The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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Although Batoum is a small place, and the trains that leave it during the day are few enough, O'Malley knew that to search for his friend by the methods of the ordinary detective was useless. It would have been also wrong. The man had gone deliberately, without attempting to say good-bye--because, having come together in the real and inner sense, real separation was not possible. The vital portion of their beings, thought, feeling, and desire, were close and always would be. Their bodies, busy at different points of the map among the casual realities of external life, could make no change in that. And at the right moment they would assuredly meet again to begin the promised journey.

Thus, at least, in some fashion peculiarly his own, was the way the Irishman felt; and this was why, after the first anger with his German friend, he resigned himself patiently to the practical business he had in hand.

The little incident was characteristically revealing, and shows how firmly rooted in his imaginative temperament was the belief, the unalterable conviction rather, that his life operated upon an outer and an inner plane simultaneously, the one ever reacting upon the other. It was as if he were aware of two separate sets of faculties, subtly linked, one carrying on the affairs of the physical man in the "practical" world, the other dealing with the spiritual economy in the subconscious. To attend to the latter alone was to be a useless dreamer among men, unpractical, unbalanced; to neglect it wholly for the former was to be crassly limited, but half alive; to combine the two in effective co-operation was to achieve that high level of a successful personality, which some perhaps term genius, some prophet, and others, saint. It meant, at any rate, to have sources of inspiration within oneself.

Thus he spent the day completing what was necessary for his simple outfit, and put up for the night at one of the little hotels that spread their tables invitingly upon the pavement, so that dinner may be enjoyed in full view of one of the most picturesque streams of traffic it is possible to see.

The sultry, enervating heat of the day had passed and a cool breeze came shorewards over the Black Sea. With a box of thin Russian cigarettes before him he lingered over the golden Kakhetian wine and watched the crowded street. Knowing enough of the language to bargain smartly for his room, his pillows, sheets, and samovar, he yet could scarcely compass conversation with the strangers about him. Of Russian proper, besides, he heard little; there was a Babel of many tongues, Armenian, Turkish, Georgian, explosive phrases of Swanetian, soft gliding Persian words, and the sharp or guttural exclamations of the big-voiced, giant fellows, all heavily armed, who belonged to the bewildering tribes that dwelt among the mountains beyond. Occasionally came a broken bit of French or German; but they strayed in, lost and bizarre, as fragments from some distant or forgotten world.

Down the pavement, jostling his elbows, strode the constant, gorgeous procession of curious, wild, barbaric faces, bearded, with hooked noses, flashing eyes, burkas flowing; cartridge-belts of silver and ivory gleaming across chests in the glare of the electric light; bashliks of white, black, and yellow wool upon the head, increasing the stature; evil-looking Black Sea knives stuck in most belts, rifles swung across great supple shoulders, long swords trailing; Turkish gypsies, dark and furtive-eyed, walking softly in leather slippers--of endless and fascinating variety, many colored and splendid, it all was. From time to time a droschky with two horses, or a private carriage with three, rattled noisily over the cobbles at a reckless pace, stopping with the abruptness of a practiced skater; and officers with narrow belted waists like those of women, their full-skirted cloaks reaching half-way down high boots of shining leather, sprang out to pay the driver and take a vacant table at his side; and once or twice a body of soldiers, several hundred strong, singing the national songs with a full-throated vigor, hoarse, wild, somehow half terrible, passed at a swinging gait away into the darkness at the end of the street, the roar of their barbaric singing dying away in the distance by the sea where the boom of waves just caught it.

And O'Malley loved it all, and "thrilled" as he watched and listened. From his hidden self within something passed out and joined it. He felt the wild pulse of energetic life that drove along with the tumult of it. The savage, untamed soul in him leaped as he saw; the blood ran faster. Sitting thus upon the bank of the hurrying stream, he knew himself akin to the main body of the invisible current further out; it drew him with it, and he experienced a quickening of all his impulses toward some wild freedom that was mighty--clean--simple.

