Peake, Mervyn - 02 Gormenghast

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02 Gormenghast
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       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.

       Between the space left by the all-but-closed door, and very close to the ground, Doctor Prunesquallor saw a face as round as a hunter's moon, as soft as fur. And this was no wonder, for it was a face of fur, peculiarly blanched in the dim light of the hall. No sooner had the Doctor reacted to this face than another took its place, and close upon it, silent as death, came a third, a fourth, a fifth... In single file there slid into the hall, so close upon each other's tails that they might have been a continuous entity, her ladyship's white clowder.

       Prunesquallor, feeling a little dizzy, watched the undulating stream flow past his feet as he stood with his hand on the doorknob. Would they never end? He had watched them for over two minutes.

       He turned to the Countess. She stood in coiling froth like a lighthouse. By the dim glow of the hall lamp her red hair threw out a sullen light.

       Prunesquallor was perfectly happy again. For what had irked him was not the cats, but the obscure commands of the Countess. Their meaning was now self-evident. And yet, how peculiar to have enjoined a swarm of cats to hold their horses!

       The very thought of it got hold of his eyebrows again, which had lowered themselves reluctantly while he waited for his chance to close the door, and they had leapt up his forehead as though a pistol had been cracked and a prize awaited the fastest.

       'We're... all... here,' said the Countess. Prunesquallor turned to the door and saw that the stream had, indeed, run dry. He shut the door.

       'Well, well, well, well!' he trilled, standing on his toes and fluttering his hands, as though he were about to take off like a fairy. 'How 'delightful'! how very, very 'delightful' that you should call, your Ladyship. God bless my ascetic soul! if you haven't whipped the old hermit out of his introspection. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! And here, as you put it, you all are. There's no doubt about that, is there? What a party we will have! 'Mews'ical chairs and all! ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.'

       The almost unbearable pitch of his laughter created an absolute stillness in the hall. The cats, sitting bolt upright, had their round eyes fixed on him.

       'But I keep you waiting!' he cried. 'Waiting in my outer rooms! Are you a mere valetudinarian, my dear Ladyship, or some prolific mendicant whose bewitched offspring she hopes I can return to human shape? Of course you are not, by all that's evident, so why should you be left in this cold - this damp - this obnoxious hell of a hall, with the rain pouring off you in positive waterfalls... and so... and so, 'if' you'll allow me to lead on... ' - he waved a long, thin, delicate arm with as white a hand on the end of it, which fluttered like a silk flag - '... I'll throw a few doors open, Light a lamp or two, flick away a few crumbs in readiness for... What wine shall it be?'

       He began to tread his way to the sitting-room with a curious flicking movement of the feet.

       The Countess followed him. The servants had cleared the table of the supper dishes and the room had been left with so serene a composure about it that it was hard to believe that it was but a short while ago in this same room that Irma had disgraced herself.

       Prunesquallor flung wide the door of the sitting-room for the Countess to pass through. He flung it with a spectacular abandon: it seemed to imply that if the door broke, or the hinges snapped, or a picture was jerked off the wall, what of it? This was his house; he could do what he liked with it. If he chose to jeopardize his belongings, that was his affair. This was an occasion when such meagre considerations would only enter the minds of the vulgar.

       The Countess advanced down the centre of the room and then stopped. She stared about her abstractedly - at the long lemon-yellow curtain, the carved furniture, the deep green rug, the silver, the ceramics, the pale grey-and-white stripes of the wallpaper. Perhaps her mind reverted to her own candle-smelling, bird-filled, half-lit chaos of a bedroom, but there was no expression on her face.

       'Are... all.... your... rooms... like... this...?' she muttered. She had just seated herself in a chair.

       'Well, let me see,' said Prunesquallor. 'No, not exactly, your Ladyship... not 'exactly'.'

       'I... suppose... they're... spotless. Is... that it... eh?'

       'I believe they are; yes, yes, I quite believe they are. Not that I see more than five or six of them during the course of a year; but what with the servants flitting here and there with dusters and brooms, and clanking their buckets and wringing things out - and what with my sister Irma flitting after them to see that the right things are wrung and the wrung things are right, I have no doubt that we are all but sterilized to extinction: no tartar on the banisters: not a microbe left to live its life in peace.'

       'I see,' said the Countess. It was extraordinary how damning those two words sounded. 'But I have come to talk to you.'

