Peake, Mervyn - 02 Gormenghast

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02 Gormenghast
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       Her brother, whose long pink face had been propped on his long white hand, raised his eyes from the tablecloth on which he had been drawing the skeleton of an ostrich. His mouth opened automatically into something that had more of a yawn than a smile about it, but a great many teeth were flashed. His smooth jaws came together again, and as he looked at his sister he pondered for the thousandth time upon the maddening coincidence of being saddled with such a sister. It being the thousandth time, he was well practised, and his ponder lasted no more than a couple of rueful seconds. But in those seconds he saw again the stark idiocy of her thin, lipless mouth, the twitching fatuity of the skin under her eyes, the roaring repression that could do no more than bleat through her voice; the smooth, blank forehead (from which the coarse, luxuriant masses of her iron-grey hair were strained back over her cranium, to meet in the compact huddle of a bun as hard as a boulder) - that forehead which was like the smoothly plastered front of an empty house, deserted save by the ghost of a bird-like tenant which hopped about in the dust and preened its feathers in front of tarnished mirrors.

       'Lord! Lord!' he thought, 'why, out of all the globe's creatures, should I, innocent of murder, be punished in this way?'

       He grinned again. This time there was nothing of the yawn left in the process. His jaws opened out like a crocodile's. How could any human head contain such terrible and dazzling teeth? It was a brand-new graveyard. But oh! how anonymous it was. Not a headstone chiselled with the owner's name. Had they died in battle, these nameless, dateless, dental dead, whose memorials, when the jaws opened, gleamed in the sunlight, and when the jaws met again rubbed shoulders in the night, scraping an ever closer acquaintance as the years rolled by? Prunesquallor had smiled. For he had found relief in the notion that there were several worse things imaginable than being saddled with his sister metaphorically, and one of them was that he should have been saddled with her in all its literal horror. For his imagination had caught a startlingly vivid glimpse of her upon his back, her flat feet in the stirrups, her heels digging into his flanks as, careering round the table on all fours with the bit in his mouth and with his haunches being cross-hatched with the flicks of her whip, he galloped his miserable life away.

       'When I ask you a question, Alfred - I say when I ask you a question, Alfred, I like to think that you can be civil enough, even if you 'are' my brother, to answer me instead of smirking to yourself.'

       Now if there was one thing that the doctor could never do it was to smirk. His face was the wrong shape. His muscles moved in another way altogether.

       'Sister mine,' he said, 'since thus you are, forgive, if you can, your brother. He waits breathlessly your answer to his question. It is this, my turtle-dove. 'What did you say to him?' For he has forgotten so utterly that were his death dependent on it, he would be forced to live - with you, his fruit-drop, with you alone.'

       Irma never listened beyond the first five words of her brother's somewhat involved periods, and so a great many insults passed over her head. Insults, not vicious in themselves, they provided the Doctor with a form of verbal self-amusement without which he would have to remain locked in his study the entire time. And, in any case, it wasn't a study, for although its walls were lined with books, it held nothing else beyond a very comfortable arm-chair and a very beautiful carpet. There was no writing-desk. No paper or ink. Not even a wastepaper basket.

       'What was it you asked me, flesh of my flesh? I will do what I can for you.'

       'I have been saying, Alfred, that I am not without charm. Nor without grace, or intellect. Why is it I am never approached? Why do I never have advances made to me?'

       'Are you speaking financially?' asked the doctor.

       'I am speaking spiritually, Alfred, and you know it. What have others got that I haven't?'

       'Or conversely,' said Prunesquallor, 'what haven't they got that you already have?'

       'I don't follow you,' Alfred. I said I don't follow you.'

       'That's just what you do do,' said her brother, reaching out his arms and fluttering his fingers. 'And I wish you'd stop it.'

       'But my deportment, Alfred. Haven't you noticed it? What's wrong with your sex - can't they see I 'move' well?'

       'Perhaps we're too spiritual,' said Doctor Prunesquallor.

       'But my carriage! Alfred, my carriage!'

       'Too powerful, sweet white-of-egg, far too powerful; you lurch from side to side of life's drear highway: those hips of yours rotating as you go. Oh, no, my dear one, your carriage scares them off, that's what it does. You terrify them, Irma.'

