فصل 03

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فصل 03

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CHAPTER THREE

I began work on the steamer as soon as I could. First we had to raise her from the bottom of the river, and she came up full of mud and filth. Then I had to inspect the damage, which was considerable.

‘Life at the station went on as usual while I was working. There were always a lot of people wandering about, but no one seemed to do much. Sometimes I heard the word “ivory”, and that word did cause excitement. Men became excited at the word “ivory”. It was almost a religion for some of them.

‘One evening there was a fire at the station. A hut full of calico, cotton prints and beads suddenly burst into flames. I walked towards the hut in the darkness. There were two men in front of me talking. One of them was the manager. I heard one of them say “Kurtz”, and then the manager said, “take advantage of this accident”.

‘I spoke to them. The manager greeted me politely, and then he walked away. The other man was an agent. He was young, and clearly a gentleman. We spoke for a while and then he asked me to come to his room for a drink. I accepted the invitation.

‘The young agent talked quite a lot that evening. He told me that he was waiting here at the station. He really wanted a station of his own. He told me station managers could make a lot of money out of ivory. That was what he wanted.

‘He kept talking about the Council in Europe. As he was talking, I looked around the room. There was a fine painting on the wall. It was a picture of Liberty - the woman was blindfolded and carrying a torch. I asked him who the artist was.

“‘Mr Kurtz,” he told me.

‘I had heard the name “Kurtz” several times now, and I was curious to learn about him.

“‘Who is this Mr Kurtz?” I asked him.

‘“He’s the chief of the inner station,” the young agent told me. “He’s a brilliant man. He represents compassion, and science, and progress. He was sent to us from Europe,” he went on. “Apparently he can teach us all what we should be doing.”

‘He spoke sneeringly now.

“‘In two years’ time Mr Kurtz will be a great man here. You know all about that, of course, with your contacts in the Council. You’re part of the new team - the team of virtue!”

‘It was then that I understood. The young man thought I knew everything about the company. He thought I was important. I decided to tease him a little.

‘“You know a lot about the company’s intentions,” I said sternly. “I suppose you read all the company’s correspondence?”

‘He did not reply. He did not need to reply. The answer was obvious.

“‘When Mr Kurtz is in charge, you won’t read any more private correspondence,” I told him.

‘We went outside for a walk. The young agent was silent for a few minutes. He was clearly thinking what he should say to me.

“I don’t want you to misunderstand me,” he said after a silence. “You’ll be seeing Mr Kurtz soon, and I don’t want you to give him a false idea about me.”

‘Now I understood everything! The young agent had been hoping to work with the manager here. They got along together, and life would have been comfortable for both of them if Mr Kurtz had not arrived. But his presence had upset everything for both of them. They felt threatened by him.

‘While the agent was talking to me I was looking at the jungle around us. The moon was shining on the great river, and the country seemed huge. What were we all doing here? Could we hope to control that vastness? I thought of Mr Kurtz - he was deep inside the country somewhere.

‘Then I made a decision. I did not know Mr Kurtz; he was just a name to me. But I decided to let the agent think I was an important man with contacts back in Brussels. I thought it would help Mr Kurtz, you see.

‘Now the agent was telling me that Mr Kurtz was a genius.

‘“But even a genius needs ordinary men around him,” he argued. “You can see that, can’t you?”

‘“I can see it,” I agreed.

‘Then I told him that what I really wanted were rivets. They were essential for repairing the steamer. I knew there were lots of rivets at the station on the coast. I had seen boxes of them lying around. But here, in the middle of this jungle, there were no rivets.

‘The agent listened to me coldly. He said that he knew nothing about rivets.

‘“I just obey my orders,” he told me.

‘I thought that meant he would order rivets for me, because he imagined I was an important man in the company. I thought I had won a victory - but I had misunderstood the man. He meant that he only obeyed the manager’s orders - and the manager did not want the steamer to be repaired quickly.

‘Then he began to talk about a hippopotamus that lived near the river. He asked me if I was frightened of the animal when I slept out on the steamer. He said the men had tried to shoot it several times, but had never succeeded.

‘“That animal has a charmed life,” he told me. Then he gave me a significant look. “Only animals have a charmed life here in Africa. Human beings do not. Do you understand me?”

‘The agent looked at me silently for a few seconds more, and then he went away.’

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