       For a moment she stared about her ruminatively. The cats, with not a whisker moving, were everywhere in the room. The mantelpiece was heraldic with them. The table was a solid block of whiteness. The couch was a snowdrift. The carpet was sewn with eyes.

       Her ladyship's head, which always seemed far bigger than any human head had a right to be, was turned away from the doctor and down a little, so that her powerful throat was tautened: yet ample along the near side. Her profile was nearly hidden by her cheek. Her hair was built up, for the most part, into a series of red nests and for the rest smouldered as it fell in snakelike coils to her shoulders, where it all but hissed.

       The doctor twirled about on his narrow feet and flung open a silkwood cabinet door with a grandiose flourish, bringing his long white hands together beneath his chin and tossing a mop of grey hair from his forehead. He flashed his brilliant teeth at the Countess (who was still presenting him with her shoulder and about an eighth of her face), and then with eyebrows raised- 'Your Ladyship,' he said, 'that you should decide to visit me, and to discuss some subject with me, is an honour. But first what will you drink?'

       The doctor in flinging open the door of his cabinet had revealed as rare and delicately chosen a group of wines as he had ever selected from his cellar.

       The Countess moved her great head through the air.

       'A jug of goat's milk, Prunesquallor, if you please,' she said.

       What there was in the doctor that loved beauty, selectivity, delicacy and excellence - and there was a good deal in him that responded to these abstractions - shrank up like the horn of a snail and all but died. But his hand, which was poised in the air and was half-way to the trapped sunlight of a long-lost vineyard, merely fluttered to and fro as though it was conducting some gnomic orchestra, while he turned about, apparently in full control of himself. He bowed, and his teeth flashed. Then he rang the bell, and when a face appeared at the door - 'Have we a goat?' he said. 'Come, come, my man - yes or no. Have we, or haven't we, a goat?'

       The man was positive that they had no such thing.

       'Then you will find one, if you please. You will find one immediately. It is wanted. That will do.'

       The Countess had seated herself. Her feet were planted apart and her heavy freckled arms were along the sides of her chair. In the silence that followed even Prunesquallor could think of nothing to say. The stillness was eventually broken by the voice of the Countess.

       'Why do you have knives sticking in your ceiling?'

       The doctor recrossed his legs and followed her impassive gaze which was fixed on the long bread-knife that suddenly appeared to fill the room. A knife in the fender, on a pillow, or under a chair is one thing, but a knife surrounded by the blank white wasteland of a ceiling has no shred of covering - is as naked and blatant as a pig in a cathedral.

       But any subject was fruitful to the doctor. It was only a lack of material. a rare enough contingency in him, that he found appalling.

       'That knife, your ladyship,' he said, giving the implement a glance of the deepest respect. 'bread-knife though it be, has a history. A history, madam! It has indeed.'

       He turned his eyes to his guest. She waited impassively.

       'Humble, unromantic, ill-proportioned, crude as it looks, yet it means much to me. Indeed, madam, it is so, and I am no sentimentalist. And why? you will be asking yourself. Why? Let me tell you all.'

