The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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"In the spiritual Nature-Kingdom, man must everywhere seek his peculiar territory and climate, his best occupation, his particular neighborhood, in order to cultivate a Paradise in idea; this is the right system.... Paradise is scattered over the whole earth, and that is why it has become so unrecognizable."

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

"Man began in instinct and will end in instinct. Instinct is genius in Paradise, before the period of self-abstraction (self-knowledge)."


"Look here, old man," he said to me, "I'll just tell you what it was, because I know you won't laugh."

We were lying under the big trees behind the Round Pond when he reached this point, and his direct speech was so much more graphic than the written account that I use it. He was in one of his rare moments of confidence, excited, hat off, his shabby tie escaping from the shabbier grey waistcoat. One sock lay untidily over his boot, showing bare leg.

Children's voices floated to us from the waterside as though from very far away, the nursemaids and perambulators seemed tinged with unreality, the London towers were clouds, its roar the roar of waves. I saw only the ship's deck, the grey and misty sea, the uncouth figures of the two who leaned with him over the bulwarks.

"Go on," I said encouragingly; "out with it!"

"It must seem incredible to most men, but, by Gad, I swear to you, it lifted me off my feet, and I've never known anything like it. The mind of that great fellow got hold of me, included me. He made the inanimate world--sea, stars, wind, woods, and mountains--seem all alive. The entire blessed universe was conscious--and he came straight out of it to get me. I understood things about myself I've never understood before--and always funked rather;--especially that feeling of being out of touch with my kind, of finding no one in the world today who speaks my language quite--that, and the utter, God-forsaken loneliness it makes me suffer--"

"You always have been a lonely beggar really," I said, noting the hesitation that thus on the very threshold checked his enthusiasm, quenching the fire in those light-blue eyes. "Tell me. I shall understand right enough--or try to."

"God bless you," he answered, leaping to the sympathy, "I believe you will. There's always been this primitive, savage thing in me that keeps others away--puts them off, and so on. I've tried to smother it a bit sometimes--"

"Have you?" I laughed.

"'Tried to,' I said, because I've always been afraid of its getting out too much and bustin' my life all to pieces:--something lonely and untamed and sort of outcast from cities and money and all the thick suffocating civilization of today; and I've only saved myself by getting off into wildernesses and free places where I could give it a breathin' chance without running the risk of being locked up as a crazy man." He laughed as he said it, but his heart was in the words. "You know all that; haven't I told you often enough? It's not a morbid egoism, or what their precious academic books so stupidly call 'degenerate,' for in me it's damned vital and terrific, and moves always to action. It's made me an alien and--and--"

"Something far stronger than the Call of the Wild, isn't it?"

He fairly snorted. "Sure as we're both alive here sittin' on this sooty London grass," he cried. "This Call of the Wild they prate about is just the call a fellow hears to go on 'the bust' when he's had too much town and's got bored--a call to a little bit of license and excess to safety-valve him down. What I feel," his voice turned grave and quiet again, "is quite a different affair. It's the call of real hunger--the call of food. They want to let off steam, but I want to take in stuff to prevent--starvation." He whispered the word, putting his lips close to my face.

A pause fell between us, which I was the first to break.

"This is not your century! That's what you really mean," I suggested patiently.

"Not my century!" he caught me up, flinging handfuls of faded grass in the air between us and watching it fall; "why, it's not even my world! And I loathe, loathe the spirit of today with its cheap-jack inventions, and smother of sham universal culture, its murderous superfluities and sordid vulgarity, without enough real sense of beauty left to see that a daisy is nearer heaven than an airship--"

"Especially when the airship falls," I laughed. "Steady, steady, old boy; don't spoil your righteous case by overstatement."

"Well, well, you know what I mean," he laughed with me, though his face at once turned earnest again, "and all that, and all that, and all that.... And so this savagery that has burned in me all these years unexplained, these Russian strangers made clear. I can't tell you how because I don't know myself. The father did it--his proximity, his silence stuffed with sympathy, his great vital personality unclipped by contact with these little folk who left him alone. His presence alone made me long for the earth and Nature. He seemed a living part of it all. He was magnificent and enormous, but the devil take me if I know how."

"He said nothing--that referred to it directly?"

