The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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"It is a lovely imagination responding to the deepest desires, instincts, cravings of spiritual man, that spiritual rapture should find an echo in the material world; that in mental communion with God we should find sensible communion with nature; and that, when the faithful rejoice together, bird and beast, hill and forest, should be not felt only, but seen to rejoice along with them. It is not the truth; between us and our environment, whatever links there are, this link is wanting. But the yearning for it, the passion which made Wordsworth cry out for something, even were it the imagination of a pagan which would make him 'less forlorn,' is natural to man; and simplicity leaps at the lovely fiction of a response. Just here is the opportunity for such alliances between spiritualism and superstition as are the daily despair of seekers after truth."


And though he slept for hours the doctor never once left his side, but sat there with pencil and notebook, striving to catch, yet in vain, some accurate record of the strange fragmentary words that fell from his lips at intervals. His own face was aflame with an interest that amounted to excitement. The very hand that held the pencil trembled. One would have said that thus somewhat a man might behave who found himself faced with confirmation of some vast, speculative theory his mind had played with hitherto from a distance only.

Toward noon the Irishman awoke. The steamer, still loading oranges and sacks of sulfur in the Catania harbor, was dusty and noisy. Most of the passengers were ashore, hurrying with guidebooks and field-glasses to see the statue of the dead Bellini or watch the lava flow. A blazing, suffocating heat lay over the oily sea, and the summit of the volcano, with its tiny, ever-changing puff of smoke, soared through blue haze.

To Stahl's remark, "You've slept eight hours," he replied, "But I feel as though I'd slept eight centuries away." He took the coffee and rolls provided, and then smoked. The doctor lit a cigar. The red curtains over the port-holes shut out the fierce sun, leaving the cabin cool and dim. The shouting of the lightermen and officers mingled with the roar and scuttle of the donkey-engine. And O'Malley knew perfectly well that while the other moved about carelessly, playing with books and papers on his desk, he was all the time keeping him under close observation.

"Yes," he continued, half to himself, "I feel as if I'd fallen asleep in one world and awakened into another where life is trivial and insignificant, where men work like devils for things of no value in order to accumulate them in great ugly houses; always collecting and collecting, like mad children, possessions that they never really possess--things external to themselves, valueless and unreal--"

Dr. Stahl came up quietly and sat down beside him. He spoke gently, his manner kind and grave rather. He put a hand upon his shoulder.

"But, my dear boy," he said, the critical mood all melted away, "do not let yourself go too completely. That is vicious thinking, believe me. All details are important--here and now--spiritually important, if you prefer the term. The symbols change with the ages, that is all." Then, as the other did not reply, he added: "Keep yourself well in hand. Your experience is of extraordinary interest--may even be of value, to yourself as well as to--er--others. And what happened to you last night is worthy of record--if you can use it without surrendering your soul to it altogether. Perhaps, later, you will feel able to speak of it--to tell me in detail a little--?"

His keen desire to know more evidently fought with his desire to protect, to heal, possibly even to prevent.

"If I felt sure that your control were sufficient, I could tell you in return some results of my own study of--certain cases in the hospitals, you see, that might throw light upon--upon your own curious experience."

O'Malley turned with such abruptness that the cigar ash fell down over his clothes. The bait was strong, but the man's sympathy was not sufficiently of a piece, he felt, to win his entire confidence.

"I cannot discuss beliefs," he said shortly, "in the speculative way you do. They are too real. A man doesn't argue about his love, does he?" He spoke passionately. "Today everybody argues, discusses, speculates: no one believes. If you had your way, you'd take away my beliefs and put in their place some wretched little formula of science that the next generation will prove all wrong again. It's like the N rays one of you discovered: they never really existed at all." He laughed. Then his flushed face turned grave again. "Beliefs are deeper than discoveries. They are eternal."

Stahl looked at him a moment with admiration. He moved across the cabin toward his desk.

"I am more with you than perhaps you understand," he said quietly, yet without too obviously humoring him. "I am more--divided, that's all."

"Modern!" exclaimed the other, noticing the ashes on his coat for the first time and brushing them off impatiently. "Everything in you expresses itself in terms of matter, forgetting that matter being in continual state of flux is the least real of all things--"

"Our training has been different," observed Stahl simply, interrupting him. "I use another phraseology. Fundamentally, we are not so far apart as you think. Our conversation of yesterday proves it, if you have not forgotten. It is people like yourself who supply the material that teaches people like me--helps me to advance--to speculate, though you dislike the term."

The Irishman was mollified, though for some time he continued in the same strain. And the doctor let him talk, realizing that his emotion needed the relief of this safety-valve. He used words loosely, but Stahl did not check him; it was merely that the effort to express himself--this self that could believe so much--found difficulty in doing so coherently in modern language. He went very far. For the fact that while Stahl criticized and denied, he yet understood, was a strong incentive to talk. O'Malley plunged repeatedly over his depth, and each time the doctor helped him in to shore.

"Perhaps," said Stahl at length in a pause, "the greatest difference between us is merely that whereas you jump headlong, ignoring details by the way, I climb slowly, counting the steps and making them secure. I deny at first because if the steps survive such denial, I know that they are permanent. I build scaffolding. You fly."

