The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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It was at the close of a wet and foggy autumn that we met again, winter in the air, all London desolate; and his wasted, forlorn appearance told me the truth at once. Only the passionate eagerness of voice and manner were there to prove that the spirit had not weakened. There glowed within a fire that showed itself in the translucent shining of the eyes and face.

"I've made one great discovery, old man," he exclaimed with old, familiar, high enthusiasm, "one great discovery at least."

"You've made so many," I answered cheerfully, while my real thoughts were busy with his bodily state of health. For his appearance shocked me. He stood among a litter of papers, books, neckties, nailed boots, knapsacks, maps and what-not, that rolled upon the floor from the mouth of the Willesden canvas sack. His old grey flannel suit hung literally upon a bag of bones; all the life there was seemed concentrated in his face and eyes--those far-seeing, light blue eyes. They were darker than usual now, eyes like the sea, I thought. His hair, long and disordered, tumbled over his forehead. He was pale, and at the same time flushed. It was almost a disembodied spirit that I saw.

"You've made so many. I love to hear them. Is this one finer than the others?"

He looked a moment at me through and through, almost uncannily. He looked in reality beyond me. It was something else he saw, and in the dusk I turned involuntarily.

"Simpler," he said quickly, "much simpler."

He moved up close beside me, whispering. Was it all imagination that a breath of flowers came with him? There was certainly a curious fragrance in the air, wild and sweet like orchards in the spring.

"And it is--?"

"That the Garden's everywhere! You needn't go to the distant Caucasus to find it. It's all about this old London town, and in these foggy streets and dingy pavements. It's even in this cramped, undusted room. Now at this moment, while that lamp flickers and the thousands go to sleep. The gates of horn and ivory are here," he tapped his breast. "And here the flowers, the long, clean open hills, the giant herd, the nymphs, the sunshine and the gods!"

So attached was he now to that little room in Paddington where his books and papers lay, that when the curious illness that had caught him grew so much worse, and the attacks of the nameless fever that afflicted him turned serious, I hired a bedroom for him in the same house. And it was in that poky, cage-like den he breathed his last.

His illness I called curious, his fever nameless, because they really were so and puzzled every one. He simply faded out of life, it seemed; there was no pain, no sleeplessness, no suffering of any physical kind. He uttered no complaint, nor were there symptoms of any known disorder.

"Your friend is sound organically," the doctor told me when I pressed him for the truth there on the stairs, "sound as a bell. He wants the open air and plenty of wholesome food, that's all. His body is ill-nourished. His trouble is mental--some deep and heavy disappointment doubtless. If you can change the current of his thoughts, awaken interest in common things, and give him change of scene, perhaps--" He shrugged his shoulders and looked very grave.

"You think he's dying?"

"I think, yes, he is dying."


"From lack of living pure and simple," was the answer. "He has lost all hold on life."

"He has abundant vitality still."

"Full of it. But it all goes--elsewhere. The physical organism gets none of it."

"Yet mentally," I asked, "there's nothing actually wrong?"

"Not in the ordinary sense. The mind is clear and active. So far as I can test it, the process of thought is healthy and undamaged. It seems to me--"

He hesitated a moment on the doorstep while the driver wound the motor handle. I waited with a sinking heart for the rest of the sentence.

" certain cases of nostalgia I have known--very rare and very difficult to deal with. Acute and vehement nostalgia, yes, sometimes called a broken heart," he added, pausing another instant at the carriage door, "in which the entire stream of a man's inner life flows to some distant place, or person, or--or to some imagined yearning that he craves to satisfy."

"To a dream?"

"It might be even that," he answered slowly, stepping in. "It might be spiritual. The religious and poetic temperament are most open to it, and the most difficult to deal with when afflicted." He emphasized the little word as though the doubt he felt was far less strong than the conviction he only half concealed. "If you would save him, try to change the direction of his thoughts. There is nothing--in all honesty I must say it--nothing that I can do to help."

