something about “walking on all-fours.” If you as much as smiled, he would – though а man of sixty – offer to fight you. I would not have gone so far as to fight for Kurtz, but I went for him near enough to а lie. You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear а lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is а taint of death, а flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose. Well, I went near enough to it by letting the young fool there believe anything he liked to imagine as to my influence in Europe. I became in an instant as much of а pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims. This simply because I had а notion it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see – you understand. He was just а word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you а dream – making а vain attempt, because no relation of а dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in а tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams…”
He was silent for а while.
‘… No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone…’
He paused again as if reflecting, then added:
‘Of course in this you fellows see more than I could then. You see me, whom you know…’
It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see one another. For а long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more to us than а voice. There was not а word from anybody. The others might have been asleep, but I was awake. I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river.
‘… Yes – I let him run on,’ Marlow began again, ‘and think what he pleased about the powers that were behind me. I did! And there was nothing behind me! There was nothing but that wretched, old, mangled steamboat I was leaning against, while he talked fluently about “the necessity for every man to get on.” “And when one comes out here, you conceive, it is not to gaze at the moon.” Mr. Kurtz was а “universal genius,” but even а genius would find it easier to work with “adequate tools – intelligent men.” He did not make bricks – why, there was а physical impossibility in the way – as I was well aware; and if he did secretarial work for the manager, it was because “no sensible man rejects wantonly the confidence of his superiors.” Did I see it? I saw it. What more did I want? What I really wanted was rivets, by heaven! Rivets. To get on with the work – to stop the hole. Rivets I wanted. There were cases of them down at the coast – cases – piled up – burst – split! You kicked а loose rivet at every second step in that station-yard on the hillside. Rivets had rolled into the grove of death. You could fill your pockets with rivets for the trouble of stooping down – and there wasn’t one rivet to be found where it was wanted. We had plates that would do, but nothing to fasten them with. And every week the messenger, а long negro, letter-bag on shoulder and staff in hand, left our station for the coast. And several times а week а coast caravan came in with trade goods – ghastly glazed calico that made you shudder only to look at it, glass beads value about а penny а quart, confounded spotted cotton handkerchiefs. And no rivets. Three carriers could have brought all that was wanted to set that steamboat afloat.
‘He was becoming confidential now, but I fancy my unresponsive attitude must have exasperated him at last, for he judged it necessary to inform me he feared neither God nor devil, let alone any mere man. I said I could see that very well, but what I wanted was а certain quantity of rivets – and rivets were what really Mr. Kurtz wanted, if he had only known it. Now letters went to the coast every week… “My dear sir,” he cried, “I write from dictation.” I demanded rivets. There was а way – for an intelligent man. He changed his manner; became very cold, and suddenly began to talk about а hippopotamus; wondered whether sleeping on board the steamer (I stuck to my salvage night and day) I wasn’t disturbed. There was an old hippo that had the bad habit of getting out on the bank and roaming at night over the station grounds. The pilgrims used to turn out in а body and empty every rifle they could lay hands on at him. Some even had sat up o’ nights for him. All this energy was wasted, though. “That animal has а charmed life,” he said; “but you can say this only of brutes in this country. No man – you apprehend me? – no man here bears а charmed life.” He stood there for а moment in the moonlight with his delicate hooked nose set а little askew, and his mica eyes glittering without а wink, then, with а curt Good-night, he strode off. I could see he was disturbed and considerably puzzled, which made me feel more hopeful than I had been for days. It was а great comfort to turn from that chap to my influential friend, the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. I clambered on board. She rang under my feet like an empty Huntley & Palmer biscuit-tin kicked along а gutter; she was nothing so solid in make, and rather less pretty in shape, but I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me а chance to come out а bit – to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work – the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.
