The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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"In scientific terms one can say: Consciousness is everywhere; it is awake when and wherever the bodily energy underlying the spiritual exceeds that degree of strength which we call the threshold. According to this, consciousness can be localized in time and space."

--FECHNER, Buchlein vom Leben nach dem Tode

The offer of the cabin, meanwhile, remained open. In the solitude that O'Malley found necessary that evening he toyed with it, though knowing that he would never really accept.

Like a true Celt his imagination took the main body of Stahl's words and ensouled them with his own vivid temperament. There stirred in him this nameless and disquieting joy that wrought for itself a Body from material just beyond his thoughts--that region of enormous experience that ever fringes the consciousness of imaginative men. He took the picture at its face value, took it inside with his own thoughts, delighted in it, raised it, of course, very soon to a still higher scale. If he criticized at all it was with phrases like "The man's a poet after all! Why, he's got creative imagination!" To find his own intuitions endorsed, even half explained, by a mind of opposite type was a new experience. It emphasized amazingly the reality of that inner world he lived in.

This explanation of the big Russian's effect upon himself was terrific, and that a "doctor" should have conceived it, glorious. That some portion of a man's spirit might assume the shape of his thoughts and project itself visibly seemed likely enough. Indeed, to him, it seemed already a "fact," and his temperament did not linger over it. But that other suggestion fairly savaged him with its strange grandeur. He played lovingly with it.

That the Earth was a living being was a conception divine in size as in simplicity, and that the Gods and mythological figures had been projections of her consciousness--this thought ran with a magnificent new thunder about his mind. It was overwhelming, beautiful as Heaven and as gracious. He saw the ancient shapes of myth and legend still alive in some gorgeous garden of the primal world, a corner too remote for humanity to have yet stained it with their trail of uglier life. He understood in quite a new way, at last, those deep primitive longings that hitherto had vainly craved their full acknowledgment. It meant that he lay so close to the Earth that he felt her pulses as his own. The idea stormed his belief.

It was the Soul of the Earth herself that all these years had been calling to him.

And while he let his imagination play with the soaring beauty of the idea, he remembered certain odd little facts. He marshaled them before him in a row and questioned them: The picture he had seen with the Captain's glasses--those speeding shapes of beauty; the new aspect of a living Nature that the Russian's presence stirred in him; the man's broken words as they had leaned above the sea in the dusk; the curious passion that leaped to his eyes when certain chance words had touched him at the dinner-table. And, lastly, the singular impression of giant bulk he produced sometimes upon the mind, almost as though a portion of him--this detachable portion molded by the quality of his spirit as he felt himself to be--emerged visibly to cause it.

Vaguely, in this way, O'Malley divined how inevitable was the apparent isolation of these two, and why others instinctively avoided them. They seemed by themselves in an enclosure where the parent lumberingly, and the boy defiantly, disported themselves with a kind of lonely majesty that forbade approach.

And it was later that same night, as the steamer approached the Lipari Islands, that the drive forward he had received from the doctor's words was increased by a succession of singular occurrences. At the same time, Stahl's deliberate and as he deemed it unjustifiable interference, helped him to make up his mind decisively on certain other points.

The first "occurrence" was of the same order as the "bigness"-- extraordinarily difficult, that is, to confirm by actual measurement.

It was ten o'clock, Stahl still apparently in his cabin by himself, and most of the passengers below at an impromptu concert, when the Irishman, coming down from his long solitude, caught sight of the Russian and his boy moving about the dark after-deck with a speed and vigor that instantly arrested his attention. The suggestion of size, and of rapidity of movement, had never been more marked. It was as though a cloud of the summer darkness moved beside them.

Then, going cautiously nearer, he saw that they were neither walking quickly, nor running, as he had first supposed, but--to his amazement--were standing side by side upon the deck--stock still. The appearance of motion, however, was not entirely a delusion, for he next saw that, while standing there steady as the mast and life-boats behind them, something emanated shadow-like from both their persons and seemed to hover and play about them--something that was only approximately of their own outer shapes, and very considerably larger. Now it veiled them, now left them clear. He thought of smoke-clouds moving to and fro about dark statues.

