The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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He drew suddenly back with a kind of jerk. It was as though he realized abruptly that he had said too much--had overdone it. He took his companion by the arm and led him down the decks.

As they passed the bridge the Captain called out a word of welcome to them; and his jolly, boisterous laugh ran down the wind. The American engineer came from behind a dark corner, almost running into them; his face was flushed. "It's like a furnace below," he said in his nasal familiar manner; "too hot to sleep. I've run up for a gulp of air." He made as though he would join them.

"The wind's behind us, yes," replied the doctor in a different tone, "and there's no draught." With a gesture, half bow, half dismissal, he made even this thick-skinned member of "the greatest civilization on earth" understand he was not wanted. And they turned at the cabin door, O'Malley a moment wondering at the admirable dignity with which the "little" man had managed the polite dismissal.

Himself, perhaps, he would not have minded the diversion. He was a little weary of the German's long recital. The confession had not been complete, he felt. Much had been held back. It was not altogether straightforward. The dishonesty which hides in compromise peeped through it everywhere.

And the incoherence of the latter part had almost bored him. For it was, he easily divined, a studied incoherence. It was meant to touch a similar weakness in himself--if there. But it was not there. He saw through the whole manoeuvre. Stahl wished to warn and save him by showing that the experience they had partly shared was nothing but a strange mental disorder. He wished to force in this subtle way his own interpretation of it upon his friend. Yet at the same time the intuitive Irishman discerned that other tendency in the man which would so gladly perhaps have welcomed a different explanation, and even in some fashion did actually accept it.

O'Malley smiled inwardly as he watched him prepare the coffee as of old. And patiently he waited for the rest that was to come. In a certain sense it all was useful. It would be helpful later. This was an attitude he would often have to face when he returned to civilized life and tried to tell his Message to the thinking, educated men of today--the men he must win over somehow to his dream--the men, without whose backing, no Movement could hope to meet with even a measure of success.

"So, like myself," said Stahl, as he carefully tended the flame of the spirit-lamp between them, "you have escaped by the skin of your teeth, as it were. And I congratulate you--heartily."

"I thank you," said the other dryly.

"You write your version now, and I'll write mine--indeed it is already almost finished--then we'll compare notes. Perhaps we might even publish them together."

He poured out the fragrant coffee. They faced each other across the little table. But O'Malley did not take the bait. He wished to hear the balance his companion still might tell.

And presently he asked for it.

"With the discharge of your patient the trouble ceased at once, then?"

"Comparatively soon. It gradually subsided, yes."

"And as regards yourself?"

"I came back to my senses. I recovered my control. The insubordinate impulses I had known retired." He smiled as he sipped his coffee. "You see me now," he added, looking his companion steadily in the eyes, "a sane and commonplace ship's doctor."

"I congratulate you--"

"Vielen Dank." He bowed.

"On what you missed, yet almost accomplished," the other finished. "You might have known, like me, the cosmic consciousness! You might have met the gods!"

"In a strait-waistcoat," the doctor added with a snap.

They laughed at one another across their coffee cups as once before they had laughed across their glasses of Kakhetian wine--two eternally antagonistic types that will exist as long as life itself.

But, contrary to his expectations, the German had little more to tell. He mentioned how the experience had led his mind into strange and novel reading in his desire to know what other minds might have to offer by way of explanation, even the most fanciful and far-fetched. He told, though very briefly, how he had picked up Fechner among others, and carefully studied his "poetic theories," and read besides the best accounts of "spiritistic" phenomena, as also of the rarer states of hysteria, double-consciousness, multiple personality, and even those looser theories which suggest that a portion of the human constitution called "astral" or "etheric" may escape from the parent center and, carrying with it the subtler forces of desire and yearning, construct a vivid subjective state of mind which is practically its Heaven of hope and longing all fulfilled.

