The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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"Is it not just possible that there is a mode of being as much transcending Intelligence and Will as these transcend mechanical motion?"

--HERBERT SPENCER, First Principles

The two men left the rail and walked arm in arm along the deserted deck, speaking in lowered voices.

"He came first to us, brought by the keeper of an obscure hotel where he was staying, as a case of lapse of memory--loss of memory, I should say, for it was complete. He was unable to say who he was, whence he came, or to whom he belonged. Of his land or people we could learn nothing. His antecedents were an utter blank. Speech he had practically none of his own--nothing but the merest smattering of many tongues, a word here, a word there. Utterance, indeed, of any kind was exceedingly difficult to him. For years, evidently, he had wandered over the world, companionless among men, seeking his own, finding no place where to lay his head. People, it seemed, both men and women, kept him at arm's-length, feeling afraid; the keeper of the little hotel was clearly terrified. This quality he had that I mentioned just now, repelled human beings--even in the Hospital it was noticeable--and placed him in the midst of humanity thus absolutely alone. It is a quality more rare than"--hesitating, searching for a word--"purity, one almost extinct today, one that I have never before or since come across in any other being--hardly ever, that is to say," he qualified the sentence, glancing significantly at his companion.

"And the boy?" O'Malley asked quickly, anxious to avoid any discussion of himself.

"There was no boy then. He has found him since. He may find others too--possibly!" The Irishman drew his arm out, edging away imperceptibly. That shiver of joy reached him from the air and sea, perhaps.

"And two years ago," continued Dr. Stahl, as if nothing had happened, "he was discharged, harmless"--he lingered a moment on the word, "if not cured. He was to report to us every six months. He has never done so."

"You think he remembers you?"

"No. It is quite clear that he has lapsed back completely again into the--er--state whence he came to us, that unknown world where he passed his youth with others of his kind, but of which he has been able to reveal no single detail to us, nor we to trace the slightest clue."

They stopped beneath the covered portion of the deck, for the mist had now turned to rain. They leaned against the smoking-room outer wall. In O'Malley's mind the thoughts and feelings plunged and reared. Only with difficulty did he control himself.

"And this man, you think," he asked with outward calmness, "is of--of my kind?"

"'Akin,' I said. I suggest--" But O'Malley cut him short.

"So that you engineered our sharing a cabin with a view to putting him again--putting us both--under the microscope?"

"My scientific interest was very strong," Dr. Stahl replied carefully. "But it is not too late to change. I offer you a bed in my own roomy cabin on the promenade deck. Also, I ask your forgiveness."

The Irishman, large though his imaginative creed was, felt oddly checked, baffled, stupefied by what he had heard. He knew perfectly well what Stahl was driving at, and that revelations of another kind were yet to follow. What bereft him of very definite speech was this new fact slowly awakening in his consciousness which hypnotized him, as it were, with its grandeur. It seemed to portend that his own primitive yearnings, so-called, grew out of far deeper foundations than he had yet dreamed of even. Stahl, should he choose to listen, meant to give him explanation, quasi-scientific explanation. This talk about a survival of "unexpended mythological values" carried him off his feet. He knew it was true. Veiled behind that carefully chosen phrase was something more--a truth brilliantly discovered. He knew, too, that it bit at the platform-boards upon which his personality, his sanity, his very life, perhaps, rested--his modern life.

"I forgive you, Dr. Stahl," he heard himself saying with a deceptive calmness of voice as they stood shoulder to shoulder in that dark corner, "for there is really nothing to forgive. The characteristics of these Urmenschen you describe attract me very greatly. Your words merely give my imagination a letter of introduction to my reason. They burrow among the foundations of my life and being. At least--you have done me no wrong...." He knew the words were wild, impulsive, yet he could find no better. Above all things he wished to conceal his rising, grand delight.

"I thank you," Stahl said simply, yet with a certain confusion. "I--felt I owed you this explanation--er--this confession."

"You wished to warn me?"

"I wished to say 'Be careful' rather. I say it now--Be careful! I give you this invitation to share my cabin for the remainder of the voyage, and I urge you to accept it." The offer was from the heart, while the scientific interest in the man obviously half hoped for a refusal.

"You think harm might come to me?"

"Not physically. The man is gentle and safe in every way."

"But there is danger--in your opinion?" insisted the other.

"There is danger--"

"That his influence may make me as himself--an Urmensch?"

"That he may--get you," was the curious answer, given steadily after a moment's pause.

Again the words thrilled O'Malley to the core of his delighted, half-frightened soul. "You really mean that?" he asked again; "as 'doctor and scientist,' you mean it?"

Stahl replied with a solemn anxiety in eyes and voice. "I mean that you have in yourself that 'quality' which makes the proximity of this 'being' dangerous: in a word that he may take you--er--with him."



They moved further up the deck together for some minutes in silence, but the Irishman's feelings, irritated by the man's prolonged evasion, reached a degree of impatience that was almost anger. "Let us be more definite," he exclaimed at length a trifle hotly. "You mean that I might go insane?"

"Not in the ordinary sense," came the answer without a sign of annoyance or hesitation; "but that something might happen to you--something that science could not recognize and medical science could not treat--"

Then O'Malley interrupted him with the vital question that rushed out before he could consider its wisdom or legitimacy.

"Then what really is he--this man, this 'being' whom you call a 'survival,' and who makes you fear for my safety. Tell me exactly what he is?"

They found themselves just then by the doctor's cabin, and Stahl, pushing the door open, led him in. Taking the sofa for himself, he pointed to an armchair opposite.

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