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CHAPTER II (continued)
THE MESSAGE. THE FOG. CANNIBALS
Fifty miles from the Inner Station the boat steams up to an old hut with a pile of wood in front and a faded message scrawled on a piece of board: "Wood for you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously." The manager figures it must have been left by that "miserable trader," the non-Company man he'd told his uncle he would like to hang. Marlow also finds a battered old book on seamanship, with notes in the margin that appear to be written in code ("cipher"). But why bring a book about ocean sailing out into the middle of nowhere, and why go to the trouble to make notes in code? "It was an extravagant mystery."
The next evening they stop about eight miles below the Station. Marlow is eager to press on and meet Kurtz at last, but they've been warned to approach cautiously and sailing up in the dark would be rash. They drop anchor in the middle of the river.
When the sun rises they find themselves in the middle of a thick fog "more blinding than the night."
In this instance Conrad reverses the usual associations of light and dark: here whiteness is threatening. This isn't the only point where such a reversal occurs. There's also the "whited sepulchre" of Brussels, for example. And in general it's the white race in Africa, not the black one, that's darkly evil.
Around eight or nine o'clock the silent fog is pierced by a loud, despairing
cry. It stops, and then a horrible tumult of voices rises up from the
banks. The terrified pilgrims dart into their cabins to grab their rifles.
The blacks on board, who are in unfamiliar country themselves, have a different reaction. They seem interested and attentive-but not frightened. Marlow talks to their young leader (a figure of far more dignity than any of the ridiculous pilgrims), who tells him, "Catch 'im. Give 'im to us." Rather amused, Marlow asks what they would do with their captives. "Eat 'im!" the young cannibal curtly replies, and turns away.
Marlow isn't as shocked as you might expect, because it suddenly dawns on him how hungry these men must be. The whites eat mainly out of tin cans they brought with them; but the hippo meat that the blacks brought along was thrown overboard by the pilgrims, who couldn't stand the rotten smell any longer. Now the poor blacks have nothing to eat. They're paid three pieces of brass wire weekly, which they're supposed to trade for food with villagers along the way. But most of the villages have turned out to be either abandoned or unfriendly, or else the unsympathetic manager, who has plenty of canned food of his own, hasn't wanted to stop the boat.
In fact, now that he thinks about it, it amazes Marlow that these 30 cannibals who must be practically starving haven't made a meal of the five white men on board. After all, what's to stop them? Starvation, Marlow knows, is the most horrible hardship you can face. But something restrains these men from gobbling up their taskmasters. "Restraint! What possible restraint?" Yet there it is, a tremendous mystery.
Restraint is as important a value to Marlow (and to Conrad) as work is. If people didn't exercise self-control, society would turn into a jungle. There's a special irony operating here, since these typical inhabitants of the jungle are showing such amazing and unexpected restraint. The irony will deepen later, when we encounter a highly "civilized" white man of whom you would expect restraint, who's shown no restraint at all.
Meanwhile, the obnoxious pilgrims are quarreling about which bank the cries came from. The manager halfheartedly urges Marlow to risk setting sail in the fog, but Marlow refuses. The river is too treacherous, it's hard enough to keep from sinking the boat when he can see the river, blinded by the fog, it would be impossible. Besides, Marlow doesn't really think they're going to be attacked. For one thing, any warriors who tried coming out in a canoe would get lost in the fog. But what really convinces him they're probably safe is the way the cries sounded. They didn't seem threatening, Marlow says; "they had given me an irresistible impression of sorrow," as if the sight of the steamboat had filled these people with "unrestrained grief." Marlow, as it turns out, will be proved half-right: right about the grief, but wrong about the attack.