The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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And it was just before the steamer made Naples that the jolly Captain unwittingly helped matters forward a good deal. For it was his ambition to include in the safe-conduct of his vessel the happy-conduct also of his passengers. He liked to see them contented and of one accord, a big family, and he noted--or had word brought to him perhaps--that there were one or two whom the attitude of the majority left out in the cold.

It may have been--O'Malley wondered without actually asking--that the man who shared the cabin with the strangers made some appeal for re-arrangement, but in any case Captain Burgenfelder approached the Irishman that afternoon on the bridge and asked if he would object to having them in his stateroom for the balance of the voyage.

"Your present gompanion geds off at Naples," he said. "Berhaps you would not object. I think--they seem lonely. You are friendly with them. They go alzo to Batoum?"

This proposal for close quarters gave him pause. He knew a moment or two of grave hesitation, yet without time to analyze it. Then, driven by a sudden decision of the heart that knew no revision of reason, he agreed.

"I had better, perhaps, suggest it to see if they are willing," he said the next minute, hedging.

"I already ask him dat."

"Oh, you have! And he would like it--not object, I mean?" he added, aware of a subtle sense of half-frightened pleasure.

"Pleased and flattered on the contrary," was the reply, as he handed him the glasses to look at Ischia rising blue from the sea.

O'Malley felt as though his decision was somehow an act of self-committal, almost grave. It meant that impulsively he accepted a friendship which concealed in its immense attraction--danger. He had taken the plunge.

The rush of it broke over him like a wave, setting free a tumult of very deep emotion. He raised the glasses automatically to his eyes, but looking through them he saw not Ischia nor the opening the Captain explained the ship would make, heading that evening for Sicily. He saw quite another picture that drew itself up out of himself--was thrown up, rather, somewhat with violence, as upon a landscape of dream-scenery. The lens of passionate yearning in himself, ever unsatisfied, focused it against a background far, far away, in some faint distance that was neither of space nor time, and might equally have been past as future. Large figures he saw, shadowy yet splendid, that ran free-moving as clouds over mighty hills, vital with the abundant strong life of a younger world.... Yet never quite saw them, never quite overtook them, for their speed and the manner of their motion bewildered the sight....

Moreover, though they evaded him in terms of physical definition he knew a sense of curious, half-remembered familiarity. Some portion of his hidden self, uncaught, unharnessed by anything in modern life, rose with a passionate rush of joy and made after them--something in him untamed as wind. His mind stood up, as it were, and shouted "I am coming." For he saw himself not far behind, as a man, racing with great leaps to join them ... yet never overtaking, never drawing close enough to see quite clearly. The roar of their tramping shook the very blood in his ears....

His decision to accept the strangers had set free in his being something that thus for the first time in his life--escaped.... Symbolically in his mind this Escape had taken picture form....

The Captain's voice was asking for the glasses; with a wrench that caused almost actual physical pain he tore himself away, letting this herd of Flying Thoughts sink back into the shadows and disappear. With sharp regret he saw them go--a regret for long, long, far-off things....

Turning, he placed the field-glasses carefully in that fat open hand stretched out to receive them, and noted as he did so the thick, pink fingers that closed about the strap, the heavy ring of gold, the band of gilt about the sleeve. That wrought gold, those fleshy fingers, the genial gutteral voice saying "T'anks" were symbols of an existence tamed and artificial that caged him in again....

Then he went below and found that the lazy "drummer" who talked harvest-machines to puzzled peasants had landed, and in his place an assortment of indiscriminate clothing belonging to the big Russian and his son lay scattered over the upper berth and upon the sofa-bed beneath the port-hole.

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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.