The flood had made and the only thing for it was to wait for the turn of tide. The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! ... The dreams of men, the germs of empires.
Between us four was the bond of the sea, making us tolerant of each other's yarns. Which was just as well when Marlow, sitting serenely as a Buddha, began his two hour, Freudian critique of colonialism.
"This also has been one of the dark places of the earth," he said didactically, ensuring we should not miss the parallels between the Romans in Britain and what was to follow. "Many men must have died here. The conquest of the earth is not a pretty thing. All that redeems it is the idea."
He broke off to let his words hang portentously. We waited patiently for him to continue. There wasn't anything else to do. "I don't want to bother you much with personal details," he said eventually. "But I'm going to anyway.
"When I was a little chap I had a passion for the blank spaces on the map. And there was one, the most blank of all that I had a hankering after. True, by the end of my boyhood it was no longer a blank. It was a place of darkness. Yet like a giant snake, ensnaring me with its phallic symbolism, this mighty river drew me in and I got appointed as a steamboat skipper.
"I crossed the Channel and in a few hours I was in the whited sepulchre of my employers' city. I saw the Company doctor, inspected another map which showed the river coiling snake-like through the darkness and said goodbye to my aunt. It's queer how stupid women are. They live in a world of their own.
"As the steamer made its way along the serpentine channel of the river, we passed several settlements where many niggers lay dying in the service of the Company. We eventually disembarked and, in the company of a vastly overweight, unattractive white man, the very obvious physical embodiment of imperial greed and exploitation, began the two hundred mile journey on foot to the Central Station.
"I arrived to find that my steamboat had been sunk and I kept myself to myself, content to overhear snippets of conversation about a man called Kurtz. "Who is this Kurtz?" I asked at last. "He runs the Inner Station," the manager said. From this reply, I inferred that this man was afraid of Kurtz, as if he held up a mirror to the moral bankruptcy of Belgian colonialism while somehow escaping judgment himself.
"Two months passed, time which I spent being charmed by the snake-like properties of the river as it slithered its way into the wilderness of the jungle id, before my boat was seaworthy and I could set off in search of Kurtz in the heart of darkness. I had on board with me several white men, whom I shall meaningfully call pilgrims, a bunch of cannibals - surprisingly jolly fellows when not eating rancid hippopotamus - and my sturdy, silent helmsman. This fine black specimen did not speak, but had he done so would undoubtedly have said: 'You are a good man, Mistah Marlow. We niggers have no language or culture worth mentioning. It is just a shame that we've been civilised by those fat Belgian bastards instead of by someone with your more refined sensibilities.'
"We stopped briefly at an abandoned settlement where a written note warned of dark, ominous events ahead and as we neared Kurtz's station on a bend of this vast snaking river, we were becalmed by fog. The screech of savages rent the darkness and a hail of pitiful arrows rained down on the deck. My sturdy helmsman rashly opened a shutter and was struck by a spear. He looked up, grateful that his last vision before he passed into his own heart of darkness should be of me. I patted my pet affectionately as he died, before tossing his body into the murky darkness of the snake-like river.
"At last we reached a clearing in the jungle and there we found Kurtz, semi-delirious with disease, being tended by a young Russian man. 'It was Kurtz who ordered the natives to attack you,' he told us. 'They are in awe of his savagery. They treat him like a God.' We gathered up his vast stockpile of ivory and I began to read his journal that started as a witness to a noble moral ideal and ended after nine long years in unimaginable barbarism with the exhortation to exterminate all the savages. Yet somehow I could not condemn him.
"Kurtz escaped during the night and I found him heading back towards the heart of darkness. He talked briefly of his Intended before whispering 'The horror, the horror'. We carried him back onboard and set off down the muscular, coiling stream, yet he died before we reached the brightness of the ego.
"I too almost succumbed to illness and it was with a sense of moral fatigue that I visited Kurtz's Intended on my return to Europe. 'Pray tell me his last words,' the Intended murmured. My heart trembled. She was only a woman and thus too dim to be told of the moral depravities of the heart of darkness. 'They were your name,' I said."
Marlow ceased talking and we turned our heads towards London, once more mindful of its darkness.