The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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"Mythology contains the history of the archetypal world. It comprehends Past, Present, and Future."

--NOVALIS, Flower Pollen, Translated by U.C.B.

In this way there came between these two the slight barrier of a forbidden subject that grew because neither destroyed it. O'Malley had erected it; Dr. Stahl respected it. Neither referred again for a time to the big Russian and his son.

In his written account O'Malley, who was certainly no constructive literary craftsman, left out apparently countless little confirmatory details. By word of mouth he made me feel at once that this mystery existed, however; and to weld the two together is a difficult task. There nevertheless was this something about the Russian and his boy that excited deep curiosity, accompanied by an aversion on the part of the other passengers that isolated them; also, there was this competition on the part of the two friends to solve it, from opposing motives.

Had either of the strangers fallen seasick, the advantage would have been easily with Dr. Stahl--professionally, but since they remained well, and the doctor was in constant demand by the other passengers, it was the Irishman who won the first move and came to close quarters by making a personal acquaintance. His strong desire helped matters of course; for he noticed with indignation that these two, quiet and inoffensive as they were and with no salient cause of offence, were yet rejected by the main body of passengers. They seemed to possess a quality that somehow insulated them from approach, sending them effectually "to Coventry," and in a small steamer where the travelers settle down into a kind of big family life, this isolation was unpleasantly noticeable.

It stood out in numerous little details that only a keen observer closely watching could have taken into account. Small advances, travelers' courtesies, and the like that ordinarily should have led to conversation, in their case led to nothing. The other passengers invariably moved away after a few moments, politely excusing themselves, as it were, from further intercourse. And although at first the sight of this stirred in him an instinct of revolt that was almost anger, he soon felt that the couple not merely failed to invite, but even emanated some definite atmosphere that repelled. And each time he witnessed these little scenes, there grew more strongly in him the original picture he had formed of them as beings rejected and alone, hunted by humanity as a whole, seeking escape from loneliness into a place of refuge that they knew of, definitely at last en route.

Only an imaginative mind, thus concentrated upon them, could have divined all this; yet to O'Malley it seemed plain as the day. With the certitude, moreover, came the feeling, ever stronger, that the refuge they sought would prove to be also the refuge he himself sought, the difference being that whereas they knew, he still hesitated.

Yet, in spite of this secret sympathy, imagined or discovered, he found it no easy matter to approach the big man for speech. For a day and a half he merely watched; attraction so strong excited caution; he paused, waiting. His attention, however, was so keen that he seemed always to know where they were and what they were doing. By instinct he was aware in what part of the ship they would be found--for the most part leaning over the rail alone in the bows, staring down at the churned water together by the screws, pacing the after-deck in the dusk or early morning when no one was about, or hidden away in some corner of the upper deck, side by side, gazing at sea and sky. Their method of walking, too, made it easy to single them out from the rest--a free, swaying movement of the limbs, a swing of the shoulders, a gait that was lumbering, almost clumsy, half defiant, yet at the same time graceful, and curiously rapid. The body moved along swiftly for all its air of blundering--a motion which was a counterpart of that elusive appearance of great bulk, and equally difficult of exact determination. An air went with them of being ridiculously confined by the narrow little decks.

Thus it was that Genoa had been made and the ship was already half way on to Naples before the opportunity for closer acquaintance presented itself. Rather, O'Malley, unable longer to resist, forced it. It seemed, too, inevitable as sunrise.

Rain had followed the mistral and the sea was rough. A rich land-taste came about the ship like the smell of wet oaks when wind sweeps their leaves after a sousing shower. In the hour before dinner, the decks slippery with moisture, only one or two wrapped-up passengers in deck-chairs below the awning, O'Malley, following a sure inner lead, came out of the stuffy smoking-room into the air. It was already dark and the drive of mist-like rain somewhat obscured his vision after the glare. Only for a moment though--for almost the first thing he saw was the Russian and his boy moving in front of him toward the aft compasses. Like a single figure, huge and shadowy, they passed into the darkness beyond with a speed that seemed as usual out of proportion to their actual stride. They lumbered rapidly away. O'Malley caught that final swing of the man's great shoulders as they disappeared, and, leaving the covered deck, he made straight after them. And though neither gave any sign that they had seen him, he felt that they were aware of his coming--and even invited him.

As he drew close a roll of the vessel brought them almost into each other's arms, and the boy, half hidden beneath his parent's flowing cloak, looked up at once and smiled. The saloon light fell dimly upon his face. The Irishman saw that friendly smile of welcome, and lurched forward with the roll of the deck. They brought up against the bulwarks, and the big man put out an arm to steady him. They all three laughed together. At close quarters, as usual again, the impression of bulk had disappeared.

