Disclaimer: Gormenghast is the property of the Mervyn Peake estate and publishers.
A Snake in the Ivy, A Fire Amidst Stones
Fuchsia lay staring at the black, velvety underside of her eyelids. It was a soft and quiet darkness, a night without the staring eyes of stars. No intruder could ever catch a glimpse of the bright images parading so suddenly and fleetingly across this midnight background; no visitor entered this furtive paradise of fancy. More private even than Fuchsia's childhood attic were the inner trails of her disorganized mind. She cherished them, skipping through their intricate warren and exulting in the phantasmagoria of her surroundings.
Her limbs splayed gauchely under the warmth of the heavy blanket. Her slumberous mind shook itself, in contrast to the stillness of her body. Dreams ran in droplets from its surface. She opened her eyes to slits, taking in the folds of the rumpled bedspread. It was not a bed, but a sofa she lay upon, with elegant curled arms polished to a shine and strangely flat cushions. From this seat, she surveyed the windowless nest of the rendezvous room.
She was alone. It was this fact more than anything that brought her to wakefulness. She sat up suddenly, rocking to her heels like a squatting child, and if her brother could have seen her at that moment, he might have started at a fleeting reflection of the Thing in the quickness of her movements and the tilt of her head. For this Thing lived also in Fuchsia, an underground reservoir of fierce independence, dotted with nightflowers of conceit. Now, now, it had been provoked; an agile wind had played across its surface, rising tiny waves which, each piling upon the back of its precursor, were building even now to a maelstrom.
It was in Fuchsia's nature to love. Growing like a weed in isolation, she had lavished her rough and formless affections on whatever small and indifferent creature crossed her path: her nanny, a flower, an oddly shaped rock, a snail in the garden, a gnomish cluster of mushrooms. Her love, scattered and ever unreturned, irritated her sensitive soul with its fractured splinters, turning in upon itself in an odd and disjointed selfishness, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes non-existent. She had never had reason to marshal the islands in the archipelago of her heart, to draw together the windblown notes into one, full harmony. But now the opening stanzas of a symphony were sounding.
For Steerpike, slick and frozen as he was, performed a perfect imitation of a passionate lover, and, all unwitting, had struck the sparks of a fire hotter, if darker, than the one which had left its mark on him. He had taken her girlhood and thought nothing of it, but in the fertile loam of Fuchsia's character, ever on the brink of change, had bloomed the bud of an immortal flower, and its colours were dark red and dusky gold.
Fuchsia sat on the couch alone, enveloped in a blanket, her bare toes clinging to the floor, watching with wide eyes the unfolding of an invisible dawn. She was the sun, and around her the castle grew light.
"What has he done to me, Nannie?" she whispered, as if the ghost of her childhood confidant could hear. Had Nannie Slagg, indeed, been knowledgeable of the direction of her former charge's affections, she would have moaned and scolded piteously; but this was far from Fuchsia's mind.
Her wondering reverie shattered at the sudden appearance of a monkey on the couch. Dressed in a suit of red, the vestment sprayed with yellow diamonds, it perched on the cushions as rakishly as the miniature hat sat upon its head. Balancing on its hind legs, its tail waving distractedly behind, it chattered animatedly at her.
"Who are you, then?" Fuchsia asked, drawing back with a movement as animalistic as those of the monkey.
The mobile little primate merely leaped onto the back of the couch and walking towards her on all fours, its tail oscillating back and forth. She saw the hat on its head was of cleverly folded paper.
Upon inspection, the paper revealed its identity as a note. She unfolded it quickly, tearing it in the process. It read, in clean, slender script like the footprints of a winter wind:
Daylight dawns and draws me away. I will find you again soon, my love.
The monkey's name is Satan.
His Clownship, the first Twirl Steerpike of Gormenghast"
Fuchsia laughed and sprang exultantly to her feet. A simple, nameless joy had taken hold of her; whether Steerpike was truly the cause was unverifiable. She galloped about the room, her self-consciousness discarded alongside the blanket.
