The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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And then at length there came a change of voice across the cabin. The Irishman had finished. He sank back in the deep leather chair, exhausted physically, but with the exultation of his mighty hope still pouring at full strength through his heart. For he had ventured further than ever before and had spoken of a possible crusade--a crusade that should preach peace and happiness to every living creature.

And Dr. Stahl, in a voice that showed how deeply he was moved, asked quietly:--

"By leading the nations back to Nature you think they shall advance to Truth at last?"

"With time," was the reply. "The first step lies there:--in changing the direction of the world's activities, changing it from the transient Outer to the eternal Inner. In the simple life, external possessions unnecessary and recognized as vain, the soul would turn within and seek Reality. Only a tiny section of humanity has time to do it now. There is no leisure. Civilization means acquirement for the body: it ought to mean development for the soul. Once sweep aside the trash and rubbish men seek outside themselves today, and the wings of their smothered souls would stir again. Consciousness would expand. Nature would draw them first. They would come to feel the Earth as I did. Self would disappear, and with it this false sense of separateness. The greater consciousness would waken in them. The peace and joy and blessedness of inner growth would fill their lives. But, first, this childish battling to the death for external things must cease, and Civilization stand revealed for the bleak and empty desolate thing it really is. It leads away from God and from the things that are eternal."

The German made no answer; O'Malley ceased to speak; a long silence fell between them. Then, presently, Stahl relighted his cigar, and lapsing into his native tongue--always a sign with him of deepest seriousness--he began to talk.

"You've honored me," he said, "with a great confidence; and I am deeply, deeply grateful. You have told your inmost dream--the thing men find it hardest of all to speak about." He felt in the darkness for his companion's hand and held it tightly for a moment. He made no other comment upon what he had heard. "And in return--in some small way of return," he continued, "I may ask you to listen to something of my own, something of possible interest. No one has ever known it from my lips. Only, in our earlier conversations on the outward voyage, I hinted at it once or twice. I sometimes warned you--"

"I remember. You said he'd 'get' me, 'win' me over--'appropriation' was the word you used."

"I suggested caution, yes; urged you not to let yourself go too completely; told you he represented danger to yourself, and to humanity as it is organized today--"

"And all the rest," put in O'Malley a shade impatiently. "I remember perfectly."

"Because I knew what I was talking about." The doctor's voice came across the darkness somewhat ominously. And then he added in a louder tone, evidently sitting forward as he said it: "For the thing that has happened to yourself as I foresaw it would, had already almost happened to me too!"

"To you, doctor, too?" exclaimed the Irishman in the moment's pause that followed.

"I saved myself just in time--by getting rid of the cause."

"You discharged him from the hospital, because you were afraid!" He said it sharply as though are instant of the old resentment had flashed up.

By way of answer Stahl rose from his chair and abruptly turned up the electric lamp upon the desk that faced them across the cabin. Evidently he preferred the light. O'Malley saw that his face was white and very grave. He grasped for the first time that the man was speaking professionally. The truth came driving next behind it--that Stahl regarded him as a patient.

"Please go on, doctor," he said, keenly on the watch. "I'm deeply interested." The wings of his great dream still bore him too far aloft for him to feel more than the merest passing annoyance at his discovery. Resentment had gone too. Sadness and disappointment for an instant touched him perhaps, but momentarily. In the end he felt sure that Stahl would stand at his side, completely won over and convinced.

"You had a similar experience to my own, you say," he urged him. "I am all eagerness and sympathy to hear."

"We'll talk in the open air," the doctor answered, and ringing the bell for the steward to clear away, he drew his companion out to the deserted decks. They moved toward the bows, past the sleeping peasants. The stars were mirrored in a glassy sea and toward the north the hills of Corsica stood faintly outlined in the sky. It was already long after midnight.

"Yes, a similar thing nearly happened to me," he resumed as they settled themselves against a coil of rope where only the murmur of the washing sea could reach them, "and might have happened to others too. Inmates of that big Krankenhaus were variously affected. My action, tardy I must admit, saved myself and them."

And the German then told his story as a man might tell of his escape from some grave disaster. In the emphatic sentences of his native language he told it, congratulating himself all through. The Russian had almost won him over, gained possession of his heart and mind, persuaded him, but in the end had failed--because the other ran away. It was like hearing a man describe an attempt to draw him into Heaven, then boast of his escape. His caution and his judgment, as he put it, saved him, but to the listening Celt it rather seemed that his compromise it was that damned him. The Kingdom of Heaven is hard to enter, for Stahl had possessions not of the wood and metal order, but possessions of the brain and reason he was too proud to forego completely. They kept him out.

