Carlier is the second-in-command of the African trading station where the story takes place. He is described as ‘‘tall, with a large head and a very broad trunk perched upon a long pair of thin legs.’’ Carlier is a former cavalryman who, despite serving in the military, never received a commission and counts on his relatives to support him. When the relatives run out of money, his brother-in-law secures for him an appointment with the trading company. From the start, Carlier is less concerned with the duties of his position than he is with the percentage of profit he will earn from the station’s trades. Although at first he makes a show of deferring to Kayerts as the station chief, Carlier soon dispenses with the notion that Kayerts is his superior. For example, though he agrees with Kayerts’s order not to touch the ivory that Makola secures through a slave trade, Carlier betrays this agreement by helping Makola weigh the tusks. Carlier also convinces Kayerts not to tell the director about the slave trade, and he openly argues with Kayerts when the station chief refuses to let him have some of their rationed sugar for his coffee. This enrages Carlier, who attempts to strike Kayerts and chases him around the station house. In the end, Kayerts—fearing for his life— shoots the unarmed Carlier through his right eye and kills him. Makola suggests that they will say Carlier died of fever and will bury his body the next morning, but the company steamer arrives before the men can bury him.
The director of the trading company is the man in charge of all the trading stations in the region. He escorts Kayerts and Carlier to their remote station, leaves them with supplies, and provides a list of projects for them to complete during their six-month assignment at the station. As his steamer leaves the station, he confides to a fellow passenger that he thinks the two men are imbeciles, and he is glad to have gotten rid of them for six months. The director’s return trip to the station is delayed for two months due to problems with another company boat; the director decides to deliver provisions to other, more important trading stations first. When he finally arrives at the station, he finds Kayerts hanging by a makeshift noose from one arm of the cross that marks the previous station agent’s grave.
Gobila is the chief of the villages nearest to the trading station. He is described as ‘‘a gray-headed savage, thin and black, with a white cloth round his loins and a mangy panther skin hanging over his back.’’ Gobila visits the station periodically, and the station agents entertain him with their modern wonders such as matches and ammonia. He appears to like the agents a great deal, and even believes that they are immortal. He believes that the previous station agent, who allegedly died from fever, is not dead at all—he merely waits underground for some unknown reason. Because of his fondness for the agents, Gobila arranges for the women of his village to deliver food to the station each day. However, after the station workmen are abducted—and one of Gobila’s subjects is shot dead in the process—the old chief warns his people to stay away from the station and its dangerous occupants. Kayerts and Carlier attempt to reconnect with Gobila’s villagers after their food supplies run low, but the villagers fire arrows at them.
Kayerts is the man appointed as the newest chief of the African trading station that serves as the setting for the story. Described as ‘‘short and fat,’’ Kayerts is a widower and longtime employee of a telegraph office in Europe. He has taken a position with the company so he can earn money for the future dowry of his daughter, Melie, who is being raised by Kayerts’s sisters. Kayerts begins his term as chief in high spirits, taking seriously his responsibility to look out for the well-being of the employees there. However, as time drags on, he proves to be an ineffectual leader—Makola takes charge of trading, and Carlier becomes blatantly insubordinate. Kayerts also becomes physically unable to lead the camp because his swollen legs almost completely prevent him from walking. In the end, he shoots Carlier after the other man attacks him. Afterward, he finds that he cannot face returning to civilized society, where he is convinced he will be judged for his savage deeds. Just before the company steamer arrives, he hangs himself from the cross that marks the grave of the previous station chief.
Makola is third-in-command at the African trading station where the story takes place. A native of Sierra Leone, Makola insists his name is Henry Price, though Kayerts and Carlier—as well as the locals—call him Makola. Makola speaks French and English, and serves as the intermediary between the station agents and native traders. In actuality, Makola appears to run the trading operation singlehandedly. It is he who secures a trade of six large ivory tusks in exchange for ten of the company’s workmen. He arranges for the men to get drunk and fall asleep, which allows the traders to easily abduct them. From the beginning, it is stated that Makola hates both Kayerts and Carlier, though his actions toward them are never mean or hostile. He is married to a woman from Loanda, and they have three children, all of whom live with the couple in a small building at the station. After Kayerts kills Carlier, it is Makola who suggests that they cover up the killing by saying that Carlier died of fever. At the end of the story, Makola is the only station employee who remains alive.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale Group, 2010