The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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"For my own part I find in some of these abnormal or supernormal facts the strongest suggestions in favor of a superior consciousness being possible. I doubt whether we shall ever understand some of them without using the very letter of Fechner's conception of a great reservoir in which the memories of earth's inhabitants are pooled and preserved, and from which, when the threshold lowers or the valve opens, information ordinarily shut out leaks into the mind of exceptional individuals among us."

--WILLIAM JAMES, A Pluralistic Universe

And it was some hours later, while the ship made for the open sea, that he told Dr. Stahl casually of the new arrangement and saw the change come so suddenly across his face. Stahl stood back from the compass-box whereon they leaned, and putting a hand upon his companion's shoulder, looked a moment into his eyes. With surprise O'Malley noted that the pose of cynical disbelief was gone; in its place was sympathy, interest, kindness. The words he spoke came from his heart.

"Is that true?" he asked, as though the news disturbed him.

"Of course. Why not? Is there anything wrong?" He felt uneasy. The doctor's manner confirmed the sense that he had done a rash thing. Instantly the barrier between the two crumbled and he lost the first feeling of resentment that his friends should be analyzed. The men thus came together in unhindered sincerity.

"Only," said the doctor thoughtfully, half gravely, "that--I may have done you a wrong, placed you, that is, in a position of--" he hesitated an instant,--"of difficulty. It was I who suggested the change."

O'Malley stared at him.

"I don't understand you quite."

"It is this," continued the other, still holding him with his eyes. He said it deliberately. "I have known you for some time, formed-er--an opinion of your type of mind and being--a very rare and curious one, interesting me deeply--"

"I wasn't aware you'd had me under the microscope," O'Malley laughed, but restlessly.

"Though you felt it and resented it--justly, I may say--to the point of sometimes avoiding me--"

"As doctor, scientist," put in O'Malley, while the other, ignoring the interruption, continued in German:--

"I always had the secret hope, as 'doctor and scientist,' let us put it then, that I might one day see you in circumstances that should bring out certain latent characteristics I thought I divined in you. I wished to observe you--your psychical being--under the stress of certain temptations, favorable to these characteristics. Our brief voyages together, though they have so kindly ripened our acquaintance into friendship"--he put his hand again on the other's shoulder smiling, while O'Malley replied with a little nod of agreement--"have, of course, never provided the opportunity I refer to--"


"Until now!" the doctor added. "Until now."

Puzzled and interested the Irishman waited for him to go on, but the man of science, who was now a ship's doctor, hesitated. He found it difficult, apparently, to say what was in his thoughts.

"You refer, of course, though I hardly follow you quite--to our big friends?" O'Malley helped him.

The adjective slipped out before he was aware of it. His companion's expression admitted the accuracy of the remark. "You also see them--big, then?" he said, quickly taking him up. He was not cross-questioning; out of keen sympathetic interest he asked it.

"Sometimes, yes," the Irishman answered, more astonished. "Sometimes only--"

"Exactly. Bigger than they really are; as though at times they gave out--emanated--something that extended their appearance. Is that it?"

O'Malley, his confidence wholly won, more surprised, too, than he quite understood, seized Stahl by the arm and drew him toward the rails. They leaned over, watching the sea. A passenger, pacing the decks before dinner, passed close behind them.

"But, doctor," he said in a hushed tone as soon as the steps had died away, "you are saying things that I thought were half in my imagination only, not true in the ordinary sense quite--your sense, I mean?"

For some moments the doctor made no reply. In his eyes a curious steady gaze replaced the usual twinkle. When at length he spoke it was evidently following a train of thought of his own, playing round a subject he seemed half ashamed of and yet desired to state with direct language.

"A being akin to yourself," he said in low tones, "only developed, enormously developed; a Master in your own peculiar region, and a man whose influence acting upon you at close quarters could not fail to arouse the latent mind-storms"--he chose the word hesitatingly, as though seeking for a better he could not find on the moment,--"always brewing in you just below the horizon."

He turned and watched his companion's face keenly. O'Malley was too impressed to feel annoyance.

"Well--?" he asked, feeling the adventure closing round him with quite a new sense of reality. "Well?" he repeated louder. "Please go on. I'm not offended, only uncommonly interested. You leave me in a fog, so far. I think you owe me more than hints."

"I do," said the other simply. "About that man is a singular quality too rare for language to have yet coined its precise description: something that is essentially"--they had lapsed into German now, and he used the German word--"unheimlich."

The Irishman started. He recognized this for truth. At the same time the old resentment stirred a little in him, creeping into his reply.

"You have studied him closely then--had him, too, under the microscope? In this short time?"

This time the answer did not surprise him, however.

"My friend," he heard, while the other turned from him and gazed out over the misty sea, "I have not been a ship's doctor--always. I am one now only because the leisure and quiet give me the opportunity to finish certain work, recording work. For years I was in the H----"--he mentioned the German equivalent for the Salpêtrière--"years of research and investigation into the astonishing vagaries of the human mind and spirit--with certain results, followed later privately, that it is now my work to record. And among many cases that might well seem--er--beyond either credence or explanation,"--he hesitated again slightly--"I came across one, one in a million, let us admit, that an entire section of my work deals with under the generic term of Urmenschen."

"Primitive men," O'Malley snapped him up, translating. Through his growing bewilderment ran also a growing uneasiness shot strangely with delight. Intuitively he divined what was coming.

"Beings," the doctor corrected him, "not men. The prefix Ur-, moreover, I use in a deeper sense than is usually attached to it as in Urwald, Urwelt, and the like. An Urmensch in the world today must suggest a survival of an almost incredible kind--a kind, too, utterly inadmissible and inexplicable to the materialist perhaps--"

"Paganistic?" interrupted the other sharply, joy and fright rising over him.

"Older, older by far," was the rejoinder, given with a curious hush and a lowering of the voice.

The suggestion rushed into full possession of O'Malley's mind. There rose in him something that claimed for his companions the sea, the wind, the stars--tumultuous and terrific. But he said nothing. The conception, blown into him thus for the first time at full strength, took all his life into its keeping. No energy was left over for mere words. The doctor, he was aware, was looking at him, the passion of discovery and belief in his eyes. His manner kindled. It was the hidden Stahl emerging.

"... a type, let me put it," he went on in a voice whose very steadiness thrilled his listener afresh, "that in its strongest development would experience in the world today the loneliness of a complete and absolute exile. A return to humanity, you see, of some unexpended power of mythological values...."


The shudder passed through him and away almost as soon as it came. Again the sea grew splendid, the thunder of the waves held voices calling, and the foam framed shapes and faces, wildly seductive, though fugitive as dreams. The words he had heard moved him profoundly. He remembered how the presence of the stranger had turned the world alive.

He knew what was coming, too, and gave the lead direct, while yet half afraid to ask the question.

"So my friend--this big 'Russian'--?"

"I have known before, yes, and carefully studied."

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