So far as he could focus his sight upon them, these "shadows," without any light to cast them, moved in distorted guise there on the deck with a motion that was somehow rhythmical--a great movement as of dance or gambol.

As with the appearance of "bigness," he perceived it first out of the corner of his eye. When he looked again he saw only two dark figures, motionless.

He experienced the sensation a man sometimes knows on entering a deserted chamber in the nighttime, and is aware that the things in it have just that instant--stopped. His arrival puts abrupt end to some busy activity they were engaged in, which begins again the moment he goes. Chairs, tables, cupboards, the very spots and patterns of the wall have just flown back to their usual places whence they watch impatiently for his departure--with the candle.

This time, on a deck instead of in a room, O'Malley with his candle had surprised them in the act: people, moreover, not furniture. And this shadowy gambol, this silent Dance of the Emanations, immense yet graceful, made him think of Winds flying, visible and uncloaked, somewhere across long hills, or of Clouds passing to a stately, elemental measure over the blue dancing-halls of an open sky. His imagery was confused and gigantic, yet very splendid. Again he recalled the pictured shapes seen with his mind's eye through the Captain's glasses. And as he watched, he felt in himself what he called "the wild, tearing instinct to run and join them," more even--that by rights he ought to have been there from the beginning--dancing with them--indulging a natural and instinctive and rhythmical movement that he had somehow forgotten.

The passion in him was very strong, very urgent, it seems, for he took a step forward, a call of some kind rose in his throat, and in another second he would have been similarly cavorting upon the deck, when he felt his arm clutched suddenly with vigor from behind. Some one seized him and held him back. A German voice spoke with a guttural whisper in his ear.

Dr. Stahl, crouching and visibly excited, drew him forward a little. "Hold up!" he heard whispered--for their India rubber soles slithered on the wet decks. "We shall see from here, eh? See something at last?" He still whispered. O'Malley's sudden anger died down. He could not give vent to it without making noise, for one thing, and above all else he wished to--see. He merely felt a vague wonder how long Stahl had been watching.

They crouched behind the lee of a boat. The outline of the ship rose, distinctly visible against the starry sky, masts, spars, and cordage. A faint gleam came through the glass below the compass-box. The wheel and the heaps of coiled rope beyond rose and fell with the motion of the vessel, now against the stars, now black against the phosphorescent foam that trailed along the sea like shining lace. But the human figures, he next saw, were now doing nothing, not even pacing the deck; they were no longer of unusual size either. Quietly leaning over the rail, father and son side by side, they were guiltless of anything more uncommon than gazing into the sea. Like the furniture, they had just--stopped!

Dr. Stahl and his companion waited motionless for several minutes in silence. There was no sound but the dull thunder of the screws, and a faint windy whistle the ship's speed made in the rigging. The passengers were all below. Then, suddenly, a burst of music came up as some one opened a saloon port-hole and as quickly closed it again--a tenor voice singing to the piano some trivial modern song with a trashy sentimental lilt. It was--in this setting of sea and sky--painful; O'Malley caught himself thinking of a barrel-organ in a Greek temple.

The same instant father and son, as though startled, moved slowly away down the deck into the further darkness, and Dr. Stahl tightened his grip of the Irishman's arm with a force that almost made him cry out. A gleam of light from the opened port-hole had fallen about them before they moved. Quite clearly it revealed them bending busily over, heads close together, necks and shoulders thrust forward and down a little.

"Look, by God!" whispered Stahl hoarsely as they moved off. "There's a third!"

He pointed. Where the two had been standing something, indeed, still remained. Concealed hitherto by their bulk, this other figure had been left. They saw its large, dim outline. It moved. Apparently it began to climb over the rails, or to move in some way just outside them, hanging half above the sea. There was a free, swaying movement about it, not ungainly so much as big--very big.

