The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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"We think with only a small part of the past, but it is with our entire past, including the original bent of our soul, that we desire, will, and act."


The balance of his fellow-passengers were not distinguished. There was a company of French tourists gong to Naples, and another lot of Germans bound for Athens, some business folk for Smyrna and Constantinople, and a sprinkling of Russians going home via Odessa, Batoum, or Novorossisk.

In his own stateroom, occupying the upper berth, was a little round-bodied, red-faced Canadian drummer, "traveling" in harvest-machines. The name of the machine, its price, and the terms of purchase were his universe; he knew them in several languages; beyond them, nothing. He was good-natured, conceding anything to save trouble. "D'ye mind the light for a bit while I read in bed?" asked O'Malley. "Don't mind anything much," was the cheery reply. "I'm not particular; I'm easy-going and you needn't bother." He turned over to sleep. "Old traveler," he added, his voice muffled by sheets and blankets, "and take things as they come." And the only objection O'Malley found in him was that he took things as they came to the point of not taking baths at all, and not even taking all his garments off when he went to bed.

The Captain, whom he knew from previous voyages, a genial, rough-voiced sailor from Sassnitz, chided him for so nearly missing the boat--"as usual."

"You're too late for a seat at my taple," he said with his laughing growl; "it's a pidy. You should have led me know py telegram, and I then kepd your place. Now you find room at the doctor's taple howefer berhaps...!"

"Steamer's very crowded this time," O'Malley replied, shrugging his shoulders; "but you'll let me come up sometimes for a smoke with you on the bridge?"

"Of course, of course."

"Anybody interesting on board?" he asked after a moment's pause.

The jolly Captain laughed. "'Pout the zame as usual, you know. Nothing to stop ze ship! Ask ze doctor; he knows zooner than me. But, anyway, the nice ones, they get zeazick always and dizappear. Going Trebizond this time?" he added.

"No; Batoum."

"Ach! Oil?"

"Caucasus generally--up in the mountains a bit."

"God blenty veapons then, I hope. They shoot you for two pfennig up there!" And he was off with his hearty deep laugh and rather ponderous briskness toward the bridge.

Thus O'Malley found himself placed for meals at the right hand of Dr. Stahl; opposite him, on the doctor's left, a talkative Moscow fur-merchant who, having come to definite conclusions of his own about things n general, was persuaded the rest of the world must share them, and who delivered verbose commonplaces with a kind of pontifical utterance sometimes amusing, but usually boring; on his right a gentle-eyed, brown-bearded Armenian priest from the Venice monastery that had sheltered Byron, a man who ate everything except soup with his knife, yet with a daintiness that made one marvel, and with hands so graceful they might almost have replaced the knife without off offence. Beyond the priest sat the rotund Canadian drummer. He kept silence, watched the dishes carefully lest anything should escape him, and--ate. Lower down on the opposite side, one or two nondescripts between, sat the big, blond, bearded stranger with his son. Diagonally across from himself and the doctor, they were in full view.

O'Malley talked to all and sundry whom his voice could reach, being easily forthcoming to people whom he was not likely to see again. But he was particularly pleased to find himself next to the ship's doctor, Dr. Heinrich Stahl, for the man both attracted and antagonized him, and they had crossed swords pleasantly on more voyages than one. There was a fundamental contradiction in his character due--O'Malley divined--to the fact that his experiences did not tally as he wished them to do with his beliefs, or vice versa. Affecting to believe in nothing, he occasionally dropped remarks that betrayed a belief in all kinds of things, unorthodox things. Then, having led the Irishman into confessions of his own fairy faith, he would abruptly rule the whole subject out of order with some cynical phrase that closed discussion. In this sarcastic attitude O'Malley detected a pose assumed for his own protection. "No man of sense can possibly accept such a thing; it is incredible and foolish." Yet, the biting way he said the words betrayed him; the very thing his reason rejected, his soul believed....

