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CHAPTER I (continued)
THE TREK. THE CENTRAL STATION
To get from the Outer Station to the Company's Central Station 200 miles inland, Marlow has to make a difficult overland trek. He's accompanied by a fat and sickly trader and a crew of 60 black carriers.
The path they travel is strangely deserted. Of course, Marlow reflects, if the English countryside suddenly filled with a lot of mysterious blacks armed with fearful weapons, who went around capturing the locals and forcing them to carry heavy loads, it would probably clear out pretty quickly, too. It's basically just a comic observation; but, again, it shows an empathy in Marlow that the other whites don't share. Even though his tone is flip, he makes a connection between the lives of Africans and the lives of his compatriots that would never occur to his white colleagues.
The party encounters a white officer who claims his job is keeping the road up (though, as far as Marlow can see, there isn't any road); nearby, they find the corpse of an African, a bullet hole through his forehead. The trip turns even more unpleasant when the fat white trader becomes ill. Unfit for the hardships of such a hike, he's constantly fainting. (When Marlow asks him why he ever came to Africa he replies scornfully, "To make money, of course"-one more greedy white.) Eventually he comes down with a fever and has to be carried in a hammock. He's so fat that some of the crew sneak away at night to get out of having to lug him. One evening Marlow lectures them sternly, and the next day he sends the hammock with its carriers off in front. An hour later he finds it overturned in a bush, its furious cargo groaning and demanding somebody's death. Marlow remembers a remark of the doctor in Brussels (the one who told him to avoid irritation, which he is not managing to do) that it would be interesting to watch the "mental changes" of individuals who went to Africa. "I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting," Marlow says drily. Again, the tone is slightly comic, but the spectre of madness had already begun to show itself-faintly.
After 15 days they finally reach the Central Station, which turns out to be just as disorganized and disorderly as the Outer Station. One of the agents immediately tells Marlow that the steamship he was supposed to command is lying at the bottom of the river.
Before he has any time to rest from his 20-mile walk that morning, Marlow
is ushered in for an interview with the station's manager. He doesn't
find much to like or admire in the man. The manager is a "common
trader," common in learning, common in intelligence, and with no
talent for administration and no ability to inspire the men he commands.
In fact, his only real talent seems to be for staying healthy-no small
advantage in country where whites are constantly coming down with deadly
As soon as Marlow walks in, the manager begins chattering about the wreck. You may realize only in retrospect how nervously he behaves, and it should make you suspicious. (Marlow isn't suspicious, though-yet.) The manager tells him he tried to set out two days before with a volunteer skipper, and almost immediately they tore out the bottom of the boat on stones. It sank at once. They just couldn't wait for Marlow any longer, the manager claims, they'd heard that an important station upriver was in danger and that its chief, Mr. Kurtz, was ill. Marlow tells him he's already heard of Kurtz. The manager is interested to learn that they speak of him at the Outer Station, and he quickly and rather nervously assures Marlow that Kurtz is their best agent, an important and exceptional man. He protests too much, as if he thinks Marlow has some reason to suspect him of lying.
Marlow, telling the story later, hints that the manager may not have been exactly honest about the wreck. "Certainly," Marlow says, "the affair was too stupid-when I think of it-to be altogether natural." The manager fidgets suspiciously, as if he had something to hide. We're going to find out later that he really hates Kurtz. Since he knows Kurtz is ill, there's good reason for us to suspect that he was willing to sabotage the steamboat in order to keep from having to save him. But suspect is all we can do; Marlow gives us no final evidence on the charge.
Conrad didn't shape the incidents in the novel for literary and symbolic purposes alone. He was telling an exotic adventure story, and early readers were especially fascinated by the authentic descriptions of African ordeals. Conrad later wrote, in his author's note to the volume in which Heart of Darkness was published, that the novel was "authentic in fundamentals" and that it represented "experience pushed a little (and only a very little) beyond the actual facts of the case." You might be surprised at the number of incidents that Conrad didn't invent. The strenuous trek; the corpse of the shot native; the sickly companion; the carriers' resentment at having to haul him, and the speech to them; the wrecked steamer-all these details come straight from the pages of Conrad's Congo diary.
The manager, too, is drawn from life. he's based on the figure of Camille Delcommune, a local manager and official of the outfit for which Conrad worked in the Congo. For some reason Delcommune and Conrad took an intense dislike to each other, so Conrad was probably getting even when he drew the manager as such a repellent nothing of a character.