The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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At the end of the week the little steamer dropped her anchor in the harbor and the Irishman booked his passage home. He was standing on the wharf to watch the unloading when a hand tapped him on the shoulder and he heard a well-known voice. His heart leaped with pleasure. There were no preliminaries between these two.

"I am glad to see you safe. You did not find your friend, then?"

O'Malley looked at the bronzed face beside him, noted the ragged tobacco-stained beard, and saw the look of genuine welcome in the twinkling brown eyes. He watched him lift his cap and mop that familiar dome of bald head.

"I'm safe," was all he answered, "because I found him."

For a moment Dr. Stahl looked puzzled. He dropped the hand he held so tightly and led him down the wharf.

"We'll get out of this devilish sun," he said, leading the way among the tangle of merchandise and bales, "it's enough to boil our brains." They passed through the crowd of swarthy, dripping Turks, Georgians, Persians, and Armenians who labored half naked in the heat, and moved toward the town. A Russian gunboat lay in the Bay, side by side with freight and passenger vessels. An oil-tank steamer took on cargo. The scene was drenched in sunshine. The Black Sea gleamed like molten metal. Beyond, the wooded spurs of the Caucasus climbed through haze into cloudless blue.

"It's beautiful," remarked the German, pointing to the distant coastline, "but hardly with the beauty of those Grecian Isles we passed together. Eh?" He watched him closely. "You're coming back on our steamer?" he asked in the same breath.

"It's beautiful," O'Malley answered ignoring the question, "because it lives. But there is dust upon its outer loveliness, dust that has gathered through long ages of neglect, dust that I would sweep away--I've learnt how to do it. He taught me."

Stahl did not even look at him, though the words were wild enough. He walked at his side in silence. Perhaps he partly understood. For this first link with the outer world of appearances was difficult for him to pick up. The person of Stahl, thick-coated with the civilization whence he came, had brought it, and out of the ocean of glorious vision in his soul, O'Malley took at random the first phrases he could find.

"Yes, I've booked a passage on your steamer," he added presently, remembering the question. It did not seem strange to him that his companion ignored both clues he offered. He knew the man too well for that. It was only that he waited for more before he spoke.

They went to the little table outside the hotel pavement where several weeks ago they had drunk Kakhetian wine together and talked of deeper things. The German called for a bottle, mineral water, ice, and cigarettes. And while they sipped the cooling golden liquid, hats off and coats on the backs of their chairs, Stahl gave him the news of the world of men and events that had transpired meanwhile. O'Malley listened vaguely as he smoked. It seemed remote, unreal, almost fantastic, this long string of ugly, frantic happenings, all symptoms of some disordered state that was like illness. The scream of politics, the roar and rattle of flying-machines, financial crashes, furious labor upheavals, rumors of war, the death of kings and magnates, awful accidents and strange turmoil in enormous cities. Details of some sad prison life, it almost seemed, pain and distress and strife the note that bound them all together. Men were mastered by these things instead of mastering them. These unimportant things they thought would make them free only imprisoned them.

They lunched there at the little table in the shade, and in turn the Irishman gave an outline of his travels. Stahl had asked for it and listened attentively. The pictures interested him.

"You've done your letters for the papers," he questioned him, "and now, perhaps, you'll write a book as well?"

"Something may force its way out--come blundering, thundering out in fragments, yes."

"You mean you'd rather not--?"

"I mean it's all too big and overwhelming. He showed me such blinding splendors. I might tell it, but as to writing--!" He shrugged his shoulders.

And this time Dr. Stahl ignored no longer. He took him up. But not with any expected words or questions. He merely said, "My friend, there's something that I have to tell you--or, rather, I should say, to show you." He looked most keenly at him, and in the old familiar way he placed a hand upon his shoulder. His voice grew soft. "It may upset you; it may unsettle--prove a shock perhaps. But if you are prepared, we'll go--"

"What kind of shock?" O'Malley asked, startled a moment by the gravity of manner.

"The shock of death," was the answer, gently spoken.

The Irishman only knew a swift rush of joy and wonder as he heard it.

"But there is no such thing!" he cried, almost with laughter. "He taught me that above all else. There is no death!"

"There is 'going away,' though," came the rejoinder, spoken low; "there is earth to earth and dust to dust--"

"That's of the body--!"