‘I was not surprised to see somebody sitting aft, on the deck, with his legs dangling over the mud. You see I rather chummed with the few mechanics there were in that station, whom the other pilgrims naturally despised – on account of their imperfect manners, I suppose. This was the foreman – а boiler-maker by trade – а good worker. He was а lank, bony, yellow-faced man, with big intense eyes. His aspect was worried, and his head was as bald as the palm of my hand; but his hair in falling seemed to have stuck to his chin, and had prospered in the new locality, for his beard hung down to his waist. He was а widower with six young children (he had left them in charge of а sister of his to come out there), and the passion of his life was pigeon-flying. He was an enthusiast and а connoisseur. He would rave about pigeons. After work hours he used sometimes to come over from his hut for а talk about his children and his pigeons; at work, when he had to crawl in the mud under the bottom of the steamboat, he would tie up that beard of his in а kind of white serviette he brought for the purpose. It had loops to go over his ears. In the evening he could be seen squatted on the bank rinsing that wrapper in the creek with great care, then spreading it solemnly on а bush to dry.
‘I slapped him on the back and shouted, “We shall have rivets!” He scrambled to his feet exclaiming, “No! Rivets!” as though he couldn’t believe his ears. Then in а low voice, “You … eh?” I don’t know why we behaved like lunatics. I put my finger to the side of my nose and nodded mysteriously. “Good for you!” he cried, snapped his fingers above his head, lifting one foot. I tried а jig. We capered on the iron deck. А frightful clatter came out of that hulk, and the virgin forest on the other bank of the creek sent it back in а thundering roll upon the sleeping station. It must have made some of the pilgrims sit up in their hovels. А dark figure obscured the lighted doorway of the manager’s hut, vanished, then, а second or so after, the doorway itself vanished, too. We stopped, and the silence driven away by the stamping of our feet flowed back again from the recesses of the land. The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like а rioting invasion of soundless life, а rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not. А deadened burst of mighty splashes and snorts reached us from afar, as though an icthyosaurus had been taking а bath of glitter in the great river. “After all,” said the boiler-maker in а reasonable tone, “why shouldn’t we get the rivets?” Why not, indeed! I did not know of any reason why we shouldn’t. “They’ll come in three weeks,” I said confidently.
‘But they didn’t. Instead of rivets there came an invasion, an infliction, а visitation. It came in sections during the next three weeks, each section headed by а donkey carrying а white man in new clothes and tan shoes, bowing from that elevation right and left to the impressed pilgrims. А quarrelsome band of footsore sulky niggers trod on the heels of the donkey; а lot of tents, camp-stools, tin boxes, white cases, brown bales would be shot down in the courtyard, and the air of mystery would deepen а little over the muddle of the station. Five such instalments came, with their absurd air of disorderly flight with the loot of innumerable outfit shops and provision stores, that, one would think, they were lugging, after а raid, into the wilderness for equitable division. It was an inextricable mess of things decent in themselves but that human folly made look like the spoils of thieving.
‘This devoted band called itself the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, and I believe they were sworn to secrecy. Their talk, however, was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into а safe. Who paid the expenses of the noble enterprise I don’t know; but the uncle of our manager was leader of that lot.
‘In exterior he resembled а butcher in а poor neighbourhood, and his eyes had а look of sleepy cunning. He carried his fat paunch with ostentation on his short legs, and during the time his gang infested the station spoke to no one but his nephew. You could see these two roaming about all day long with their heads close together in an everlasting confab.
‘I had given up worrying myself about the rivets. One’s capacity for that kind of folly is more limited than you would suppose. I said “Hang!” – and let things slide. I had plenty of time for meditation, and now and then I would give some thought to Kurtz. I wasn’t very interested in him. No. Still, I was curious to see whether this man, who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all and how he would set about his work when there.’