He did not, however, betray the results upon himself of all this curious reading and study, nor mention what he found of truth or probability in it all. He merely quoted books and authors, in at least three languages, that stretched in a singular and catholic array from Plato and the Neo-Platonists across the ages to Myers, Du Prel, Flournoy, Lodge, and Morton Prince.

Out of the lot, perhaps,--O'Malley gathered it by inference rather than from actual statement, from fragments of their talks upon the outward voyage more than from anything let fall just then--Fechner had proved the most persuasive to this man's contradictory and original mind. It certainly seemed, at least, as if he knew some secret sympathetic leaning toward the idea that consciousness and matter were inseparable, and that a Cosmic Consciousness "of sorts" might pertain to the Earth as, equally, to all the other stars and planets. The Urwelt idea he so often referred to had seized a part of his imagination--that, at least, was clear.

The Irishman drank it all in, but he was too exhausted now to argue, and too full besides to ask questions. His natural volubility forsook him. He let the doctor have his say without interruptions. He took the warnings with the rest of it. Nothing the other said had changed him.

It was not the first sunrise they had watched together, and as they took the morning air on deck once more, Corsica rising like a dream the night had left behind her on the sea, he listened with fainter interest to the German's concluding sentences.

"At any rate you now understand why on that other voyage I was so eager to watch you with your friend, so keen to separate you, to prevent your sleeping with him, and at the same time so desirous to see his influence upon you at close quarters; and also--why I always understood so well what was going on both outwardly and within."

O'Malley quietly reiterated the belief he still held in the power of his own dream.

"I shall go home and give my message to the world," was what he said quietly. "I think it's true."

"It's better to keep silent," was the answer, "for, even if true, the world is not ready yet to listen. It will evaporate, you'll find, in the telling. You'll find there's nothing to tell. Besides, a dream like yours must dawn on all at once, and not on merely one. No one will understand you."

"I can but try."

"You will reach no men of action; and few of intellect. You will merely stuff the dreamers who are already stuffed enough. What is the use, I ask you? What is the use?"

"It will set the world on fire for simplicity," the other murmured, knowing the great sweet passion flame within him as he watched the sun come slowly out of the rosy sea. "All the use in the world."

"None," was the laconic answer.

"They might know the gods!" cried O'Malley, using the phrase that symbolized for him the entire Vision.

Stahl looked at him for some time before he spoke. Again that expression of wistful, almost longing admiration shone in the brown eyes.

"My friend," he answered gravely, "men do not want to know the gods. They prefer their delights less subtle. They crave the cruder physical sensations that bang them toward excitement--"

"Of disease, of pain, of separateness," put in the other.

The German shrugged his shoulders. "It's the stage they're at," he said. "You, if you have success, will merely make a few uncomfortable. The majority will hardly turn their heads. To one in a million you may bring peace and happiness."

"It's worth it," cried the Irishman, "even for that one!"

Stahl answered very gently, smiling with his new expression of tenderness and sympathy. "Dream your great dream if you will, but dream it, my friend, alone--in peace and silence. That 'one' I speak of is yourself."

The doctor pressed his hand and turned toward his cabin. O'Malley stood a little longer to share the sunrise. Neither spoke another word. He heard the door shut softly behind him. The unspoken answer in his mind was in two words--two common little adjectives: "Coward and selfish!"

But Stahl, once in the privacy of his cabin, judging by the glance visible on his face ere he closed the door, may probably have known a very different thought. And possibly he uttered it below his breath. A sigh most certainly escaped his lips, a sigh half sadness, half relief. For O'Malley remembered it afterwards.

"Beautiful, foolish dreamer among men! But, thank God, harmless--to others and--himself."

And soon afterwards O'Malley also went to his cabin. Before sleep took him he lay deep in a mood of sadness--almost as though he had heard his friend's unspoken thought. He realized the insuperable difficulties that lay before him. The world would think him "mad but harmless."

Then, with full sleep, he slipped across that sunrise and found the old-world Garden. He held the eternal password.

"I can but try...!"

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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.