Civilian dress was rare, and noticeable when it came. The shipping agents wore black alpaca coats, white trousers, and modern hats of straw. A few ship's officers in blue, with official caps gold-braided, passed in and out like men without a wedding garment, as distressingly out of the picture as tourists in check knickerbockers and nailed boots moving through some dim cathedral aisle. O'Malley recognized one or two from his own steamer, and turned his head the other way. It hurt. He caught himself thinking, as he saw them, of Stock Exchanges, two-penny-tubes, Belgravia dinner parties, private views, "small and earlies," musical comedy, and all the rest of the dismal and meager program. These harmless little modern uniforms were worse than ludicrous, for they formed links with the glare and noise of the civilization he had left behind, the smeared vulgarity of the big cities where men and women live in their possessions, wasting life in that worship of external detail they call "progress"...

A well-known German voice crashed through his dream.

"Already at the wine! These Caucasian vintages are good; they really taste of grapes and earth and flowers. Yes, thanks, I'll join you for a moment if I may. We only lie three days in port and are glad to get ashore."

O'Malley called for a second glass, and passed the cigarettes.

"I prefer my black cigars, thank you," was the reply, lighting one. "You push on tomorrow, I suppose? Kars, Tiflis, Erzerum, or somewhere a little wilder in the mountains, eh?"

"Toward the mountains, yes," the Irishman said. Dr. Stahl was the only person he could possibly have allowed to sit next him at such a time. He had quite forgiven him now, and though at first he felt no positive welcome, the strange link between the two men quickly asserted itself and welded them together in that odd harmony they knew in spite of all differences. They could be silent together, too, without distress or awkwardness, sure test that at least some portion of their personalities fused.

And for a long time they remained silent, watching the surge and movement of the old, old types about them. They sipped the yellow wine and smoked. The stars came out; the carriages grew less; from far away floated a deep sonorous echo now and then of the soldiers singing by their barracks. Sometimes a steamer hooted. Cossacks swung by. Often some wild cry rang out from a side street. There were heavy, unfamiliar perfumes in the air. Presently Stahl began talking about the Revolution of a few years before and the scenes of violence he had witnessed in these little streets, the shooting, barricades, bombs thrown into passing carriages, Cossacks charging down the pavements with swords drawn, shouting and howling. O'Malley listened with a part of his mind at any rate. The rest of him was much further away.... He was up among the mountain fastnesses. Already, it seemed, he knew the secret places of the mist, the lair of every running wind....

Two tall mountain tribesmen swaggered past close to their table; the thick grey burkas almost swept their glasses. They walked magnificently with easy, flowing stride, straight from the hips.

"The earth here," said O'Malley, taking advantage of a pause in the other's chatter, "produces some splendid types. Look at those two; they make one think of trees walking--blown along bodily before a wind." He watched them with admiration as they swung off and disappeared among the crowd.

Dr. Stahl, glancing keenly at him, laughed a little.

"Yes," he said; "brave, generous fellows too as a rule, who will shoot you for a pistol that excites their envy, yet give their life to save one of their savage dogs. They're still--natural," he added after a moment's hesitation; "still unspoiled. They live close to Nature with a vengeance. Up among the Ossetians on the high saddles you'll find true Pagans who worship trees, sacrifice blood, and offer bread and salt to the nature-deities."

"Still?" asked O'Malley, sipping his wine.

"Still," replied Stahl, following his example.

Over the glasses' rims their eyes met. Both smiled, though neither quite knew why. The Irishman, perhaps, was thinking of the little city clerks he knew at home, pigeon-breasted, pale-faced, under-sized. One of these big men, so full of rushing, vigorous life, would eat a dozen at a sitting.

"There's something here the rest of the world has lost," he murmured to himself. But the doctor heard him.

"You feel it?" he asked quickly, his eyes brightening. "The awful, primitive beauty--?"

"I feel--something, certainly," was the cautious answer. He could not possibly have said more just then; yet it seemed as though he heard far echoes of that voice that had been first borne to his ears across the blue Ægean. In the gorges of these terrible mountains it surely sounded still. These men must know it too.

