The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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The lights in the saloon were out, the smoking-room empty, the passengers in bed. The ship seemed entirely deserted. Only, on the bridge, the shadow of the first officer paced quietly to and fro. Then, suddenly, as they approached the stern, O'Malley discerned anther figure, huge and motionless, against the background of phosphorescent foam; and at the first glance it was exactly as though he had detached from the background of his mind one of those Flying Outlines upon the hills--and caught it there, arrested visibly at last.

He moved along, fairly sure of himself, yet with a tumult of confused sensations, as if consciousness were transferring itself now more rapidly to that portion of him which sought to escape.

Leaning forward, in a stooping posture over the bulwarks, wrapped in the flowing cape he sometimes wore, the man's back and shoulders married so intimately with the night that it was hard to determine the dividing line between the two. So much more of the deck behind him, and of the sky immediately beyond his neck, was obliterated than by any possible human outline. Whether owing to obliquity of disturbed vision, tricks of shadow, or movement of the vessel between the stars and foam, the Irishman saw these singular emanations spread about him into space. He saw them this time directly. And more than ever before they seemed in some way right and comely--true. They were in no sense monstrous; they reported beauty, though a beauty cloaked in power.

And, watching him, O'Malley felt that this loosening portion of himself, as once before in the little cabin, likewise began to grow and spread. Within some ancient fold of the Earth's dream-consciousness they both lay caught. In some mighty Dream of her planetary Spirit, dim, immense, slow-moving, they played their parts of wonder. Already they lay close enough to share the currents of her subconscious activities. And the dream, as she turned in her vast, spatial sleep, was a dream of a time long gone.

Here, amid the loneliness of deserted deck and night, this illusion of bulk was more than ever before outwardly impressive, and as he yielded to the persuasion of the boy's hand, he was conscious of a sudden wild inclination to use his own arms and legs in a way he had never before known or dreamed of, yet that seemed curiously familiar. The balance and adjustment of his physical frame sought to shift and alter; neck and shoulders, as it were, urged forward; there came a singular pricking in the loins, a rising of the back, a thrusting up and outwards of the chest. He felt that something grew behind him with a power that sought to impel or drive him in advance and out across the world at a terrific gait; and the hearing of his ears became of a sudden intensely acute. While his body moved ordinarily, he knew that a part of him that was not body moved--otherwise, that he neither walked, ran, nor stepped upon two feet, but--galloped. The motion proclaimed him kin with the flying shapes upon the hills. At the heart of this portion which sought to detach itself from his central personality--which, indeed, seemed already half escaped--he cantered.

The experience lasted but a second--this swift, free motion of the escaping Double--then passed away like those flashes of memory that rise and vanish again before they can be seized for examination. He shook himself free of the unaccountable obsession, and with the effort of returning to the actual present, the passing-outwards was temporarily checked. And it was then, just as he held himself in hand again, that glancing sideways, he became aware that the boy beside him had, like his parent, also changed--grown large and shadowy with a similar suggestion of another splendid outline. The extension already half accomplished in himself and fully accomplished in the father, was in process of accomplishment in the smaller figure of the son. Clothed in the emerged true shape of their inner being they slowly revealed themselves. It was as bewildering as watching death, and as stern and beautiful.

For the boy, still holding his hand, loped along beside him as though the projection that emanated from him, grown almost physical, were somehow difficult to manage.

In the moment of nearer, smaller consciousness that yet remained to him, O'Malley recalled the significant pantomime of Dr. Stahl two days before in the cabin. It came with a rush of fire. The warning operated; his caution instantly worked. He dropped the hand, let the clinging fingers slip from his own, overcome by something that appalled. For this, surely, was the inner catastrophe that he dreaded, the radical internal dislocation of his personality that involved--death. The thing that had happened, or was happening to these other two, was on the edge of fulfillment in himself--before he was either ready or had decided to accept it.

At any rate he hesitated; and the hesitation, shifting his center of consciousness back into his brain, checked and saved him. A confused sense of forces settling back within himself followed; a kind of rush and scuttle of moods and powers: and he remained temporarily master of his being, recovering balance and command. Twice already--in that cabin-scene, as also on the deck when Stahl had seized him--the moment had come close. Now, again, had he kept hold of the boy's grasp, that inner transformation, which should later become externalized, must have completed itself.

"No, no!" he tried to cry aloud, "for I'm not yet ready!" But his voice rose scarcely above a whisper. The decision of his will, however, had produced the desired result. The "illusion," so strangely born, had passed, at any rate for the time. He knew once more the glory of the steadfast stars, realized that he walked normally upon a steamer's deck, heard with welcome the surge of the sea below, and felt the peace of this calm southern night as they coasted with two hundred sleeping tourists between the islands and the Grecian mainland.... He remembered the fur-merchant, the Armenian priest, the Canadian drummer....

It seemed his feet half tripped, or at least that he put out a hand to steady himself against the ship's long roll, for the pair of them moved up to the big man's side with a curious, rushing motion that brought them all together with a mild collision. And the boy laughed merrily, his laughter like singing half completed. O'Malley remembers the little detail, because it serves to show that he was yet still in a state of intensified consciousness, far above the normal level. It was still "like walking in my sleep or acting out some splendid dream," as he put it in his written version. "Half out of my body, if you like, though in no sense of the words at all half out of my mind!"

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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.