"Twirl!" she cried, and followed in the footsteps of her own advice. Her hair flew in wild rags around her face, her naked body spinning within its halo of black, each strand extending outwards like the spidery roots of an upside-down tree. She rotated with the frictionless wobble of a top, all the constricted momentum of joy in her heart finding release in this odd dance. A chant accompanied the ballet, punctuating its dizzy spin. "I am Fuchsia! I am me! I won't be frightened – someone loves me!"
It was the same rhyme she had sung to herself countless times in the past, but different – not only in the slight variation of word, but in the tone. Not awkward and halting now, but rushed and preternaturally confident. Fuchsia had changed, though she did not know it herself.
As if brought sharply awake for the second time, she stopped and became suddenly sombre.
"I must see Dr. Prune," she told herself, without knowing why.
She dressed quickly, and with a last, affectionate glance at Satan, tiptoed through the door, the silent bells of excitement ringing through the air like ripples on a pond in her wake.
Dr. Prunesquallor might almost have known he was about to be seen. The physician had perched his heron's body on the edge of a chair in the sitting room, his long fingers tranquil on the arms, his legs drawn up until his bony knees touched just below his chin. His head was tilted back and slightly to the side, the corners of the lips turned up in the beginnings of a satyr's smile. The spectacles which so enlarged his liquid eyes winked owlishly at the ceiling, but the eyes did not follow the direction of the glass; instead, the doctor was gazing through lowered lids at some unidentified thing near the floor. In this odd position of repose, he waded through the marshy shallows of his thoughts, pausing every now and then to snatch something swift and glimmering from the water.
What benefits could such contortions of placement afford the doctor? What fresh perspectives did he gain? Perhaps the stiff and symmetric position of his body reflected inversely the flexibility and freedom of his mind. Wherever his consciousness roamed, however, it was not too far distant to perceive a sudden, intemperate knocking at the front door.
Prunesquallor blinked. Animation returned swiftly to his limbs. His long, pale fingers wriggled and his legs unfolded as gracefully as those of a stork stepping out of its nest. His eyes snapped back to their habitual, magnified place just behind his spectacles. The very crest of his hair seemed to crackle with impending movement. Gone was the fossilized archaeopteryx; in his place, an antelope had sprung from the cushion of the chair.
By the time Fuchsia had been shown to the sitting room, no trace of rumination lingered on the doctor's face. His eyes were facile, clear, and untroubled as he pranced forward, hands outstretched, to greet her.
"My dear child!" he whinnied. "By all that's infectious, the sight of your face does command a smile to mine! Why, it has been so long – an age of men, which, let me assure you, is incalculably longer than an age of beasts – so long, I say, since last you came to see me. I have been cogitating, cerebrating, and ruminating for almost longer than you have lived, and now here you are to awake me from my sleep of old age. How have you been, how have you been and what brings you here today, brightest of the bright, rosiest of the rosy, most brilliant of all brilliant things?"
"Dr. Prune," Fuchsia said, smiling vaguely at the stream of words, "I've come to talk to you."
"To me? Of course! To me you have come, and me is what you shall have, or I'll have the reason why not, ha ha ha ha!" Prunesquallor circled his guest with an intricate dance of courtesy, the steps of which remained mysterious to any besides himself, trilling his hyena laughter without pause. "And what have we got? Please, take a chair, any of them, all of them, they are each and every one honoured to be at your disposal, ha ha! May I requisition you a drink, my dear? Wine for her ladyship? Goat's milk? Tea? Brandy? All of them crowded into a boiling cauldron, stirred together with the horn of a rhinoceros and a sprig of parsley?"
Fuchsia sat down in the same armchair Prunesquallor had occupied five minutes before. Where the doctor had perched, she softened and shadowed; the stern and proper seat took on tints of red, green, black, gold, flecks of colour seemingly uncovered and emphasized by her mere presence. On this particular day, even her hair cast black sparks.
