The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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He walked along the middle of the street as Stahl had advised. He would have done so in any case, unconsciously, for he knew these towns quite as well as the German did. Yet he did not walk alone. The entire Earth walked with him, and personal danger was an impossibility. A dozen ruffians might attack him, but none could "take" his life.

How simple it all seemed, yet how utterly beyond the reach of intelligible description to those who have never felt it--this sudden surge upwards, downwards, all around and about of the vaster consciousness amid which the sense of normal individuality seemed but a tiny focused point. That loss of personality he first dreaded as an "inner catastrophe" appeared to him now for what it actually was--merely an extinction of some phantasmal illusion of self into the only true life. Here, upon the fringe of this wonder-region of the Caucasus, the spirit of the Earth still manifested as of old, reached out lovingly to those of her children who were simple enough to respond, ready to fold them in and heal them of the modern, racking fevers which must otherwise destroy them.... The entire sky of soft darkness became a hand that covered him, and stroked him into peace; the perfume that wafted down that narrow street beside him was the single, enveloping fragrance of the whole wide Earth herself; he caught the very murmur of her splendid journey through the stars. The certitude of some state of boundless being flamed, roaring and immense, about his soul....

And when he reached his room, a little cell that shut out light and air, he met that sinister denial of the simple life which, for him at least, was the true Dweller on the Threshold. Crashing in to it he choked, as it were, and could have cried aloud. It gripped and caught him by the throat--the word that Stahl--Stahl who understood even while he warned and mocked and hesitated himself--had flung so tauntingly upon him from the decks--Civilization.

Upon his table lay by chance--the Armenian hotel-keeper had evidently unearthed it for his benefit--a copy of a London halfpenny paper, a paper that feeds the public with the ugliest details of all the least important facts of life by the yard, inventing others when the supply is poor. He read it over vaguely, with a sense of cold distress that was half pain, half nausea. Somehow it stirred his sense of humor; he returned slowly to his normal, littler state. But it was not the contrast which made him smile; rather was it the chance juxtaposition of certain of the contents; for on the page facing the accounts of railway accidents, of people burned alive, explosions, giant strikes, crumpled air-men and other countless horrors which modern inventions offered upon the altar of feverish Progress, he read a complacently boastful leader that extolled the conquest of Nature men had learned by speed. The ability to pass from one point to another across the skin of the globe in the least possible time was sign of the development of the human soul.

The pompous flatulence of the language touched bathos. He thought of the thousands who had read both columns and preened themselves upon that leader. He thought how they would pride themselves upon the latest contrivance for speeding their inert bodies from one point to another "annihilating distance"; upon being able to get from suburbia to the huge shops that created artificial wants, then filled them; from the pokey villas with their wee sham gardens to the dingy offices; from dark airless East End rooms to countless factories that pour out semifraudulent, unnecessary wares upon the world, explosives and weapons to destroy another nation, or cheapjack goods to poison their own--all in a few minutes less than they could do it the week before.

And then he thought of the leisure of the country folk and of those who knew how to be content without external possessions, to watch the sunset and the dawn with hearts that sought realities; sharing the noble slowness of the seasons, the gradual growth of flowers, trees, and crops, the unhurried dignity of Nature's grand procession, the repose-in-progress of the Mother-Earth.

The calmness of the unhastening Earth once more possessed his soul in peace. He hid the paper, watching the quiet way the night beyond his window buried it from sight...

And through that open window came the perfume and the mighty hand of darkness slowly. It seemed to this imaginative Irishman that he caught a sound of awful laughter from the mountains and the sea, a laughter that brought, too, a wave of sighing--of deep and old-world sighing.

And before he went to sleep he took an antidote in the form of a page from that book that accompanied all his travels, a book which was written wholly in the open air because its message refused to come to the heart of the inspired writer within doors, try as he would, the "sky especially containing for me the key, the inspiration--"

And the fragment that he read expressed a little bit of his own thought and feeling. The seer who wrote it looked ahead, naming it "After Civilization," whereas he looked back. But they saw the same vision; the confusion of time was nothing:--

In the first soft winds of spring, while snow yet lay on the ground--:

Forth from the city into the great woods wandering,
Into the great silent white woods where they waited in their beauty and majesty
For man their companion to come:
There, in vision, out of the wreck of cities and civilizations,
Slowly out of the ruins of the past

Out of the litter and muck of a decaying world,
Lo! even so
I saw a new life arise.
O sound of waters, jubilant, pouring, pouring--O hidden song in the hollows!
Secret of the Earth, swelling, sobbing to divulge itself!

Slowly, building, lifting itself up atom by atom,
Gathering itself round a new center--or rather round the world—old center once more revealed--
I saw a new life, a new society, arise.
Man I saw arising once more to dwell with Nature;
(The old old story--the prodigal son returning, so loved,
The long estrangement, the long entanglement in vain things)--
The child returning to its home--companion of the winter woods once more--
Companion of the stars and waters--hearing their words at first-hand (more than all science ever taught)--
The near contact, the dear dear mother so close--the twilight sky and the young tree-tops against it;

The few needs, the exhilarated radiant life--the food and population question giving no more trouble;
No hurry more, no striving one to over-ride the other: ... man the companion of Nature.
Civilization behind him now--the wonderful stretch of the past;
Continents, empires, religions, wars, migrations--all gathered up in him;
The immense knowledge, the vast winged powers--to use or not to use--...

And as he fell asleep at length it seemed there came a sound of hushed huge trampling underneath his window, and that when he rose to listen, his big friend from the steamer led him forth into the darkness, that those shapes of Cloud and Wind he now so often saw, companioned them across the heights of the night toward some place in the distant mountains where light and flowers were, and all his dream of years most exquisitely fulfilled....

He slept. And through his sleep there dropped the words of that old tribesman from the wilderness: "They come in the spring... and are very swift and roaring. They are older, older than the stones. They cannot die... they are of the mountains, and you must hide."

But the dream-consciousness knows no hiding; and though memory failed to report with detail in the morning, O'Malley woke refreshed and blessed, knowing that companionship awaited him, and that once he found the courage to escape completely, the Simple Life of Earth would claim him in full consciousness.

Stahl with his little modern "Intellect" was no longer there to hinder and prevent.

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