With increasing sadness, too, he heard it; for here he realized was the mental attitude of an educated, highly civilized man today--a representative type regarded by the world as highest. It was this he had to face. Moreover Stahl was more than merely educated, he was understandingly sympathetic, meeting the great dream halfway; seeing in it possibilities; admitting its high beauty, and even sometimes speaking of it with hope and a touch of enthusiasm. Its originator none the less he regarded as a reactionary dreamer, an unsettling and disordered influence, a patient, if not even something worse!

Stahl's voice and manner were singular while he told it all, revealing one moment the critical mind that analyzed and judged, and the next an enthusiasm almost of the mystic. Alternately, like the man and woman of those quaint old weather-glasses, each peered out and showed a face, the reins of compromise yet ever seeking to hold them well in leash and drive them together.

Hardly, it seems, had the strange Russian been under his care a week before he passed beneath the sway of his curious personality and experienced the attack of singular emotions upon his heart and mind.

He described at first the man's arrival, telling it with the calm and balanced phrases a doctor uses when speaking merely of a patient who had stirred his interest. He first detailed the method of suggestion he had used to revive the lapsed memory--and its utter failure. Then he passed on to speak of him more generally: but briefly and condensed.

"The man," he said, "was so engaging, so docile, his personality altogether so attractive and mysterious, that I took the case myself instead of delegating it to my assistants. All efforts to trace his past collapsed. It was as if he had drifted into that little hotel out of the night of time. Of madness there was no evidence whatever. The association of ideas in his mind, though limited, was logical and rigid. His health was perfect, barring strange, sudden fever; his vitality tremendous; yet he ate most sparingly and the only food he touched was fruit and milk and vegetables. Meat made him sick, the huge frame shuddered when he saw it. And from all the human beings in the place with whom he came in contact he shrank with a kind of puzzled dismay. With animals, most oddly it seemed, he sought companionship; he would run to the window if a dog barked, or to hear a horse's hoofs; a Persian cat belonging to one of the nurses never left his side, and I have seen the trees in the yard outside his window thick with birds, and even found them in the room and on the sill, flitting about his very person, unafraid and singing.

"With me, as with the attendants, his speech was almost nil--laconic words in various languages, clipped phrases that sometimes combined Russian, French, or German, other tongues as well.

"But, strangest of all, with animal life he seemed to hold this kind of communication that was Intelligible both to himself and them. Animals certainly were 'aware' of him. It was not speech. It ran in a deep, continuous murmur like a droning, humming sound of wind. I took the hint thus faintly offered. I gave him his freedom in the yards and gardens. The open air and intercourse with natural life was what he craved. The sadness and the air of puzzled fretting then left his face, his eyes grew bright, his whole presentment happier; he ran and laughed and even sang. The fever that had troubled him all vanished. Often myself I took the place of nurse or orderly to watch him, for the man's presence more than interested me: it gave me a renewed sense of life that was exhilarating, invigorating, delightful. And in his appearance, meanwhile, something that was not size or physical measurement, turned--tremendous.

"A part of me that was not mind--a sort of forgotten instinct blindly groping--came of its own accord to regard him as some loose fragment of a natural, cosmic life that had somehow blundered down into a human organism it sought to use....

"And then it was for the first time I recognized the spell he had cast upon me; for, when the Committee decided there was no reason to keep him longer, I urged that he should stay. Making a special plea, I took him as a private patient of my own. I kept him under closer personal observation than ever before. I needed him. Something deep within me, something undivined hitherto, called out into life by his presence, could not do without him. This new craving, breakingly wild and sweet, awoke in my blood and cried for him. His presence nourished it in me. Most insidiously it attacked me. It stirred deep down among the roots of my being. It 'threatened my personality' seems the best way I can put it; for, turning a critical analysis upon it, I discovered that it was an undermining and revolutionary change going steadily forward in my character. Its growth had hitherto been secret. When I first recognized its presence, the thing was already strong. For a long time, it had been building.

"And the change in a word--you will grasp my meaning from the shortest description of essentials--was this: that ambition left me, ordinary desire crumbled, the outer world men value so began to fade."