‘One evening as I was lying flat on the deck of my steamboat, I heard voices approaching – and there were the nephew and the uncle strolling along the bank. I laid my head on my arm again, and had nearly lost myself in а doze, when somebody said in my ear, as it were: “I am as harmless as а little child, but I don’t like to be dictated to. Am I the manager – or am I not? I was ordered to send him there. It’s incredible.” … I became aware that the two were standing on the shore alongside the forepart of the steamboat, just below my head. I did not move; it did not occur to me to move: I was sleepy. “It IS unpleasant,” grunted the uncle. “He has asked the Administration to be sent there,” said the other, “with the idea of showing what he could do; and I was instructed accordingly. Look at the influence that man must have. Is it not frightful?” They both agreed it was frightful, then made several bizarre remarks: “Make rain and fine weather – one man – the Council – by the nose” – bits of absurd sentences that got the better of my drowsiness, so that I had pretty near the whole of my wits about me when the uncle said, “The climate may do away with this difficulty for you. Is he alone there?” “Yes,” answered the manager; “he sent his assistant down the river with а note to me in these terms: ‘Clear this poor devil out of the country, and don’t bother sending more of that sort. I had rather be alone than have the kind of men you can dispose of with me.’ It was more than а year ago. Can you imagine such impudence!” “Anything since then?” asked the other hoarsely. “Ivory,” jerked the nephew; “lots of it – prime sort – lots – most annoying, from him.” “And with that?” questioned the heavy rumble. “Invoice,” was the reply fired out, so to speak. Then silence. They had been talking about Kurtz.
‘I was broad awake by this time, but, lying perfectly at ease, remained still, having no inducement to change my position. “How did that ivory come all this way?” growled the elder man, who seemed very vexed. The other explained that it had come with а fleet of canoes in charge of an English half-caste clerk Kurtz had with him; that Kurtz had apparently intended to return himself, the station being by that time bare of goods and stores, but after coming three hundred miles, had suddenly decided to go back, which he started to do alone in а small dugout with four paddlers, leaving the half-caste to continue down the river with the ivory. The two fellows there seemed astounded at anybody attempting such а thing. They were at а loss for an adequate motive. As to me, I seemed to see Kurtz for the first time. It was а distinct glimpse: the dugout, four paddling savages, and the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, on relief, on thoughts of home – perhaps; setting his face towards the depths of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station. I did not know the motive. Perhaps he was just simply а fine fellow who stuck to his work for its own sake. His name, you understand, had not been pronounced once. He was “that man.” The half-caste, who, as far as I could see, had conducted а difficult trip with great prudence and pluck, was invariably alluded to as “that scoundrel.” The “scoundrel” had reported that the “man” had been very ill – had recovered imperfectly… The two below me moved away then а few paces, and strolled back and forth at some little distance. I heard: “Military post – doctor – two hundred miles – quite alone now – unavoidable delays – nine months – no news – strange rumours.” They approached again, just as the manager was saying, “No one, as far as I know, unless а species of wandering trader – а pestilential fellow, snapping ivory from the natives.” Who was it they were talking about now? I gathered in snatches that this was some man supposed to be in Kurtz’s district, and of whom the manager did not approve. “We will not be free from unfair competition till one of these fellows is hanged for an example,” he said. “Certainly,” grunted the other; “get him hanged! Why not? Anything – anything can be done in this country. That’s what I say; nobody here, you understand, HERE, can endanger your position. And why? You stand the climate – you outlast them all. The danger is in Europe; but there before I left I took care to – ” They moved off and whispered, then their voices rose again. “The extraordinary series of delays is not my fault. I did my best.” The fat man sighed. “Very sad.” “And the pestiferous absurdity of his talk,” continued the other; “he bothered me enough when he was here. ‘Each station should be like а beacon on the road towards better things, а centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.’ Conceive you – that ass! And he wants to be manager! No, it’s – ” Here he got choked by excessive indignation, and I lifted my head the least bit. I was surprised to see how near they were – right under me. I could have spat upon their hats. They were looking on the ground, absorbed in thought. The manager was switching his leg with а slender twig: his sagacious relative lifted his head. “You have been well since you came out this time?” he asked. The other gave а start. “Who? I? Oh! Like а charm – like а charm. But the rest – oh, my goodness! All sick. They die so quick, too, that I haven’t the time to send them out of the country – it’s incredible!” “Hm’m. Just so,” grunted the uncle. “Ah! my boy, trust to this – I say, trust to this.” I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for а gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river – seemed to beckon with а dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land а treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart. It was so startling that I leaped to my feet and looked back at the edge of the forest, as though I had expected an answer of some sort to that black display of confidence. You know the foolish notions that come to one sometimes. The high stillness confronted these two figures with its ominous patience, waiting for the passing away of а fantastic invasion.
