Peake, Mervyn - 02 Gormenghast

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02 Gormenghast
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       Directly Titus saw the stairway he ran to it, as though every banister were a friend. Even in the access of his relief, and even while the hollow echo of his footsteps was in his ears, his eyes widened at the apple-green - the azure of the banisters, each one a tall plinth of defiance. Only the rail which these bright things supported was hueless, being of a smooth, hand-worn ivory whiteness. Titus gripped the banisters and then peered through them and downward. There seemed little life in the fathoms beneath him. A bird flew slowly past a far landing; a section of plaster fell from a shadowy wall three floors below the bird, but that was all.

       Titus glanced above him and saw how close he stood to the head of the stairway. Anxious as he was to escape from the atmosphere of these upper regions, yet he could not resist running to the top of the stairs, where he could see the colours burning. The small grey mice squeaked and scampered away down the passageways or into their holes. A few remained against the walls and watched Titus for a short while before returning to their sleeping or nibbling.

       The atmosphere was indescribably golden and friendly to the boy: so friendly that his proximity to the hollow room below him did little to disturb his delight. He sat down, his back against a yellow wall, and watched the white motes manoeuvring in the long sunbeams.

       'This is 'mine! mine'!' he said aloud. 'I found it.'

TEN

Through the vile subterranean light that filled the Professors' Common-room three figures appeared to float as the brown billows shifted. Tobacco smoke had made of the place a kind of umber tomb. These three were the vanguard of a daily foregathering, as sacrosanct and inevitable as the elm-top meeting place of rooks in March. But how much less healthy! A foregathering of the Professors, for it was eleven O' clock and the short recreation had begun.

       Their pupils - the sparrows, as it were - of Gormenghast were racing to the vast red-sandstone yard - a yard surrounded on all sides by high ivy-covered walls of the same stone. Innumerable knife blades had snapped upon its harsh surface, for there must surely be a thousand spidery initials scored into the stone! A hundred painfully incised valedictions and observations whose significance had long since lost its edges. Deeper incisions into the red stone had mapped out patterns for some or other game of local invention. Many a boy had sobbed against these walls; many a knuckle been bruised as a head flicked sideways from the blow. Many a child had fought his way back into the open yard with bloody mouth, and a thousand swaying pyramids of boys had tottered and collapsed as the topmost clung to the ivy.

       The yard was approached by a tunnel which commenced immediately beneath the long south classroom, where steps led down through a trapdoor. The tunnel, old and thick with ferns, was at this moment echoing barbarically to the cat-calls of a horde of boys as they made pell-mell for the red-stone yard, their immemorial playground.

       But in the Professors' Common-room the three gentlemen were finding relaxation through an abatement rather than an increase of energy.

       To enter the room from the Professors' corridor was to suffer an extraordinary change of atmosphere, no less sudden than if a swimmer in clear white water were suddenly to find himself struggling to keep afloat in a bay of soup. Not only was the air fuscous with a mixture of smells, including stale tobacco, dry chalk, rotten wood, ink, alcohol and, above all, imperfectly cured leather, but the general colour of the room was a transcription of the smells, for the walls were of horsehide, the dreariest of browns, relieved only by the scattered and dully twinkling heads of drawing-pins.

       On the right of the door hung the black gowns of office in various stages of decomposition.

       Of the three Professors, the first to have reached the room that morning in order to establish himself securely in the only arm-chair (it was his habit to leave the class he was teaching - or pretending to teach - at least twenty minutes before its official conclusion, in order to be certain that the chair was free) was Opus Fluke. He lay rather than sat in what was known among the staff as 'Fluke's Cradle'. Indeed he had worn that piece of furniture - or symbol of bone-laziness - into such a shape as made the descent of any other body than his own into that crater of undulating horsehair a hazardous enterprise.

       Those daily indulgences before the mid-morning break and their renewal before the dinner-bell were much prized by Mr Opus Fluke, who during these periods augmented the pall of tobacco smoke already obscuring the ceiling of the Common-room with enough of his own exhaling to argue not only that the floor-boards were alight, but also that the core of the conflagration was Mr Fluke himself, lying, as he was, at an angle of five degrees with the floor, in a position that might, in any case, argue asphyxiation. But there was nothing on fire except the tobacco in his pipe and as he lay supine, the white wreaths billowing from his wide, muscular and lipless mouth (rather like the mouth of a huge and friendly lizard), he evinced so brutal a disregard for his own and other people's windpipes as made one wonder how this man could share the selfsame world with hyacinths and damsels.