"And in their place?" cried O'Malley breathlessly, interrupting for the first time.

"Came a rushing, passionate desire to escape from cities and live for beauty and simplicity 'in the wilderness'; to taste the life he seemed to know; to go out blindly with him into woods and desolate places, and be mixed and blended with the loveliness of Earth and Nature. This was the first thing I knew. It was like an expansion of my normal world--almost an extension of consciousness. It somehow threatened my sense of personal identity. And--it made me hesitate."

O'Malley caught the tremor in his voice. Even in the telling of it the passion plucked at him, for here, as ever, he stood on the border-line of compromise, his heart tempting him toward salvation, his brain and reason tugging at the brakes.

"The sham and emptiness or modern life, its drab vulgarity, the unworthiness of its very ideals stood appallingly revealed before some inner eye just opening. I felt shaken to the core of what had seemed hitherto my very solid and estimable self. How the man thus so powerfully affected me lies beyond all intelligible explanation. To use the obvious catchword 'hypnotism' is to use a toy and stop a leak with paper. For his influence was unconsciously exerted. He cast no net of clever, persuasive words about my thought. Out of that deep, strange silence of the man it somehow came. His actions and his simple happiness of face and manner--both in some sense the raw material of speech perhaps--may have operated as potently suggestive agents; but no adequate causes to justify the result, apart from the fantastic theories I have mentioned, have ever yet come within the range of my understanding. I can only give you the undeniable effects."

"Your sense of extended consciousness," asked his listener, "was this continuous, once it had begun?"

"It came in patches," Stahl continued. "My normal, everyday self was thus able to check it. While it derided, commiserated this everyday self, the latter stood in dread of it and even awe. My training, you see, regarded it as symptom of disorder, a beginning of unbalance that might end in insanity, the thin wedge of a dissociation of the personality Morton Prince and others have described."

His speech grew more and more jerky, even incoherent; evidently the material had not even now been fully reduced to order in his mind.

"Among other curious symptoms I soon established that this subtle spreading of my consciousness grew upon me especially during sleep. The business of the day distracted, scattered it. On waking in the morning, as with the physical fatigue that comes toward the closing of the day, it was strongest.

"And so, in order to examine it closely when in fullest manifestation, I came to spend the nights with him. I would creep in while he slept and stay till morning, alternately sleeping and waking myself. I watched the two of us together. I also watched the 'two' in me. And thus it was I made the further strange discovery that the influence he exerted on me was strongest while he slept. It is best described by saying that in his sleep I was conscious that he sought to draw me with him--away somewhere into his own wonderful world--the state or region, that is, where he manifested completely instead of partially as I knew him here. His personality was a channel somewhere out into a living, conscious Nature...."

"Only," interrupted O'Malley, "you felt that to yield and go involved some nameless inner catastrophe, and so resisted?" He chose his phrase with purpose.

"Because I discovered," was the pregnant answer, given steadily while he watched his listener closely through the darkness, "that this desire for escape the man had wakened in me was nothing more or less than the desire to leave the world, to leave the conditions that prevented--in fact to leave the body. My discontent with modern life had gone as far as that. It was the birth of the suicidal mania."

The pause that followed the words, on the part of Dr. Stahl at any rate, was intentional. O'Malley held his peace. The men shifted their places oil the coil of rope, for both were cramped and stiff with the lengthy session. For a minute or two they leaned over the bulwarks and watched the phosphorescent foam in silence. The blue mountainous shores slipped past in shadowy line against the stars. But when they sat down again their relative positions were not what they had been before. Dr. Stahl had placed himself between his listener and the sea. And O'Malley did not let the manoeuvre escape him. Smiling to himself he noticed it. Just as surely he noticed, too, that the whole recital was being told him with a purpose.

"You really need not be afraid," he could not resist saying. "The idea of escape that way has never even come to me at all. And, anyhow, I've far too much on hand first in telling the world my message." He laughed in the silence that took his words, for Stahl said nothing and made as though he had not heard. But the Irishman understood that it was in the spirit of feeble compromise that danger lay--if danger there was at all, and he himself was far beyond such weakness. His eye was single and his body full of light, and the faith that plays with mountains had made him whole. Return to Nature for him involved no denial of human life, nor depreciation of human interests, but only a revolutionary shifting of values.

