The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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"Lonely! Why should I feel lonely? Is not our planet in the Milky Way?"


March had passed shouting away, and April was whispering deliciously among her scented showers when O'Malley went on board the coasting steamer at Marseilles for the Levant and the Black Sea. The mistral made the land unbearable, but herds of white horses ran galloping over the bay beneath a sky of childhood's blue. The ship started punctually--he came on board as usual with a bare minute's margin--and from his rapid survey of the thronged upper deck, it seems, he singled out on the instant this man and boy, wondering first vaguely at their uncommon air of bulk, secondly at the absence of detail which should confirm it. They appeared so much bigger than they actually were. The laughter, rising in his heart, however, did not get as far as his lips.

For this appearance of massive bulk, and of shoulders comely yet almost humped, was not borne out by a direct inspection. It was a mental impression. The man, though broad and well-proportioned, with heavy back and neck and uncommonly sturdy torso, was in no sense monstrous. It was upon the corner of the eye that the bulk and hugeness dawned, a false report that melted under direct vision. O'Malley took him in with attention merging in respect, searching in vain for the detail of back and limbs and neck that suggested so curiously the sense of the gigantic. The boy beside him, obviously son, possessed the same elusive attributes--felt yet never positively seen.

Passing down to his cabin, wondering vaguely to what nationality they might belong, he was immediately behind them, elbowing French and German tourists, when the father abruptly turned and faced him. Their gaze met. O'Malley started.

"Whew...!" ran some silent expression like fire through his brain.

Out of a massive visage, placid for all its ruggedness, shone eyes large and timid as those of an animal or child bewildered among so many people. There was an expression in them not so much cowed or dismayed as "un-refuged"--the eyes of the hunted creature. That, at least, was the first thing they betrayed; for the same second the quick-blooded Celt caught another look: the look of a hunted creature that at last knows shelter and has found it. The first expression had emerged, then withdrawn again swiftly like an animal into its hole where safety lay. Before disappearing, it had flashed a wireless message of warning, of welcome, of explanation--he knew not what term to use--to another of its own kind, to himself.

O'Malley, utterly arrested, stood and stared. He would have spoken, for the invitation seemed obvious enough, but there came an odd catch in his breath, and words failed altogether. The boy, peering at him sideways, clung to his great parent's side. For perhaps ten seconds there was this interchange of staring, intimate staring, between the three of them ... and then the Irishman, confused, more than a little agitated, ended the silent introduction with an imperceptible bow and passed on slowly, knocking absent-mindedly through the crowd, down to his cabin on the lower deck.

In his heart, deep down, stirred an indescribable sympathy with something he divined in these two that was akin to himself, but that as yet he could not name. On the surface he felt an emotion he knew not whether to call uneasiness or surprise, but crowding past it, half smothering it, rose this other more profound emotion. Something enormously winning in the atmosphere of father and son called to him in the silence: it was significant, oddly buried; not yet had it emerged enough to be confessed and labeled. But each had recognized it in the other. Each knew. Each waited. And it was extraordinarily disturbing.

Before unpacking, he sat for a long time on his berth, thinking....trying in vain to catch through a thunder of surprising emotions the word that might bring explanation. That strange impression of giant bulk, unsupported by actual measurements; that look of startled security seeking shelter; that other look of being sure, of knowing where to go and being actually en route,--all these, he felt, grew from the same hidden cause whereof they were symptoms. It was this hidden thing in the man that had reached out invisibly and fired his own consciousness as their gaze met in that brief instant. And it had disturbed him so profoundly because the very same lost thing lay buried in himself. The man knew, whereas he anticipated merely--as yet. What was it? Why came there with it both happiness and fear?

The word that kept chasing itself in a circle like a kitten after its own tail, yet bringing no explanation, was Loneliness--a loneliness that must be whispered. For it was loneliness on the verge of finding relief. And if proclaimed too loud, there might come those who would interfere and prevent relief. The man, and the boy too for that matter, were escaping. They had found the way back, were ready and eager, moreover, to show it to other prisoners.

And this was as near as O'Malley could come to explanation. He began to understand dimly--and with an extraordinary excitement of happiness.

"Well--and the bigness?" I asked, seizing on a practical point after listening to his dreaming, "what do you make of that? It must have had some definite cause surely?"

He turned and fixed his light blue eyes on mine as we paced beside the Serpentine that summer afternoon when I first heard the story told. He was half grave, half laughing.

"The size, the bulk, the bigness," he replied, "must have been in reality the expression of some mental quality that reached me psychically, producing its effect directly on my mind and not upon the eyes at all." In telling the story he used a simile omitted in the writing of it, because his sense of humor perceived that no possible turn of phrase could save it from grotesqueness when actually it was far from grotesque--extraordinarily pathetic rather: "As though," he said, "the great back and shoulders carried beneath the loose black cape--humps, projections at least; but projections not ugly in themselves, comely even in some perfectly natural way, that lent to his person this idea of giant size. His body, though large, was normal so far as its proportions were concerned. In his spirit, though, there hid another shape. An aspect of that other shape somehow reached my mind."

Then, seeing that I found nothing at the moment to reply, he added:

"As an angry man you may picture to yourself as red, or a jealous man as green!" He laughed aloud. "D'ye see, now? It was not really a physical business at all!"

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.