The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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But O'Malley did not immediately return to his own cabin; he yielded to Dr. Stahl's persuasion and dropped into the armchair he had already occupied more than once, watching his companion's preparations with the lamp and coffeepot.

With his eyes, that is, he watched, staring, as men say, absent-mindedly; for the fact was, only a little bit of him hovered there about his weary physical frame. The rest of him was off somewhere else across the threshold--subliminal: below, with the Russian, beyond with the traveling spirit of the boy; but the major portion, out deep in space, reclaimed by the Earth.

So, at least, it felt; for the circulation of blood in his brain ran low and physical sensation there was almost none. The driving impulse upon the outlying tracts of consciousness usually submerged had been tremendous.

"That time," he heard Stahl saying in an oddly distant voice from across the cabin, "you were nearly--out--"

"You heard? You saw it all?" he murmured as in half-sleep. For it was an effort to focus his mind even upon simple words.

The reply he hardly caught, though he felt the significant stare of the man's eye upon him and divined the shaking of his head. His life still pulsed and throbbed far away outside his normal self. Complete return was difficult. He felt all over: with the wind and hills and sea, all his little personal sensations tucked away and absorbed into Nature. In the Earth he lay, pervading her whole surface, still sharing her vaster life. With her he moved, as with a greater, higher, and more harmonious creation than himself. In large measure the cosmic instincts still swept these quickened fringes of his deep subconscious personality.

"You know them now for what they are," he heard the doctor saying at the end of much else he had entirely missed. "The father will be the next to go, and then--yourself. I warn you before it is too late. Beware! And--resist!"

His thoughts, and with them those subtle energies of the soul that are the vehicles of thought, followed where the boy had gone. Deep streams of longing swept him. The journey of that spirit, so singularly released, drew half his forces after it. Thither the bereaved parent and himself were also bound; and the lonely incompleteness of his life lay wholly now explained. That cry within the dawn, though actually it had been calling always, had at last reached him; hitherto he had caught only misinterpreted echoes of it. From the narrow body it had called him forth. Another moment and he would have known complete emancipation; and never could he forget that glorious sensation as the vital essence tasted half release. Next time the process should complete itself, and he would--go!

"Drink this," he heard abruptly in Stahl's grating voice, and saw him cross the cabin with a cup of steaming coffee. "Concentrate your mind now upon the things about you here. Return to the present. And tell me, too, if you can bring yourself to do so," he added, stooping over him with the cup, "a little of what you experienced. The return, I know, is pain. But try--try--"

"Like a little bit of death, yes," murmured the Irishman. "I feel caught again and caged--small." He could have wept. This ugly little life!

"Because you've tasted a moment of genuine cosmic consciousness and now you feel the limitations of normal personality," Stahl added, more soothingly. He sat down beside him and sipped his own coffee.

"Dispersed about the whole earth I felt, deliciously extended and alive," O'Malley whispered with a faint shiver as he glanced about the little cabin, noticing the small windows and shut door. "Upholstery" oppressed him. "Now I'm back in prison again."

There was silence for a moment. Then presently the doctor spoke, as though he thought aloud, expecting no reply.

"All great emotions," he said in lowered tones, "tap the extensions of the personality we now call subconscious, and a man in anger, in love, in ecstasy of any kind is greater than he knows. But to you has come, perhaps, the greatest form of all--a definite and instant merging with the being of the Earth herself. You reached the point where you felt the spirit of the planet's life. You almost crossed the threshold--your extension edged into her own. She bruised you, and you knew--"

"'Bruised'?" he asked, startled at the singular expression into closer hearing.

"We are not 'aware' of our interior," he answered, smiling a little, "until something goes wrong and the attention is focused. A keen sensation--pain--and you become aware. Subconscious processes then become consciously recognized. I bruise your lung for instance; you become conscious of that lung for the first time, and feel it. You gather it up from the general subconscious background into acute personal consciousness. Similarly, a word or mood may sting and stimulate some phase of your consciousness usually too remote to be recognized. Last night--regions of your extended Self, too distant for most men to realize their existence at all, contacted the consciousness of the Earth herself. She bruised you, and via that bruise caught you up into her greater Self. You experienced a genuine cosmic reaction."

O'Malley listened, though hardly to the actual words. Behind the speech, which was in difficult German for one thing, his mind heard the rushing past of this man's ideas. They moved together along the same stream of thought, and the Irishman knew that what he thus heard was true, at any rate, for himself. And at the same time he recognized with admiration the skill with which this scientific mystic of a Schiffsarzt sought to lead him back into the safer regions of his normal state. Stahl did not now oppose or deny. Catching the wave of the Celt's experience, he let his thought run sympathetically with it, alongside, as it were, guiding gently and insinuatingly down to earth again.

And the result justified this cunning wisdom; O'Malley returned to the common world by degrees. For it was enchanting to find his amazing adventure explained even in this partial, speculative way. Who else among his acquaintances would have listened at all, much less admitted its possibility?