"And it was one night while he slept and I watched him in the little room," resumed the German as though there had been no interruption, "I noticed first so decisively this growing of a singular size about him I have already mentioned, and grasped its meaning. For the bulk of the man while growing--emerging, rather, I should say--assumed another shape than his own. It was not my eyes that saw it. I saw him as he felt himself to be_. The creature's personality, his essential inner being, was acting directly upon my own. His influence was at me from another point or angle. First the emotions, then the senses you see. It was a finely organized attack.

"I definitely understood at last that my mind was affected--and proved it too, for the instant effort I made at recovery resulted in my seeing him normal again. The size and shape retreated the moment I denied them."

O'Malley noticed how the speaker's voice lingered over the phrase. Again he knew the intention of the pause that followed. He held his peace, however, and waited.

"Nor was sight the only sense affected," Stahl continued, "for smell and hearing also brought their testimony. Through all but touch, indeed, the hallucination attacked me. For sometimes at night while I sat up watching in the little room, there rose outside the open window in the yards and gardens a sound of tramping, a distant roaring as of voices in a rising wind, a rushing, hollow murmur, confused and deep like that of forests, or the swift passage of a host of big birds across the sky. I heard it, both in the air and on the ground--this tramping on the lawns, this curious shaking of the atmosphere. And with it at the same time a sharp and mingled perfume that made me think of earth and leaves, of flowers after rain, of plains and open spaces, most singular of all--of animals and horses.

"Before the firm denial of my mind, they vanished, just as the change of form had vanished. But both left me weaker than they found me, more tender to attack. Moreover, I understood most plainly, that they emanated all from him. These 'emanations' came, too, chiefly, as I mentioned, whilst he slept. In sleep, it seemed, he set them free. The slumber of the body disengaged them. And then the instinct came to warn me--presenting itself with the authority of an unanswerable intuition--the realization, namely, that if, for a single moment in his presence, I slept, the changes would leap forward in my own being, and I should join him."

"Escape! Know freedom in a larger consciousness!" cried the other.

"And for a man of my point of view and training to have permitted such a conviction at all," he went on, the interruption utterly ignored again, "proves how far along the road I had already traveled without knowing it. Only at the time I was not aware of this. It was the shock of full discovery later that brought me to my senses, when, seeking to withdraw,--I found I could not."

"And so you ran away." It came out bluntly enough, with a touch of scorn but ill concealed.

"We discharged him. But before that came there was more I have to tell you--if you still care to hear it."

"I'm not tired, if that's what you mean. I could listen all night, as far as that goes."

He rose to stretch his legs a moment, and Stahl rose too--instantly. Together they leaned over the bulwarks. The German's hat was off and the air made by the steamer's passage drew his beard out. The warm soft wind brought odors of sea and shore. It caressed their faces, then passed on across those sleeping peasants on the lower deck. The masts and rigging swung steadily against the host of stars.

"Before I thus knew myself half caught," continued the doctor, standing now close enough beside him for actual contact, "and found it difficult to get away, other things had happened, things that confirmed the change so singularly begun in me. They happened everywhere; confirmation came from many quarters; though slight enough, they filled in all the gaps and crevices, strengthened the joints, and built the huge illusion round me all complete until it held me like a prison.

"And they are difficult to tell. Only, indeed, to yourself who underwent a similar experience up there in the mountains, could they bring much meaning. You had the same temptation and you--weathered the same storm." He caught O'Malley's arm a moment and held it. "You escaped this madness just as I did, and you will realize what I mean when I say that the sensation of losing my sense of personal identity became so dangerously, so seductively strong. The feeling of extended consciousness became delicious--too delicious to resist. A kind of pagan joy and exultation known to some in early youth, but put away with the things of youth, possessed me. In the presence of this other's soul, so strangely powerful in its silence and simplicity, I felt as though I touched new sources of life. I tapped them. They poured down and flooded me--with dreams--dreams that could really haunt--with unsettling thoughts of glory and delight beyond the body. I got clean away into Nature. I felt as though some portion of me just awakening reached out across him into rain and sunshine, far up into the sweet and starry sky--as a tree growing out of a thicket that chokes its lower part finds light and freedom at the top."

"It caught you badly, doctor," O'Malley murmured. "The gods came close!"

