The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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There followed four days then of sea, Greece left behind, Messina and the Lipari Islands past; and the blue outline of Sardinia and Corsica began to keep pace with them as they neared the narrow straits of Bonifacio between them. The passengers came up to watch the rocky desolate shores slip by so close, and Captain Burgenfelder was on the bridge.

Grey-headed rocks rose everywhere close about the ship; overhead the seagulls cried and circled; no vegetation was visible on either shore, no houses, no abode of man--nothing but the lighthouses, then miles of deserted rock dressed in those splendors of the sun's good-night. The dinner-gong had sounded but the sight was too magnificent to leave, for the setting sun floated on an emblazoned sea and stared straight against them in level glory down the narrow passage. Unimaginable colors painted sky and wave. The ruddy cliffs of bleak loneliness rose from a bed of flame. Soft airs fanned the cheeks with welcome coolness after the fierce heat of the day. There was a scent of wild honey in the air borne from the purple uplands far, far away.

"I wonder, oh, I wonder, if they realized that a god is passing close...!" the Irishman murmured with a rising of the heart, "and that here is a great mood of the Earth-Consciousness inviting them to peace! Or do they merely see a yellow sun that dips beneath a violet sea...?"

The washing of the water past the steamer's sides caught away the rest of the half-whispered words. He remembered that host of many thousand heads that bowed in silence while a god swept by.... It was almost a shock to hear a voice replying close beside him:--

"Come to my cabin when you're ready. My windows open to the west. We can be alone together. We can have there what food we need. You would prefer it perhaps?"

He felt the touch of that sympathetic hand upon his shoulder, and bent his head to signify agreement.

For a moment, face to face with that superb sunset, he had known a deep and utter peace in the vast bosom of this greater soul about him. Her consciousness again had bruised and fringed his own. Across that delicately divided threshold the beauty and the power of the gods had poured in a flood into his being. And only there was peace, only there was joy, only there was the death of those ancient yearnings that tortured his little personal and separate existence. The return to the world was aching pain again. The old loneliness that seemed more than he could bear swept icily through him, contracting life and freezing every spring of joy. For in that single instant of return he felt pass into him a loneliness of the whole travailing world, the loneliness of countless centuries, the loneliness of all the races of the Earth who were exiled and had lost the way.

Too deep it lay for words or tears or sighs. The doctor's invitation came most opportunely. And presently in silence he turned his back upon that opal sky of dream from which the sun had gone, and walked slowly down the deck toward Stahl's cabin.

"If only I can share it with them," he thought as he went; "if only men will listen, if only they will come. To keep it all to myself, to dream alone, will kill me."

And as he stood before the door it seemed he heard wild rushing through the sky, the tramping of a thousand hoofs, a roaring of the wind, the joy of that free, torrential passage with the Earth. He turned the handle and entered the cozy room where weeks before they held the inquest on the little empty tenement of flesh, remembering how that other figure had once stood where he now stood--part of the sunrise, part of the sea, part of the morning winds.

They had their meal almost in silence, while the glow of sunset filled the cabin through the western row of port-holes, and when it was over Stahl made the coffee as of old and lit the familiar black cigar. Slowly O'Malley's pain and restlessness gave way before the other's soothing quiet. He had never known him before so calm and gentle, so sympathetic, almost tender. The usual sarcasm seemed veiled in sadness; there was no irony in the voice, nor mockery in the eyes.

Then to the Irishman it came suddenly that all these days while he had been lost in dreaming the doctor had kept him as of old under close observation. The completeness of his reverie had concealed from him this steady scrutiny. He had been oblivious to the fact that Stahl had all the time been watching, investigating, keenly examining. Abruptly he now realized it.

And then Stahl spoke. His tone was winning, his manner frank and inviting. But it was the sadness about him that won O'Malley's confidence so wholly.

"I can guess," he said, "something of the dream you've brought with you from those mountains. I can understand--more, perhaps, than you imagine, and I can sympathize--more than you think possible. Tell me about it fully--if you can. I see your heart is very full, and in the telling you will find relief. I am not hostile, as you sometimes feel. Tell me, my dear, young clear-eyed friend. Tell me your vision and your hope. Perhaps I might even help ... for there may be things that I could also tell to you in return."

Something in the choice of words, none of which offended; in the atmosphere and setting, no detail of which jarred; and in the degree of balance between utterance and silence his world of inner forces just then knew, combined to make the invitation irresistible. Moreover, he had wanted to tell it all these days. Stahl was already half convinced. Stahl would surely understand and help him. It was the psychological moment for confession. The two men rose in the same moment, Stahl to lock the cabin doors against interruption, O'Malley to set their chairs more closely side by side so that talking should be easiest.

And then without demur or hesitation he opened his heart to this other and let the floodgates of his soul swing wide. He told the vision and he told the dream; he told his hope as well. And the story of his passion, filled in with pages from those notebooks he ever carried in his pocket, still lasted when the western glow had faded from the sky and the thick-sown stars shone down upon the gliding steamer. The hush of night lay soft upon the world before he finished.

He told the thing complete, much, I imagine, as he told it all to me upon the roof of that apartment building and in the dingy Soho restaurant. He told it without reservations--his life-long yearnings: the explanation brought by the presence of the silent stranger upon the outward voyage: the journey to the Garden: the vision that all life--from gods to flowers, from men to mountains--lay contained in the conscious Being of the Earth, that Beauty was but glimpses of her essential nakedness; and that salvation of the world's disease of modern life was to be found in a general return to the simplicity of Nature close against her mothering heart. He told it all--in words that his passionate joy chose faultlessly.

And Heinrich Stahl in silence listened. He asked no single question. He made no movement in his chair. His black cigar went out before the half of it was smoked. The darkness hid his face impenetrably.

And no one came to interrupt. The murmur of the speeding steamer, and occasional footsteps on the deck as passengers passed to and fro in the cool of the night, were the only sounds that broke the music of that incurable idealist's impassioned story.

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