       His head was well back. His long, bulging chin pointed to the ceiling like a loaf of bread. His eyes followed lugubriously the wavering ascent of a fresh smoke-ring until it was absorbed into the upper billows. There was a kind of ripeness in his indolence, in his dreadful equability.

       Of Opus Fluke's two companions in the Common-room the younger, Perch-Prism, was squatting jauntily on the edge of a long ink-stained table. This ancient span of furniture was littered with textbooks, blue pencils, pipes filled to various depths with white ash and dottle, pieces of chalk, a sock, several bottles of ink, a bamboo walking-cane, a pool of white glue, a chart of the solar system, burned away over a large portion of its surface through some past accident with a bottle of acid, a stuffed cormorant with tin-tacks through its feet, which had no effect in keeping the bird upright; a faded globe, with the words ''Cane Slypate Thursday'' scrawled in yellow chalk across it from just below the equator to well into the Arctic Circle; any number of lists, notices, instructions; a novel called ''The Amazing Adventures of Cupid Catt'', and at least a dozen high ragged pagodas of buff-coloured copybooks.

       Perch-Prism had cleared a small space at the far end of this table, and there he squatted, his arms folded. He was a smallish, plumpish man, with self-assertion redolent in every movement he made, every word he uttered. His nose was pig-like, his eyes button-black and horribly alert, with enough rings about them to lasso and strangle at birth any idea that he was under fifty. But his nose, which appeared to be no more than a few hours of age, did a great deal in its own porcine way to offset the effect of the rings around the eyes, and to give Perch-Prism, on the balance, an air of youth.

       Opus Fluke in his favourite chair: Perch-Prism perched on the table's edge: but the third of these gentlemen in the Common-room, in contrast to his colleagues, appeared to have something to do. Gazing into a small shaving-mirror on the mantelpiece, with his head on one side to catch what light could force its way through the smoke, Bellgrove was examining his teeth.

       He was a fine-looking man in his way. Big of head, his brow and the bridge of his nose descended in a single line of undeniable nobility. His jaw was as long as his brow and nose together and lay exactly parallel in profile to those features. With his leonine shock of snow-white hair there was something of the major prophet about him. But his eyes were disappointing. They made no effort to bear out the promise of the other features, which would have formed the ideal setting for the kind of eye that flashes with visionary fire. Mr Bellgrove's eyes didn't flash at all. They were rather small, a dreary grey-green in colour, and were quite expressionless. Having seen them it was difficult not to bear a grudge against his splendid profile as something fraudulent. His teeth were both carious and uneven and were his worst feature.

With great rapidity Perch-Prism stretched out his arms and legs simultaneously and then withdrew them. At the same time he closed his bright black eyes and yawned as widely as his small, rather prim mouth could manage. Then he clapped his hands beside him on the table, as much as to say: 'One can't sit here dreaming all day!' Puckering his brow, he took out a small, elegant and well-kept pipe (he had long since discovered it as his only defence against the smoke of others) and filled it with quick, deft fingers.

       He half-closed his eyes as he lit up, his pig-like nose catching the flare of the light on its underside. With his black and cerebral eyes hidden for a moment behind his eyelids, he was less like a man than a ravaged suckling.

       He drew quickly three or four times at his pipe. Then, after removing it from his neat little mouth - ''Must you'?' he said, his eyebrows raised.

       Opus Fluke, lying along his chair like a stretcher-case, moved nothing except his lazy eyes, which he turned slowly until they were semi-focusing bemusedly upon Perch-Prism's interrogatory face. But he saw that Perch-Prism had evidently addressed himself to someone else, and Mr Fluke, rolling his eyes languidly back, was able to obtain an indistinct view of Bellgrove behind him. That august gentleman, who had been examining his teeth with such minute care, frowned magnificently and turned his head.

       'Must I 'what'? Explain yourself, dear boy. If there's anything I abominate it's sentences of two words. You talk like a fall of crockery, dear boy.'

       'You're a damned old pedant, Bellgrove, and much overdue for burial,' said Perch-Prism, 'and as quick off the mark as a pregnant turtle. For pity's sake stop playing with your teeth!'

       Opus Fluke in his battered chair, dropped his eyes and, by parting his long leather-lipped mouth in a slight upward curve, might have been supposed to be registering a certain sardonic amusement had not a formidable volume of smoke arisen from his lungs and lifted itself out of his mouth and into the air in the shape of a snow-white elm.

       Bellgrove turned his back to the mirror and lost sight of himself and his troublesome teeth.

