The Centaur

by Algernon Blackwood

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"For of old the Sun, our sire, :
Came wooing the mother of men,
Earth, that was virginal then,
Vestal fire to his fire.

Silent her bosom and coy,
But the strong god sued and press'd;
And born of their starry nuptial joy
Are all that drink of her breast.

"And the triumph of him that begot,
And the travail of her that bore,
Behold they are evermore
As warp and weft in our lot.

We are children of splendor and flame,
Of shuddering, also, and tears.
Magnificent out of the dust we came,
And abject from the spheres.

"O bright irresistible lord!
We are fruit of Earth's womb, each one,
And fruit of thy loins, O Sun,
Whence first was the seed outpour'd.

To thee as our Father we bow,
Forbidden thy Father to see,
Who is older and greater than thou, as thou
Art greater and older than we."

--WILLIAM WATSON, "Ode in May"

Very slowly the dawn came. The sky blushed rose, trembled, flamed. A breath of wind stirred the vapors that far below sheeted the surface of the Black Sea. But it was still in that gentle twilight before the actual color comes that O'Malley found he was lying with his eyes wide open, watching the rhododendrons. He may have slept meanwhile, though "sleep," he says, involving loss of consciousness, seemed no right description. A sense of interval there was at any rate, a "transition-blank,"--whatever that may mean--he phrased it in the writing.

And, watching the rhododendron forest a hundred yards below, he saw it move. Through the dim light this movement passed and ran, here, there, and everywhere. A curious soft sound accompanied it that made him remember the Bible phrase of wind "going in the tops of the mulberry trees." Hushed, swift, elusive murmur, it passed about him through the dusk. He caught it next behind him and, turning, noticed groups upon the slopes,--groups that he had not seen the night before. These groups seemed also now to move; the isolated scattered clusters came together, merged, ran to the parent forest below, or melted just beyond the line of vision above.

The wind sprang up and rattled all the million leaves. That rattling filled the air, and with it came another, deeper sound like to a sound of tramping that seemed to shake the earth. Confusion caught him then completely, for it was as if the mountain-side awoke, rose up, and shook itself into a wild and multitudinous wave of life.

At first he thought the wind had somehow torn the rhododendrons loose from their roots and was strewing them with that tramping sound about the slopes. But the groups passed too swiftly over the turf for that, swept completely from their fastenings, while the tramping grew to a roaring as of cries and voices. That roaring had the quality of the voice that reached him weeks ago across the Ægean Sea. A strange, keen odor, too, that was not wholly unfamiliar, moved upon the wind.

And then he knew that what he had been watching all along were not rhododendrons at all, but living, splendid creatures. A host of others, moreover, large ones and small together, stood shadowy in the background, stamping their feet upon the turf, manes tossing in the early wind, in their entire mass awful as in their individual outline somehow noble.

The light spread upwards from the east. With a fire of terrible joy and wonder in his heart, O'Malley held his breath and stared. The luster of their glorious bodies, golden bronze in the sunlight, dazed the sight. He saw the splendor of ten hundred velvet flanks in movement, with here and there the uprising whiteness of a female outline that flashed and broke above the general mass like foam upon a great wave's crest--figures of incomparable grace and power; the sovereign, upright carriage; the rippling muscles upon massive limbs, and shoulders that held defiant strength and softness in exquisite combination. And then he heard huge murmurs of their voices that filled the dawn, aged by lost thousand years, and sonorous as the booming of the sea. A cry that was like singing escaped him. He saw them rise and sweep away. There was a rush of magnificence. They cantered--wonderfully. They were gone.

The roar of their curious commotion traveled over the mountains, dying into distance very swiftly. The rhododendron forest that had concealed their approach resumed its normal aspect, but burning now with colors innumerable as the sunrise caught its thousand blossoms. And O'Malley understood that during "sleep" he had passed with his companion through the gates of ivory and horn, and stood now within the first Garden of the early world. All frontiers crossed, all barriers behind, he stood within the paradise of his heart's desire. The Consciousness of the Earth included him. These were early forms of life she had projected--some of the living prototypes of legend, myth, and fable--embodiments of her first manifestations of consciousness, and eternal, accessible to every heart that holds a true and passionate worship. All his life this love of Nature, which was worship, had been his. It now fulfilled itself. Merged by love into the consciousness of the Being loved, he felt her thoughts, her powers, and manifestations of life as his own.