And then, pulling at the grey tuft on his chin and looking keenly at me a moment over his glasses,--"Those flowers," he said hesitatingly, "you might move those flowers from the room, perhaps. Their perfume is a trifle strong ... It might be better." Again he looked sharply at me. There was an odd expression in his eyes. And in my heart there was an odd sensation too, so odd that I found myself bereft a moment of any speech at all, and when my tongue became untied, the carriage was already disappearing down the street. For in that dingy sick-room there were no flowers at all, yet the perfume of woods and fields and open spaces had reached the doctor too, and obviously perplexed him.

"Change the direction of his thoughts!" I went indoors, wondering how any honest and even half-unselfish friend, knowing what I knew, could follow such advice. With what but the lowest motive, of keeping him alive for my own happiness, could I seek to change his thoughts of some imagined joy and peace to the pain and sordid facts of an earthly existence that he loathed?

But when I turned I saw the tousled yellow-headed landlady standing in the breach. Mrs. Heath stopped me in the hall to inquire whether I could say "anythink abart the rent per'aps?" Her manner was defiant. I found three months were owing.

"It's no good arsking 'im," she said, though not unkindly on the whole. "I'm sick an' tired of always being put off. He talks about the gawds and a Mr. Pan, or some such gentleman who he says will look after it all. But I never sees 'im--not this Mr. Pan. And his stuff up there," jerking her head toward the little room, "ain't worth a Sankey-moody 'ymn-book, take the lot of it at cost!"

I reassured her. It was impossible to help smiling. For some minds, I reflected, a Sankey hymn-book might hold dreams that were every bit as potent as his own, and far less troublesome. But that "Mr. Pan, or some such gentleman" should serve as a "reference" between lodger and landlady was an unwitting comment on the modern point of view that made me want to cry rather than to laugh. O'Malley and Mrs. Heath between them had made a profounder criticism than they knew.

And so by slow degrees he went, leaving the outer fury for the inner peace. The center of consciousness gradually shifted from the transient form which is the true ghost, to the deeper, permanent state which is the eternal reality. For this was how he phrased it to me in one of our last, strange talks. He watched his own withdrawal.

In bed he would lie for hours with fixed and happy eyes, staring apparently at nothing, the expression on his face quite radiant. The pulse sank often dangerously low; he scarcely seemed to breathe; yet it was never complete unconsciousness or trance. My voice, when I found the heart to try and coax his own for speech, would win him back. The eyes would then grow dimmer, losing their happier light, as he turned to the outer world to look at me.

"The pull is so tremendous now," he whispered; "I was far, so far away, in the deep life of Earth. Why do you bring me back to all these little pains? I can do nothing here; there I am of use..."

He spoke so low I had to bend my head to catch the words. It was very late at night and for hours I had been watching by his side. Outside an ugly yellow fog oppressed the town, but about him like an atmosphere I caught again that fragrance as of trees and flowers. It was too faint for any name--that fugitive, mild perfume one meets upon bare hills and round the skirts of forests. It was somehow, I fancied, in the very breath.

"Each time the effort to return is greater. In there I am complete and full of power. I can work and send my message back so splendidly. Here," he glanced down at his wasted body with a curious smile, "I am only on the fringe--it's pain and failure. All so ineffective."

That other look came back into the eyes, more swiftly than before.

"I thought you might like to speak, to tell me--something," I said, keeping the tears with difficulty from my voice. "Is there no one you would like to see?"

He shook his head slowly, and gave the peculiar answer:

"They're all in there."

"But Stahl, perhaps--if I could get him here?"

An expression of gentle disapproval crossed his face, then melted softly into a wistful tenderness as of a child.

"He's not there--yet," he whispered, "but he will come too in the end. In sleep, I think, he goes there even now."

"Where are you really then?" I ventured, "And where is it you go to?"

The answer came unhesitatingly; there was no doubt or searching.

"Into myself, my real and deeper self, and so beyond it into her--the Earth. Where all the others are--all, all, all."

And then he frightened me by sitting up in bed abruptly. His eyes stared past me--out beyond the close confining walls. The movement was so startling with its suddenness and vigor that I shrank back a moment. The head was sideways. He was intently listening.

"Hark!" he whispered. "They are calling me! Do you hear...?"