       'Perch-Prism,' he said, 'you're an insufferable upstart. What the hell have my teeth got to do with you? Be good enough to leave them to me, sir.'

       'Gladly,' said Perch-Prism.

       'I happen to be in pain, my dear fellow.' There was something weaker in Bellgrove's tone.

       'You're a hoarder,' said Perch-Prism. 'You cling to bygone things. They don't suit you, anyway. Get them extracted.'

       Bellgrove rose into the ponderous prophet category once more. 'Never!' he cried, but ruined the majesty of his utterance by clasping at his jaw and moaning pathetically.

       'I've no sympathy at all,' said Perch-Prism, swinging his legs. 'You're a stupid old man, and if you were in my class 1 would cane you twice a day until you had conquered (one) your crass neglect, (two) your morbid grasp upon putrefaction. I have no sympathy with you: This time as Opus Fluke threw out his acrid cloud there was an unmistakable grin.

       'Poor old bloody Bellgrove,' he said. 'Poor old Fangs!' And then he began to laugh in a peculiar way of his own which was both violent and soundless. His heavy reclining body, draped in its black gown, heaved to and fro. His knees drew themselves up to his chin. His arms dangled over the sides of the chair and were helpless. His head rolled from side to side. It was as though he were in the last stages of strychnine poisoning. But no sound came, nor did his mouth even open. Gradually the spasm grew weaker, and when the natural sand colour of his face had returned (for his corked-up laughter had turned it dark red) he began his smoking again in earnest.

       Bellgrove took a dignified and ponderous step into the centre of the room. 'So I am "Bloody Bellgrove" to you, am I, Mr Fluke? That is what you think of me, is it? That is how your crude thoughts run. Aha!... aha!...' (His attempt to sound as though he were musing philosophically upon Fluke's character was a pathetic failure. He shook his venerable head.) 'What a coarse type you are, my friend. You are like an animal - or even a vegetable. Perhaps you have forgotten that as long as fifteen years ago I was considered for Headship. Yes, Mr Fluke, '"considered"'. It was then, I believe, that the tragic mistake was made of your appointment to the staff. H'm... Since then you have been a disgrace, sir - a disgrace for fifteen years - a disgrace to our calling. As for me, unworthy as I am, yet I would have you know that I have more experience behind me than I would care to mention. You're a slacker, sir, a damned slacker! And by your lack of respect for an old scholar you only...'

       But a fresh twinge of pain caused Bellgrove to grab at his jaw. 'Oh, my 'teeth!'' he moaned.

       During this harangue Mr Opus Fluke's mind had wandered. Had he been asked he would have been unable to repeat a single word of what had been addressed to him.

       But Perch-Prism's voice cut a path through the thick of his reverie.

       'My dear Fluke,' it said, 'did you, or didn't you, on one of those rare occasions when you saw fit to put in an appearance in a classroom - on this occasion with the gamma Fifth, I believe - refer to me as a "bladder-headed cock"? It has come to my hearing that you referred to me as exactly that. Do tell me: it sounds so like you.'

       Opus Fluke stroked his long, bulging chin with his hand.

       'Probably,' he said at last, but I wouldn't know. I never listen.' The extraordinary paroxysm began again - the heaving, rolling, helpless, noiseless body-laughter.

       'A convenient memory,' said Perch-Prism, with a trace of irritability in his clipped, incisive voice. 'But what's that?'

       He had heard something in the corridor outside. It was like the high, thin, mewing note of a gull. Opus Fluke raised himself on one elbow. The high-pitched noise grew louder. All at once the door was flung open from without and there before them, framed in the doorway, was the Headmaster.

ELEVEN

If ever there was a primogenital figure-head or cipher, that archetype had been resurrected in the shape of Deadyawn. He was pure symbol. By comparison, even Mr Fluke was a busy man. It was thought that he had genius, if only because he had been able to delegate his duties in so intricate a way that there was never any need for him to do anything at all. His signature, which was necessary from time to time at the end of long notices which no one read, was always faked, and even the ingenious system of delegation whereon his greatness rested was itself worked out by another.

       Entering the room immediately behind the Head a tiny freckled man was seen to be propelling Deadyawn forward in a high rickety chair, with wheels attached to its legs. This piece of furniture, which had rather the proportions of an infant's high chair, and was similarly fitted with a tray above which Deadyawn's head could partially be seen, gave fair warning to the scholars and staff of its approach, being in sore need of lubrication. Its wheels screamed.


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