These vivid impressions the Irishman had of people, one wonders how accurate they were! In this case, perhaps, he was not far from the truth. That a man with Dr. Stahl's knowledge and ability could be content to hide his light under the bushel of a mere Schiffsarzt required explanation. His own explanation was that he wanted leisure for thinking and writing. Bald-headed, slovenly, prematurely old, his beard stained with tobacco and snuff, under-sized, scientific in the imaginative sense that made him speculative beyond mere formulae, his was an individuality that inspired a respect one could never quite account for. He had keen dark eyes that twinkled, sometimes mockingly, sometimes, if the word may be allowed, bitterly, yet often too with a good-humored amusement which sympathy with human weaknesses could alone have caused. A warm heart he certainly had, as more than one forlorn passenger could testify.

Conversation at their table was slow at first. It began at the lower end where the French tourists chattered briskly over the soup, then crept upwards like a slow fire o'erleaping various individuals who would not catch. For instance, it passed the harvest-machine man; it passed the nondescripts; it also passed the big light-haired stranger and his son.

At the table behind, there was a steady roar and buzz of voices; the Captain was easy and genial, prophesying to the ladies on either side Of him a calm voyage. In the shelter of his big voice even the shy found it easy to make remarks to their neighbors. Listening to fragments of the talk O'Malley found that his own eyes kept wandering down the table--diagonally across--to the two strangers. Once or twice he intercepted the doctor's glance traveling in the same direction, and on these occasions it was on the tip of his tongue to make a remark about them, or to ask a question. Yet the words did not come. Dr. Stahl, he felt, knew a similar hesitation. Each, wanting to speak, yet kept silence, waiting for the other to break the ice.

"This mistral is tiresome," observed the doctor, as the tide of talk flowed up to his end and made a remark necessary. "It tries the nerves of some." He glanced at O'Malley, but it was the fur-merchant who replied, spreading a be-ringed hand over his plate to feel the warmth.

"I know it well," he said pompously in a tone of finality; "it lasts three, six, or nine days. But once across the Golfe de Lyons we shall be free of it."

"You think so? Ah, I am glad," ventured the priest with a timid smile while he adroitly balanced meat and bullet-like green peas upon his knife-blade. Tone, smile, and gesture were so gentle that the use of steel in any form seemed incongruous.

The voice of the fur-merchant came in domineeringly.

"Of course. I have made this trip so often, I know. St. Petersburg to Paris, a few weeks on the Riviera, then back by Constantinople and the Crimea. It is nothing. I remember last year--" He pushed a large pearl pin more deeply into his speckled tie and began a story that proved chiefly how luxuriously he traveled. His eyes tried to draw the whole end of the table into his circle, but while the Armenian listened politely, with smiles and bows, Dr. Stahl turned to the Irishman again. It Vas the year of Halley's comet and he began talking interestingly about it.

"... Three o'clock in the morning--any morning, yes--is the best time," the doctor concluded, "and I'll have you called. You must see it through my telescope. End of this week, say, after we leave Catania and turn eastwards..."

And at this instant, following a roar of laughter from the Captain's table, came one of those abrupt pauses that sometimes catch an entire room at once. All voices hushed. Even the merchant, setting down his champagne glass, fell silent. One heard only the beating of the steamer's screw, the rush of water below the port-holes, the soft scuffle of the stewards' feet. The conclusion of the doctor's inconsiderable sentence was sharply audible all over the room--

"... crossing the Ionian Sea toward the Isles of Greece."

It rang across the pause, and at the same moment O'Malley caught the eyes of the big stranger lifted suddenly and fixed upon the speaker's face as though the words had summoned him.

They shifted the same instant to his own, then dropped again to his plate. Again the clatter of conversation drowned the room as before; the merchant resumed his self-description in terms of gold; the doctor discussed the gases of the comet's tail. But the swift-blooded Irishman felt himself caught away strangely and suddenly into another world. Out of the abyss of the subconscious there rose a gesture prophetic and immense. The trivial phrase and that intercepted look opened a great door of wonder in his heart. In a second he grew "absent-minded." Or, rather, something touched a button and the whole machinery of his personality shifted round noiselessly and instantaneously, presenting an immediate new facet to the world. His normal, puny self-consciousness slipped a moment into the majestic calm of some far larger state that the stranger also knew. The Universe lies in every human heart, and he plunged into that archetypal world that stands so close behind all sensible appearances. He could neither explain nor attempt to explain, but he sailed away into some giant swimming mood of beauty wherein steamer, passengers, talk, faded utterly, the stranger and his son remaining alone real and vital. He had seen; he could never forget. Chance prepared the setting, but immense powers had rushed in and availed themselves of it. Something deeply buried had flamed from the stranger's eyes and beckoned to him. The fire ran from the big man to himself and was gone.

