The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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Slowly, taking life easily, the little steamer puffed its way across the Ionian Sea. The pyramid of Etna, bluer even than the sky, dominated the western horizon long after the heel of Italy had faded, then melted in its turn into the haze of cloud and distance. No other sails were visible.

With the passing of Calabria spring had leaped into the softness of full summer, and the breezes were gentle as those that long ago fanned the cheeks and hair of Io, beloved of Zeus, as she flew southwards toward the Nile. The passengers, less lovely than that fair daughter of Argos, and with the unrest of thinner adventure in their blood, basked lazily in the sun; but the sea was not less haunted for those among them whose hearts could travel. The Irishman at any rate slipped beyond the confines of the body, viewing that ancient scene as she had done, from above. His widening consciousness expanded to include it.

Cachalots spouted; dolphins danced, as though still to those wild flutes of Dionysus; porpoises rolled beneath the surface of the transparent waves, diving below the vessel's sides but just in time to save their shiny noses; and all day long, ignoring the chart upon the stairway walls, the tourists turned their glasses eastwards, searching for a first sight of Greece.

O'Malley, meanwhile, trod the decks of a new ship. For him now sea and sky were doubly peopled. The wind brought messages of some divine deliverance approaching slowly, the heat of that pearly, shining sun warmed centers of his being that hitherto the world kept chill. The land toward which the busy steamer moved he knew, of course, was but the shell from which the inner spirit of beauty once vivifying it had long since passed away. Yet it remained a clue. That ancient loveliness, as a mood of the earth's early consciousness, was buried, not destroyed. Eternally it still flamed somewhere. And, long before the days of Greece, he knew, it had existed in yet fuller and more complete manifestation: that earliest, vastly splendid Mood of the earth's soul, too mighty for any existence that the history of humanity can recall, and too remote for any but the most daringly imaginative minds even to conceive. The Urwelt Mood, as Stahl himself admitted, even while it called to him, was a reconstruction that to men today could only seem--dangerous.

And his own little Self, guided by the inarticulate stranger, was being led at last toward its complete recapture.

Yet, while he crawled slowly with the steamer over a tiny portion of the spinning globe, feeling that at the same time he crawled toward a spot upon it where access would be somehow possible to this huge expression of her first Life--what was it, phrased timidly as men phrase big thoughts today, that he really believed? Even in our London talks, intimate as they were, interpreted too by gesture, facial expression, and--silence, his full meaning evaded precise definition. "There are no words, there are no words," he kept saying, shrugging his shoulders and stroking his untidy hair. "In me, deep down, it all lies clear and plain and strong; but language cannot seize a mode of life that throve before language existed. If you cannot catch the picture from my thoughts, I give up the whole dream in despair." And in his written account, owing to its strange formlessness, the result was not a little bewildering.

Briefly stated, however--that remnant, at least, which I discover in my own mind when attempting to tell the story to others--what he felt, believed, lived, at any rate while the adventure lasted, was this:--

That the Earth, as a living, conscious Being, had known visible projections of her consciousness similar to those projections of our own personality which the advanced psychologists of today now envisage as possible; that the simple savagery of his own nature, and the poignant yearnings derived from it, were in reality due to his intimate closeness to the life of the Earth; that, whereas in the body the fulfillment of these longings was impossible, in the spirit he might yet know contact with the soul of the planet, and thus experience their complete satisfaction. Further, that the portion of his personality which could thus enter this heaven of its own subjective construction, was that detachable portion Stahl had spoken of as being "malleable by desire and longing," leaving the body partially and temporarily sometimes in sleep, and, at death, completely. More,--that the state thus entered would mean a quasi-merging back into the life of the Earth herself, of which he was a partial expression.

This closeness to Nature was today so rare as to be almost unrecognized as possible. Its possession constituted its owner what the doctor called a "Cosmic Being"--a being scarcely differentiated from the life of the Earth Spirit herself--a direct expression of her life, a survival of a time before such expressions had separated away from her and become individualized as human creatures. Moreover, certain of these earliest manifestations or projections of her consciousness, knowing in their huge shapes of fearful yet simple beauty a glory of her own being, still also survived. The generic term of "gods" might describe their status as interpreted to the little human power called Imagination.

This call to the simple life of primal innocence and wonder that had ever brimmed the heart of the Irishman, acknowledged while not understood, might have slumbered itself away with the years among modern conditions into atrophy and denial, had he not chanced to encounter a more direct and vital instance of it even than himself. The powerfully-charged being of this Russian stranger had summoned it forth. The mere presence of this man quickened and evoked this faintly-stirring center in his psychic being that opened the channel of return. Speech, as any other explanation, was unnecessary. To resist was still within his power. To accept and go was also open to him. The "inner catastrophe" he feared need not perhaps be insuperable or permanent.

"Remember," the doctor had said to him at the end of that last significant conversation, "this berth in my stateroom is freely at your disposal till Batoum." And O'Malley, thanking him, had shaken off that restraining hand upon his arm, knowing that he would never make use of it again.

For the Russian stranger and his son had somehow made him free.

