I could hardly sleep that night after Marlow had spun us that fantastic tale. The others- even the Accountant, who at the best of times complained of an apoplexy at least twice a day, if not more- seemed to have no difficulty succumbing to Morpheus’s delicate touch, and they snored on without care or concern, while I stared above through the impenetrable darkness at the ceiling I could not see but could only trust to my good sense was still there, a glaring specter of all manner of beliefs; and I cursed silently in my head while I debated. Marlow, for his part, could have been lying awake as well; but I could not hear him alone out of the bass of the others; and I had no wish to try and discover him in his bed across the cabin, for if he was still alert, I could not bear to meet his eyes, filled with madness and pain, without a whole army of angels at my back, for fear of what else I might see. And so I cursed my cowardly nature while I debated.
What an astounding tale! Of which parts were true, and which parts merely grotesque falsehoods produced by the shadows of the jungle, brought on by the currents of the muddy river, I knew not; nor did I particularly care, save for the fact that knowing such things would provide the balance of how truly mad Marlow was. He had always been perceptible to philosophies and fragments of natures contrary or at the least different from his own or that of Civilization, and I was quite willing to forgive him of stretching the truths of his journey for the sake of convincing us of the stark hopelessness and helplessness and sheer terror the episode must surely have made him feel- for tales, however well told, are nothing if not anticlimactic or unconvincing or even boring if stated exactly as occurred, because most audiences are not capable of reading between the lines of white language and experiencing for themselves the speakers’ emotions as they occur within his narrative; but. But. As long as I have known Marlow, I had never seen such desolation and-- darkness, as when he recounted his travels into that hellish continent of Africa and back again, not unchanged or unscathed, and not for the benefit of himself, that much is obvious.
And back again. I debated in circles, a dog chasing his tale round and round again. I always came to the same spot in the maze, where I could go no further, only find myself transported once again back to the beginning, frustratingly set to run the race once more: how changed was Marlow, and what did this mean for him? What could I, as his friend, as a member of Civilization, as an insignificant human on this great earth full of so many mysteries, take from his tale? This second thought troubled me greatly. I knew right, and right, and right. I had experienced for myself the same inkling of the darker- I hesitated to say evil- side of human nature, but nothing in the same magnitude of Marlow’s experience, mostly imagined or otherwise; and even if his story was predominately fabricated, the original encounters must have been truly monstrous by any measure to inspire such horrific retellings. In any case, the question of Marlow’s sanity was open for review; later I would worry about how I might take the ravings of a could-be madman, or simply the lamentations of a desperate, confused man.
A sudden noise made me sit up abruptly. Across the cabin, a slightly darker shadow moved, and moved towards the stairs, and up them, and then the door was opened. It was Marlow. He had not been asleep after all. I might follow him, and observe him, and discern a few more clues before passing any final judgement; and doubtless he would be willing to hear any and all thoughts I had on the subject of his sanity, as he had never objected before, and I did not think that part of his nature had changed, if, indeed, he was changed much at all. Blast it! This scattered circling grew intolerable. I threw back the blanket and followed Marlow out onto the star-lit deck of the Nellie. The lights of London blazed as though the city were aflame, and the horizon was red and starless. Marlow stood at the railing, smoking a cigarette. He said nothing to me about the late hour, only offered me a cigarette as well, which I took. The taste of the tobacco was exquisite and startling. The water of the Thames lapped quietly at the sides of the Nellie. All was peaceful. A drag at his cigarette caused Marlow’s face to be lit, and as he let out the smoke, Marlow spoke.
“I suppose I shocked everyone this afternoon with my tale. Are you sure you want to be alone with me? I might go mad, and fling you overboard before you have the chance to rouse the alarum.” He spoke with such a tone of dark humor like he always had that I knew I had nothing to fear for voicing my opinions.
“I don’t know,” I said; “you seem calmer now, and doubtless the night watch on the prow over there might have a thing or two to shout if you managed to throw me overboard.”
“Managed,” he snorted. “You doubt me, then?”
“Never. I was thinking, though.”
“Yes, what was it?”
“How big your skull was now. Have you ever measured it since your trip?”
He let out a bark of laughter and tossed the butt of his cigarette over the side of the railing, where it landed in the water with a sibilate. He turned to face me, propping his elbows upon the railing. “No, I have not. I have been afraid to.”
“You, Marlow? Afraid?”
“Yes, afraid. I have already seen the judgement passed upon my nature as a human being; I fear having that same lens focused upon my personal nature.”
“But surely,” I scoffed, “the simple measuring of a skull would not provide a dependable resolution for the questions you have; and you must remember that the changes, if there were any, took place inside the skull.”
“I still believe, somehow, that any evil should be apparent, or at least hinted; and if I have changed, as I believe I have, and how, I fear discovering how far the roots of change descend. Do you know, I would have been happy if you fellows had laughed at me? Relieved, even. I would then be justified as passing the whole affair as a bad experience gone worse, and then getting on with my life. Perhaps settling down on dry land, turning respectable. But you did not; and so I cannot; and here I am, at three in the morning, discussing metaphysics and insanity and humanity and all the -anities with my friend who probably assumes I am mad. Well, let’s hear your judgement, quick, before I find my cowardice and beg you not to speak of this again, to forget about the whole story, and to forget all about your once-friend Charlie Marlow, who disappeared into the sea of faces one day and never returned.”
“You couldn’t disappear,” I said at last.
“And why not?”
“Because although you yourself are not extraordinary, you draw extraordinary events to you like moths to flame. I think, my friend, that you have had a bad experience, and that you are not quite over it; I think that you have seen things with which you have yet to come to terms; I believe that as adventurous as you are, what occurred was probably the only thing that could ever convince you to settle down; and I believe that you need a vacation.”
“A vacation? Where to?”
“The English countryside, where you can drink tea each afternoon on a veranda surrounded by flowers, have a beautiful little maid will tend to your every whim, and where you can walk in the forests and grass and observe that there is some beauty in the world.”
“And was my adventure really as useful as you say?”
“Very well. Since you were the only one to suggest something useful, I believe I may take you up on your suggestion. I do have a request.”
“That I have an all-female staff.”
I considered this request before nodding. I understood why he wished for this, and found it to be good.
The next day the Nellie pulled into the harbor and we said our goodbyes; and if the others seemed a bit strained towards Marlow, well, it could be that the facts had finally begun to sink in. Marlow came with me, and I made the arrangements, and he went off to his vacation. I received news about a week later that Marlow had never reached his destination, and no one knew where he had gone to. I sent the police to search for him, but he was never found.