In a flash, of course, this all passed clearly before him; but there was no time to dwell upon it. For the activity of his companion had likewise become suddenly tremendous. He had risen into complete revelation at last. His own had called him. He was off to join his kind.

The transformation came upon both of them, it seems, at once, but in that moment of bewilderment, the Irishman only realized it first in his leader.

For on the edge of the advancing sunlight first this Cosmic Being crouched, then rose with alert and springing movement, leaping to his feet in a single bound that propelled him with a stride of more than a man's two limbs. His great sides quivered as he shook himself. A roar, similar to that sound the distance already swallowed, rolled forth into the air. With head thrown back, chest forward, too, for all the backward slant of the mighty shoulders, he stood there, grandly outlined, pushing the wind before him. The great brown eyes shone with the joy of freedom and escape--a superb and regal transformation.

Urged by the audacity of his strange excitement, the Irishman obeyed an impulse that came he knew not whence. The single word sprang to his lips before he could guess its meaning, much less hold it back.

"Lapithae...!" he cried aloud; "Lapithae...!"

The stalwart figure turned with an awful spring as though it would trample him to the ground. A moment the brown eyes flamed with a light of battle. Then, with another roar, and a gesture that was somehow both huge and simple, he seemed to rise and paw the air. The next second this figure of the Urwelt, come once more into its own, bent down and forward, leaped wonderfully--then, cantering, raced away across the slopes to join his kind. He went like a shape of wind and cloud. The heritage of racial memory was his, and certain words remained still vividly evocative. That old battle with the Lapithae was but one item of the scenes of ancient splendor lying pigeon-holed in his mighty Mother's consciousness. The instant he had called, the Irishman himself lay caught in lost memory's tumultuous whirl. The lonely world about him seemed of a sudden magnificently peopled--sky, woods, and torrents.

He watched a moment the fierce rapidity with which he sped toward the mountains, the sound of his feet already merged in that other, vaster tramping, and then he turned--to watch himself. For a similar transformation was going forward in himself, and with the happiness of wild amazement he saw it. Already, indeed, it was accomplished. All white and shining lay the sunlight over his own extended form. Power was in his limbs; he rose above the ground in some new way; the usual little stream of breath became a river of rushing air he drew into stronger, more capacious lungs; likewise his bust grew strangely deepened, pushed the wind before it; and the sunshine glowed on shaggy flanks agleam with dew that powerfully drove the ground behind him while he ran.

He ran, yet only partly as a man runs; he found himself shot forwards through the air, upright, yet at the same time upon all fours brandishing his arms he flew with a free, unfettered motion, traversing the surface of the mother's mind and body. Free of the entire Earth he was.

And as he raced to join the others, there passed again across his memory faintly--it was like the little memory of some physical pain almost--the picture of the boy who swam so strangely in the sea, the picture of the parent's curious emanations on the deck, and, lastly, of those flying shapes of cloud and wind his inner vision brought so often speeding over long, bare hills. This was the final fragment of the outer world that reached him....

He tore along the mountains in the dawn, the awful speed at last explained. His going made a sound upon the wind, and like the wind he raced. Far beyond him in the distance, he saw the shadow of that disappearing host spreading upon the valleys like a mist. Faintly still he caught their sound of roaring; but it was his own feet now that made that trampling as of hoofs upon the turf. The landscape moved and opened, gathering him in....

And, hardly had he gone, when there stole upon the place where he had stood, a sweet and simple sound of music--the little piping of a reed. It dropped down through the air, perhaps, or came from the forest edge, or possibly the sunrise brought it--this ancient little sound of fluting on those Pipes men call the Pipes of Pan....

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