The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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"Seasons and times; Life and Fate--all are remarkably rhythmic, metric, regular throughout. In all crafts and arts, in all machines, in organic bodies, in our daily occupations everywhere there is rhythm, meter, accent, melody. All that we do with a certain skill unnoticed, we do rhythmically. There is rhythm everywhere; it insinuates itself everywhere. All mechanism is metric, rhythmic. There must be more in it than this. Is it merely the influence of inertia?"

--NOVALIS, Translated by U.C.B.

Notwithstanding the extent and loneliness of this wild country, coincidence seemed in no way stretched by the abrupt appearance; for in a sense it was not wholly unexpected. There had been certain indications that the meeting again of these two was imminent. The Irishman had never doubted they would meet. But something more than mere hints or warnings, it seemed, had prepared him.

The nature of these warnings, however, O'Malley never fully disclosed. Two of them he told to me by word of mouth, but there were others he could not bring himself to speak about at all. Even the two he mentioned do not appear in his written account. His hesitation is not easy to explain, unless it be that language collapsed in the attempt to describe occurrences so remote from common experience. This may be so, although he grappled not unsuccessfully with the rest of the amazing adventure. At any rate I could never coax from him more than the confession that there were other things that had brought him hints. Then came a laugh, a shrug of the shoulders, an expression of confused bewilderment in eyes and manner and--silence.

The two he spoke of I report as best I can. On the roof of that London apartment-house where so many of our talks took place beneath the stars and to the tune of bustling modern traffic, he told them to me. Both were consistent with his theory that he was becoming daily more active in some outlying portion of his personality--knowing experiences in a region of extended consciousness stimulated so powerfully by his strange new friend.

Both, moreover, brought him one and the same conviction that he was no longer--alone. For some days past he had realized this. More than his peasant guide accompanied him. He was both companioned and--observed.

"A dozen times," he said, "I thought I saw him, and a dozen times I was mistaken. But my mind looked for him. I knew that he was somewhere close." He compared the feeling to that common experience of the streets when a friend, not known to be near, or even expected, comes abruptly into the thoughts, so that numberless individuals may trick the sight with his appearance before he himself comes suddenly down the pavement. His approach has reached the mind before his mere body turns the corner. "Something in me was aware of his approach," he added, "as though his being were sending out feelers in advance to find me. They reached me first, I think"--he hesitated briefly, hunting for a more accurate term he could not find--"in dream."

"You dreamed that he was coming, then?"

"It came first in dream," he answered; "only when I woke the dream did not fade; it passed over into waking consciousness, so that I could hardly tell where the threshold lay between the two. And, meanwhile, I was always expecting to see him at every turn of the trail almost; a little higher up the mountain, behind a rock, or standing beside a tree, just as in the end I actually did see him. Long before he emerged in this way, he had been close about me, guiding, waiting, watching."

He told it as a true thing he did not quite expect me to believe. Yet, in a sense, his sense, I could and did believe it. It was so wholly consistent with the tenor of his adventure and the condition of abnormal receptivity of mind. For his stretched consciousness was in a state of white sensitiveness whereon the tenderest mental force of another's thought might well record its signature. Acutely impressionable he was all over. Physical distance was of as little, or even of less, account to such forces as it is to electricity.

"But it was more than the Russian who was close," he added quietly with one of those sentences that startled me into keen attention. "He was there--with others--of his kind."

And then, hardly pausing to take breath, he plunged, as his manner was, full tilt into the details of this first experience that thrilled my hedging soul with an astonishing power of conviction. As always when his heart was in the words, the scenery about us faded and I lived the adventure with him. The cowled and hooded chimneys turned to trees, the stretch of dim star-lit London Park became a deep Caucasian vale, the thunder of the traffic was the roaring of the snow-fed torrents. The very perfume of strange flowers floated in the air.

They had been in their blankets, he and his peasant guide, for hours, and a moon approaching the full still concealed all signs of dawn, when he woke out of deep sleep with the odd sensation that it was only a part of him that woke. One portion of him was in the body, while another portion was elsewhere, manifesting with ease and freedom in some state or region whither he had traveled in his sleep--where, moreover, he had not been alone.

And close about him in the trees was--movement. Yes! Through and between the scattered trunks he saw it still.

With eyes a little dazed, the active portion of his brain perceived this processing movement passing to and fro across the glades of moonlight beneath the steady trees. For there was no wind. The shadows of the branches did not stir. He saw swift running shapes, vigorous yet silent, hurrying across the network of splashed silver and pools of black in some kind of organized movement that was circular and seemed not due to chance. Arranged it seemed and ordered; like the regulated revolutions of a set and whirling measure.

Perhaps twenty feet from where he lay was the outer fringe of what he discerned to be this fragment of some grand gamboling dance or frolic; yet discerned but dimly, for the darkness combined with his uncertain vision to obscure it.

