The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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"... And then suddenly,--: While perhaps twice my heart was dutiful
To send my blood upon its little race--
I was exalted above surety,

And out of Time did fall."

--LASCELLES ABERCROMBIE, Poems and Interludes

This, then, was one of the "hints" by which O'Malley knew that he was not alone and that the mind of his companion was stretched out to find him. He became aware after it of a distinct guidance, even of direction as to his route of travel. The "impulse came," as one says, to turn northwards, and he obeyed it without more ado. For this "dream" had come to him when camped upon the slopes of Ararat, further south toward the Turkish frontier, and though all prepared to climb the sixteen-thousand foot summit, he changed his plans, dismissed the local guide, and turned back for Tiflis and the Central Range. In the wilder, lonelier mountains, he felt strongly, was where he ought to be.

Another man, of course, would have dismissed the dream or forgotten it while cooking his morning coffee; but, rightly or wrongly, this divining Celt accepted it as real. He held an instinctive belief, that in dreams of a certain order the forces that drive behind the soul at a given moment, may reveal themselves to the subconscious self, becoming authoritative in proportion as they are sanely encouraged and interpreted. They dramatize themselves in scenes that are open to intuitive interpretation. And O'Malley, it seems, possessed, like the Hebrew prophets of old, just that measure of judgment and divination which go to the making of a true clear-vision.

Packing up kit and dunnage, he crossed the Georgian Military Route on foot to Vladikavkaz, and thence with another horse and a Mohammedan Georgian as guide, Rostom by name, journeyed via Alighir and Oni up a side valley of unforgettable splendor toward an Imerethian hamlet where they meant to lay-in supplies for a prolonged expedition into the uninhabited wilderness.

And here, the second occurrence he told me of took place. It was more direct than the first, yet equally strange; also it brought a similar authority--coming first along the deep mysterious underpaths of sleep--sleep, that short cut into the subconscious.

They were camped among low boxwood trees, a hot dry night, wind soft and stars very brilliant, when the Irishman turned in his sleeping-bag and abruptly woke. This time there was no dream--only the certainty that something had wakened him deliberately. He sat up, almost with a cry. It was exactly as though he heard himself called by name and recognized the voice that spoke it. He looked quickly round. Nothing but the crowding army of the box-trees was visible, some bushy and round, others straggling in their outline, all whispering gently together in the night. Beyond ran the immense slopes, and far overhead he saw the gleaming snow on peaks that brushed the stars.

No one was visible. This time no flying figures danced beneath the moon. There was, indeed, no moon. Something, however, he knew had come up close and touched him, calling him from the depths of a profound and tired slumber. It had withdrawn again, vanished into the night. The strong certainty remained, though, that it lingered near about him still, trying to press forwards and outwards into some kind of objective visible expression that included himself. He had responded with an effort in his sleep, but the effort had been unsuccessful. He had merely waked ... and lost it.

The horse, tethered a few feet away, was astir and troubled, straining at the rope, whinnying faintly, and Rostom, the Georgian peasant, he saw, was already up to quiet it. A curious perfume passed him through the air--once, then vanished; unforgettable, however, for he had known it already weeks ago upon the steamer. And before the gardened woods about him smothered it with their richer smells of a million flowers and weeds, he recognized in it that peculiar pungent whiff of horse that had reached him from the haunted cabin. This time it was less fleeting--a fine, clean odor that he liked even while it strangely troubled him.

Kicking out of his blankets, he joined the man and helped to straighten out the tangled rope. Rostom spoke little Russian, and O'Malley's knowledge of Georgian lay in a single phrase, "Look sharp!" but with the aid of French the man had learned from shooting-parties, he gathered that some one had approached during the night and camped, it seemed, not far away above them.

Though unusual enough in so unfrequented a region, this was not necessarily alarming, and the first proof O'Malley had that the man experienced no ordinary physical fear was the fact that he had left both knife and rifle in his blankets. Hitherto, at the least sign of danger, he changed into a perfect arsenal; he invariably slept "in his weapons"; but now, even in the darkness, the other noted that he was unarmed, and therefore it was no attempt at horse-stealing or of assault upon themselves he feared.

