Peake, Mervyn - 02 Gormenghast

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02 Gormenghast
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Gormenghast

The Second in the Gormenghast Trilogy

Mervyn Peake

First published in 1946

ONE

I

Titus is seven. His confines, Gormenghast. Suckled on shadows; weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes, a labyrinth of stone: and yet within his body something other - other than this umbrageous legacy. For first and ever foremost he is 'child.'

       A ritual, more compelling than ever man devised, is fighting anchored darkness. A ritual of the blood; of the jumping blood. These quicks of sentience owe nothing to his forbears, but to those feckless hosts, a trillion deep, of the globe's childhood.

       The gift of the bright blood. Of blood that laughs when the tenets mutter 'Weep'. Of blood that mourns when the sere laws croak 'Rejoice! O little revolution in great shades!

       Titus the seventy-seventh. Heir to a crumbling summit: to a sea of nettles: to an empire of red rust: to rituals' footprints ankle-deep in stone.

       Gormenghast.

       Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracts. Is all corroding? No. Through an avenue of spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet bears away from a choked river. Deep in a fist of stone a doll's hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm. A shadow shifts its length. A spider stirs...

       'And darkness winds between the characters.'

II

Who are the characters? And what has he learned of them and of his home since that far day when he was born to the Countess of Groan in a room alive with birds?

       He has learned an alphabet of arch and aisle: the language of dim stairs and moth-hung rafters. Great halls are his dim playgrounds: his fields are quadrangles his trees are pillars.

       And he has learned that there are always eyes. Eyes that watch. Feet that follow, and hands to hold him when he struggles, to lift him when he falls. Upon his feet again he stares unsmiling. Tall figures bow. Some in jewellery; some in rags.

       The characters.

       The quick and the dead. The shapes, the voices that throng his mind, for there are days when the living have no substance and the dead are active.

       Who are these dead - these victims of violence who no longer influence the tenor of Gormenghast save by a deathless repercussion? For ripples are still widening in dark rings and a movement runs over the gooseflesh waters though the drowned stones lie still. The characters who are but names to Titus, though one of them his father, and all of them alive when he was born. Who are they? For the child will hear of them.

III

Let them appear for a quick, earthless moment, as ghosts, separate, dissimilar and complete. They are even now moving, as before death, on their own ground. Is Time's cold scroll recoiling on itself until the dead years speak, or is it in the throb of 'now' that the spectres wake and wander through the walls?

       There was a library and it is ashes. Let its long length assemble. Than its stone walls its paper walls are thicker; armoured with learning, with philosophy, with poetry that drifts or dances clamped though it is in midnight. Shielded with flax and calfskin and a cold weight of ink, there broods the ghost of Sepulchrave, the melancholy Earl, seventy-sixth lord of half-light.

       It is five years ago. Witless of how his death by owls approaches he mourns through each languid gesture, each fine-stoned feature, as though his body were glass and at its centre a converted heart like a pendant tear.

       His every breath a kind of ebb that leaves him further from himself, he floats rather than steers to the island of the mad - beyond all trade-routes, in a doldrum sea, its high crags burning.

Of how he died Titus has no idea. For as yet he has not so much as seen, let alone spoken to the long Man of the Woods, Flay, who was his father's servant and the only witness of Sepulchrave's death when, climbing demented into the Tower of Flints, the Earl gave himself up to the hunger of the owls.

       Flay, the cadaverous and taciturn, his knee joints reporting his progress at every spider-like step, he alone among these marshalled ghosts is still alive, though banished from the castle. But so inextricably has Flay been woven into the skein of the castle's central life, that if ever a man was destined to fill in the gap of his own absence with his own ghost it is he.

       For excommunication is a kind of death, and it is a different man who moves in the woods from the Earl's first servant of seven years ago. Simultaneously, then, as ragged and bearded he lays his rabbit snares in a gully of ferns, his ghost is sitting in the high corridor, beardless, and long ago, outside his master's door. How can he know that it will not be long before he adds, by his own hand, a name to the roll of the murdered? All that he knows is that his life is in immediate peril: that he is crying with every nerve in his long, tense, awkward body for an end to this insufferable rivalry, hatred and apprehension. And he knows that this cannot be unless either he or the gross and pendulous horror in question be destroyed.