"The spell of this strange land will never leave you once you've felt it," pursued the other quietly, his voice deepening. "Even in the towns here--Tiflis, Kutais--I have felt it. Hereabouts is the cradle of the human race, they say, and the people have not changed for thousands of years. Some of them you'll find"--he hunted for a word, then said with a curious, shrugging gesture, "terrific."

"Ah--" said the Irishman, lighting a fresh cigarette from the dying stump so clumsily that the trembling of the hand was noticeable.

"And akin most likely," said Stahl, thrusting his face across the table with a whispering tone, "to that--man--who--tempted you."

O'Malley did not answer. He drank the liquid golden sunshine in his glass; his eyes lifted to the stars that watched above the sea; between the surge of human figures came a little wind from the grim, mysterious Caucasus beyond. He turned all tender as a child, receiving as with a shock of sudden strength and sweetness a thousand intimate messages from the splendid mood of old Mother-Earth who here expressed herself in such a potent breed of men and mountains.

He heard the doctor's voice still speaking, as from a distance though:--

"For here they all grow with her. They do not fight her and resist. She pours freely through them; there is no opposition. The channels still lie open; ... and they share her life and power."

"That beauty which the modern world has lost," repeated the other to himself, lingering over the words, and wondering why they expressed so little of what he really meant.

"But which will never--can never come again," Stahl completed the sentence. There was a wistful, genuine sadness in his voice and eyes, and the sympathy touched the inflammable Celt with fire. It was ever thus with him. The little man opposite, with the ragged beard, and the bald, domed head gleaming in the electric light, had laid a card upon the table, showing a bit of his burning heart. The generous Irishman responded like a child, laying himself bare. So hungry was he for comprehension.

"Men have everywhere else clothed her fair body with their smothering, ugly clothing and their herded cities," he burst out, so loud that the Armenian waiter sidled up, thinking he called for wine. "But here she lies naked and unashamed, sweet in divinity made simple. By Jove! I tell you, doctor, it burns and sweeps me with a kind of splendid passion that drowns my little shame-faced personality of the twentieth century. I could run out and worship--fall down and kiss the grass and soil and sea--!"

He drew back suddenly like a wounded animal; his face turned scarlet, as though he knew himself convicted of an hysterical outburst. Stahl's eyes had changed even as he spoke the flaming words that struggled so awkwardly to seize his mood of rapture--a thought the Earth poured through him for a moment. The bitter, half-mocking smile lay in them, and on the lips the cold and critical expression of the other Stahl, skeptic and science-man. A revulsion of feeling caught them both. But to O'Malley came the thought that once again he had been drawn--was being coaxed for examination beneath the microscope.

"The material here," Stahl said presently, with the calm tones of a dispassionate diagnosis, "is magnificent as you say, uncivilized without being merely savage, untamed, yet far from crude barbarism. When the progress of the age gets into this land the transformation will be grand. When Russia lets in culture, when modern improvements have developed her resources and trained the wild human forces into useful channels...."

He went on calmly by the yard, till it was all the Irishman could do not to dash the wine-glass in his face.

"Remember my words when you are up in the lonely mountains," he concluded at length, smiling his queer sardonic smile, "and keep yourself in hand. Put on the brakes when possible. Your experience will thus have far more value."

"And you," replied O'Malley bluntly, so bluntly it was almost rudeness, "go back to Fechner, and try to save your compromising soul before it is too late--"

"Still following those lights that do mislead the morn," Stahl added gently, breaking into English for a phrase he apparently loved. They laughed and raised their glasses.

A long pause came which neither cared to break. The streets were growing empty, the personality of the mysterious little Black Sea port folding away into the darkness. The wilder element had withdrawn behind the shuttered windows. There came a murmur of the waves, but the soldiers no longer sang. The droschkys ceased to rattle past. The night flowed down more thickly from the mountains, and the air, moist with that malarial miasma which makes the climate of this reclaimed marsh whereon Batoum is built so unhealthy, closed unpleasantly about them. The stars died in it.

