The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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What followed he relates with passion, half confused. Without speaking the big Russian turned his head by way of welcome, and O'Malley saw that the proportions of it were magnificent like a fragment of the night and sky. Though too dark to read the actual expression in the eyes, he detected their gleam of joy and splendor. The whole presentment of the man was impressive beyond any words that he could find. Massive, yet charged with swift and alert vitality, he reared there through the night, his inner self now toweringly manifested. At any other time, and without the preparation already undergone, the sight might almost have terrified; now it only uplifted. For in similar fashion, though lesser in degree, because the mold was smaller, and hesitation checked it, this very transformation had been going forward within himself.

The three of them leaned there upon the rails, rails oddly dwindled now to the size of a toy steamer, while thus the spirit of the dreaming Earth swam round and through them, awful in power, yet at the same time gentle, winning, seductive as wild flowers in the spring. And it was this delicate, hair-like touch of delight, magical with a supreme and utterly simple innocence, that made the grandeur of the whole experience still easily manageable, and terror in it all unknown.

The Irishman stood on the outside, toward the vessel's stern, next him the father, beyond, the boy. They touched. A current like a river in flood swept through all three.

He, too, was caught within those visible extensions of their personalities; all again, caught within the consciousness of the Earth. Across the sea they gazed together in silence--waiting.

It was the Oro passage, where the mainland hills on the west and the Isle of Tenos on the east draw close together, and the steamer passes for several miles so near to Greece that the boom of surf upon the shore is audible. That night, however, the sea lay too still for surf; it whispered softly in its sleep; and in its sleep, too, listened. They heard its multitudinous rush of voices as the surge below raced by--a giant frieze in which the phosphorescence painted dancing forms and palely luminous faces. Unsubstantial shapes of foam held hands in continuous array below the waves, lit by soft-sea-lanterns strung together along the steamer's sides.

Yet it was not these glimmering shapes the three of them watched, thus intently silent. The lens of yearning focused not in sight. Down the great channel at whose opening they stood, leading straight to the Earth's old central heart, the message of communion would not be a visual one. The sensitive fringe of their stretched personalities, contacting thus actually the consciousness of the planet-soul, would quiver to a reaction of another kind. This point of union, already affected, would presently report itself, unmistakably, yet not to the eyes. The increased acuteness of the Irishman's hearing--a kind of interior hearing--quickly supplied the key. It was that all three--listened.

Some primitive sound of Earth would presently vibrate through their extended beings with an authoritative sweet thunder not to be denied. By a Voice, a Call, the Earth would tell them that she heard; that lovingly she was aware of their presence in her heart. She would call them, with the voice of one of their own kind.

How strange it all was! Enormous in conception, enormous in distance, scope, stretch! Yet so tiny, intimate, sweet! And this vast splendor was to report itself by one of the insignificant little channels by which men, locked in cramped physical bodies, interpret the giant universe--a trivial sense-impression! That so terrible a communication could reach the soul via the quivering of a wee material nerve was on a par with that other grave splendor--that God can exist in the heart of a child.

Thus, dimly, yet with an authority that shakes the soul, may little human hearts divine the Immensities that travel with a thunder of great glory close about their daily life. Through regions of their subliminal consciousness, which transcends the restricted physical expression of it called personality as the moisture of the world transcends a drop of water, deific presences pass grandly to and fro.

For here, to this wild-hearted Irishman with the forbidden strain of the Urmensch in his blood, came the sharp and instant revelation that the Consciousness is not contained skin-tight around the body. It spread enormously about him, remote, extended; and in some distant tract of it this strange occurrence took place. The idea of distance and extension, of course, were merely intellectual concepts, like that of Time. For what happened, happened near and close, beside, within his actual physical person. That physical person, with its brain, however, he realized, was but a fragment of his total Self. A broken piece of the occurrence filtered through from beyond and fell upon the deck at his feet. The rest he divined, seeing it whole. Only the little bit, however, has he found the language to describe.