"But, why in particular me?" he asked. "Can't everybody know these cosmic reactions you speak of?" It was his intellect that asked the foolish question. His whole Self knew the answer beforehand.

"Because," replied the doctor, tapping his saucer to emphasize each word, "in some way you have retained an almost unbelievable simplicity of heart--an innocence singularly undefiled--a sort of primal, spontaneous innocence that has kept you clean and open. I venture even to suggest that shame, as most men know it, has never come to you at all."

The words sank down into him. Passing the intellect that would have criticized, they nested deep within where the intuition knew them true. Behind the clumsy language that is, he caught the thought.

"As if I were a saint!" he laughed faintly.

Stahl shook his head. "Rather, because you live detached," he replied, "and have never identified your Self with the rubbish of life. The channels in you are still open to these tides of larger existence. I wish I had your courage."

"While others--?"

The German hesitated a moment. "Most men," he said, choosing his words with evident care, "are too grossly organized to be aware that these reactions of a wider consciousness can be possible at all. Their minute normal Self they mistake for the whole, hence denying even the experiences of others. 'Our actual personality may be something considerably unlike that conception of it which is based on our present terrestrial consciousness--a form of consciousness suited to, and developed by, our temporary existence here, but not necessarily more than a fraction of our total self. It is quite credible that our entire personality is never terrestrially manifest.'" Obviously he quoted. The Irishman had read the words somewhere. He came back more and more into the world--correlated, that is, the subconscious with the conscious.

"Yet consciousness apart from the brain is inconceivable," he interposed, more to hear the reply than to express a conviction.

Whether Stahl divined his intention or not, he gave no sign.

"'We cannot say with any security that the stuff called brain is the only conceivable machinery which mind and consciousness are able to utilize: though it is true that we know no other.'" The last phrase he repeated: "'though it is true that we know no other.'"

O'Malley sank deeper into his chair, making no reply. His mind clutched at the words "too grossly organized," and his thoughts ran back for a moment to his daily life in London. He pictured his friends and acquaintances there; the men at his club, at dinner parties, in the parks, at theatres; he heard their talk--shooting--destruction of exquisite life; horses, politics, women, and the rest; yet good, honest, lovable fellows all. But how did they breathe in so small a world at all? Practical-minded specimens of the greatest civilization ever known! He recalled the heavy, dazed expression on the faces of one or two to whom he had sometimes dared to speak of those wider realms that were so familiar to himself....

"'Though it is true that we know no other,'" he heard Stahl repeating slowly as he looked down into his cup and stirred the dregs.

Then, suddenly, the doctor rose and came over to his side. His eyes twinkled, and he rubbed his hands vigorously together as he spoke. He laughed.

"For instance, I have no longer now the consciousness of that coffee I have just swallowed," he exclaimed, "yet, if it disagreed with me, my consciousness of it would return."

"The abnormal states you mean are a symptom of disorder then?" the Irishman asked, following the analogy.

"At present, yes," was the reply, "and will remain so until their correlation with the smaller conscious Self is better understood. These belligerent Powers of the larger Consciousness are apt to overwhelm as yet. That time, perhaps, is coming. Already a few here and there have guessed that the states we call hysteria and insanity, conditions of trance, hypnotism, and the like, are not too satisfactorily explained." He peered down at his companion. "If I could study your Self at close quarters for a few years," he added significantly, "and under various conditions, I might teach the world!"

"Thank you!" cried the Irishman, now wholly returned into his ordinary self. He could think of nothing else to say, yet he meant the words and gave them vital meaning. He moved across to another chair. Lighting a cigarette, he puffed out clouds of smoke. He did not desire to be caught again beneath this man's microscope. And in his mind he had a sudden picture of the speculative and experimenting doctor being "requested to sever his connection" with the great Hospital for the sake of the latter's reputation. But Stahl, in no way offended, was following his own thoughts aloud, half speaking to himself.

"... For a being organized as you are, more active in the outlying tracts of consciousness than in the centers lying nearer home,--a being like yourself, I say, might become aware of Other Life and other personalities even more advanced and highly organized than that of the Earth."

A strange excitement came upon him, making his eyes shine. He walked to and fro, O'Malley watching him, a touch of alarm mingled with his interest.

"And to think of the great majority that denies because they are--dead!" he cried. "Smothered! Undivining! Living in that uninspired fragment which they deem the whole! Ah, my friend,"--and he came abruptly nearer--"the pathos, the comedy, the pert self-sufficiency of their dull pride, the crass stupidity and littleness of their denials, in the eyes of those like ourselves who have actually known the passion of the larger experience--! For all this modern talk about a Subliminal Self is woven round a profoundly significant truth, a truth newly discovered and only just beginning to be understood. We are much greater than we know, and there is a vast subconscious part of us. But, what is more important still, there is a super-consciousness as well. The former represents what the race has discarded; it is past; but the latter stands for what it reaches out to in the future. The perfect man you dream of perhaps is he who shall eventually combine the two, for there is, I think, a vast amount the race has discarded unwisely and prematurely. It is of value and will have to be recovered. In the subconsciousness it lies secure and waiting. But it is the super-consciousness that you should aim for, not the other, for there lie those greater powers which so mysteriously wait upon the call of genius, inspiration, hypnotism, and the rest."