       This was too much for her.

       'You've never 'believed' in me!' she cried, rising from the table, and a dreadful blush suffusing her perfect skin. 'But I can tell you' - her voice rose to a shrill scream - ''that I'm a lady'! What do you think I want with 'men'? The beasts! I hate them. Blind, stupid, clumsy, horrible, heavy, vulgar things they are. And you're 'one' of them!' she screamed, pointing at her brother, who, with his eyebrows raised a little, was continuing with his drawing of the ostrich from where he had left off. 'And 'you' are one of them! Do you hear me, Alfred, one of 'them'!'

       The pitch of her voice had brought a servant to the door. Unwisely, he had opened it, ostensibly to ask whether she had rung for him, but in reality to see what was going on.

       Irma's throat was quivering like a bowstring.

       'What have ladies to do with men?' she screamed; and then, catching sight of the face of the servant at the door, she plucked a knife from the table and flung it at the face. But her aim was not all it might have been, possibly because she was so involved in being a lady, and the knife impaled itself on the ceiling immediately above her own head, where it gave a perfect imitation of the shuddering of her throat.

       The doctor, adding with deliberation the last vertebra to the tail of the skeleton ostrich, turned his face firstly to the door, where the servant, his mouth hanging open, was gazing spellbound at the shuddering knife.

       'Would you be so kind as to remove your redundant carcass from the door of this room, my man,' he said, in his high, abstracted voice; 'and keep it in the kitchen, where it is paid to do this and that among the saucepans, I believe... would you? No one rang for you. Your mistress' voice, though high, is nothing like the ringing of a bell... nothing at all.'

       The face withdrew.

       'And what's more,' came a desperate cry from immediately below the knife, 'he never comes to see me any more! Never! Never!'

       The doctor rose from the table. He knew she was referring to Steerpike, but for whom she would probably never have experienced the recrudescence of this thwarted passion which had grown upon her since the youth had first dispatched his flattering arrows at her all too sensitive heart.

       Her brother wiped his mouth with a napkin, brushed a crumb from his trousers, and straightened his long, narrow back.

       'I'll sing you a little song,' he said. 'I made it up in the bath last night, ha! ha! ha! ha! - a whimsy little jangle, I tell myself - a whimsy little jangle.'

       He began to move round the table, his elegant white hands folded about one another. 'It went like this, I fancy...' But as he knew she would probably be deaf to what he recited, he took her glass from beside her plate and - 'A little wine is just what you need, Irma dear, before you go to bed - for you are going straight away, aren't you, my spasmic one, to Dreamland - ha, ha, ha! where you can be a lady all night long.'

       With the speed of a professional conjurer he whipped a small packet from his pocket and, extracting a tablet, dropped it into Irma's glass. He decanted a little wine into the glass and handed it to her with the exaggerated graciousness which seldom left him. 'And I will take some myself,' he said, 'and we will drink to each other.'

       Irma had collapsed into a chair, and her long marmoreal face was buried in her hands. Her black glasses, which she wore to protect her eyes from the light, were at a rakish slant across her cheek.

       'Come, come, I am forgetting my promise!' cried the doctor, standing before her, very tall, slender and upright, with that celluloid head of his, all sentience and nervous intelligence, tilted to one side like a bird's.

       'First a quaff of this delicious wine from a vineyard beneath a brooding hill - I can see it so dearly - and you, O Irma, can 'you' see it, too? The peasants toiling and sweating in the sun - and why? Because they have no option, Irma. They are desperately poor, and their bowed necks are wry. And the husband-men, like every good husband, tending his love - stroking the vines with his horny hand, whispering to them, coaxing them, "O little grapes," he whispers, "give up your wine. Irma is waiting." And here it is; here it is, ha, ha, ha, ha! Delicious and cold and white, in a cut-glass goblet. Toss back your coif and quaff, my querulous queen!

       Irma roused herself a little. She had not heard a word. She had been in her own private hell of humiliation. Her eyes turned to the knife in the ceiling. The thin line of her mouth twitched, but she took the glass from her brother's outstretched hand.

       Her brother clinked his glass against hers and, duplicating the movement of his arm, she raised her own automatically and drank.