"Now, quick!" whispered the doctor excited, in English; "this time I find out, sure!"

He made a violent movement forward, a pocket electric lamp in his hand, then turned angrily, furiously, to find that O'Malley held him fast. There was a most unseemly struggle--for a minute, and it was caused by the younger man's sudden passionate instinct to protect his own from discovery, if not from actual capture and destruction.

Stahl fought in vain, being easily overmatched; he swore vehement German oaths under his breath; and the pocket-lamp, of course unlighted, fell and rattled over the deck, sliding with the gentle roll of the steamer to leeward. But O'Malley's eyes, even while he struggled, never for one instant left the spot where the figure and the "movement" had been; and it seemed to him that when the bulwarks dipped against the dark of the sea, the moving thing completed its efforts and passed into the waves with a swift leap. When the vessel righted herself again the outline of the rail was clear.

Dr. Stahl, he then saw, had picked up the lamp and was bending over some mark upon the deck, examining a wide splash of wet upon which he directed the electric flash. The sense of revived antagonism between the men for the moment was strong, too strong for speech. O'Malley feeling half ashamed, yet realized that his action had been instinctive, and that another time he would do just the same. He would fight to the death any too close inspection, since such inspection included also now--himself.

The doctor presently looked up. His eyes shone keenly in the gleam of the lamp, but he was no longer agitated.

"There is too much water," he said calmly, as though diagnosing a case; "too much to permit of definite traces." He glanced round, flashing the beam about the decks. The other two had disappeared. They were alone. "It was outside the rail all the time, you see," he added, "and never quite reached the decks." He stooped down and examined the splash once more. It looked as though a wave had topped the scuppers and left a running line of foam and water. "Nothing to indicate its exact nature," he said in a whisper that conveyed something between uneasiness and awe, again turning the light sharply in every direction and peering about him. "It came to them--er--from the sea, though; it came from the sea right enough. That, at least, is positive." And in his manner was perhaps just a touch to indicate relief.

"And it returned into the sea," exclaimed O'Malley triumphantly. It was as though he related his own escape.

The two men were now standing upright, facing one another. Dr. Stahl, betraying no sign of resentment, looked him steadily in the eye. He put the lamp back into his pocket. When he spoke at length in the darkness, the words were not precisely what the Irishman had expected. Under them his own vexation and excitement faded instantly. He felt almost sheepish when he remembered his violence.

"I forgive your behavior, of course," Stahl said, "for it is consistent--splendidly consistent--with my theory of you; and of value, therefore. I only now urge you again"--he moved closer, speaking almost solemnly--"to accept the offer of a berth in my cabin. Take it, my friend, take it--tonight."

"Because you wish to watch me at close quarters."

"No," was the reply, and there was sympathy in the voice, "but because you are in danger--especially in sleep."

There was a moment's pause before O'Malley said anything.

"It is kind of you, Dr. Stahl, very kind," he answered slowly, and this time with grave politeness; "but I am not afraid, and I see no reason to make the change. And as it's now late," he added somewhat abruptly, almost as though he feared he might be persuaded to alter his mind, "I will say good-night and turn in--if you will forgive me--at once."

Dr. Stahl said no further word. He watched him, the other was aware, as he moved down the deck toward the saloon staircase, and then turned once more with his lamp to stoop over the splashed portion of the boards. He examined the place apparently for a long time.

But O'Malley, as he went slowly down the hot and stuffy stairs, realized with a wild and rushing tumult of joy that the "third" he had seen was of a splendor surpassing the little figures of men, and that something deep within his own soul was most gloriously akin with it. A link with the Universe had been subconsciously established, tightened up, adjusted. From all this living Nature breathing about him in the night, a message had reached the strangers and himself--a message shaped in beauty and in power. Nature had become at last aware of his presence close against her ancient face. Henceforth would every sight of Beauty take him direct to the place where Beauty comes from. No middleman, no Art was necessary. The gates were opening. Already he had caught a glimpse.

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