Peake, Mervyn - 02 Gormenghast

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02 Gormenghast
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       '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.'

       'And there is Titus,' said the Countess.

       'There is Titus,' the doctor repeated as quick as an echo.

       'How old is he now?'

       'He is nearly eight,' Prunesquallor raised his eyebrows. 'Have you not seen him?'

       'From my window,' said the Countess, 'when he rides along the South Wall.'

       'You should be with him, your Ladyship, now and then,' said the doctor. 'By all that's maternal, you really should see more of your son.'

       The Countess stared at the doctor, but what she might have replied was stunned for ever by a rap at the door and the reappearance of the servant with a nannygoat.

       'Let her go!' said the Countess.

       The little white goat ran to her as though she were a magnet. She turned to Prunesquallor. 'Have you a jug?'

       The doctor turned his head to the door. 'Fetch a jug,' he said to the disappearing face.

       'Prunesquallor,' she said, as she knelt down, a prodigious bulk in the lamplight, and stroked the sleek ears of the goat, 'I will not ask you on whom your suspicions lie. No. Not yet. But I expect you to watch, Prunesquallor - to watch everything, as I do. You must be all aware, Prunesquallor, every moment of the day. I expect to be informed of heterodoxy, wherever it may be found. I have a kind of faith in you, man. A kind of faith in you. I don't know why...' she added.

       'Madam,' said Prunesquallor, 'I will be on tip-toe.'

       The servant came in with a jug, and retired.

       The elegant curtains fluttered a little in the night air. The light of the lamp was golden in the room, glimmering on the porcelain bowls, on the squat cut-glass vases and the tall cloisonné ware: on the vellum backs of books and the glazed drawings that hung upon the walls. But its light was reflected most vividly from the countless small white faces of the motionless cats. Their whiteness blanched the room and chilled the mellow light. It was a scene that Prunesquallor never forgot. The Countess on her knees by the dying fire: the goat standing quietly while she milked it with an authority in the deft movement of her fingers that affected him strangely. Was this heavy, brusque, uncompromising Countess, whose maternal instincts were so shockingly absent: who had not spoken to Titus for a year: who was held in awe, and even in fear, by the populace: who was more a legend than a woman - was this indeed 'she', with the half-smile of extraordinary tenderness on her wide lips?

       And then he remembered her voice again, when she had whispered: 'Who would dare to rebel? Who would 'dare'?' and then the full, ruthless organ-chord of her throat: 'And I will crush its life out! I will break it! Not only for Titus' sake...'

EIGHT

Cora and Clarice, although they did not know it, were imprisoned in their apartments. Steerpike had nailed and bolted from the outside all their means of exit. They had been incarcerated for two years, their tongues having loosened to the brink of Steerpike's undoing. Cunning and patient as he was with them, the young man could find no other foolproof way of ensuring their permanent silence on the subject of the library fire. No other way - but one. They believed that they alone among the inhabitants of the castle were free of a hideous disease of Steerpike's invention, and which he referred to as 'Weasel plague'.

       The twins were like water. He could turn on or off at will the taps of their terror. They were pathetically grateful that through his superior wisdom they were able to remain in relative health. If a flat refusal to die in the face of a hundred reasons why they should, could be called health. They were obsessed by the fear of coming into contact with the carriers. He brought them daily news of the dead and dying.

       Their quarters were no longer those spacious apartments where Steerpike first paid them his respects seven years ago. Far from them having a Room of Roots and a great tree leaning over space hundreds of feet above the earth, they were now on the ground level in an obscure precinct of the castle, a dead end, a promontory of dank stone, removed from even the less frequented routes. Not only was there no way through it, but it was shunned also for reason of its evil reputation. Unhealthy with noxious moisture, its very breath was double pneumonia.

       Ironically enough, it was in such a place as this that the aunts rejoiced in the erroneous belief that they alone could escape the virulent and ghastly disease that was in their imaginations prostrating Gormenghast. They had by now become so self-centred under Steerpike's guidance as to be looking forward to the day when they, as sole survivors, would be able (after due precautions) to pace forth and be at last, after all these long years of frustration, the unopposed claimants to the Groan crown, that massive and lofty symbol of sovereignty, with its central sapphire the size of a hen's egg.