       'And now for the little jingle which I threw off in that nonchalant way of mine. How did it go? How did it go?'

       Prunesquallor knew that by the third verse the strong, tasteless soporific which had dissolved in her wine would begin to take effect. He sat on the floor at her knees and, quelling a revulsion, he patted her hand.

       'Queen bee,' he said, 'look at me, if you can. Through your midnight spectacles. It shouldn't be too dreadful - for one who had fed on horrors. Now, listen...' Irma's eyes were already beginning to close.

       'It goes like this, I think. I called it 'The Osseous 'Orse'.'

Come, flick the ulna juggler-wise

And twang the tibia for me!

O Osseous 'orse, the future lies

Like serum on the sea.

Green fields and buttercups no more

Regale you with delight, no, no!

The tonic tempests leap and pour

Through your white pelvis ever so.

       'Are you enjoying it, Irma?' She nodded sleepily.

Come, clap your scapulae and twitch

The pale pagoda of your spine,

Removed from life's eternal itch

What need for iodine?

The Osseous 'orse sat up at once

And clanged his ribs in biblic pride.

I fear I looked at him askance

Though he had naught to hide…

       At this point the doctor, having forgotten what came next, turned his eyes once more to his sister Irma; she was fast asleep. The doctor rang the bell.

       'Your mistress's maid; a stretcher; and a couple of men to handle it.' (A face had appeared in the doorway.) ''And' be rapid.' The face withdrew.

       When Irma had been put to bed and her lamp had been turned low and silence swam through the house, the doctor unlocked the door of his study, entered and sank back into his arm-chair. His friable-looking elbows rested upon the padded arms. His fingers were twined together into a delicate bunch, and on this bunch he supported his long and sunken jaw. After a few moments he removed his glasses and laid them on the arm of his chair. Then, with his fingers clasped together once again beneath his chin, he shut his eyes and sighed gently.

SEVEN

But he was not destined to more than a few moments of relaxation, for feet were soon to be heard outside his window. Only two of them, it was true, but there was something in the weight and deliberation of the tread that reminded him of an army moving in perfect unison, a dread and measured sound. The rain had quietened and the sound of each foot as it struck the ground was alarmingly clear.

       Prunesquallor could recognize that portentous gait among a million. But in the silence of the evening his mind flew to the phantom army it awakened in his leap-frogging brain. What was there in the clockwork stepping of an upright host to contract the throat and bring, as does the thought of a sliced lemon, that sharp astringency to throat and jaw? Why do the tears begin to gather? And the heart to thud?

       He had no time to ponder the matter now, so at one and the same time he tossed a mop of grey thatch from his brow and an army-on-the-march from his mind.

       Reaching the door before his bell could clang the servants into redundance he opened it, and to the massive figure who was about to whack the door with her fist- 'I welcome your Ladyship,' he said. His body inclined itself a little from the hips and his teeth flashed, while he wondered what, in the name of all that was heterodox, the Countess thought she was doing in visiting her physician at this time of night. She visited nobody, by day 'or' night. That was one of the things about her. Nevertheless, here she was.

       'Hold your horses.' Her voice was heavy, but not loud.

       One of Doctor Prunesquallor's eyebrows shot to the top of his forehead. It was a peculiar remark to be greeted with. It might have been supposed that he was about to embrace her. The very notion appalled him.

       But when she said: 'You can come in now,' not only did his other eyebrow fly up his forehead, but it set its counterpart a-tremble with the speed of its uprush.

       To be told he could 'come in now' when he was already inside was weird enough; but the idea of being given permission to enter his own house by a guest was grotesque.

       The slow, heavy, quiet authority in the voice made the situation even more embarrassing. She had entered his hall. 'I wish to see you,' she said, but her eyes were on the door which Prunesquallor was closing. When it had barely six inches to go before the night was locked out and the latch had clicked 'Hold!' she said, in a rather deeper tone, 'hold hard!' And then, with her big lips pursed like a child's, she gave breath to a long whistle of peculiar sweetness. A tender and forlorn note to escape from so ponderous a being.

       The doctor, as he turned to her, was a picture of perplexed inquiry, though his teeth were still shining gaily. But as he turned something caught the corner of his eye. Something white. Something that moved.


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