"Flight is quicker," put in the Irishman.

"It is for the few," was the reply; "scaffolding is for all."

"You spoke a few days ago of strange things," O'Malley said presently with abruptness, "and spoke seriously too. Tell me more about that, if you will." He sought to lead the talk away from himself, since he did not intend to be fully drawn. "You said something about the theory that the Earth is alive, a living being, and that the early legendary forms of life may have been emanations--projections of herself--detached portions of her consciousness--or something of the sort. Tell me about that theory. Can there be really men who are thus children of the earth, fruit of pure passion--Cosmic Beings as you hinted? It interests me deeply."

Dr. Stahl appeared to hesitate.

"It is not new to me, of course," pursued the other, "but I should like to know more."

Stahl still seemed irresolute. "It is true," he replied at length slowly, "that in an unguarded moment I let drop certain observations. It is better you should consider them unsaid perhaps: forget them."

"And why, pray?"

The answer was well calculated to whet his appetite.

"Because," answered the doctor, bending over to him as he crossed over to his side, "they are dangerous thoughts to play with, dangerous to the interests of humanity in its present state today, unsettling to the soul, shaking the foundations of sane consciousness." He looked hard at him. "Your own mind," he added softly, "appears to me to be already on their track. Whether you are aware of it or not, you have in you that kind of very passionate desire--of yearning--which might reconstruct them and make them come true--for yourself--if you get out."

O'Malley, his eyes shining, looked up into his face.

"'Reconstruct--make them come true--if I get out'!" he repeated stammeringly, fearful that if he appeared too eager the other would stop. "You mean, of course, that this Double in me would escape and build its own heaven?"

Stahl nodded darkly. "Driven forth by your intense desire." After a pause he added, "The process already begun in you would complete itself."

Ah! So obviously what the doctor wanted was a description of his sensations in that haunted cabin.

"Temporarily?" asked the Irishman under his breath.

The other did not answer for a moment. O'Malley repeated the question.

"Temporarily," said Stahl, turning away again toward his desk, "unless--the yearning were too strong."

"In which case--?"

"Permanently. For it would draw the entire personality with it...."

"The soul?"

Stahl was bending over his books and papers. The answer was barely audible.

"Death," was the whispered word that floated across the heavy air of that little sun-baked cabin.

The word if spoken at all was so softly spoken that the Irishman scarcely knew whether he actually heard it, or whether it was uttered by his own thought. He only realized--catching some vivid current from the other man's mind--that this separation of a vital portion of himself that Stahl hinted at might involve a kind of nameless inner catastrophe which should mean the loss of his personality as it existed today--an idea, however, that held no terror for him if it meant at the same time the recovery of what he so passionately sought.

And another intuition flashed upon its heels--namely, that this extraordinary doctor spoke of something he knew as a certainty; that his amazing belief, though paraded as theory, was to him more than theory. Had he himself undergone some experience that he dared not speak of, and were his words based upon a personal experience instead of, as he pretended, merely upon the observation of others? Was this a result of his study of the big man two years ago? Was this the true explanation of his being no longer an assistant at the H--hospital, but only a ship's doctor? Had this "modern" man, after all, a flaming volcano of ancient and splendid belief in him, akin to what was in himself, yet ever fighting it?

Thoughts raced and thundered through his mind as he watched him across the cigar smoke. The rattling of that donkey-engine, the shouts of the lightermen, the thuds of the sulfur-sacks--how ridiculous they all sounded, the clatter of a futile, meaningless existence where men gathered--rubbish, for mere bodies that lived amid dust a few years, then returned to dust forever.

He sprang from his sofa and crossed over to the doctor's side. Stahl was still bending over a littered desk.

"You, too," he cried, and though trying to say it loud, his voice could only whisper, "you, too, must have the Urmensch in your heart and blood, for how else, by my soul, could you know it all? Tell me, doctor, tell me!" And he was on the very verge of adding, "Join us! Come and join us!" when the little German turned his bald head slowly round and fixed upon the excited Irishman such a cool and quenching stare that instantly he felt himself convicted of foolishness, almost of impertinence.

He dropped backwards into an armchair, and the doctor at the same moment let himself down upon the revolving stool that was nailed to the floor in front of the desk. His hands smoothed out papers. Then he leaned forward, still holding his companion's eyes with that steady stare which forbade familiarity.

"My friend," he said quietly in German, "you asked me just now to tell you of the theory--Fechner's theory--that the Earth is a living, conscious Being. If you care to listen, I will do so. We have time." He glanced round at the shady cabin, took down a book from the shelf before him, puffed his black cigar and began to read.

"It is from one of your own people--William James; what you call a 'Hibbert Lecture' at Manchester College. It gives you an idea, at least, of what Fechner saw. It is better than my own words."

So Stahl, in his turn, refused to be "drawn." O'Malley, as soon as he recovered from the abruptness of the change from that other conversation, gave all his attention. The uneasy feeling that he was being played with, coaxed as a specimen to the best possible point for the microscope, passed away as the splendor of the vast and beautiful conception dawned upon him, and shaped those nameless yearnings of his life in glowing language.

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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.