Welcome to the Outer Station
"Finally I descended the hill, obliquely, towards the trees I had seen.
"I avoided a vast
artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the purpose of which
I found it impossible to divine. It wasn't a quarry or a sandpit, anyhow.
It was just a 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 a very narrow ravine, almost no more than a scar in the hillside. I discovered
that a lot of imported drainage-pipes for the settlement had been tumbled
in there. There wasn't one that was not broken. It was a wanton smash-up.
At last I got under the trees. My purpose was to stroll into the shade for
a 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 a breath stirred, not a leaf moved, with a 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 a 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 And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.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 a 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, a kind of blind, white
flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly. The man seemed young
-almost a 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 a bit of white worsted round his neck -Why?
Where did he get it? Was it a badge -an ornament -charm -a 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 a great
weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted
collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence. While I stood
horrorstruck, 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 a 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 a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of getup that in the first
moment I took him for a sort of vision. I saw a high starched collar, white
cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished
boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held
in a big white hand. He was amazing, and had a penholder behind his ear.
"I shook hands with
this miracle, and I learned he was the Company's chief accountant, and that
all the bookkeeping was done at this station. He had come out for a moment,
he said, 'to get a 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 a 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 a distaste for the work.' Thus this man had verily
accomplished something. And he was devoted to his books, which were in apple-pie
"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 a first-class agent; and seeing my disappointment at this information, he added slowly, laying down his pen, 'He is a very remarkable person.' Further questions elicited from him that Mr. Kurtz was at present in charge of a trading-post, a 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 a great peace.