"Nothing but what I've told you,--blundering awkwardly with those few modern words. But he had it in him a thousand to my one. He made me feel I was right and natural, untrue to myself to suppress it and a coward to fear it. The speech-center in the brain, you know, is anyhow a comparatively recent thing in evolution. They say that--"

"It wasn't his century either," I checked him again.

"No, and he didn't pretend it was, as I've tried to," he cried, sitting bolt upright beside me. "The fellow was genuine, never dreamed of compromise. D'ye see what I mean? Only somehow he'd found out where his world and century were, and was off to take possession. And that's what caught me. I felt it by some instinct in me stronger than all else; only we couldn't talk about it definitely because--because--I hardly know how to put it--for the same reason," he added suddenly, "that I can't talk about it to you now! There are no words.... What we both sought was a state that passed away before words came into use, and is therefore beyond intelligible description. No one spoke to them on the ship for the same reason, I felt sure, that no one spoke to them in the whole world--because no one could manage even the alphabet of their language.

"And this was so strange and beautiful," he went on, "that standing there beside him, in his splendid atmosphere, the currents of wind and sea reached me through him first, filtered by his spirit so that I assimilated them and they fed me, because he somehow stood in such close and direct relation to Nature. I slipped into my own region, made happy and alive, knowing at last what I wanted, though still unable to phrase it. This modern world I've so long tried to adjust myself to became a thing of pale remembrance and a dream...."

"All in your mind and imagination, of course, this," I ventured, seeing that his poetry was luring him beyond where I could follow.

"Of course," he answered without impatience, grown suddenly thoughtful, less excited again, "and that's why it was true. No chance of clumsy senses deceiving one. It was direct vision. What is Reality, in the last resort," he asked, "but the thing a man's vision brings to him--to believe? There's no other criterion. The criticism of opposite types of mind is merely a confession of their own limitations."

Being myself of the "opposite type of mind," I naturally did not argue, but suffered myself to accept his half-truth for the whole--temporarily. I checked him from time to time merely lest he should go too fast for me to follow what seemed a very wonderful tale of faerie.

"So this wild thing in me the world today has beggared and denied," he went on, swept by his Celtic enthusiasm, "woke in its full strength. Calling to me like some flying spirit in a storm, it claimed me. The man's being summoned me back to the earth and Nature, as it were, automatically. I understood that look on his face, that sign in his eyes. The 'Isles of Greece' furnished some faint clue, but as yet I knew no more--only that he and I were in the same region and that I meant to go with him and that he accepted me with delight that was joy. It drew me as empty space draws a giddy man to the precipice's edge. Thoughts from another's mind," he added by way of explanation, turning round, "come far more completely to me when I stand in a man's atmosphere, silent and receptive, than when by speech he tries to place them there. Ah! And that helps me to get at what I mean, perhaps. The man, you see, hardly thought; he felt."

"As an animal, you mean? Instinctively--?"

"In a sense, yes," he replied after a momentary hesitation. "Like some very early, very primitive form of life."

"With the best will in the world, Terence, I don't quite follow you--"

"I don't quite follow myself," he cried, "because I'm trying to lead and follow at the same time. You know that idea--I came across it somewhere--that in ancient peoples the senses were much less specialized than they are now; that perception came to them in general, massive sensations rather than divided up neatly into five channels:--that they felt all over so to speak, and that all the senses, as in an overdose of hashish, become one single sense? The centralizing of perception in the brain is a recent thing, and it might equally well have occurred in any other nervous headquarters of the body, say, the solar plexus; or, perhaps, never have been localized at all! In hysteria patients have been known to read with the finger-tips and smell with the heel. Touch is still all over; it's only the other four that have got fixed in definite organs. There are systems of thought today that still would make the solar plexus the main center, and not the brain. The word 'brain,' you know, never once occurs in the ancient Scriptures of the world. You will not find it in the Bible--the reins, the heart, and so forth were what men felt with then. They felt all over--well," he concluded abruptly, "I think this fellow was like that. D'ye see now?"

I stared at him, greatly wondering. A nursemaid passed close, balancing a child in a spring-perambulator, saying in a foolish voice, "Wupsey up, wupsey down! Wupsey there!" O'Malley, in the full stream of his mood, waited impatiently till she had gone by. Then, rolling over on his side, he came closer, talking in a lowered tone. I think I never saw him so deeply stirred, nor understood, perhaps, so little of the extreme passion working in him. Yet it was incredible that he could have caught so much from mere interviews with a semi-articulate stranger, unless what he said was strictly true, and this Russian had positively touched latent fires in his soul by a kind of sympathetic magic.

