Peake, Mervyn - 02 Gormenghast

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02 Gormenghast
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       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?'

       Her peevish voice raised thin echoes far above her as though, in hall after hall, she had awakened nests of fledgelings from their sleep..

       'Oh, it's you,' said Fuchsia, throwing a lock of hair from her face with a quick jerk of her hand. 'I didn't know who it was.'

       'Of course, it's me! Who else could it be, you ‘stupid’? Who else ever comes in your room? You ought to know that by 'now', oughtn't you? Oughtn't you?'

       'I didn't see you,' said Fuchsia.

       'But I saw 'you' - leaning out of the window like a great heavy thing - and never listening though I called you and called you and called you to open the door. Oh, my weak heart! - it's always the same – call, call, call, with no one to answer. Why do I trouble to live?' She peered at Fuchsia. 'Why should I live for 'you'? Perhaps I'll die tonight,' she added maliciously, squinting at Fuchsia again. 'Why don't you take your milk?'

       'Put it on the chair,' said Fuchsia, 'I'll have it later - and the grapes. Thank you. Goodbye.'

       At Fuchsia's peremptory dismissal, which had not been meant unkindly, abrupt as it had sounded, Mrs Slagg's eyes filled with tears. But ancient, tiny and hurt though she was, her anger rose again like a miniature tempest, and instead of her usual peevish cry of 'Oh, my weak heart! how could you?' she caught hold of Fuchsia's hand and tried to bend back the girl's fingers and, failing, was about to try and bite her ladyship's arm when she found herself being carried to the bed. Denied of her little revenge, she closed her eyes for a few moments, her chicken bosom rising and falling with fantastic rapidity. When she opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was Fuchsia's hand spread out before her and, rising on one elbow, she smacked at it again and again until exhausted, when she buried her wrinkled face in Fuchsia's side.

       'I'm sorry,' said the girl. 'I didn't mean Goodbye in that way. I only meant that I wanted to be left alone.'

       'Why?' (Mrs Slagg's voice was hardly audible, so closely was her face pressed into Fuchsia's dress.) 'Why? why? why? Anyone would think I got in your way. Anyone would think I didn't know you inside out. Haven't I taught you everything since you were a baby? Didn't I rock you to sleep, you beastly thing? Didn't I?' She raised her old tearful face to Fuchsia. 'Didn't I?'

       'You did,' said Fuchsia.

       ''Well', then!' said Nanny' Slagg. ''Well', then!' And she crawled off the bed and made her descent to the ground.

       'Get off the counterpane at 'once', you 'thing', and don't stare at me! Perhaps I'll come and see you tonight. Perhaps. I don't know. Perhaps I don't want to.' She made for the door, reached for the handle and was within a few moments alone once more in her small room, where with her red-rimmed eyes wide open, she lay upon her bed like a discarded doll.

       Fuchsia, with the room to herself, sat down in front of a mirror that had smallpox so badly at its centre that in order to see herself properly she was forced to peer into a comparatively unblemished corner. Her comb, with a number of its teeth missing, was eventually found in a drawer below the mirror when, just as she was about to start combing her hair - a performance she had but lately taken to - the room darkened, for half the light from her window was suddenly obscured by the miraculous appearance of the young man with high shoulders.

       Before Fuchsia had had a moment to ponder how any human being could appear on her window-sill a hundred feet above the ground - let alone recognize the silhouette - she snatched a hair brush from the table before her and brandished it behind her head in readiness for she knew not what. At a moment when others might have screamed or shrunk away, she had showed fight - with what at that startling moment might have been a bat-winged monster for all she knew. But in the instant before she flung the brush she recognized Steerpike.

       He knocked with his knuckle on the lintel of the window.

       'Good afternoon, madam,' he said. 'May I present my card?' And he handed Fuchsia a slip of paper bearing the words: 'His Infernal Slyness, the Arch-fluke Steerpike.'

       But before Fuchsia had read it she had begun to laugh in her short, breathless way, at the mock-solemn tone of his 'Good afternoon, madam,' It had been so perfectly ponderous.