       He clasped his hands together and raised his narrow and elegant shoulders. 'It was with that knife, your ladyship, that I performed my first successful operation. I was among mountains. Huge tufted things. Full of character; but no charm. I was alone with my faithful mule. We were lost. A meteor flew overhead. What use was that to us? No use at all. It merely irritated us. For a moment it showed a track through the fever-dripping ferns. It was obviously the wrong one. It would only have taken us back to a morass we had just spent half a day struggling out of. What a sentence! What a vile sentence, your Ladyship, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Where was I? Ah, yes! Plunged in darkness. Miles from anywhere. What happened next? The strangest thing. Prodding my mule forward with my walking-cane - I was riding the brute at the time - it suddenly gave a cry like a child and began to collapse under me. As it subsided it turned its huge hairy head and what little light there was showed me its eyes were positively imploring me to free it from some agony or other. Now agony is an agonizing thing to happen to anyone, your Ladyship, but to locate the seat of the agony in a mule in the darkness of a mountainous and fever-dripping night is - er... not easy (Lytotis), ha, ha, ha! But 'do' something I must. It was already upon its side in the darkness - the great thing. I had leapt from its collapsing spine and at once my faculties began to do their damndest. The brute's eyes, still fixed on mine, were like lamps that were running out of oil. I put a couple of questions to myself - pertinent ones, I felt at the time - and still do; and the first was: IS the agony spiritual or physical? If the former, the darkness wouldn't matter, but the treatment would be tricky. If the latter, the darkness would be hell: but the problem was in my province - or very nearly. I plumped for the latter, and more by good fortune or that curious sixth sense one has when alone with a mule, among tufted mountains, I found almost at once it to have been a happy guess: for directly I had decided to work on a carnal basis I got hold of the mule's head, heaved it up, and swivelled it to such an angle that by the glow of its eyes I was able to illumine - faintly, of course, but to illumine, none the less - with a dull glow, the 'rest' of its body. At once I was rewarded. It was a pure case of "foreign body". Coiled - I couldn't tell you how many times - round the beast's hind leg, was a python! Even at that ghastly and critical moment I could see what a beautiful thing it was. Far more beautiful than my old brute of a mule. But did it enter my head that 1 should transfer my allegiance to the reptile? No. After all, there is such a thing as loyalty as well as beauty. Besides, I hate walking, and the python would have taken some riding, your Ladyship: the very saddling would tax a man's patience. And besides...'

       The doctor glanced at his guest and immediately wished he hadn't. Taking out his silk handkerchief, he wiped his brow. Then he flashed his teeth, and with somewhat less ebullience in his voice... 'It was then that I thought of my bread-knife,' he added.

       For a moment there was silence. And then, as the doctor filled his lungs and was ready to continue - 'How old are you?' said the Countess. But before Doctor Prunesquallor could readjust himself there was a knock at the door and the servant entered with a goat.

       'Wrong sex, you idiot!' As the Countess spoke she rose heavily from her chair and, approaching the goat, she fondled its head with her big hands. It strained towards her on the rope leash and licked her arm.

       'You amaze me,' said the doctor to the servant. 'No wonder you cook badly.

       Away, my man, away! Unearth yet another, and get the gender right, for the love of mammals! Sometimes one wonders what kind of a world one is living in - by all things fundamental, one really does.'

       The servant disappeared.

       'Prunesquallor,' said the Countess, who had moved to the window and was staring out across the quadrangle.

       'Madam?' queried the doctor.

       'I am not easy in my heart, Prunesquallor.'

       'Your heart, madam?'

       'My heart and my mind.'

       She returned to her chair, where she seated herself again and laid her arms along the padded sides as before.

       'In what way, your Ladyship?' Prunesquallor's voice had lost its facetious vapidity.

       'There is mischief in the castle,' she replied. 'Where it is I do not know. But there is mischief.' She stared at the doctor.

       'Mischief?' he said at last. 'Some influence, do you mean - some bad influence, madam?'

       'I do not know for sure. But something has changed. My bones know it.

       There is someone.'

       'Someone?'

       'An enemy. Whether ghost or human I do not know. But an enemy. Do you understand?'

       'I understand,' said the doctor. Every vestige of his waggery had disappeared. He leaned forward. 'It is not a ghost,' he said. 'Ghosts have no itch for rebellion.'

       'Rebellion!' said the Countess loudly. 'By whom?'

       'I do not know. But what else can it be you sense, as you say, in your bones, madam?'

       'Who would 'dare' to rebel?' she whispered, as though to herself. 'Who would dare?...' And then, after a pause: 'Have you 'your' suspicions?'

       'I have no proof. But I will watch for you. For, by the holy angels, since you have brought the matter up there is evil abroad and no mistake.'

'Worse,' she replied, 'worse than that. There is perfidy.'

       She drew a deep breath and then, very, slowly: '... and I will crush its life out: I will break it: not only for Titus' sake and for his dead father's, but more - for Gormenghast.'

       'You speak of your late husband, madam, the revered Lord Sepulchrave. Where are his remains, madam, if he is truly dead?'

       'And more than that, man, more than that! What of the fire that warped his brilliant brain? What of that fire in which, but for that youth Steerpike...'

       She lapsed into a thick silence.

       'And what of the suicide of his sisters; and the disappearance of the chef on the same night as his Lordship your husband - and all within a year, or little more: and since then a hundred irregularities and strange affairs? What lies at the back of all this? By all that's visionary, madam, your heart has reason to be uneasy.'


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