"You know," he went on almost under his breath, "every man who thinks for himself and feels vividly finds he lives in a world of his own, apart, and believes that one day he'll come across, either in a book or in a person, the Priest who shall make it clear to him. Well--I'd found mine, that's all. I can't prove it to you with a pair of scales or a butcher's meat-axe, but it's true."

"And you mean his mere presence conveyed all this without speech almost?"

"Because there was no speech possible," he replied, dropping his voice to a whisper and thrusting his face yet closer into mine. "We were solitary survivors of a world whose language was either uncreated or"--he italicized the word--"forgotten...."

"An elaborate and detailed thought-transference, then?"

"Why not?" he murmured. "It's one of the commonest facts of daily life."

"And you had never fully realized it before, this loneliness and its possible explanation--that there might exist, I mean, a way of satisfying it--till you met this stranger?"

He answered with deep earnestness. "Always, old man, always, but suffered under it atrociously because I'd never understood it. I had been afraid to face it. This man, a far bigger and less diluted example of it than myself, made it all clear and right and natural. We belonged to the same forgotten place and time. Under his lead and guidance I could find my own--return...."

I whistled a long soft whistle, looking up into the sky. Then, sitting upright like himself, we stared hard at one another, straight in the eye. He was too grave, too serious to trifle with. It would have been unfair too. Besides, I loved to hear him. The way he reared such fabulous superstructures upon slight incidents, interpreting thus his complex being to himself, was uncommonly interesting. It was observing the creative imagination actually at work, and the process in a sense seemed sacred. Only the truth and actuality with which he clothed it all made me a little uncomfortable sometimes.

"I'll put it to you quite simply," he cried suddenly.

"Yes, and 'quite simply' it was--?"

"That he knew the awful spiritual loneliness of living in a world whose tastes and interests were not his own, a world to which he was essentially foreign, and at whose hands he suffered continual rebuff and rejection. Advances from either side were mutually and necessarily repelled because oil and water cannot mix. Rejected, moreover, not merely by a family, tribe, or nation, but by a race and time--by the whole World of Today; an outcast and an alien, a desolate survival."

"An appalling picture!"

"I understood it," he went on, holding up both hands by way of emphasis, "because in miniature I had suffered the same: he was a supreme case of what lay so deeply in myself. He was a survival of other life the modern mind has long since agreed to exile and deny. Humanity stared at him over a barrier, never dreaming of asking him in. Even had it done so he could not by the law of his being have accepted. Outcast myself in some small way, I understood his terrible loneliness, a soul without a country, visible and external country that is. A passion of tenderness and sympathy for him, and so also for myself, awoke. I saw him as chieftain of all the lonely, exiled souls of life."

Breathless a moment, he lay on his back staring at the summer clouds--those thoughts of wind that change and pass before their meanings can be quite seized. Similarly protean was the thought his phrases tried to clothe. The terror, pathos, sadness of this big idea he strove to express touched me deeply, yet never quite with the clarity of his own conviction.

"There are such souls, dépaysées and in exile," he said suddenly again, turning over on the grass. "They do exist. They walk the earth today here and there in the bodies of ordinary men ... and their loneliness is a loneliness that must be whispered."

"You formed any idea what kind of--of survival?" I asked gently, for the notion grew in me that after all these two would prove to be mere revolutionaries in escape, political refugees, or something quite ordinary.

O'Malley buried his face in his hands for a moment without replying. Presently he looked up. I remember that a streak of London black ran from the corner of his mouth across the cheek. He pushed the hair back from his forehead, answering in a manner grown abruptly calm and dispassionate.

"Don't ye see what a foolish question that is," he said quietly, "and how impossible to satisfy, inviting that leap of invention which can be only an imaginative lie...? I can only tell you," and the breeze brought to us the voices of children from the Round Pond where they sailed their ships of equally wonderful adventure, "that my own longing became this: to go with him, to know what he knew, to live where he lived--forever."

"And the alarm you said you felt?"

He hesitated.

"That," he added, "was a kind of mistake. To go involved, I felt, an inner catastrophe that might be Death--that it would be out of the body, I mean, or a going backwards. In reality, it was a going forwards and a way to Life."

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