Peake, Mervyn - 02 Gormenghast

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02 Gormenghast
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       His small cannon-ball of a head is asleep on his arm and the hammock is swaying gently to the drone of a vinegar-fly.

THREE

About the rough margins of the castle life - margins irregular as the coastline of a squall-rent island, there were characters that stood or moved gradually to the central hub. They were wading out of the tides of limitless negation - the timeless, opaque waters. Yet what are these that set foot on the cold beach? Surely so portentous an expanse should unburden itself of gods at least; scaled kings, or creatures whose outstretched wings might darken two horizons. Or dappled Satan with his brow of brass.

       But no. There were no scales or wings at all.

       It was too dark to see them where they waded; although a blotch of shadow, too big for a single figure, augured the approach of that hoary band of Professors, through whose hands for a while Titus will have to wriggle.

       But there was no veil of half-light over the high-shouldered young man who was entering a small room rather like a cell that opened from a passage-way of stones as dry and grey and rough as an elephant's hide. As he turned at the doorway to glance back along the corridor, the cold light shone on the high white lump of his brow.

       As soon as entered he closed the door behind him and slid the bolt. Surrounded by the whiteness of the walls he appeared, as he moved across the room, weirdly detached from the small world surrounding him. It was more like the shadow of a young man, a shadow with high shoulders, that moved across whiteness, than an actual body moving in space.

       In the centre of the room was a simple stone table. Upon it, and grouped roughly at its centre, were a whorl-necked decanter of wine, a few sheafs of paper, a pen, a few books, a moth pinned to a cork, and half an apple.

       As he moved past the table he removed the apple, took a bite and replaced it without slackening his pace, and then suddenly looked for all the world as though his legs were shrinking from the ground up, but the floor of the room sloped curiously and he was on his way down a decline in the floor that sank to a curtain-hung opening in the wall.

       He was through this in a moment, and the darkness that lay beyond took him, as it were, to herself, muffling the edges of his sharp body.

       He had entered a disused chimney at the ground level. It was very dark, and this darkness was not so much mitigated as intensified by a series of little shining mirrors that held the terminal reflections of what was going on in those rooms which, one above the other, flanked the high chimney-like funnel that rose from where the young man stood in the darkness to where the high air meandered over the weather-broken roofs, which, rough and cracked as stale bread, blushed horribly in the prying rays of sundown.

       Over the course of the last year, he had managed to gain entrance to these particular rooms and halls, one above the other, which flanked the chimney, and had drilled holes through the stone-work, wood and plaster - no easy work when the knees and back are strained against the opposite walls of a lightless funnel - so that the light pierced through to him in his funnel'd darkness from apertures no wider than coins. These drilling operations had, of course, to be carried out at carefully chosen times, so that no suspicion should be aroused. Moreover, the holes had as nearly as possible to be drilled at selected points, so as to coincide with whatever natural advantages the rooms might hold.

       Not only had he carefully selected the rooms which he felt it would be worth his while watching from time to time either for the mere amusement of eavesdropping for its own sake - or for the furtherance of his own designs.

       His methods of disguising the holes which might so easily have been detected if badly positioned, were varied and ingenious, as for example in the chamber of the ancient Barquentine, Master of Ritual. This room, filthy as a fox's earth, had upon its right-hand wall a blistered portrait in oils of a rider on a piebald horse, and the young man had not only cut a couple of holes in the canvas immediately beneath the frame where its shadow lay like a long black ruler, but he had cut away the rider's buttons, the pupils of his eyes as well as those of the horse's. These circular openings at their various heights and latitudes afforded him alternative views of the room according to where Barquentine chose to propel his miserable body on that dreaded crutch of his. The horse's eye, the most frequently, used of the apertures, offered a magnificent view of a mattress on the floor on which Barquentine spent most of his leisure moments, knotting and re-knotting his beard, or sending up clouds of dust every time he raised and let fall his only leg, a withered one at that, in bouts of irritation. In the chimney itself, and immediately behind the holes, a complicated series of wires and mirrors reflected the occupants of the de-privatized rooms and sent them down the black funnel, mirror glancing to mirror, and carrying the secrets of each action that fell within their deadly orbit - passing them from one to another, until at the base a constellation of glass provided the young man with constant entertainment and information.