‘They swore aloud together – out of sheer fright, I believe – then pretending not to know anything of my existence, turned back to the station. The sun was low; and leaning forward side by side, they seemed to be tugging painfully uphill their two ridiculous shadows of unequal length, that trailed behind them slowly over the tall grass without bending а single blade.
‘In а few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness that closed upon it as the sea closes over а diver. Long afterwards the news came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals. They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved. I did not inquire. I was then rather excited at the prospect of meeting Kurtz very soon. When I say very soon I mean it comparatively. It was just two months from the day we left the creek when we came to the bank below Kurtz’s station.
‘Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, а great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sand-banks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through а mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in а desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once – somewhere – far away – in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not а moment to spare for yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble а peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with а vengeful aspect. I got used to it afterwards; I did not see it any more; I had no time. I had to keep guessing at the channel; I had to discern, mostly by inspiration, the signs of hidden banks; I watched for sunken stones; I was learning to clap my teeth smartly before my heart flew out, when I shaved by а fluke some infernal sly old snag that would have ripped the life out of the tin-pot steamboat and drowned all the pilgrims; I had to keep а lookout for the signs of dead wood we could cut up in the night for next day’s steaming. When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality – the reality, I tell you – fades. The inner truth is hidden – luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for – what is it? half-a-crown а tumble – ’
‘Try to be civil, Marlow,’ growled а voice, and I knew there was at least one listener awake besides myself.
‘I beg your pardon. I forgot the heartache which makes up the rest of the price. And indeed what does the price matter, if the trick be well done? You do your tricks very well. And I didn’t do badly either, since I managed not to sink that steamboat on my first trip. It’s а wonder to me yet. Imagine а blindfolded man set to drive а van over а bad road. I sweated and shivered over that business considerably, I can tell you. After all, for а seaman, to scrape the bottom of the thing that’s supposed to float all the time under his care is the unpardonable sin. No one may know of it, but you never forget the thump – eh? а blow on the very heart. You remember it, you dream of it, you wake up at night and think of it – years after – and go hot and cold all over. I don’t pretend to say that steamboat floated all the time. More than once she had to wade for а bit, with twenty cannibals splashing around and pushing. We had enlisted some of these chaps on the way for а crew. Fine fellows – cannibals – in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them. And, after all, they did not eat each other before my face: they had brought along а provision of hippo-meat which went rotten, and made the mystery of the wilderness stink in my nostrils. Phoo! I can sniff it now. I had the manager on board and three or four pilgrims with their staves – all complete. Sometimes we came upon а station close by the bank, clinging to the skirts of the unknown, and the white men rushing out of а tumble-down hovel, with great gestures of joy and surprise and welcome, seemed very strange – had the appearance of being held there captive by а spell. The word ivory would ring in the air for а while – and on we went again into the silence, along empty reaches, round the still bends, between the high walls of our winding way, reverberating in hollow claps the ponderous beat of the stern-wheel. Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like а sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of а lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing, that feeling. After all, if you were small, the grimy beetle crawled on – which was just what you wanted it to do. Where the pilgrims imagined it crawled to I don’t know. To some place where they expected to get something. I bet! For me it crawled towards Kurtz – exclusively; but when the steam-pipes started leaking we crawled very slow. The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air high over our heads, till the first break of day. Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer we could not tell. The dawns were heralded by the descent of а chill stillness; the wood-cutters slept, their fires burned low; the snapping of а twig would make you start. We were wanderers on а prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round а bend, there would be а glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, а burst of yells, а whirl of black limbs, а mass of hands clapping. of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of а black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us – who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in а madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly а sign – and no memories.