       It was one of their hottest topics: whether the crown should be sawn in half and the sapphire split, so that they could always be wearing at least part of it, or whether it should be left intact and they should wear it on alternate days.

       Hot and contested though this subject was, it stirred no visible animation. Not even their lips were seen to move, for they had acquired the habit of keeping them slightly parted and projecting their toneless voices without a tremor of the mouth. But for most of the time their long, solitary days were passed in silence. Steerpike's spasmodic appearances - and they had become less and less frequent - were, apart from their wild, bizarre and paranoiac glimpses of a future of thrones and crowns, their sole excitement.

       How was it that their Ladyships Cora and Clarice could be hidden away in this manner and the iniquity condoned?

       It was not condoned; for two years previously they had been as far as Gormenghast was concerned buried with a wealth of symbolism in the tombs of the Groans, a couple of wax replicas having been modelled by Steerpike for the dread occasion. A week before these effigies were lowered into the sarcophagus, a letter, as from the twins, but in reality forged by the youth, had been discovered in their apartments. It divulged the dreadful information that the sisters of the seventy-sixth Earl, who had himself disappeared from the castle without a trace, bent upon their self-destruction, had stolen by night from the castle grounds to make an end of themselves among the ravines of Gormenghast mountain.

       Search parties, organized by Steerpike, had found no trace.

       On the night previous to the discovery of the note, Steerpike had conveyed the Twins to the rooms which they now occupied, upon some pretext connected with an inspection of a couple of sceptres he had found and regilded.

       All this seemed a long time ago. Titus had been a mere infant. Flay but lately banished. Sepulchrave and Swelter had melted into air. Like teeth missing from the jaw of Gormenghast, the disappearance of the Twins, added to those others, gave to the Castle for a time an unfamiliar visage and an aching bone. To some extent the wounds had healed and the change of face had been accepted. Titus was, after all alive and well - and the continuation of the Family assured.

       The Twins were sitting in their room, after a day of more than usual silence. A lamp, set on an iron table (it burnt all day), gave them sufficient light to do their embroidery; but for some while neither of them applied herself to her work.

       'What a long time life takes!' said Clarice at last. 'Sometimes I think it's hardly worthy encroaching on.'

       'I don't know anything about 'encroaching'.' replied Cora; 'but since you have spoken I might as well tell you that you've forgotten something, as usual.'

       'What have I forgotten?'

       'You've forgotten that I did it yesterday and it is your turn today – thus.'

       'My turn to what?'

       'To 'comfort' me,' said Cora, looking hard at a leg of the iron table. 'You can go on doing it until half-past seven, and then it will be your turn to be depressed.'

       'Very well: said Clarice: and she began at once to stroke her sister's arm. 'No, no, no!' said Cora, 'don't be so obvious. Do things without any mention· -like getting tea, for instance, and laying it quietly before me: 'All right,' answered Clarice, rather sullenly. 'But you've spoilt it now - haven't you? Telling me what to do. It won't be so thoughtful of me, will it? But perhaps I could get coffee instead.'

       'Never mind all that, ' Cora replied, 'you talk too much. I don't want to suddenly find it's your turn.'

       'What! For 'my' depression?'

       'Yes, yes,' her sister said irritably: and she scratched the back of her round head.

       'Not that I think you deserve one.'

       Their conversation was disturbed, for a curtain parted behind them and Steerpike approached, a sword-stick in his hand.

       The Twins rose together and faced him, their shoulders touching.

       'How are my lovebirds?' he said. He lifted his slender stick and, with ghastly, impudence, tickled their ladyships' ribs with its narrow ferruled end. No expression appeared on their faces, but they went through the slow, wriggling motions of Eastern dancers. A clock chimed from above the mantelpiece, and as it ceased the monotonous sound of the rain appeared to redouble its volume. The light had become very bad.

       'You haven't been here for a long while,' said Cora.