       In the darkness he would turn his eyes. for instance, from Craggmire, the acrobat, who crossing his apartment upon his hands might frequently be seen tossing from the sole of one foot to the sole of the other a small pig in a green nightdress - would turn his eyes from this diversion to the next mirror which might disclose the Poet, tearing at a loaf of bread with his small mouth, his long wedge of a head tilted at an angle, and flushed with the exertion, for he could not use both hands - one being engaged in writing; while his eyes (so completely out of focus that they looked as though they'd never get in again) were more spirit than anything corporeal.

       But from the young man's point of view there were bigger fish than these - which were, with the exception of Barquentine, no more than the shrimps of Gormenghast - and he turned to mirrors more deadly, more thrilling: mirrors that reflected the daughter of the Groans herself - the strange raven-haired Fuchsia and her mother, the Countess, her shoulders thronged with birds.

FOUR

I

One summer morning of bland air, the huge, corroding bell-like heart of Gormenghast was half asleep and there appeared to be no reverberation from its muffled thudding. In a hall of plaster walls the silence yawned.

       Nailed above a doorway of this hall a helmet or casque, red with rust, gave forth into the stillness a sandy and fluttering sound, and a moment later the beak of a jackdaw was thrust through an eye-slit and withdrawn. The plaster walls arose on every side into a dusky and apparently ceilingless gloom, lit only by a high, solitary window. The warm light that found its way through the web-choked glass of this window gave hint of galleries yet further above but no suggestion of doors beyond, nor any indication of how these galleries could be reached. From this high window a few rays of sunlight, like copper wires, were strung steeply and diagonally across the hall, each one terminating in its amber pool of dust on the floorboards. A spider lowered itself, fathom by fathom, on a perilous length of thread and was suddenly transfixed in the path of a sunbeam and, for an instant, was a thing of radiant gold.

       There was no sound, and then - as though timed to break the tension, the high window was swung open and the sunbeams were blotted out, for a hand was thrust through and a bell was shaken. Almost at once there was a sound of footsteps, and moment later a dozen doors were opening and shutting, and the hall was thronged with the criss-crossing of figures.

       The bell ceased clanging. The hand was withdrawn and the figures were gone. There was no sign that any living thing had ever moved or breathed between the plaster walls, or that the many doors had ever opened, save that a small whitish flower lay in the dust beneath the rusting helmet, and that a door was swinging gently to and fro.

II

As it swung, broken glimpses were obtained of a whitewashed corridor that wound in so slow and ample a curve that by the time the right-hand wall had disappeared from view the roof of the passageway appeared no more than the height of an ankle from the ground.

       This long, narrowing, ash-white perspective, curving with the effortless ease of a gull in air, was suddenly the setting for action. For something, hardly distinguishable as a horse and rider until it had cantered a full third of the long curve to the deserted hall, was rapidly approaching. The sharp clacking of hooves was all at once immediately behind the swinging door, which was pushed wide by the nose of a small grey pony.

       Titus sat astride.

       He was dressed in the coarse, loosely fitting garments that were worn by the castle children. For the first nine years of his life the heir to the Earldom was made to mix with, and attempt to understand the ways of, the lower orders. On his fifteenth birthday such friendships as he had struck would have to cease. His demeanour would have to change and a more austere and selective relationship with the personnel of the castle would take its place. But it was a tradition that in the early years, the child of the Family must, for certain hours, at least, of every day, be as the less exalted children, feed with them, sleep in their dormitories, attend with them the classes of the Professors, and join in the various time-honoured games and observances like any other minor. Yet for all that, Titus was conscious of always being watched: of a discrepancy in the attitude of the officials and even at times of the boys. He was too young to understand the implications of his status, but old enough to sense his uniqueness.

       Once a week, before the morning classes, he was allowed to ride his grey horse for an hour beneath the high southern walls, where the early sun would send his fantastic shadow careering along the tall stones at his side. And when he waved his arm, his shadow-self on a shadow-horse would wave its huge shadow-arm as they galloped together.