"Who is it? What is it?" he asked, stumbling over the tangle of string-like roots that netted the ground. "Natives, travelers like ourselves, or--something else?" He spoke very low, as though aware that what had waked him still hovered close enough to overhear. "Why do you fear?"

And Rostom looked up a moment from stooping over the rope. He stepped a little nearer, avoiding the animal's hoofs. In a confused whisper of French and Russian, making at the same time the protective signs of his religion, he muttered a sentence of which the other caught little more than the unassuring word that something was about them close--something "m├ęchant." This curious, significant word he used.

The whispered utterance, the manner that went with it, surely the dark and lonely setting of the little scene as well, served to convey the full suggestion of the adjective with a force the man himself could scarcely have intended. Something had passed by, not so much evil, wicked, or malign as strange and alien--uncanny. Rostom, a man utterly careless of physical danger, rising to it, rather, with delight, was frightened--in his soul.

"What do you mean?" O'Malley asked louder, with an air of impatience assumed. The man was on his knees, but whether praying, or merely struggling with the rope, was hard to see. "What is it you're talking about so foolishly?" He spoke with a confidence he hardly felt himself.

And the involved reply, spoken with lips against the earth, the head but slightly turned as he knelt, again smothered the words. Only the curious phrase came to him--"de l'ancien monde--quelque-chose--"

The Irishman took him by the shoulders. Not meaning actually to shake him, he yet must have used some violence, for the fact was that he did not like the answers and sought to deny some strong emotion in himself. The man stood up abruptly with a kind of sudden spring. The expression of his face was not easily divined in the darkness, but a gleam of the eyes was clearly visible. It may have been anger, it may have been terror; vivid excitement it certainly was.

"Something--old as the stones, old as the stones," he whispered, thrusting his dark bearded face unpleasantly close. "Such things are in these mountains.... Mais oui! C'est moi qui vous le dis! Old as the stones, I tell you. And sometimes they come out close--with sudden wind. We know!"

He stepped back again sharply and dropped upon his knees, bowing to the ground with flattened palms. He made a repelling gesture as though it was O'Malley's presence that brought the experience.

"And to see them is--to die!" he heard, muttered against the ground thickly. "To see them is to die!"

The Irishman went back to his sleeping-bag. Some strange passion of the man was deeply stirred; he did not wish to offend his violent beliefs and turn it against himself in a stupid, scrambling fight. He lay and waited. He heard the muttering of the deep voice behind him in the darkness. Presently it ceased. Rostom came softly back to bed.

"He knows; he warned me!" he whispered, jerking one hand toward the horse significantly, as they at length lay again side by side in their blankets and the stars shone down upon them from a deep black sky. "But, for the moment, they have passed, not finding us. No wind has come."

"Another--horse?" asked O'Malley suggestively, with a sympathy meant to quiet him.

But the peasant shook his head; and this time it was not difficult to divine the expression on his face even in the darkness. At the same moment the tethered animal again uttered a long whinnying cry, plaintive, yet of pleasure rather than alarm it seemed, which instantly brought the man again with a leap from the blankets to his knees. O'Malley did not go to help him; he stuffed the clothes against his ears and waited; he did not wish to hear the peasant's sentences.

And this pantomime went on at intervals for an hour or more, when at length the horse grew quiet and O'Malley snatched moments of unrefreshing sleep. The night lay thick about them with a silence like the silence of the sky. The boxwood bushes ran together into a single sheet of black, the far peaks faded out of sight, the air grew keen and sharp toward the dawn on the wave of wind the sunrise drives before it round the world. But to and fro across the Irishman's mind as he lay between sleep and dozing ran the feeling that his friends were close, and that those dancing forms of cosmic life to which all three approximated had come near once more to summon him. He also knew that what the horse had felt was something far from terror. The animal instinctively had divined the presence of something to which it, too, was remotely kin.