"One leads, though, to the other," interrupted O'Malley quickly. "It is merely a question of the swing of the pendulum?"

"Possibly," was the laconic reply.

"They join hands, I mean, behind my back, as it were."


"This stranger, then, may really lead me forward and not back?"

"Possibly," again was all the answer that he got.

For Stahl had stopped short, as though suddenly aware that he had said too much, betraying himself in the sudden rush of interest and excitement. The face for a moment had seemed quite young, but now the flush faded, and the light died out from his eyes. O'Malley never understood how the change came about so quickly, for in a moment, it seemed, the doctor was calm again, quietly lighting one of his black cigars over by the desk, peering at him half quizzingly, half mockingly through the smoke.

"So I urge you again," he was saying, as though the rest had been some interlude that the Irishman had half imagined, "to proceed with the caution of this sane majority, the caution that makes for safety. Your friend, as I have already suggested to you, is a direct expression of the cosmic life of the earth. Perhaps, you have guessed by now, the particular type and form. Do not submit your inner life too completely to his guidance. Contain your Self--and resist--while it is yet possible."

And while he sat on there, sipping hot coffee, half listening to the words that warned of danger while at the same time they cunningly urged him forwards, it seemed that the dreams of childhood revived in him with a power that obliterated this present day--the childhood, however, not of his mere body, but of his spirit, when the world herself was young.... He, too, had dwelt in Arcady, known the free life of splendor and simplicity in some Saturnian Reign; for now this dream, but half remembered, half believed, though eternally yearned for--dream of a Golden Age untouched by Time, still there, still accessible, still inhabited, was actually coming true.

It surely was that old Garden of innocence and joy where the soul, while all unvexed by a sham and superficial civilization of the mind, might yet know growth--a realm half divined by saints and poets, but to the gross majority forgotten or denied.

The Simple Life! This new interpretation of it at first overwhelmed. The eyes of his soul turned wild with glory; the passion that o'er-runs the world in desolate places was his; his, too, the strength of rushing rivers that coursed their parent's being. He shared the terror of the mountains and the singing of the sweet Spring rains. The spread wonder of the woods of the world lay imprisoned and explained in the daily hurry of his very blood. He understood, because he felt, the power of the ocean tides; and, flitting to and fro through the tenderer regions of his extended Self, danced the fragrance of all the wild flowers that ever blew. That strange allegory of man, the microcosm, and earth, the macrocosm, became a sudden blazing reality. The feverish distress, unrest, and vanity of modern life was due to the distance men had traveled from the soul of the world, away from large simplicity into the pettier state they deemed so proudly progress.

Out of the transliminal depths of this newly awakened Consciousness rose the pelt and thunder of these magical and enormous cosmic sensations--the pulse and throb of the planetary life where his little Self had fringed her own. Those untamed profundities in himself that walked alone, companionless among modern men, suffering an eternal nostalgia, at last knew the approach to satisfaction. For when the "inner catastrophe" completed itself and escape should come--that transfer of the conscious center across the threshold into this vaster region stimulated by the Earth--all his longings would be housed at last like homing birds, nested in the gentle places his yearnings all these years had lovingly built for them--in a living Nature! The fever of modern life, the torture and unrest of a false, external civilization that trained the brain while it still left wars and baseness in the heart, would drop from him like the symptoms of some fierce disease. The god of speed and mechanism that ruled the world today, urging men at ninety miles an hour to enter a Heaven where material gain was only a little sublimated and not utterly denied, would pass for the nightmare that it really was. In its place the cosmic life of undifferentiated simplicity, clean and sweet and big, would hold his soul in the truly everlasting arms.

And that little German doctor, sitting yonder, enlightened yet afraid, seeking an impossible compromise--Stahl could no more stop his going than a fly could stop the rising of the Atlantic tides.

Out of all this tumult of confused thought and feeling there rose then the silver face of some forgotten and passionate loveliness. Apparently it reached his lips, for he heard his own voice murmuring outside him somewhere across the cabin:--

"The gods of Greece--and of the world--"

Yet the instant words clothed it, the flashing glory went. The idea plunged back out of sight--untranslatable in language. Thrilled and sad, he lay back in his chair, watching the doctor and trying to focus his mind upon what he was saying. But the lost idea still dived and reared within him like a shining form, yet never showing more than this radiant point above the surface. The passion and beauty of it...! He tried no more to tie a label of modern words about its neck. He let it swim and dive and leap within him uncaught. Only he understood better why, close to Greece, his friends had betrayed their inner selves, and why for the lesser of the two, whose bodily cage was not yet fully clamped and barred by physical maturity, escape, or return rather, had been possible, nay, had been inevitable.

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