       But today, instead of trotting away to his beloved southern wall he had, in a moment of devilment, turned his horse through a moss-black arch and into the castle itself. In the still silence his heart beat rapidly as he clattered along stone corridors he had never seen before.

       He knew that it would not be worth his while to take French leave of the morning classes, for he had been locked up more than once during the long summer evenings for such acts of disobedience. But he tasted the sharp fruits of the quick bridle-wrench which had freed him from the ostler. It was only for a few minutes that he was alone, but when he came to a halt in the high plaster-walled hall, with the rusting helmet above him, and far above the helmet the dim mysterious balconies, he had already dulled his sudden itch for rebellion.

       Small though he looked on the grey, there was something commanding in the confident air with which he sat the saddle - something impressive in his childish frame, as though there was a kind of weight there, or strength - a compound of spirit and matter; something solid that underlay the whims, terrors, tears and laughter and vitality of his seven years.

       By no means good-looking, he had, nevertheless, this presence. Like his mother, there was a certain scale about him, as though his height and breadth bore no relation to the logic of feet and inches.

       The ostler entered the hall, slow, shuffling, hissing gently, a perpetual habit of his whether grooming a horse or not, and the grey pony was at once led away in the direction of the school-rooms to the west.

       Titus watched the back of the ostler's head as he was led along but said nothing. It was as though what had just occurred was something they had rehearsed many times before, and that there was no need for comment. The child had known this man and his hissing, which were as inseparable as a rough sea from the sound that it makes, for little more than a year, when the grey was given him at a ceremony known as 'The Pony Giving', a ceremony that took place without fail on the third Friday after the sixth birthday of any son of the Line who was also, by reason of his father's death, an earl in his minority. But for all this length of time - and fifteen months was a considerable span for a child who could only remember with any distinctness his last four years - the ostler and Titus had exchanged not more than a dozen sentences. It was not that they disliked one another, the ostler merely preferring to give the boy, pieces of stolen seed-cake to making any effort at conversation, and Titus quite content to have it so, for the ostler was to him simply the shuffling figure who took care of his pony, and it was enough to know his mannerisms, the way his feet shuffled, the white scar above his eye, and to hear him hissing.

       Within an hour the morning classes were under way. At an ink-stained desk, with his chin cupped in his hands, Titus was contemplating, as in a dream, the chalk-marks on the blackboard. They represented a sum in short division, but might as well have been some hieroglyphic message from a moonstruck prophet to his lost tribe a thousand years ago. His mind, and the minds of his small companions in that leather-walled school-room, was far away, but in a world, not of prophets, but of swopped marbles, birds' eggs, wooden daggers, secrets and catapults, midnight feasts, heroes, deadly rivalries and desperate friendships.

FIVE

Fuchsia was leaning on her window-sill and staring out over the rough roofs below her. Her crimson dress burned with the peculiar red more often found in paintings than in Nature. The window-frame, surrounding not only her but the impalpable dusk behind her, enclosed a masterpiece. Her stillness accentuated the hallucinatory effect, but even if she were to have moved it would have seemed that a picture had come to life rather than that a movement had taken place in Nature. But the pattern did not alter. The inky black of her hair fell motionlessly and gave infinite subtlety to the porous shadow-land beyond her, showing it for what it was, not so much a darkness in itself as something starved for sunbeams. Her face, throat and arms were warm and tawny, yet seemed pale against her red dress. She stared down, out of this picture, at the world below her - at the north cloisters, at Barquentine, heaving his miserable and vicious body forwards on his crutch, and cursing the flies that followed him as he passed across a gap between two roofs and disappeared from sight.

       Then she moved, suddenly turning about at a sound behind her and found Mrs Slagg looking up at her. In her hands the midget held a tray weighted with a tumbler of milk and a bunch of grapes.

       She was peeved and irritable, for she had spent the last hour searching for Titus, who had outgrown the fussings of her love. 'Where is he? Oh, where is he?' she had whimpered, her face puckered up with anxiety and her weak legs, like twigs, that were forever tottering from one duty to another, aching. 'Where is his wickedness, that naughty Earl of mine? God help my poor weak heart! Where can he be?'


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