And that for which all three listened was already on the way. Forever it had been "happening," yet only reached them now because they were ready and open to it. Events upon the physical plane, he grasped, represented the last feeble expression of things that had happened interiorly with a vaster power long ago--and are ever happening still. This Sound they listened for, coming from the Spirit of the Earth, lay ever close to men's ears, divinely sweet and splendid. It seemed born somewhere in the heart of the blue gloom that draped the hills of Greece. Thence, across the peaked mountains, stretched the immense pipe of starry darkness that carried it toward them as along a channel. Made possible of approach by the ancient passion of beauty that Greece once knew, it ran down upon the world into their hearts, direct from the Being of the Earth.

With a sudden rush, it grew nearer, swelling with a draught of sound that sucked whole spaces of sky and sea and stars with it. It emerged. They heard, all three.

Above the pulse and tremble of the steamer's engines, above the surge and gurgle of the sea, a cry swept toward them from the shore. Long-drawn, sweetly-penetrating, yet with some strident accent of power and command, this voice of Earth rushed upon them over the quiet water--then died away again among the mountains and the night. Its passage through the sky was torrential. The whole pouring flood of it dipped back with abrupt swiftness into silence. The Irishman understood that but an echo of its main volume had come through.

A deep, convulsive movement ran over the great body at his side, and at once communicated itself to the boy beyond. Father and son straightened up abruptly as though the same force lifted both; then stretched down and forwards over the bulwarks. They seemed to shake themselves free of something. Neither spoke. Something utterly overwhelming lay in that moment. For the cry was at once of enchanting sweetness, yet with a deep and dreadful authority that overpowered. It invited the very soul.

A moment of silence followed, and the cry was then repeated, thinner, fainter, already further away. It seemed withdrawn, sunk more deeply into the night, higher up, too, floating away northwards into remoter vales and glens that lay beyond the shore-line. Though still a single cry, there were distinct breaks of utterance in it this time, as of words. It was, of a kind--speech: a Message, a Summons, a Command that somehow held entreaty at its heart.

And this time the appeal in it was irresistible. Father and son started forwards as though deliberately pulled; while from himself shot outwards that loosening portion of his being that all the evening had sought release. The vehicle of his yearnings, passionately summoned, leaped to the ancient call of the Earth's eternally young life. This vital essence of his personality, volatile as air and fierce as lightning, flashed outwards from its hidden prison where it lay choked and smothered by the weights and measures of modern life. For the beauty and splendor of that far voice wrung his very heart and set it free. He knew a quasi-physical wrench of detachment. A wild and tameless glory fused the fastenings of ages.

Only the motionless solidity of the great figure beside him prevented somehow the complete escape, and made him understand that the Call just then was not for all three of them, especially not for himself. The parent rose beside him, massive and stable, secure as the hills which were his true home, and the boy broke suddenly into happy speech which was wild and singing.

He looked up swiftly into his parent's steady visage.

"Father!" he cried in tones that merged half with the wind, half with the sea, "it is his voice! Chiron calls--!" His eyes shone like stars, his young face was alight with joy and passion.--"Go, father, you, or--"

He stopped an instant, catching the Irishman's eyes upon his own across the form between them.

"--or you!" he added with a laughter of delight; "you go!"

The big figure straightened up, standing back a pace from the rails. A low sound rolled from him that was like an echo of thunder among hills. With slow, laborious distinctness it broke off into fragments that were words, with great difficulty uttered, but with a final authority that rendered them command.

"No," O'Malley heard, "you--first. And--carry word--that we--are--on the way." Staring out across the sea and sky he boomed it deeply. "You--first. We--follow--!" And the speech seemed to flow from the entire surface of his body rather than from the lips alone. The sea and air mothered the syllables. Thus might the Night herself have spoken.

Chiron! The word, with its clue of explanation, flamed about him with a roar. Was this, then, the type of cosmic life to which his companions, and himself with them, inwardly approximated...?