"No, thank you, Dr. Prune," she said. She did not look at him; an object on the mantelpiece above the fireplace facing the chair had caught her restless attention. It was a clock. The clock had no notably unusual features to make it worthy of the intense scrutiny Fuchsia lavished on it. The only characteristic that bestowed upon it any semblance of uniqueness was its second hand, which, due to a malfunction somewhere in the mysterious, inner sanctum of the clock's body, did not move forward, merely jerking ineffectually as if against an invisible restraint. As she watched the frantic, gasping efforts of the second hand to force itself into the future, it seemed to Fuchsia in her agitated brain that this clock measured the time of Gormenghast; Gormenghast, where hours and days and years lumbered by, but the seconds stood eternally still.
A wild desire welled up in her heart to leap up and smash the clock to pieces. She sat on her hands and said, "I've come to talk, Dr. Prune."
"Ah, yes, what need of refreshment when the sweet nectar of discourse beckons?" If Dr. Prunesquallor had noticed his guest's fascination with his imperfect clock, he gave no sign. He arranged his limbs on a chair beside Fuchsia and directed towards her the whole of his febrile attention. "What, if I may inquire, is the object of this conversation which is so desperate to establish itself between us? How may I satisfy the cravings of your discursive organ – that most noble of human endowments, the brain?"
Fuchsia turned her volatile eyes on the doctor and, for the first time, conceived the barest hint of the idea that, behind his silliness, he was thinking thoughts beyond her realization. She had always known, with a sapience mixed with childish admiration, that he was clever. She had loved his odd laugh and his strange manners, which seemed to her like the movements of an artful and friendly jester. Now, in a dark, explosive awakening, came to her the concept of a pretend not unlike her own brand of pretend, but flavoured with a purpose it had never occurred to her to adopt. The sudden suspicion left her disoriented, as new depths of perception yawned vaguely before her feet. She could not see into these undiscovered realms; she knew only, with a doubting and uncertain knowledge, that they existed.
Prunesquallor, having mistaken her silence for confusion prompted by his flowery verbiage, grinned his frenetic grin and said, "What, my dear, did you wish to talk about? If I can, in any way, ease a malady of your heart or mind, I shall do so with the utmost pleasure. The utmost, utmost pleasure."
Startled, Fuchsia blurted, "I don't know." The realization that she had nothing to talk about surprised her nearly as much as her dim recognition of Prunesquallor's play-acting. Her thoughts were still twirling furiously in the secret rendezvous room, hurtling in a whirlpool, a hurricane, a maelstrom through the echoing halls of Gormenghast, undetected by the inhabitants. She had a sensation of wind in her hair, as if she were flying, and a dream-like smile flitted across her face. She had no idea why she had wanted to see the doctor, only that, somehow, it was imperative.
Prunesquallor had watched her without seeming to, following with interest the play of emotions over her guileless features. His pointed nose rose instinctively towards the ceiling, scenting like a bloodhound's the trail of Something. There was a prickling in the air, and a sense of dry heat, as if lightning sizzled just below the intensity necessary for a strike. Something was here. He was, however, too canny to be impatient, too wise to fumble for it.
"You seem happy, my dear child," he said amiably, his delicate hands pushed clasped beneath his chin, "very, very happy, one might observe."
"Oh, yes, Dr. Prune!" Fuchsia said, "I'm happier than I've ever been."
Prunesquallor's eyebrows met his hairline. "Happier than ever before? What a prodigious, I say, what a momentous occurrence! A cause for true celebration! It is not everyday one is happier than one has ever been before. And what has happened, what has happened that has made you so incomparably happy?"
"I don't know," Fuchsia said. She stood up suddenly and spread her arms to either side, shrugging her shoulders in a gesture of supreme ignorance. "Something is changing. It's different. Can't you feel it?"