And the shapes, as they sped across the silvery patchwork of the moon, seemed curiously familiar. Beyond question he recognized and knew them. For they were akin to those shadowy emanations seen weeks ago upon the steamer's after-deck, to that "messenger" who climbed from out the sea and sky, and to that form the spirit of the boy assumed, set free in death. They were the flying outlines of Wind and Cloud he had so often glimpsed in vision, racing over the long, bare, open hills--at last come near.

In the moment of first waking, when he saw them clearest, he declares with emphasis that he knew the father and the boy were among them. Not so much that he saw them actually for recognition, but rather that he felt their rushing presences; for the first sensation on opening his eyes was the conviction that both had passed him close, had almost touched and called him. Afterwards he searched in vain among the flying forms that swept in the swift succession of their leaping dance across the silvery pathways. While varying in size all were so similar.

His description of them is confused a little, for he admits that he could never properly focus them in steady sight. They slipped with a melting swiftness under the eye; the moment one seemed caught in vision it passed on further and the next was in its place. It was like following a running wave-form on the sea. He says, moreover, that while erect and splendid, their backs and shoulders seemed prolonged in hugeness as though they often crouched to spring; they seemed to paw the air; and that a faint delicious sound to which they kept obedient time and rhythm, held that same sweetness which had issued from the hills of Greece, blown down now among the trees from very far away. And when he says "blown down among the trees," he qualifies this phrase as well, because at the same time it came to him that the sound also rose up from underneath the earth, as if the very surface of the ground ran shaking with a soft vibration of its own. Some marvelous dream it might have been in which the forms, the movement, and the sound were all thrown up and outwards from the quivering surface of the Earth itself.

Yet, almost simultaneously with the first instant of waking, the body issued its call of warning. For, while he gazed, and before time for the least reflection came, the Irishman experienced this dislocating conviction that he himself was taking part in the whirling gambol even while he lay and watched it, and that in this way the sense of division in his personality was explained. The fragment of himself within the brain watched some other more vital fragment--some projection of his consciousness detached and separate--playing yonder with its kind beneath the moon.

This sense of a divided self was not new to him, but never before had he known it so distinct and overwhelming. The definiteness of the division, as well as the importance and vitality of the separated portion, were arrestingly novel. It felt as though he were completely out, or to such a degree, at least, that the fraction left behind with the brain was at first only just sufficient for him to recognize his body at all.

Yonder with these others he felt the wind of movement pass along his back, he saw the trees slip by, and knew the very contact of the ground between the leaps. His movements were natural and easy, light as air and fast as wind; they seemed automatic, impelled by something mighty that directed and contained them. He knew, too, the sensation that others pressed behind him and passed before, slipped in and out, and that through the whole wild urgency of it he yet could never make an error. More--he knew that these shifting forms had been close and dancing about him for a time not measurable merely by the hours of a single night, that in a sense they were always there though he had but just discovered them. His earlier glimpses had been a very partial divination of a truth, immense and beautiful, that now dawned quite gorgeously upon him all complete.

The whole world danced. The Universe was rhythmical as well as metrical.

For this amazing splendor showed itself in a flash-like revelation to the freed portion of his consciousness, and he knew it irresistibly because he himself shared it. Here was an infinite joy, naked and unashamed, born of the mighty Mother's heart and life, a joy which, in its feebler, lesser manifestations, trickles down into human conditions, though still spontaneously even then, so pure its primal urgency, as--dancing.

The entire experience, the entire revelation, he thinks, can have occupied but a fraction of a second, but it seemed to smite the whole of his being at once with the conviction of a supreme authority. And close behind it came, too, that other sister expression of a spontaneous and natural expression, equally rhythmical--the impulse to sing. He could have sung aloud. For this puissant and mysterious rhythm to which all moved was greater than any little measure of their own. Surging through them, it came from outside and beyond, infinitely greater than themselves, springing from something of which they were, nevertheless, a living portion. From the body of the Earth it came direct--it was in fact a manifestation of her own vibrating life. The currents of the Earth pulsed through them.

"And then," he says, "I caught this flaming thought of wonder, though so much of it faded instantly upon my full awakening that I can only give you the merest suggestion of what it was."

He stood up beside me as he said it, spreading his arms, as so often when he was excited, to the sky. I caught the glow of his eyes, and in his voice was passion. He spoke unquestionably of something he had intimately known, not as men speak of even the vividest dreams, but of realities that have burned the heart and left their trails of glory.

"Science has guessed some inkling of the truth," he cried, "when it declares that the ultimate molecules of matter are in constant vibratory movement one about another, even upon the point of a needle. But I saw--knew, rather, as if I had always known it, sweet as summer rain, and close in me as love--that the whole Earth with all her myriad expressions of life moved to this primal rhythm as of some divine dancing."

"Dancing?" I asked, puzzled.