The same instant, before O'Malley could move a muscle to prevent it, the boy climbed the rails with an easy, vaulting motion that was swift yet oddly spread, and dropped straight down into the sea. He fell; and as he fell it was as if the passage through the air drew out a part of him again like smoke. Whether it was due to the flying cloak, or to some dim wizardry of the shadows, there grew over him an instantaneous transformation of outline that was far more marked than anything before. For as the steamer drew onwards, and the body thus passed in its downward flight close beneath O'Malley's eyes, he saw that the boy was making the first preparatory motions of swimming,--movements, however, that were not the horizontal sweep of a pair of human arms, but rather the vertical strokes of a swimming animal. He pawed the air.

The surprise of the whole unexpected thing came upon him with a crash that brought him back effectually again into himself. That part of him, already half emerged in similar escape, now flashed back sheath-like within him. The inner catastrophe he dreaded while desiring it, had not yet completed itself.

He heard no splash, for the ship was high out of the water, and the place where the body met the sea already lay far astern; but when the momentary arrest of his faculties had passed and he found his voice to cry for help, the father turned upon him like a lion and clapped a great, encompassing hand upon his mouth.

"Quiet!" his deep voice boomed. "It is well--and he--is--safe."

And across the huge and simple visage ran an expression of such supreme happiness, while in his act and gesture lay such convincing power, that the Irishman felt himself overborne and forced to acknowledge another standard of authority that somehow made the whole thing right. To cry "man overboard," to stop the ship, throw life-buoys and the rest, was not only unnecessary, but foolish. The boy was safe; it was well with him; he was not "lost"...

"See," said the parent's deep voice, breaking in upon his thoughts as he drew him to one side with a certain vehemence, "See!"

He pointed downwards. And there, between them, half in the scuppers, against their very feet, lay the huddled body upon the deck, the arms outstretched, the face turned upwards to the stars.

The bewilderment that followed was like the confusion which exists between two states of consciousness when the mind passes from sleep to waking, or vice versa. O'Malley lost that power of attention which enables a man to concentrate on details sufficiently to recall their exact sequence afterwards with certainty.

Two things, however, stood out and he tells them briefly enough: first, that the joy upon the father's face rendered an offer of sympathy ludicrous; secondly, that Dr. Stahl was again upon the scene with a promptness which proved him to have been close at hand all the time.

It was between two and three in the morning, the rest of the passengers asleep still, but Captain Burgenfelder and the first officer appeared soon after and an orderly record of the affair was drawn up formally. The depositions of the father and of himself were duly taken down in writing, witnessed, and all the rest.

The scene in the doctor's cabin remains vividly in his mind: the huge Russian standing by the door--for he refused a seat--incongruously smiling in contrast to the general gravity, his mind obviously brought by an effort of concentration to each question; the others seated round the desk some distance away, leaving him in a space by himself; the scratching of the doctor's pointed pen; the still, young outline underneath the canvas all through the long pantomime, lying upon a couch at the back where the shadows gathered thickly. And then the gust of fresh wind that came in with a little song as they opened the door at the end, and saw the crimson dawn reflected in the dewy, shining boards of the deck. The father, throwing the Irishman a significant and curious glance, was out to join it on the instant.

Syncope, produced by excitement, cause unknown, was the scientific verdict, and an immediate burial at sea the parent's wish. As the sun rose over the highlands of Asia Minor it was carried into effect.

But the father's eyes followed not the drop. They gazed with rapt, intent expression in another direction where the shafts of sunrise sped across the sea toward the glens and dales of distant Pelion. At the sound of the plunge he did not even turn his eyes. He pointed, gathering O'Malley somehow into the gesture, across the Ægean Sea to where the shores of north-western Arcadia lay below the horizon, raised his arms with a huge sweep of welcome to the brightening sky, then turned and went below without a single word.

For a few minutes, puzzled and perhaps a little awed, the group of sailors and ship's officers remained standing with bared heads, then disappeared silently in their turn, leaving the decks to the sunrise and the wind.

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