       'How true,' said Steerpike.

       'Had you forgotten us?'

       'Not a bit of it,' he said, 'not a bit of it.'

       'What happened, then?' asked Clarice.

       'Sit down!' said Steerpike harshly, 'and listen to me.' He stared them out of countenance until their heads dropped, abashed, and they found themselves staring at their own clavicles. 'Do you think it is easy for me to keep the plague from your door and to be at your beck and call at the same time? Do you?'

       They shook their heads slowly like pendulums.

       'Then have the grace not to interrogate me!' he cried in mock anger. 'How dare you snap at the hand that feeds you! How dare you!'

       The Twins, acting together, rose from their chairs and started moving across the room. They paused a moment and turned their eyes to Steerpike in order to make sure that they were doing what was expected of them. Yes. The stern finger of the young man was pointing to the heavy damp carpet that covered the floor of the room.

       Steerpike derived as much pleasure in watching these anile and pitiful creatures, dressed in their purple finery, as they crawled beneath the carpet as he got from anything. He had led them gradually, and by easy and cunning steps, from humiliation to humiliation, until the distorted satisfaction he experienced in this way had become little short of a necessity to him. Were it not that he found this grotesque pleasure in the exercise of his power over them, it is to be doubted whether he would have gone to all the trouble which was involved in keeping them alive.

       As he stared at the twin hummocks under the carpet he did not realize that something very peculiar and unprecedented was happening. Cora, in her warren-like seclusion, crouched in the ignominious darkness, had conceived an idea. Where it came from she did not trouble to inquire of herself, nor why it should have come, for Steerpike, their benefactor, was a kind of god to her, as he was to Clarice. But the idea had suddenly flowered in her brain unbidden. It was that she would very much like to kill him. Directly she had conceived the idea she felt frightened, and her fear was hardly lessened by a flat voice in the darkness saying with empty deliberation: 'So... would... I. We could do it together. couldn't we? We could do it together.'

NINE

There was an all but forgotten landing high in the southern wing, a landing taken over for many a decade by succeeding generations of dove-grey mice, peculiarly small creatures, little larger than the joint of a finger and indigenous to this southern wing, for they were never seen elsewhere.

       In years gone by this unfrequented stretch of floor, walled off on one side with high banisters, must have been of lively interest to some person or persons; for though the colours had to a large extent faded, yet the floor-boards must once have been a deep and glowing crimson, and the three walls the most brilliant of yellows. The banisters were alternately apple-green and azure, the frames of the doorless doorways being also this last colour. The corridors that led away in dwindling perspective, continued the crimson of the floor and the yellow of the walls, but were cast in a deep shade.

       The balcony banisters were on the southern side, and, in the sloping roof above them, a window let in the light and, sometimes, the sun itself, whose beams made of this silent, forgotten landing a cosmos, a firmament of moving motes, brilliantly illumined, an astral and at the same time a solar province; for the sun would come through with its long rays and the rays would be dancing with stars. Where the sunbeams struck, the floor would flower like a rose, a wall break out in crocus-light, and the banisters would flame like rings of coloured snakes.

       But even on the most cloudless of summer days, with the sunlight striking through, the colours had in their brilliance the pigment of decay. It was a red that had lost its flame that smouldered from the floor-boards.

       And across this old circus-ground of bygone colours the families of the grey mice moved.

       When Titus first came upon the coloured banisters of the staircase it was at a point two floors below the yellow-walled balcony. He had been exploring on that lower floor, and finding himself lost he had taken fright, for room after room was cavernous with shadow or vacant and afloat with sunlight that lit the dust on the wide floors - somehow more frightening to the child in its golden dereliction than the deepest shadow's. Had he not clenched his hands he would have screamed, for the very lack of ghosts in the deserted halls and chambers was in itself unnerving; for there was a sense that something had either just left each corridor, or each hall as he came upon it, or else that the stages were set and ready for its appearance.

       It was with his imagination dilated and his heart hammering aloud that Titus, suddenly turning a corner, came upon a section of the staircase two floors below the haunt of the grey mice.


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