"So badly that I loathed the prisoned darkness that held me so thickly in the body. I longed to know my being all dispersed through Nature, scattered with dew and wind, shining with the star-light and the sun. And the manner of escape I hinted to you a little while ago came to seem right and necessary. Lawful it seemed, and obvious. The mania literally obsessed me, though still I tried to hide it even from myself ... and struggled in resistance."

"You spoke just now of other things that came to confirm it," the Irishman said while the other paused to take breath. All this he knew. He grew weary of Stahl's clever laboring the point that it was madness. A little knowledge is ever dangerous, and he saw so clearly why the hesitation of the merely intellectual man had led him into error. "Did you mean that others acknowledged this influence as well as yourself?"

"You shall read that for yourself tomorrow," came the answer, "in the detailed report I drew up afterwards; it is far too long to tell you now. But, I may mention something of it. That breaking out of patients was a curious thing, their trying to escape, their dreams and singing, their efforts sometimes to approach his room, their longing for the open and the gardens; the deep, prolonged entrancing of a few; the sounds of rushing, tramping that they, too, heard, the violence of some, the silent ecstasy of others. The thing may find its parallel, perhaps, in the collective mania that sometimes afflicts religious communities, in monasteries or convents. Only here there was no preacher and eloquent leader to induce hysteria--nothing but that silent dynamo of power, gentle and winning as a little child, a being who could not put a phrase together, exerting his potent spell unconsciously, and chiefly while he slept.

"For the phenomena almost without exception came in the night, and often at their fullest strength, as afterwards reported to me, while I dozed in his room and watched beside his motionless and slumbering form. Oh, and there was more as well, much more, as you shall read. The stories my assistants brought me, the tales of frightened nurse and warder, the amazing yarns the porter stammered out, of strangers who had rung the bell at dawn, trying to push past him through the door, saying they were messengers and had been summoned, sent for, had to come,--large, curious, windy figures, or, as he sometimes called them with unconscious humor, 'like creatures out of fairy books or circuses' that always vanished as suddenly as they came. Making every allowance for excitement and exaggeration, the tales were strange enough, I can assure you, and the way many of the patients knew their visions intensified, their illusions doubly strengthened, their efforts even to destroy themselves in many cases almost more than the staff could deal with--all this brought the matter to a climax and made my duty very plain at last."

"And the effect upon yourself--at its worst?" asked his listener quietly.

Stahl sighed wearily a little as he answered with a new-found sadness in his tone.

"I've told you briefly that," he said; "repetition cannot strengthen it. The worthlessness of the majority of human aims today expresses it Best--what you have called yourself the 'horror of civilization.' The vanity of all life's modern, so-called up-to-date tendencies for outer, mechanical developments. A wild, mad beauty streaming from that man's personality overran the whole place and caught the lot of us, myself especially, with a lust for simple, natural things, and with a passion for spiritual beauty to accompany them. Fame, wealth, position seemed the shadows then, and something else it's hard to name announced itself as the substance.... I wanted to clear out and live with Nature, to know simplicity, unselfish purposes, a golden state of childlike existence close to dawns and dew and running water, cared for by woods and blessed by all the winds...." He paused again for breath, then added:--

"And that's just where the mania caught at me so cunningly--till I saw it and called a halt."


"For the thing I sought, the thing he knew, and perhaps remembered, was not possible in the body. It was a spiritual state--"

"Or to be known subjectively!" O'Malley checked him.

"I am no lotus-eater by nature," he went on with energy, "and so I fought and conquered it. But first, I tell you, it came upon me like a tempest--a hurricane of wonder and delight. I've always held, like yourself perhaps, that civilization brings its own army of diseases, and that the few illnesses known to ruder savage races can be cured by simple means the earth herself supplies. And along this line of thought the thing swept into me--the line of my own head-learning. This was natural enough; natural enough, too, that it thus at first deceived me.

"For the quack cures of history come to this--herb simples and the rest; only we know them now as sun-cure, water-cure, open-air cure, old Kneipp, sea-water, and a hundred others. Doctors have never swarmed before as they do now, and these artificial diseases civilization brings in such quantity seemed all at once to mean the abeyance of some central life or power men ought to share with--Nature.... You shall read it all in my written report. I merely wish to show you now how the insidious thing got at me along the line of my special knowledge. I saw the truth that priests and doctors are the only possible and necessary 'professions' in the world, and--that they should be really but a single profession...."

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