‘The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of а conquered monster, but there – there you could look at а thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were – No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of а response to the terrible frankness of that noise, а dim suspicion of there being а meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage – who can tell? – but truth – truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder – the man knows, and can look on without а wink. But he must at least be as much of а man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true stuff – with his own inborn strength. Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags – rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want а deliberate belief. An appeal to me in this fiendish row – is there? Very well; I hear; I admit, but I have а voice, too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced. Of course, а fool, what with sheer fright and fine sentiments, is always safe. Who’s that grunting? You wonder I didn’t go ashore for а howl and а dance? Well, no – I didn’t. Fine sentiments, you say? Fine sentiments, be hanged! I had no time. I had to mess about with white-lead and strips of woolen blanket helping to put bandages on those leaky steam-pipes – I tell you. I had to watch the steering, and circumvent those snags, and get the tin-pot along by hook or by crook. There was surface-truth enough in these things to save а wiser man. And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up а vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing а dog in а parody of breeches and а feather hat, walking on his hind-legs. А few months of training had done for that really fine chap. He squinted at the steam-gauge and at the water-gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity – and he had filed teeth, too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, а thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge. He was useful because he had been instructed; and what he knew was this – that should the water in that transparent thing disappear, the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take а terrible vengeance. So he sweated and fired up and watched the glass fearfully (with an impromptu charm, made of rags, tied to his arm, and а piece of polished bone, as big as а watch, stuck flatways through his lower lip), while the wooded banks slipped past us slowly, the short noise was left behind, the interminable miles of silence – and we crept on, towards Kurtz. But the snags were thick, the water was treacherous and shallow, the boiler seemed indeed to have а sulky devil in it, and thus neither that fireman nor I had any time to peer into our creepy thoughts.
‘Some fifty miles below the Inner Station we came upon а hut of reeds, an inclined and melancholy pole, with the unrecognizable tatters of what had been а flag of some sort flying from it, and а neatly stacked wood-pile. This was unexpected. We came to the bank, and on the stack of firewood found а flat piece of board with some faded pencil-writing on it. When deciphered it said: “Wood for you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously.” There was а signature, but it was illegible – not Kurtz – а much longer word. “Hurry up.” Where? Up the river? “Approach cautiously.” We had not done so. But the warning could not have been meant for the place where it could be only found after approach. Something was wrong above. But what – and how much? That was the question. We commented adversely upon the imbecility of that telegraphic style. The bush around said nothing, and would not let us look very far, either. А torn curtain of red twill hung in the doorway of the hut, and flapped sadly in our faces. The dwelling was dismantled; but we could see а white man had lived there not very long ago. There remained а rude table – а plank on two posts; а heap of rubbish reposed in а dark corner, and by the door I picked up а book. It had lost its covers, and the pages had been thumbed into а state of extremely dirty softness; but the back had been lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread, which looked clean yet. It was an extraordinary find. Its title was, AN INQUIRY INTO SOME POINTS OF SEAMANSHIP, by а man Towser, Towson – some such name – Master in his Majesty’s Navy. The matter looked dreary reading enough, with illustrative diagrams and repulsive tables of figures, and the copy was sixty years old. I handled this amazing antiquity with the greatest possible tenderness, lest it should dissolve in my hands. Within, Towson or Towser was inquiring earnestly into the breaking strain of ships’ chains and tackle, and other such matters. Not а very enthralling book; but at the first glance you could see there а singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going to work, which made these humble pages, thought out so many years ago, luminous with another than а professional light. The simple old sailor, with his talk of chains and purchases, made me forget the jungle and the pilgrims in а delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real. Such а book being there was wonderful enough; but still more astounding were the notes pencilled in the margin, and plainly referring to the text. I couldn’t believe my eyes! They were in cipher! Yes, it looked like cipher. Fancy а man lugging with him а book of that description into this nowhere and studying it – and making notes – in cipher at that! It was an extravagant mystery.
‘I had been dimly aware for some time of а worrying noise, and when I lifted my eyes I saw the wood-pile was gone, and the manager, aided by all the pilgrims, was shouting at me from the riverside. I slipped the book into my pocket. I assure you to leave off reading was like tearing myself away from the shelter of an old and solid friendship.
‘I started the lame engine ahead. “It must be this miserable trader-this intruder,” exclaimed the manager, looking back malevolently at the place we had left. “He must be English,” I said. “It will not save him from getting into trouble if he is not careful,” muttered the manager darkly. I observed with assumed innocence that no man was safe from trouble in this world.