The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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The shadows of the September afternoon were lengthening toward us from the Round Pond by the time O'Malley reached this stage of his curious and fascinating story. It was chilly under the trees, and the "wupsey-up, wupsey-down" babies, as he termed them, had long since gone in to their teas, or whatever it is that London babies take at six o'clock.

We strolled home together, and he welcomed the idea of sharing a dinner we should cook ourselves in the tiny Knightsbridge flat. "Stewpot evenings," he called these occasions. They reminded us of camping trips together, although it must be confessed that in the cage-like room the "stew" never tasted quite as it did beside running water on the skirts of the forest when the dews were gathering on the little gleaming tent, and the wood-smoke mingled with the scents of earth and leaves.

Passing that grotesque erection opposite the Albert Hall, gaudy in the last touch of sunset, I saw him shudder. The spell of the ship and sea and the blazing Sicilian sunshine lay still upon us, Etna's cones towering beyond those gilded spikes of the tawdry Memorial. I stole a glance at my companion. His light blue eyes shone, but with the reflection of another sunset--the sunset of forgotten, ancient, far-off scenes when the world was young.

His personality held something of magic in that silent stroll homewards, for no word fell from either one of us to break its charm. The untidy hair escaped from beneath the broad-brimmed old hat, and his faded coat of grey flannel seemed touched with the shadows that the dusk brings beneath wild-olive trees. I noticed the set of his ears, and how the upper points of them ran so sharply into the hair. His walk was springy, light, very quiet, suggesting that he moved on open turf where a sudden running jump would land him, not into a motor-bus, but into a mossy covert where ferns grew. There was a certain fling of the shoulders that had an air of rejecting streets and houses. Some fancy, wild and sweet, caught me of a faun passing down through underbrush of woodland glades to drink at a forest pool; and, chance giving back to me a little verse of Alice Corbin's, I turned and murmured it while watching him:

What dim Arcadian pastures: Have I known,
That suddenly, out of nothing,
A wind is blown,
Lifting a veil and a darkness,
Showing a purple sea--
And under your hair, the faun's eyes
Look out on me?

It was, of course, that whereas his body marched along Hill Street and through Montpelier Square, his thoughts and spirit flitted through the haunted, old-time garden he forever craved. I thought of the morrow--of my desk in the Life Insurance Office, of the clerks with oiled hair brushed back from the forehead, all exactly alike, trousers neatly turned up to show fancy colored socks from bargain sales, their pockets full of cheap cigarettes, their minds busy with painted actresses and the names of horses! A Life Insurance Office! All London paying yearly sums to protect themselves against--against the most interesting moment of life. Premiums upon escape and freedom!

Again, it was the spell of my companion's personality that turned all this paraphernalia of the busy, modern existence into the counters in some grotesque and rather sordid game. Tomorrow, of course, it would all turn real and earnest again, O'Malley's story a mere poetic fancy. But for the moment I lived it with him, and found it magnificent.

And the talk we had that evening when the stew-pot was empty and we were smoking on the narrow-ledged roof of the prison-house--for he always begged for open air, and with cushions we often sat beneath the stars and against the grimy chimney-pots--that talk I shall never forget. Life became constructed all anew. The power of the greatest fairy tale this world can ever know lay about me, raised to its highest expression. I caught at least some touch of reality--of awful reality--in the idea that this splendid globe whereon we perched like insects peeping timidly from tiny cells, might be the body of a glorious Being--the mighty frame to which some immense Collective Consciousness, vaster than that of men, and wholly different in kind, might be attached.

In the story, as I found it later in the dusty little Paddington room, O'Malley reported, somewhat heavily, it seemed to me, the excerpts chosen by Dr. Stahl. As an imaginative essay, they were interesting, of course, and vitally suggestive, but in a tale of adventure such as this they overweight the barque of fancy. Yet, in order to appreciate what followed, it seems necessary for the mind to steep itself in something of his ideas. The reader who dreads to think, and likes his imagination to soar unsupported, may perhaps dispense with the balance of this section; but to be faithful to the scaffolding whereon this Irishman built his amazing dream, I must attempt as best I can some précis of that conversation.

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