"That's of the body, yes," the older man repeated darkly.

"There is only 'going home,' escape and freedom. I tell you there's only that. It's nothing but joy and splendor when you really understand."

But Dr. Stahl made no immediate answer, nor any comment. He paid the bill and led him down the street. They took the shady side. Passing beyond the skirts of the town they walked in silence. The barracks where the soldiers sang, the railway line to Tiflis and Baku, the dome and minarets of the church, were left behind in turn, and presently they reached the hot, straight dusty road that fringed the sea. They heard the crashing of the little waves and saw the foam creamily white against the dark grey pebbles of the beach.

And when they reached a small enclosure where thin trees were planted among sparse grass all brown and withered by the sun, they paused, and Stahl pointed to a mound, marked at either end by rough stone boulder. A date was on it, but no name. O'Malley calculated the difference between the Russian Calendar and the one he was accustomed to. Stahl checked him.

"The fifteenth of June," the German said.

"The fifteenth of June, yes," said O'Malley very slowly, but with wonder and excitement in his heart. "That was the day that Rostom tried to run away--the day I saw him come to me from the trees--the day we started off together ... to the Garden...."

He turned to his companion questioningly. For a moment the rush of memory was quite bewildering.

"He never left Batoum at all, you see," Stahl continued, without looking up. "He went straight to the hospital the day we came into port. I was summoned to him in the night--that last night while you slept so deeply. His old strange fever was upon him then, and I took him ashore before the other passengers were astir. I brought him to the hospital myself. And he never left his bed." He pointed down to the little nameless grave at their feet where a wandering wind from the sea just stirred the grasses. "That was the date on which he died."

"He went away in the early morning," he added in a low voice that held both sadness and sympathy.

"He went home," said the Irishman, a tide of joy rising tumultuously through his heart as he remembered. The secret of that complete and absolute Leadership was out. He understood it all. It had been a spiritual adventure to the last.

Then followed a pause.

In silence they stood there for some minutes. There grew no flowers on that grave, but O'Malley stooped down and picked a strand of the withered grass. He put it carefully between the pages of his notebook; and then, lying flat against the ground where the sunshine fell in a patch of white and burning glory, he pressed his lips to the crumbling soil. He kissed the Earth. Oblivious of Stahl's presence, or at least ignoring it, he worshipped.

And while he did so he heard that little sound he loved so well--which more than any words or music brought peace and joy, because it told his Passion all complete. With his ears close to the earth he heard it, yet at the same time heard it everywhere. For it came with the falling of the waves upon the shore, through the murmur of the rustling branches overhead, and even across the whispering of the withered grass about him. Deep down in the center of the mothering Earth he heard it too in faintly rising pulse. It was the exquisite little piping on a reed--the ancient fluting of the everlasting Pan....

And when he rose he found that Stahl had turned away and was gazing at the sea, as though he had not noticed.

"Doctor," he cried, yet so softly it was a whisper rather than a call, "I heard it then again; it's everywhere! Oh, tell me that you hear it too!"

Stahl turned and looked at him in silence. There was a moisture in his eyes, and on his face a look of softness that a woman might have worn.

"I've brought it back, you see, I've brought it back. For that's the message--that's the sound and music I must give to all the world. No words, no book can tell it." His hat was off, his eyes were shining, his voice broke with the passion of joy he yearned to share yet knew so little how to impart. "If I can pipe upon the flutes of Pan the millions all will listen, will understand, and--follow. Tell me, oh, tell me, that you heard it too!"

"My friend, my dear young friend," the German murmured in a voice of real tenderness, "you heard it truly--but you heard it in your heart. Few hear the Pipes of Pan as you do. Few care to listen. Today the world is full of other sounds that drown it. And even of those who hear," he shrugged his shoulders as he led him away toward the sea,--"how few will care to follow--how fewer still will dare."

And while they lay upon the beach and watched the line of foam against their feet and saw the seagulls curving idly in the blue and shining air, he added underneath his breath--O'Malley hardly caught the murmur of his words so low he murmured them:--

"The simple life is lost forever. It lies asleep in the Golden Age, and only those who sleep and dream can ever find it. If you would keep your joy, dream on, my friend! Dream on, but dream alone!"

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