       But until she had motioned him to descend to the floor of the room - and she had no alternative - he had not moved an inch in that direction, but stood, with his hands clasped and his head cocked on one side. At her gesture he suddenly came to life again, as though a trigger had been touched, and within a moment had unknotted a rope from his belt and flung the loose end out of the window, where it dangled. Fuchsia, leaning out of the window, gazed upwards and saw the rest of the rope ascending the seven remaining storeys to a ragged roof, where presumably it was attached to some turret or chimney.

       'All ready for my return,' said Steerpike. 'Nothing like rope, madam. Better than a horse. Climbs down a wall whenever you ask it, and never needs feeding.'

       'You can leave off "Madaming" me,' said Fuchsia, somewhat loudly, and to Steerpike's surprise. 'You know my name.'

       Steerpike, rapidly swallowing, digesting and purging his irritation, for he never wasted his time by mouthing his set-backs, seated himself on a chair in the reverse direction and placed his chin on the chair back.

       'I will never forget,' he said, 'to always call you by your proper name, and in a very proper tone of voice, Lady Fuchsia.'

       Fuchsia smiled vaguely, but she was thinking of something else.

       'You are certainly one for climbing,' she said at last. 'You climbed to my attic - do you remember?'

       Steerpike nodded.

       'And you climbed up the library wall when it was burning. It seems very long ago.'

       'And the time, if I may say so, Lady Fuchsia, when I climbed through the thunderstorm and over the rocks with you in my arms.'

       It was as though all the air had been suddenly drawn from the room, so deathly silent and thin had the atmosphere become. Steerpike thought he could detect the faintest tinge of colour on Fuchsia's cheekbones.

       At last he said: 'One day, Lady Fuchsia, will you explore with me the roofs of this great house of yours? I would like to show you what I have found, away to the south, your Ladyship, where the granite domes are elbow-deep in moss.'

       'Yes,' she replied, 'yes...' His sharp, pallid face repelled her, but she was attracted by his vitality and air of secrecy.

       She was about to ask him to leave, but he was on his feet before she could speak and had jumped through the window without touching its frame, and was swinging to and fro on the jerking rope before he started swarming it, hand over hand, on his long, upward climb to the ragged roof above.

When Fuchsia turned from the window she found upon her rough dressing-table a single rosebud.

       As he climbed Steerpike remembered how the day of Titus' birth seven years previously had seen the commencement of his climb across the roofs of Gormenghast and the end of his servitude in Swelter's kitchen. The muscular effort required accentuated the hunching of his shoulders. But he was preternaturally nimble and revelled no less in physical than in mental tenacity and daring. His penetrating close-set eyes were fixed upon that point to which his rope was knotted as though it were the zenith of his fancy.

       The sky had darkened, and with the rising of a swift wind came the driven rain. It hissed and spouted in the masonry. It found a hundred natural conduits where it slid. Air-shafts, flues and blowholes coughed with echoes, and huge flumes muttered. Lakes formed among the roofs, where they reflected the sky as though they had been there forever like waters in the mountains.

       With the rope neatly coiled about his waist, Steerpike ran like a shadow across an acre of sloping slates. His collar was turned up. His white face was bearded with the rain.

       High, sinister walls, like the walls of wharves, or dungeons for the damned, lifted into the watery air or swept in prodigious arcs of ruthless stone. Lost in the flying clouds the craggy summits of Gormenghast were wild with straining hair - the hanks of the drenched rock-weed. Buttresses and outcrops of unrecognizable masonry loomed over Steerpike's head like the hulks of mouldering ships, or stranded monsters whose streaming mouths and brows were the sardonic work of a thousand tempests. Roof after roof of every gradient rose or slid away before his eyes; terrace after terrace shone dimly below him through the rain, their long-forgotten flagstones dancing and hissing with the downpour.

       A world of shapes fled past him, for he was as fleet as a cat and he ran without pause, turning now this way, now that, and only slackening his pace when some more than normally hazardous cat-walk compelled. From time to time as he ran he leaped into the air as though from excess of vitality. Suddenly, as he rounded a chimney-stack, black with dripping ivy, he dropped to walking-pace and then, ducking his head beneath an arch, he fell to his knees and hauled up, with a grating of hinges, a long-forgotten skylight. In a moment he was through and had dropped into a small empty room twelve feet beneath. It was very dark. Steerpike uncoiled himself of the rope and looped it over a nail in the wall. Then he glanced around the dark room. The walls were covered with glass-fronted showcases, filled with every kind of moth. Long thin pins impaled these insects to the cork lining of each box, but careful as the original collector must have been in his handling and mounting of the delicate things, yet time had told, and there was not a case without its damaged moth, and the floors of most of the little boxes smouldered with fallen wings.