And so it happened. The pendulous horror, the chef of Gormenghast, floating like a moon-bathed sea-cow, a long sword bristling like a mast from his huge breast, had been struck down but an hour before the death of the earl. And here he comes again in a province he has made peculiarly his own in soft and ruthless ways. Of all ponderous volumes, surely the most illusory, if there's no weight or substance in a ghost, is Abiatha Swelter, who wades in a slug-like illness of fat through the humid ground mists of the Great Kitchen. From hazy progs and flesh-pots half afloat, from bowls as big as baths, there rises and drifts like a miasmic tide the all but palpable odour of the day's belly-timber. Sailing, his canvas stretched and spread, through the hot mists the ghost of Swelter is still further rarefied by the veiling fumes; he has become the ghost of a ghost, only his swede-like head retaining the solidity of nature. The arrogance of this fat head exudes itself like an evil sweat.

       Vicious and vain as it is, the enormous ghost retreats a step to make way for the phantom Sourdust on a tour of inspection. Master of Ritual, perhaps the most indispensable figure of all, corner-stone and guardian of the Groan law, his weak and horny hands are working at the knots of his tangled beard. As he shambles forward, the red rags of his office fall about his bleak old body in dirty festoons. He is in the worst of health, even for a ghost, coughing incessantly in a dry, horrible manner, the black-and-white strands of his beard jerking to and fro. Theoretically he is rejoicing that in Titus an heir has been born to the House, but his responsibilities have become too heavy to allow him any lightness of heart, even supposing he could ever have lured into that stuttering organ so trivial a sensation. Shuffling from ceremony to ceremony, his sere head raised against its natural desire to drop forward on his chest and covered with as many pits and fissures as a cracked cheese, he personifies the ancientry of his high office.

       It was for his real body to die in the same fated library which now, in spectre form, is housing the wraith of Sepulchrave. As the old master of Ritual moves away and fades through the feverish air of Swelter's kitchen, he cannot foresee or remember (for who can tell in which direction the minds of phantoms move?) that filled to his wrinkled mouth with acrid smoke he shall die, or has already died, by fire and suffocation, the great flames licking at his wrinkled hide with red and golden tongues.

       He cannot know that Steerpike burned him up: that his lordship's sisters, Cora and Clarice, lit the fuse, and that from that hour on, his overlord, the sacrosanct earl, should find the road to lunacy so clear before him.

And lastly, Keda, Titus' foster-mother, moving quietly along a dappled corridor of light and pearl-grey shadow. That she should be a ghost seems natural, for even when alive there was something intangible, distant and occult about her. To have died leaping into a great well of twilight air was pitiless enough, but less horrible than the last moments of the Earl, the chef and the decrepit master of ritual - and a swifter ending to life's gall than the banishment of the long man of the woods. As in those days, before she fled from the castle to her death, she is caring for Titus as though all the mothers who have ever lived advise her through her blood. Dark, almost lambent like a topaz, she is still young, her sole disfigurement the universal bane of the Outer Dwellers, the premature erosion of an exceptional beauty - a deterioration that follows with merciless speed upon an adolescence almost spectral. She alone among these fate-struck figures is of that poverty-stricken and intolerable realm of the ostracized, whose drear cantonment, like a growth of mud and limpets, clamps itself to Gormenghast's outer wall.

The sun's rays searing a skein of cloud, burn with unhampered radiance through a hundred windows of the Southern walls. It is a light too violent for ghosts, and Keda, Sourdust, Flay, Swelter and Sepulchrave dissolve in sunbeams.

These, then, in thumbnail, the Lost Characters. The initial few, who, dying, deserted the hub of the castle's life before Titus was three. The future hung on their activities. Titus himself is meaningless without them, for in his infancy he fed on foot-steps, on the patterns that figures made against high ceilings, their hazy outlines, their slow or rapid movements, their varying odours and voices.

       Nothing that stirs but has its repercussions, and it may well be that Titus will hear the echoes, when a man, of what was whispered then. For it was no static assembly of personalities into which Titus was launched - no mere pattern, but an arabesque in motion whose thoughts were actions, or if not, hung like bats from an attic rafter or veered between towers on leaf-like wings.

TWO

What of the living?

