The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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"Superstition is outside reason; so is revelation."


And O'Malley understood that he had pressed the doctor to the verge of confessing some belief that he was ashamed to utter or to hold, something forced upon him by his out-of-the-way experience of life to which his scientific training said peremptorily "No." Further, that he watched him keenly all the time, noting the effect his words produced.

"He is not a human being at all," he continued with a queer thin whisper that conveyed a gravity of conviction singularly impressive, "in the sense in which you and I are accustomed to use the term. His inner being is not shaped, as his outer body, upon quite--human lines. He is a Cosmic Being--a direct expression of cosmic life. A little bit, a fragment, of the Soul of the World, and in that sense a survival--a survival of her youth."

The Irishman, as he listened to these utterly unexpected words, felt something rise within him that threatened to tear him asunder. Whether it was joy or terror, or compounded strangely of the two, he could not tell. It seemed as if he stood upon the edge of hearing something--spoken by a man who was no mere dreamer like himself--that would explain the world, himself, and all his wildest cravings. He both longed and feared to hear it. In his hidden and most secret thoughts, those thoughts he never uttered to another, this deep belief in the Earth as a conscious, sentient, living Being had persisted in spite of all the forces education and modern life had turned against it. It seemed in him an undying instinct, an unmovable conviction, though he hardly dared acknowledge it even to himself.

He had always "dreamed" the Earth alive, a mothering organism to humanity; and himself, via his love of Nature, in some sweet close relation to her that other men had forgotten or ignored. Now, therefore, to hear Stahl talk of Cosmic Beings, fragments of the Soul of the World, and "survivals of her early life" was like hearing a great shout of command to his soul to come forth and share it in complete acknowledgment.

He bit his lips, pinched himself, stared. Then he took the black cigar he was aware was being handed to him, lit it with fingers that trembled absurdly, and smoked as hard as though his sanity depended on his finishing it in a prescribed time. Great clouds rose before his face. But his soul within him came up with a flaming rush of speed, shouting, singing....

There was enough ash to knock off into the bronze tray beside him before either said a word. He watched the little operation as closely as though he were aiming a rifle. The ash, he saw, broke firmly. "This must be a really good cigar," he thought to himself, for as yet he had not been conscious of tasting it. The ash-tray, he also saw, was a kind of nymph, her spread drapery forming the receptacle. "I must get one of those," he thought. "I wonder what they cost." Then he puffed violently again. The doctor had risen and was pacing the cabin floor slowly over by the red curtain that concealed the bunk. O'Malley absent-mindedly watched him, and as he did so the words he had heard kept on roaring at the back of his mind.

And then, while silence still held the room,--swift, too, as a second although it takes time to write--flashed through him a memory of Fechner, the German philosopher who held that the Universe was everywhere consciously alive, and that the Earth was the body of a living Entity, and that the World-Soul or Cosmic Consciousness is something more than a picturesque dream of the ancients....

The doctor came to anchor again on the sofa opposite. To his great relief he was the first to break the silence, for O'Malley simply did not know how or where to begin.

"We know today--you certainly know for I've read it accurately described in your books--that the human personality can extend itself under certain conditions called abnormal. It can project portions of itself, show itself even at a distance, operate away from the central covering body. In exactly similar fashion may the Being of the Earth have projected portions of herself in the past. Of such great powers or beings there may be conceivably a survival ... a survival of a hugely remote period when her Consciousness was manifested, perhaps, in shapes and forms long since withdrawn before the tide of advancing humanity ... forms of which poetry and legend alone have caught a flying memory and called them gods, monsters, mythical beings of all sorts and kinds...."

And then, suddenly, as though he had been deliberately giving his imagination rein yet now regretted it, his voice altered, his manner assumed a shade of something colder. He shifted the key, as though to another aspect of his belief. The man was talking swiftly of his experiences in the big and private hospitals. He was describing the very belief to which he had first found himself driven--the belief that had opened the door to so much more. So far as O'Malley could follow it in his curiously excited condition of mind, it was little more or less than a belief he himself had often played lovingly with--the theory that a man has a fluid or etheric counterpart of himself which is obedient to strong desire and can, under certain conditions, be detached--projected in a shape dictated by that desire.

He only realized this fully later perhaps, for the doctor used a phraseology of his own. Stahl was telling calmly how he had been driven to some such belief by the facts that had come under his notice both in the asylums and in his private practice.

"...That in the amazingly complex personality of a human being," he went on, "there does exist some vital constituent, a part of consciousness, that can leave the body for a short time without involving death; that it is something occasionally visible to others; something malleable by thought and desire--especially by intense and prolonged yearning; and that it can even bring relief to its owner by satisfying in some subjective fashion the very yearnings that drew it forth."

"Doctor! You mean the 'astral'?"

"There is no name I know of. I can give it none. I mean in other words that it can create the conditions for such satisfaction--dream-like, perhaps, yet intense and seemingly very real at the time. Great emotion, for instance, drives it forth, explaining thus appearances at a distance, and a hundred other phenomena that my investigations of abnormal personality have forced me to recognize as true. And nostalgia often is the means of egress, the channel along which all the inner forces and desires of the heart stream elsewhere toward their fulfillment in some person, place, or dream."