"Rhythmical movement call it then," he replied. "To share the life of the Earth is to dance and sing in a huge abundant joy! And the nearer to her great heart, the more natural and spontaneous the impulse--the instinctive dancing of primitive races, of savages and children, still artless and untamed; the gamboling of animals, of rabbits in the meadows and of deer unwatched in forest clearings--you know naturalists have sometimes seen it; of birds in the air--rooks, gulls, and swallows; of the life within the sea; even of gnats in the haze of summer afternoons. All life simple enough to touch and share the enormous happiness of her deep, streaming, personal Being, dances instinctively for very joy--obedient to a greater measure than they know.... The natural movement of the great Earth-Soul is rhythmical. The very winds, the swaying of trees and flowers and grasses, the movement of the sea, of water running through the fields with silver feet, of the clouds and edges of the mist, even the trembling of the earthquakes,--all, all respond in sympathetic motions to this huge vibratory movement of her great central pulse. Ay, and the mountains too, though so vastly scaled their measure that perhaps we only know the pauses in between, and think them motionless.... The mountains rise and fall and change; our very breathing, first sign of stirring life, even the circulation of our blood, bring testimony; our speech as well--inspired words are ever rhythmical, language that pours into the poet's mind from something greater than himself. And not unwisely, but in obedience to a deep instinctive knowledge was dancing once--in earlier, simpler days--a form of worship. You know, at least, how rhythm in music and ceremonial uplifts and cleans and simplifies the heart toward the greater life.... You know, perhaps, the Dance of Jesus...."

The words poured from him with passion, yet always uttered gently with a smile of joy upon the face. I saw his figure standing over me, outlined against the starry sky; and, deeply stirred, I listened with delight and wonder. Rhythm surely lies behind all expression of life. He was on the heels of some simple, dazzling verity though he phrased it wildly. But not a tenth part of all he said could I recapture afterwards for writing down. The steady, gentle swaying of his body I remember clearly, and that somewhere or other in the stream of language, he made apt reference to the rhythmical swaying of those who speak in trance, or know some strange, possessing gust of inspiration.

The first and natural expression of the Earth's vitality lies in a dancing movement of purest joy and happiness--that for me is the gist of what remains. Those near enough to Nature feel it. I myself remembered days in spring ... my thoughts, borne upon some sweet emotion, traveled far....

"And not of the Earth alone," he interrupted my dreaming in a voice like singing, "but of the entire Universe. The spheres and constellations weave across the fields of ether the immense old rhythm of their divine, eternal dance...!"

Then, with a disconcerting abruptness, and a strange little wayward laugh as of apology for having let himself so freely go, he sat down beside me with his back against the chimney-stack. He resumed more quietly the account of this particular adventure that lay 'twixt dream and waking:

All that he described had happened in a few seconds. It flashed, complete, authoritative and vivid, then passed away. He knew again the call and warning of his body--to return. For this consciousness of being in two places at once, divided as it were against himself, brought with it the necessity for decision. With which portion should he identify himself? By an act of will, it seemed, a choice was possible.

And with it, then, came the knowledge that to remain "out" was easier than to return. This time, to come back into himself would be difficult.

The very possibility seemed to provide the shock of energy necessary for overcoming it; the experience alarmed him; it was like holding an option upon living--like a foretaste of death. Automatically, as it were, these loosened forces in him answered to the body's summons. The result was immediate and singular; one of these Dancing outlines separated itself from the main herd, approached with a sudden silent rush, enveloped him for a second of darkness and confusion, losing its shape completely on the way, and then merged into his being as smoke slips in and merges with the structure of a tree.

The projected portion of his personality had returned. The sense of division was gone. There remained behind only the little terror of the weak flesh whose summons had thus brought it back.

The same instant he was fully awake--the night about him empty of all but the silver dreaming of the moon among the shadows. Beside him lay the sleeping figure of his companion, the bashlik of lamb's wool drawn closely down about the ears and neck, and the voluminous black burka shrouding him from feet to shoulders. A little distance away the horse stood, munching grass. Again he noted that there was no wind, and the shadows of the trees lay motionless upon the ground. The air smelt sweet of forest, soil, and dew.

The experience--it seemed now--belonged to dreaming rather than to waking consciousness, for there was nothing about him to confirm it outwardly. Only the memory remained--that, and a vast, deep-coursing, subtle happiness. The smaller terror that he felt was of the flesh alone, for the flesh ever instinctively fought against such separation. The happiness, though, contained and overwhelmed the fear.

Yes, only the memory remained, and even that fast fading. But the substance of what had been, passed into his inmost being: the splendor of that would remain forever, incorporated with his life. He had shared in this brief moment of extended consciousness some measure of the Mother's cosmic being, simple as sunshine, unrestrained as wind, complete and satisfying. Its natural expression was rhythmical, a deep, pure joy that drove outwards even into little human conditions as dancing and singing. He had known it, too, with companions of his kind...

Moreover, though no longer visible or audible, it still continued somewhere close. He was blessedly companioned all the time--and watched. They knew him one of themselves--these brother expressions of her cosmic life--these Urwelt beings that Today had no external, bodily forms. They waited, knowing well that he would come. Fulfillment beckoned surely just beyond...

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