"The Isles of Greece--" The words were simple enough, yet it seemed to O'Malley that the look they summoned to the stranger's eyes ensouled them, transfiguring them with the significance of vital clues. They touched the fringe of a mystery, magnificent and remote--some transcendent psychical drama in the 'life of this man whose "bigness" and whose "loneliness that must be whispered" were also in their way other vital clues. Moreover, remembering his first sight of these two upon the upper deck a few hours before, he understood that his own spirit, by virtue of its peculiar and primitive yearnings, was involved in the same mystery and included in the same hidden passion.

The little incident illustrates admirably O'Malley's idiosyncrasy of "seeing whole." In a lightning flash his inner sense had associated the words and the glance, divining that the one had caused the other. That pause provided the opportunity.... If Imagination, then it was creative imagination; if true, it was assuredly spiritual insight of a rare quality.

He became aware that the twinkling eyes of his neighbor were observing him keenly. For some moments evidently he had been absent-mindedly staring down the table. He turned quickly and looked at the doctor with frankness. This time it was impossible to avoid speech of some kind.

"Following those lights that do mislead the morn?" asked Dr. Stahl slyly. "Your thoughts have been traveling. You've heard none of my last remarks!"

Under the clamor of the merchant's voice O'Malley replied in a lowered tone:

"I was watching those two half-way down the table opposite. They interest you as well, I see." It was not a challenge exactly; if the tone was aggressive, it was merely that he felt the subject was one on which they would differ, and he scented an approaching discussion. The doctor's reply, indicating agreement, surprised him a good deal.

"They do; they interest me greatly." There was no trace of fight in the voice. "That should cause you no surprise."

"Me--they simply fascinate," said O'Malley, always easily drawn. "What is it? What do you see about them that is unusual? Do you, too, see them 'big'?" The doctor did not answer at once, and O'Malley added, "The father's a tremendous fellow, but it's not that--"

"Partly, though," said the other, "partly, I think."

"What else, then?" The fur-merchant, still talking, prevented their being overheard. "What is it marks them off so from the rest?"

"Of all people you should see," smiled the doctor quietly. "If a man of your imagination sees nothing, what shall a poor exact mind like myself see?" He eyed him keenly a moment. "You really mean that you detect nothing?"

"A certain distinction, yes; a certain aloofness from others. Isolated, they seem in a way; rather a splendid isolation I should call it--"

And then he stopped abruptly. It was most curious, but he was aware that unwittingly in this way he had stumbled upon the truth, aware at the same time that he resented discussing it with his companion--because it meant at the same time discussing himself or something in himself he wished to hide. His entire mood shifted again with completeness and rapidity. He could not help it. It seemed suddenly as though he had been telling the doctor secrets about himself, secrets moreover he would not treat sympathetically. The doctor had been "at him," so to speak, searching the depths of him with a probing acuteness the casual language had disguised.

"What are they, do you suppose: Finns, Russians, Norwegians, or what?" the doctor asked. And the other replied briefly that he guessed they might be Russians perhaps, South Russians. His tone was different. He wished to avoid further discussion. At the first opportunity he neatly changed the conversation.

It was curious, the way proof came to him. Something in himself, wild as the desert, something to do with that love of primitive life he discussed only with the few who were intimately sympathetic toward it, this something in his soul was so akin to a similar passion in these strangers that to talk of it was to betray himself as well as them.

Further, he resented Dr. Stahl's interest in them, because he felt it was critical and scientific. Not far behind hid the analysis that would lay them bare, leading to their destruction. A profound instinctive sense of self-preservation had been stirred within him.

Already, mysteriously guided by secret affinities, he had ranged himself on the side of the strangers.

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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.