Stahl was giving himself his head, talking freely of beliefs that rarely found utterance. Clearly it was a relief to him to do so--to let himself be carried away. There was, after all, the poet in him side by side with the observer and analyst, and the fundamental contradiction in his character stood most interestingly revealed. O'Malley listened, half in a dream, wondering what this had to do with the Cosmic Life just mentioned.

"Moreover, the appearance, the aspect of this etheric Double, molded thus by thought, longing, and desire, corresponds to such thought, longing, and desire. Its shape, when visible shape is assumed, may be various--very various. The form might conceivably be felt, discerned clairvoyantly as an emanation rather than actually seen," he continued.

Then he added, looking closely at his companion, "and in your own case this Double--it has always seemed to me--may be peculiarly easy of detachment from the rest of you."

"I certainly create my own world and slip into it--to some extent," murmured the Irishman, absorbingly interested; "--reverie and so forth; partially, at any rate."

"'Partially,' yes, in your reveries of waking consciousness," Stahl took him up, "but in sleep--in the trance consciousness--completely! And therein lies your danger," he added gravely; "for to pass out completely in waking consciousness, is the next step--an easy one; and it constitutes, not so much a disorder of your being, as a readjustment, but a readjustment difficult of sane control." He paused again. "You pass out while fully awake--a waking delusion. It is usually labeled--though in my opinion wrongly so--insanity."

"I'm not afraid of that," O'Malley laughed, almost nettled. "I can manage myself all right--have done so far, at any rate."

It was curious how the rôles had shifted. O'Malley it was now who checked and criticized.

"I suggest caution," was the reply, made earnestly. "I suggest caution."

"I should keep your warnings for mediums, clairvoyants, and the like," said the other tartly. He was half amazed, half alarmed even while he said it. It was the personal application that annoyed him. "They are rather apt to go off their heads, I believe."

Dr. Stahl rose and stood before him as though the words had given him a cue he wanted. "From that very medium-class," he said, "my most suggestive 'cases' have come, though not for one moment do I think of including you with them. Yet these very 'cases' have been due one and all to the same cause--the singular disorder I have just mentioned."

They stared at one another a moment in silence. Stahl, whether O'Malley liked it or no, was impressive. He gazed at the little figure in front of him, the ragged untidy beard, the light shining on the bald skull, wondering what was coming next and what all this bewildering confession of unorthodox belief was leading up to. He longed to hear more about that hinted Cosmic Life ... and how yearning might lead to its realization.

"For any phenomena of the séance-room that may be genuine," he heard him saying, "are produced by this fluid, detachable portion of the personality, the very thing we have been speaking about. They are projections of the personality--automatic projections of the consciousness."

And then, like a clap of thunder upon his bewildered mind, came this man's amazing ultimatum, linking together all the points touched upon and bringing them to a head. He repeated it emphatically.

"And in similar fashion," concluded the calm, dispassionate voice beside him, "there have been projections of the Earth's great consciousness--direct expressions of her cosmic life--Cosmic Beings. And of these distant and primitive manifestations, it is conceivable that one or two may still--here and there in places humanity has never stained--actually survive. This man is one of them."

He turned on the two electric lights behind him with an admirable air of finality. The extraordinary talk was at an end. He moved about the cabin, putting chairs straight and toying with the papers on his desk. Occasionally he threw a swift and searching glance at his companion, like a man who wished to note the effect of an attack.

For, indeed, this was the impression that his listener retained above all else. This flood of wild, unorthodox, speculative ideas had been poured upon him helter-skelter with a purpose. And the abruptness of the climax was cleverly planned to induce impulsive, hot confession.

But O'Malley found no words. He sat there in his armchair, passing his fingers through his tumbled hair. His inner turmoil was too much for speech or questions ... and presently, when the gong for dinner rang noisily outside the cabin door, he rose abruptly and went out without a single word. Stahl turned to see him go. He merely nodded with a little smile.

But he did not go to his stateroom. He walked the deck alone for a time, and when he reached the dining room, Stahl, he saw, had already come and gone. Halfway down the table, diagonally across, the face of the big Russian looked up occasionally at him and smiled, and every time he did so the Irishman felt a sense of mingled alarm and wonder greater than anything he had ever known in his life before. One of the great doors of life again had opened. The barriers of his heart broke away. He was no longer caged and manacled within the prison of a puny individuality. The world that so distressed him faded. The people in it were dolls. The fur-merchant, the Armenian priest, the tourists and the rest were mere automatic puppets, all made to scale--petty scale, amazingly dull, all exactly alike--tiny, unreal, half alive.

The ship, meanwhile, he reflected with a joy that was passion, was being borne over the blue sea, and this sea lay spread upon the curved breast of the round and spinning earth. He, too, and the big Russian lay upon her breast, held close by gravity so-called, caught closer still, though, by something else besides. And his longings increased with his understanding. Stahl, wittingly or unwittingly, had given them an immense push forwards.

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