The look of joy that broke over the face like sunshine made me hold my breath. Something in his low voice thrilled me beyond all I have ever known. I listened too. Only the rumble of the traffic down the distant main street broke the silence, the rattle of a nearer cart, and the footsteps of a few pedestrians. No other noises came across the night. There was no wind. Thick yellow fog muffled everything.

"I hear nothing," I answered softly. "What is it that you hear?"

And, making no reply, he presently lay down again among the pillows, that look of joy and glory still upon his face. It lay there to the end like sunrise.

The fog came in so thickly through the window that I rose to close it. He never closed that window, and I hoped he would not notice. For a sound of wretched street-music was coming nearer--some beggar playing dismally upon a penny whistle--and I feared it would disturb him. But in a flash he was up again.

"No, no!" he cried, raising his voice for the first time that night. "Do not shut it. I shan't be able to hear then. Let all the air come in. Open it wider... wider! I love that sound!"

"The fog--"

"There is no fog. It's only sun and flowers and music. Let them in. Don't you hear it now?" he added. And, more to bring him peace than anything else, I bowed my head to signify agreement. For the last confusion of the mind, I saw, was upon him, and he made the outer world confirm some imagined detail of his inner dream. I drew the sash down lower, covering his body closely with the blankets. He flung them off impatiently at once. The damp and freezing night rushed in upon us like a presence. It made me shudder, but O'Malley only raised himself upon one elbow to taste it better, and--to listen.

Then, waiting patiently for the return of the quiet, trance-like state when I might cover him again, I moved toward the window and looked out. The street was empty, save for that beggar playing vilely on his penny whistle. The wretch came to a standstill immediately before the house. The lamplight fell from the room upon his tattered, broken figure. I could not see his face. He groped and felt his way.

Outside that homeless wanderer played his penny pipe in the night of cold and darkness.

Inside the Dreamer listened, dreaming of his gods and garden, his great Earth Mother, his visioned life of peace and simple things with a living Nature...

And I felt somehow that player watched us. I made an angry sign to him to go. But it was the sudden touch upon my arm that made me turn round with such a sudden start that I almost cried aloud. O'Malley in his night-clothes stood close against me on the floor, slight as a spirit, eyes a-shine, lips moving faintly into speech through the most wonderful smile a human face has ever shown me.

"Do not send him away," he whispered, joy breaking from him like a light, "but tell him that I love it. Go out and thank him. Tell him I hear and understand, and say that I am coming. Will you...?"

Something within me whirled. It seemed that I was lifted from my feet a moment. Some tide of power rushed from his person to my own. The room was filled with blinding light. But in my heart there rose a great emotion that combined tears and joy and laughter all at once.

"The moment you are back in bed," I heard my voice like one speaking from a distance, "I'll go--"

The momentary, wild confusion passed as suddenly as it came. I remember he obeyed at once. As I bent down to tuck the clothes about him, that fragrance as of flowers and open spaces rose about my bending face like incense--bewilderingly sweet.

And the next second I was standing in the street. The man who played upon the pipe, I saw, was blind. His hand and fingers were curiously large.

I was already close, ready to press all that my pockets held into his hand--ay, and far more than merely pockets held because O'Malley said he loved the music--when something made me turn my head away. I cannot say precisely what it was, for first it seemed a tapping at the window of his room behind me, and then a little noise within the room itself, and next--more curious than either,--a feeling that something came out rushing past me through the air. It whirled and shouted as it went...

I only remember clearly that in the very act of turning, and while my look still held that beggar's face within the field of vision, I saw the sightless eyes turn bright a moment as though he opened them and saw. He did most certainly smile; to that I swear.

But when I turned again the street immediately about me was empty. The beggar-man was gone.

And down the pavement, moving swiftly through the curtain of fog, I saw his vanishing figure. It was large and spreading. In the fringe of light the lamp-post gave, its upper edges seemed far above the ground. Someone else was with him. There were two figures.

I heard that sound of piping far away. It sounded faint and almost flute-like in the air. And in the mud at my feet the money lay--spurned utterly. I heard the last coins ring upon the pavement as they settled. But in the room, when I got back, the body of Terence O'Malley had ceased to breathe.

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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.