Between that cabin and the decks he spent his day. Occasionally he would go below to report progress, as it were, by little sentences which he divined would be acceptable, and at the same time gave expression to his own growing delight. The boy, meanwhile, was everywhere, playing alone like a wild thing; one minute in the bows, hat off, gazing across the sea beneath a shading hand, and the next leaning over the stern-rails to watch the churning foam that drove them forwards. At regular intervals he, too, rushed to the cabin and brought communications to his parent.

"Tomorrow at dawn," observed the Irishman, "we shall see Cape Mattapan rising from the sea. After that, Athens for a few hours; then coasting through the Cyclades, close to the mainland often." And glancing over to the berth, while pretending to be busy with his steamer-trunk, he saw the great smile of happiness break over the other's face like a sunrise....

For it was clear to him that with the approach to Greece, a change began to come over his companions. It was noticeable chiefly in the father. The joy that filled the man, too fine and large to be named excitement, passed from him in radiations that positively seemed to carry with them a physical extension. This, of course, was purely a clairvoyant effect upon the mind--O'Malley's divining faculty visualized the spiritual traits of the man's dilating Self. But, nevertheless, the truth remained that--somehow he increased. He grew; became interiorly more active, alive, potent; and of this singular waxing of the inner spirit something passed outwards and stood with rare dignity about his very figure.

And this manifestation of themselves was due to that expansion of the inner life caused by happiness. The little point of their personalities they showed normally to the world was but a single facet, a tip as it were of their whole selves. More lay within, beyond. As with the rest of the world, a great emotion stimulated and summoned it forth into activity nearer the surface. Clearly, for these two Greece symbolized a point of departure of a great hidden passion. Something they expected lay waiting for them there. Guidance would come thence.

And, by reflection perhaps as much as by direct stimulation, the same change made itself felt in himself. Joy caught him--the joy of a home-coming, long deferred....

At the same time, the warning of Dr. Stahl worked in him, if subconsciously only. He showed this by mixing more with the other passengers. He chatted with the Captain, who was as pleased with his big family as though he had personally provided the weather that made them happy; with the Armenian priest, who was eager to show that he had read "a much of T'ackeray and Keeplin"; and especially with the boasting Moscow merchant, who by this time "owned" the smoking-room and imposed his verbose commonplaces upon one and all with authoritative self-confidence in six languages--a provincial mind in full display. The latter in particular held him to a normal humanity; his atmosphere breathed the wholesome thickness of the majority of humankind--ordinary, egoistic, with the simplicity of the uninspiring sort. The merchant acted upon him as a sedative, and that day the Irishman took him in large doses, allopathically, for his talk formed an admirable antidote to the stress of that other burning excitement that, according to Stahl, threatened to disintegrate his personality.

Though hardly in the sense he intended, the fur-merchant was entirely delightful--engaging as a child; for, among other marked qualities, he possessed the unerring instinct of the snob which made him select for his friends those whose names or position might glorify his banal insignificance--and his stories were vivid pictorial illustrations of this useful worldly faculty. O'Malley listened with secret delight, keeping a grave face and dropping in occasional innocent questions to heighten the color or increase the output. Others in the circle responded in kind, feeling the same chord vibrating in themselves. Even the priest, like a repeating-gun, continually discharged his little secret pride that Byron had occupied a room in that Venetian monastery where he lived; and at last O'Malley himself was conscious of an inclination to report his own immense and recently discovered kinship with a greater soul and consciousness than his own. After all, he reflected with a deep thrill while he listened, the desire of the snob was but a crude and simple form of the desire of the mystic:--to lose one's little self in a Self which is greater!

Then, weary of them all and their minute personal interests, he left the smoking-room and joined the boy again, running absurd races with him from stern to bow, playing hide-and-seek among the decks, even playing shuffle-board together. They sweated in the blazing sun and watched the dance of the sea; caught the wind in their faces with a shout of joy, or with pointing fingers followed the changing outlines of the rare, soft clouds that sailed the world of blue above them. There was no speech between them, and both felt that other things, invisible, swift, and spirit-footed, whose home is just beyond the edge of life as the senses report life, played wildly with them. The smoking-room then, with its occupants so greedy for the things that money connotes--the furs, champagne, cigars, and heavy possessions that were symbols of the personal aggrandizement they sought and valued--seemed to the Irishman like a charnel-house where those about to die sat making inventories in blind pride of the things they must leave behind.

It was, indeed, a contrast of Death and Life. For beside him, with that playing, silent boy, coursed the power of transforming loveliness which had breathed over the world before her surface knew this swarming race of men. The life of the Earth knew no need of outward acquisition, possessing all things so completely in herself. And he--he was her child--O glory! Joy passing belief!

"Oh!" he cried once with passion, turning to the fair-haired figure of youth who stood with him in the bows, meeting the soft wind,--"Oh, to have heard the trees whispering together in the youth of the world, and felt one of the earliest winds that ever blew across the cooling seas!"

And the boy, not understanding the words, but responding with a perfect naturalness to the emotion that drove them forth, seized his hand and with an extraordinarily free motion as of flying, raced with him down the decks, happy, laughing, hair loose over his face, and with a singular action of the shoulders as though he somehow--cantered. O'Malley remembered his vision of the Flying Shapes....

Toward the evening, however, the boy disappeared, keeping close to his father's side, and after dinner both retired early to their cabin.

And the ship, meanwhile, drew ever nearer to the haunted land.

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