"Another glass?" suggested Stahl. "A drink to the gods of the Future, and till we meet again, on your return journey, eh?"

"I'll walk with you to the steamer," was the reply. "I never care for much wine. And the gods of the Future will prefer my usual offering, I think--imaginative faith."

The doctor did not ask him to explain. They walked down the middle of the narrow streets. No one was about, nor were there lights in many windows. Once or twice from an upper story came the faint twanging of a balalaika against the drone of voices, and occasionally they passed a little garden where figures outlined themselves among the trees, with the clink of glasses, laughter of men and girls, and the glowing tips of cigarettes.

They turned down toward the harbor where the spars and funnels of the big steamers were just visible against the sky, and opposite the unshuttered window of a shop--one of those modern shops that oddly mar the town with assorted German tinware, Paris hats, and oleographs indiscriminately mingled--Stahl stopped a moment and pointed. They moved up idly and looked in. From the shadows of the other side, well hidden, an armed patrol eyed them suspiciously, though they were not aware of it.

"It was before a window like this," remarked Stahl, apparently casually, "that I once in Tiflis overheard two mountain Georgians talking together as they examined a reproduction of a modern picture--Böcklin's 'Centaur.' They spoke in half whispers, but I caught the trend of what they said. You know the picture, perhaps?"

"I've seen it somewhere, yes," was the short reply. "But what were they saying?" He strove to keep his voice commonplace and casual like his companion's.

"Oh, just discussing it together, but with a curious stretched interest," Stahl went on. "One asked, 'What does it say?' and pointed to the inscription underneath. They could not read. For a long time they stared in silence, their faces grave and half afraid. 'What is it?' repeated the first one, and the other, a much older man, heavily bearded and of giant build, replied low, 'It's what I told you about'; there was awe in his tone and manner; 'they still live in the big valley of the rhododendrons beyond--' mentioning some lonely uninhabited region toward Daghestan; 'they come in the spring, and are very swift and roaring....You must always hide. To see them is to die. But they cannot die; they are of the mountains. They are older, older than the stones. And the dogs will warn you, or the horses, or sometimes a great sudden wind, though you must never shoot.' They stood gazing in solemn wonder for minutes...till at last, realizing that their silence was final, I moved away. There were manifestations of life in the mountains, you see, that they had seen and knew about--old forms akin to that picture apparently."

The patrol came out of his shadows, and Stahl quickly drew his companion along the pavement.

"You have your passport with you?" he asked, noticing the man behind them.

"It went to the police this afternoon. I haven't got it back yet." O'Malley spoke thickly, in a voice he hardly recognized as his own. How much he welcomed that casual interruption of the practical world he could never explain or tell. For the moment he had felt like wax in the other's hands. He had dreaded searching questions, and felt unspeakably relieved. A minute more and he would have burst into confession.

"You should never be without it," the doctor added. "The police here are perfect fiends, and can cause you endless inconvenience."

O'Malley knew it all, but gladly seized the talk and spun it out, asking innocent questions while scarcely listening to the answers. They distanced the patrol and neared the quays and shipping. In the darkness of the sky a great line showed where the spurs of the Lesser Caucasus gloomed huge and solemn to the East and West. At the gangway of the steamer they said good-bye. Stahl held the Irishman's hand a moment in his own.

"Remember, when you know temptation strong," he said gravely, though a smile was in the eyes, "the passwords that I now give you: Humanity and Civilization."

"I'll try."

They shook hands warmly enough.

"Come home by this steamer if you can," he called down from the deck. "And keep to the middle of the road on your way back to the hotel. It's safer in a town like this." O'Malley divined the twinkle in his eyes as he said it. "Forgive my many sins," he heard finally, "and when we meet again, tell me your own...." The darkness took the sentence. But the word the Irishman took home with him to the little hotel was the single one--Civilization: and this, owing to the peculiar significance of intonation and accent with which this bewildering and self-contradictory being had uttered it.

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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.