The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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Summer blazed everywhere and the sea lay like a blue pool of melted sky and sunshine. The summits of the Caucasus soon faded to the east and north, and to the south the wooded hills of the Black Sea coast accompanied the ship in a line of wavy blue that joined the water and the sky indistinguishably.

The first-class passengers were few; O'Malley hardly noticed their existence even. An American engineer, building a railway in Turkey, came on board at Trebizond; there were one or two light women on their way home from Baku, and the attaché of a foreign embassy from Teheran. But the Irishman felt more in touch with the hundred peasant-folk who joined the ship at Ineboli from the interior of Asia Minor and were bound as third-class emigrants for Marseilles and far America. Dark-skinned, wild-eyed, ragged, very dirty, they had never seen the sea before, and the sight of a porpoise held them spellbound. They lived on the after-deck, mostly cooking their own food, the women and children sleeping beneath a large tarpaulin that the sailors stretched for them across the width of deck. At night they played their pipes and danced, singing, shouting, and waving their arms--always the same tune over and over again.

O'Malley watched them for hours together. He also watched the engineer, the over-dressed women, the attaché. He understood the difference between them as he had never understood it before. He understood the difficulty of his task as well. How in the world could he ever explain a single syllable of his message to these latter, or waken in them the faintest echo of desire to know and listen. The peasants, though all unconscious of the blinding glory at their elbows, stood far nearer to the truth.

"Been further east, I suppose?" the engineer observed, one afternoon as the steamer lay off Broussa, taking on a little extra cargo of walnut logs. He looked admiringly at the Irishman's bronzed skin. "Take a better sun than this to put that on!"

He laughed in his breezy, vigorous way, and the other laughed with him. Previous conversations had already paved the way to a traveler's friendship, and the American had taken to him.

"Up in the mountains," he replied, "camping out and sleeping in the sun did it."

"The Caucasus! Ah, I'd like to get up there myself a bit. I'm told they're a wonderful thing in the mountain line."

Scenery for him was evidently a commercial commodity, or it was nothing. It was the most up-to-date nation in the world that spoke--in the van of civilization--representing the last word in progress due to triumph over Nature.

O'Malley said he had never seen anything like them. He described the trees, the flowers, the tribes, the scenery in general; he dwelt upon the vast uncultivated spaces, the amazing fruitfulness of the soil, the gorgeous beauty above all. "I'd like to get the overcrowded cities of England and Europe spread all over it," he said with enthusiasm. "There is room for thousands there to lead a simple life close to Nature, in health and peace and happiness. Even your tired millionaires could escape their restless, feverish worries, lay down their weary burden of possessions, and enjoy the earth at last. The poor would cease to be with us; life become true and beautiful again--" He let it pour out of him, building the scaffolding of his dream before him in the air and filling it in with beauty.

The American listened in patience, watching the walnut logs being towed through the water to the side of the ship. From time to time he spat on them, or into the sea. He let the beauty go completely past him.

"Great idea, that!" he interrupted at length. "You're interested, I see, in socialism and communistic schemes. There's money in them somewhere right enough, if a man only could hit the right note at the first go off. Take a bit of doing, though!"

One of the women from Baku came up and leaned upon the rails a little beyond them. The sickly odor of artificial scent wafted down. The attaché strolled along the deck and ogled her.

"Get a few of that sort to draw the millionaires in, eh?" he added vulgarly.

"Even those would come, yes," said the Irishman softly, realizing for the first time within his memory that his gorge did not rise, "for they too would change, grow clean and sweet and beautiful."

The engineer looked sharply into his face, uncertain whether he had not missed a clever witticism of his own kind. But O'Malley did not meet his glance. His eyes were far away upon the snowy summit of Olympus where a flock of fleecy clouds hung hovering like the hair of the eternal gods.

"They say there's timber going to waste that you could get to the coast merely for the cost of drawing it--Caucasian walnut, too, to burn," the other continued, getting on to safer ground, "and labor's dirt cheap. There's every sort of mineral too God ever made. You could build light railways and run the show by electricity. And water-power for the asking. You'd have to get a Concession from Russia first though," he added, spitting down upon a huge floating log in the clear sea underneath, "and Russia's got palms that want a lot of greasing. I guess the natives, too, would take a bit of managing."

The woman beyond had shifted several feet nearer, and after a pause the Irishman found no words to fill, his companion turned to address a remark to her. O'Malley took the opening and moved away.

"Here's my card, anyway," the American added, handing him an over-printed bit of large pasteboard from a fat pocket-book that bore his name and address in silver on the outside. "If you develop the scheme and want a bit of money, count me in."

He went to the other side of the vessel and watched the peasants on the lower deck. Their dirt seemed nothing by comparison. It was only on their clothes and bodies. The odor of this unwashed humanity was almost sweet and wholesome. It cleansed the sickly taint of that other scent from his palate; it washed his mind of thoughts as well.

He stood there long in dreaming silence, while the sunlight on Olympus turned from gold to rose, and the sea took on the colors of the fading sky. He watched a dark Kurd baby sliding down the tarpaulin. A kitten was playing with a loose end of rope too heavy for it to move. Further off a huge fellow with bared chest and the hands of a colossus sat on a pile of canvas playing softly on his wooden pipes. The dark hair fell across his eyes, and a group of women listened idly while they busied themselves with the cooking of the evening meal. Immediately beneath him a splendid-eyed young woman crammed a baby to her naked breast. The kitten left the rope and played with the tassel of her scarlet shawl.

And as he heard those pipes and watched the grave, untamed, strong faces of those wild peasant men and women, he understood that, low though they might be in scale of evolution, there was yet absent from them the touch of that deteriorating something which civilization painted into those other countenances. But whether the word he sought was degradation or whether it was shame, he could not tell. In all they did, the way they moved, their dignity and independence, there was this something, he felt, that bordered on being impressive. Their wants were few, their worldly possessions in a bundle, yet they had this thing that set them in a place apart, if not above, these others:--beyond that simpering attaché for all his worldly diplomacy, that engineer with brains and skill, those painted women with their clever playing upon the feelings and desires of their kind. There was this difference that set the ragged dirty crew in a proud and quiet atmosphere that made them seem almost distinguished by comparison, and certainly more desirable. Rough and untutored though they doubtless were, they still possessed unspoiled that deeper and more elemental nature that bound them closer to the Earth. It needed training, guidance, purifying; yes; but, in the last resort, was it not of greater spiritual significance and value than the mode of comparatively recently-developed reason by which Civilization had produced these other types?

He watched them long. The sun sank out of sight, the sea turned dark, ten thousand stars shone softly in the sky, and while the steamer swung about and made for peaked Andros and the coast of Greece, he still stood on in reverie and wonder. The wings of his great Dream stirred mightily ... and he saw pale millions of men and women trooping through the gates of horn and ivory into that Garden where they should find peace and happiness in clean simplicity close to the Earth....

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