Rostom, however, remained keenly on the alert, much of the time apparently praying. Not once did he touch the weapons that lay ready to hand upon the folded burka ... and when at last the dawn came, pale and yellow, through the trees, showing the outlines of the individual box and azalea bushes, he got up earlier than usual and began to make the fire for coffee. In the fuller light which soon poured swiftly over the eastern summits and dropped gold and silver into the tremendous valley at their feet, the men made a systematic search of the immediate surroundings, and then of the clearings and more open stretches beyond. In silence they made it. They found, however, no traces of another camping-party. And it was clear from the way they went about the search that neither expected to find anything. The ground was unbroken, the bushes undisturbed.

Yet still, both knew. That "something" which the night had brought and kept concealed, still hovered close about them.

And it was at this scattered hamlet, consisting of little more than a farm of sorts and a few shepherds' huts of stone, where they stopped two hours later for provisions, that O'Malley looked up thus suddenly and recognized the figure of his friend. He stood among the trees a hundred yards away. At first the other thought he was a tree--his stalwart form the stem, his hair and beard the branches--so big and motionless he stood between the other trunks. O'Malley saw him for a full minute before he understood. The man seemed so absolutely a part of the landscape, a giant detail in keeping with the rest--a detail that had suddenly emerged.

The same moment a great draught of wind, rising from depths of the valley below, swept overhead with a roaring sound, shaking the beech and box trees and setting all the golden azalea heads in a sudden agitation. It passed as swiftly as it came. The peace of the June morning again descended on the mountains.

It was broken by a wild, half-smothered cry,--a cry of genuine terror.

For O'Malley had turned to Rostom with some word that here, in this figure, lay the explanation of the animal's excitement in the night, when he saw that the peasant, white as chalk beneath the tangle of black hair that covered his face, had stopped dead in his tracks. His mouth was open, his arms upraised to shield; he was staring fixedly in the same direction as himself. The next instant he was on his knees, bowing and scraping toward Mecca, groaning, hiding his eyes with both hands. The sack he held had toppled over; the cheese and flour rolled upon the ground; and from the horse came that long-drawn whinnying of the night.

There was a momentary impression--entirely in the Irishman's mind, of course,--that the whole landscape veiled a giant, rushing movement that passed across it like a wave. The surface of the earth, it seemed, ran softly quivering, as though that wind had stirred response together with the trembling of the million leaves ... before it settled back again to stillness. It passed in the flash of an eyelid. The earth lay tranquil in repose.

But, though the suddenness of the stranger's arrival might conceivably have startled the ignorant peasant, with nerves already overwrought from the occurrence of the night, O'Malley was not prepared for the violence of the man's terror as shown by the immediate sequel. For after several moments' prayer and prostration, with groans half smothered against the very ground, he sprang impetuously to his feet again, turned to his employer with eyes that gleamed wildly in that face of chalk, cried out--the voice thick with the confusion of his fear--"It is the Wind! They come; from the mountains they come! Older than the stones they are. Save yourself.... Hide your eyes ... fly...!"--and was gone. Like a deer he went. He waited neither for food nor payment, but flung the great black burka round his face--and ran.

And to O'Malley, bereft of all power of movement as he watched in complete bewilderment, one thing seemed clear: the man went in this extraordinary fashion because he was afraid of something he had felt, not seen. For as he ran with wild and leaping strides, he did not run away from the figure. He took the direction straight toward the spot where the stranger still stood motionless as a tree. So close he passed him that he must almost have brushed his very shoulder. He did not see him.

The last thing the Irishman noted was that in his violence the man had dropped the yellow bashlik from his head. O'Malley saw him stoop with a flying rush to pick it up. He seemed to catch it as it fell.

And then the big figure moved. He came slowly forward from among the trees, his hands outstretched in greeting, on his great visage a shining smile of welcome that seemed to share the sunrise. In that moment for the Irishman all was forgotten as though unknown, unseen, save the feelings of extraordinary happiness that filled him to the brim.

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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.