       His mother, half asleep and half aware: with the awareness of anger, the detachment of trance. She saw him seven times in seven years. Then she forgot the halls that harboured him. But now she watches him from hidden windows. Her love for him is as heavy and as formless as loam. A furlong of white cats trails after her. A bullfinch has a nest in her red hair. She is the Countess Gertrude of huge clay.

       Less formidable, yet sullen as her mother and as incalculable, is Titus' sister. Sensitive as was her father without his intellect, Fuchsia tosses her black flag of hair, bites at her childish under-lip, scowls, laughs, broods, is tender, is intemperate, suspicious, and credulous all in a day. Her crimson dress inflames grey corridors, or flaring in a sunshaft through high branches makes of the deep green shadows a greenness darker yet, and a darkness greener.

Who else is there of the direct blood-line? Only the vacant Aunts, Cora and Clarice, the identical twins and sisters of Sepulchrave. So limp of brain that for them to conceive an idea is to risk a haemorrhage. So limp of body that their purple dresses appear no more indicative of housing nerves and sinews than when they hang suspended from their hooks.

       Of the others? The lesser breed? In order of social precedence, possibly the Prunesquallors first, that is, the Doctor and his closely-swathed and bone-protruding sister. The doctor with his hyena laugh, his bizarre and elegant body, his celluloid face.

       His main defects? The unsufferable pitch of his voice; his maddening laughter and his affected gestures. His cardinal virtue? An undamaged brain.

       His sister Irma. Vain as a child; thin as a stork's leg, and, in her black glasses, as blind as an owl in daylight. She misses her footing on the social ladder at least three times a week, only to start climbing again, wriggling her pelvis the while. She clasps her dead, white hands beneath her chin in the high hope of hiding the flatness of her chest.

       Who next? Socially, there is no one else. That is to say no one who, during the first few years of Titus' life, plays any part that bears upon the child's future: unless it be the poet, a wedge-headed and uncomfortable figure little known to the hierophants of Gormenghast, though reputed to be the only man capable of holding the earl's attention in conversation. An all-but-forgotten figure in his room above a precipice of stone. No one reads his poems, but he holds a remote status - a gentleman, as it were, by rumour.

       Blue blood aside, however, and a shoal of names floats forward. The lynch-pin son of the dead Sourdust, by name Barquentine, Master of Ritual, is a stunted and cantankerous pedant of seventy, who stepped into his father's shoes (or, to be exact, into his 'shoe', for this Barquentine is a one-legged thing who smites his way through ill-lit corridors on a grim and echoing crutch).

       Flay, who has already appeared as his own ghost, is very much alive in Gormenghast forest. Taciturn and cadaverous, he is no less than Barquentine a traditionalist of the old school. But, unlike Barquentine, his angers when the Law is flouted are uprisings of a hot loyalty that blinds him, and not the merciless and stony intolerance of the cripple.

To speak of Mrs. Slagg at this late juncture seems unfair. That Titus himself, heir to Gormenghast, is her charge, as was Fuchsia in her childhood, is surely enough to place her at the head of any register. But she is so minute, so frightened, so old, so querulous, she neither could, nor would, head any procession, even on paper. Her peevish cry goes out: 'Oh, my weak heart! how 'could' they?' and she hurries to Fuchsia either to smack the abstracted girl in order to ease herself, or to bury the wrinkled prune of her face in Fuchsia's side. Alone in her small room again, she lies upon her bed and bites her minute knuckles.

       There is nothing frightened or querulous about young Steerpike. If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing - flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it.

       The day of Titus' birth had seen the commencement of his climb across the roofs of Gormenghast and the end of his servitude in Swelter's kitchen - that steaming province which was both too unpleasant and too small to allow for his flexuous talents and expanding ambition.

       High-shouldered to a degree little short of malformation, slender and adroit of limb and frame, his eyes close-set and the colour of dried blood, he is still climbing, not now across the back of Gormenghast but up the spiral staircase of its soul, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy - some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.

Rottcodd is fast asleep in his hammock at the far end of the hall of the Bright Carvings, that long attic room that houses the finest examples of the Mud Dwellers' art. It is seven years since he watched from the attic window the procession far below him wind back from Gormenghast lake, where Titus had come into his Earldom, but nothing has happened to him during the long years apart from the annual arrival of fresh works to be added to the coloured carvings in the long room.


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