       Steerpike turned to the door, listening a moment, and then opened it. He had before him a dusty landing, and immediately on his left a ladder leading down to yet another empty room, as forlorn as the one he had just left. There was nothing in it except a great pyramidal stack of nibbled books, its dark interstices alive with the nests of mice. There was no door to this room, but a length of sacking hung limply over a fissure in the wall, which was broad enough for Steerpike to negotiate, moving sideways. Again there were stairs, and again there was a room, but longer this time, a kind of gallery. At its far end stood a stuffed stag, its shoulders white with dust.

       As he crossed the room he saw through the corner of his eye, and framed by a glass-less window, the sinister outline of Gormenghast mountain, its high crags gleaming against a flying sky. The rain streamed through the window and splashed on the boards, so that little beads of dust ran to and fro on the floor like globules of mercury.

       Reaching the double door, he ran his hands through his dripping hair and turned down the collar of his coat; and then, passing through and veering to the left, followed a corridor for some way before he reached a stairhead.

       No sooner had he peered over the banisters than he started back, for the Countess of Groan was passing through the lamp-lit room below. She seemed to be wading in white froth, and the hollow rooms behind Steerpike reverberated with a dull throbbing, a multitudinous sound, the echo of the genuine ululation which he could not hear, the droning of the cats. They passed from the hall below like the ebbing of a white tide through the mouth of a cave, at its centre, a rock that moved with them, crowned with red seaweed.

       The echoes died. The silence was like a stretched sheet. Steerpike descended rapidly to the room below and made to the east.

       The Countess walked with her head bowed a little and her arms akimbo. There was a frown on her brow. She was not satisfied that the immemorial sense of duty and observance was universally held sacrosanct in the wide network of the castle. Heavy and abstracted as she seemed, yet she was as quick as a snake to detect danger, and though she could not put a finger, as it were, on the exact area of her doubt, she was nevertheless suspicious, wary and revengeful of she knew not exactly what.

       She was turning over all the fragments of knowledge which might relate to the mysterious burning of her late husband's library, to his disappearance and to the disappearance of his chef. She was using almost for the first time, a naturally powerful brain - a brain that had been purred to sleep for so long by her white cats that it was difficult at first for her to awaken it.

       She was on her way to the Doctor's house. She had not visited him for several years, and on the last occasion it was only to have him attend to the broken wing of a wild swan. He had always irritated her, but against her own inclination she had always felt a certain peculiar confidence in him.

       As she descended a long flight of stone stairs, the undulating tide at her feet had become a cascade in slow motion. At the foot of the stairs she stopped.

       'Keep... close... keep... close... together,' she said aloud, using her words like stepping-stones - a noticeable gap between each, which in spite of the depth and huskiness of her voice had something childlike in its effect.

       The cats were gone. She stood on solid earth again. The rain thrummed outside a leaded window. She walked slowly to the door that opened upon a line of cloisters. Through the arches she saw the Doctor's house on the far side of a quadrangle. Walking out into the rain as though it were not there, she moved through the downpour with a monumental and unhurried measure, her big head lifted.

SIX

I

Prunesquallor was in his study. He called it his 'study'. To his sister, Irma, it was a room in which her brother barricaded himself whenever she wished to talk to him about anything important. Once within and the door locked, the chain up and the windows bolted, there was very little she could do save beat upon the door.

       This evening Irma had been more tiresome than ever. What was it, she had inquired, over and over again, which prevented her from meeting someone who could appreciate and admire her? She did not want him, this hypothetical admirer, necessarily to dedicate his 'whole' life to her, for a man must have his work - (as long as it didn't take too long) - mustn't he? But if he was wealthy and 'wished' to dedicate his life to her - well, she wouldn't make promises, but would give the proposal a fair hearing. She had her long, unblemished neck. Her bosom was flat, it was true, and so were her feet, but after all a woman can't leave everything. 'I 'move' well, don't I, Alfred?' she had cried in a sudden passion. 'I say. I 'move' well?'


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