And then, at first, utterly unlike real life, they said--nothing. The boy moved round and stood close to his side so that he found himself placed between them, all three leaning forward over the rails watching the phosphorescence of the foam-streaked Mediterranean.

Dusk lay over the sea; the shores of Italy not near enough to be visible; the mist, the hour, the loneliness of the deserted decks, and something else that was nameless, shut them in, these three, in a little world of their own. A sentence or two rose in O'Malley's mind, but without finding utterance, for he felt that no spoken words were necessary. He was accepted without more ado. A deep natural sympathy existed between them, recognized intuitively from that moment of first mutual inspection at Marseilles. It was instinctive, almost as with animals. The action of the boy in coming round to his side, unhindered by the father, was the symbol of utter confidence and welcome.

There came, then, one of those splendid and significant moments that occasionally, for some, burst into life, flooding all barriers, breaking down as with a flaming light the thousand erections of shadow that close one in. Something imprisoned in himself swept outwards, rising like a wave, bringing an expansion of life that "explained." It vanished, of course, instantly again, but not before he had caught a flying remnant that lit the broken puzzles of his heart and left things clearer. Before thought, and therefore words, could overtake, it was gone; but there remained at least this glimpse. The fire had flashed a light down subterranean passages of his being and made visible for a passing second some clue to his buried primitive yearnings. He partly understood.

Standing there between these two this thing came over him with a degree of intelligibility scarcely captured by his words. The man's qualities--his quietness, peace, slowness, silence--betrayed somehow that his inner life dwelt in a region vast and simple, shaping even his exterior presentment with its own huge characteristics, a region wherein the distress of the modern world's vulgar, futile strife could not exist--more, could never have existed. The Irishman, who had never realized exactly why the life of Today to him was dreadful, now understood it in the presence of this simple being with his atmosphere of stately power. He was like a child, but a child of some pre-existence utterly primitive and utterly forgotten; of no particular age, but of some state that antedates all ages; simple in some noble, concentrated sense that was prodigious, almost terrific. To stand thus beside him was to stand beside a mighty silent fire, steadily glowing, a fire that fed all lesser flames, because itself close to the central source of fire. He felt warmed, lighted, vivified--made whole. The presence of this stranger took him at a single gulp, as it were, straight into Nature--a Nature that was alive. The man was part of her. Never before had he stood so close and intimate. Cities and civilization fled away like transient dreams, ashamed. The sun and moon and stars moved up and touched him.

This word of lightning explanation, at least, came to him as he breathed the other's atmosphere and presence. The region where this man's spirit fed was at the center, whereas today men were active with a scattered, superficial cleverness, at the periphery. He even understood that his giant gait and movements were small outer evidences of this inner fact, wholly in keeping. That blundering stupidity, half glorious, half pathetic, with which he moved among his fellows was a physical expression of this psychic fact that his spirit had never learned the skilful tricks taught by civilization to lesser men. It was, in a way, awe-inspiring, for he was now at last driving back full speed for his own region and--escape.

O'Malley knew himself caught, swept off his feet, momentarily driving with him....

The singular deep satisfaction of it, standing there with these two in the first moment, he describes as an entirely new sensation in his life--an awareness that he was "complete." The boy touched his side and he let an arm steal round to shelter him. The huge, bearded parent rose in his massiveness against his other shoulder, hemming him in. For a second he knew a swift and curious alarm, passing however almost at once into the thrill of a rare happiness. In that moment, it was not the passengers or the temper of Today who rejected them; it was they who rejected the world: because they knew another and superior one--more, they were in it.

Then, without turning, the big man spoke, the words in heavy accented English coming out laboriously and with slow, exceeding difficulty as though utterance was a supreme effort.

"You ... come ... with ... us?" It was like stammering almost. Still more was it like essential inarticulateness struggling into an utterance foreign to it--unsuited. The voice was a deep and windy bass, merging with the noise of the sea below.

"I'm going to the Caucasus," O'Malley replied; "up into the old, old mountains, to--see things--to look about--to search--" He really wanted to say much more, but the words lay dead or beyond reach.

The big man nodded slowly. The boy listened.

"And yourself--?" asked the Irishman, hardly knowing why he faltered and trembled.

The other smiled; a beauty that was beyond all language passed with that smile across the great face in the dusk.

"Some of us ... of ours ..." he spoke very slowly, very brokenly, quarrying out the words with real labor, "... still survive... out there.... We ... now go back. So very ... few ... remain.... And you--come with us ..."

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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.