"Feel it?" Prunesquallor warbled. "Why, if you are asking if I can feel, not with my hands, nor smell with my nose, nor see with my eyes, nor taste, nor hear, but feel, with my other senses, perhaps, whatever they may be – if you ask this, can I feel that Something, some Thing we have happily left unnamed for now, is changing – if you ask this, then I can truthfully say, why, I have no idea at all. I can only say, Fuchsia, if you feel everything is changing, perhaps it is you, my dear incalculable child, you who are changing."
Fuchsia lowered her arms slowly to her side. Her eyes gravitated once more to the broken clock and its maddening second hand. A sudden longing overwhelmed her to be alone, out of Gormenghast, in a place where no one spoke and she could mull privately over her gathering thoughts. There was a dense, dark storm in her mind and a warm fire in her heart. She wanted time – and what commodity was more abundant in the castle and its surrounding lands than time?
"Maybe I am changing," she said abruptly, "I don't know. I'd like to go now, Dr. Prune. Thank you for your company." She started without further speech for the door.
"Ah, you are welcome to my company at any time, any day, any hour, any second," Prunesquallor said, rising and accompanying her. He might have possessed cloven hooves, so lightly did he progress at her side. "Please do come again – soon, child, soon." There was, briefly, a note in his voice starkly devoid of levity. "Come again any time, and I shall be happy to converse with you on any subject you like. Take care of yourself, my dear Fuchsia."
"Thank you, Dr. Prune!" she replied automatically, her distracted imagination already far distant. She flew through the door, the red of her dress and black of her hair rippling in counterpoint. Prunesquallor watched the vivid figure shrink rapidly as she ran, not towards Gormenghast, but to her haunts in the forest.
When she had gone, he returned to the sitting room and resumed the bizarre, curled position he had occupied before her arrival. It was as if Fuchsia had never been, the interlude had never occurred; except that, sinking even more furiously into his murky cerebrations, Prunesquallor stared now, not at the floor, but at the clock with the lame second hand, and in his brain, as in Fuchsia's, new ideas were revolving.
Fuchsia's flight to the forest did not pass unobserved. A pair of smouldering red eyes followed her advance with a shadow of satisfaction and a pinch of curiosity. Steerpike, straddling a rooftop and surveying the mountainous range of its fellows, had caught a glimpse of red and, turning his head, witnessed none other than the object of his simulated affections.
He had no fear of her regretting their tryst. They had come beyond such uncertainties; he knew, with a deep confidence, that she loved him, or had begun to love him, with all the fire of which her ardent nature was capable. He was content to play this lopsided game. In fact, his very success had focused his mental faculties to a fine point; he was concentrated, steady, perfectly prepared. His victory over Fuchsia had put him on stable ground, and he was now beginning to put into motion the machinery he had slowly, carefully constructed during his years as Master of Ritual. She was instrumental in his imminent triumph, and it amused him to humour her, all unknowing, with hollow dreams of romance.
Steerpike's plans were laid, the loose ends which had continued to bother him tied up and tucked neatly away. That morning, he had made his hurried way to the long-deserted apartments of the twins, Cora and Clarice. He had been, uncharacteristically, behind in schedule, and had paused only to throw a brief glance through the door. The stench alone had convinced him of the finality of their demise. On another day, he might have investigated more closely, if only for the enjoyment of gloating over their corpses; but he was too charged with his impending projects to bother confirming what he knew to be true beyond any shadow of doubt. One glance, and he slipped away once more through the grey, abandoned corridors. The twins' trap remained unsprung, undiscovered, to moulder and decay alongside their crumbling cadavers.
The Rituals devoured the hours of Steerpike's day, but he had found a spare moment to investigate the upper floors of a small, protruding southern wing, from which roof he now observed Fuchsia's receding form. It was here that he found the final component to complete his plan. Here, the Countess Gertrude Groan would meet her timely demise; and soon, very soon afterwards, he would destroy the Seventy-Seventh Earl as well, though the manner of Titus' end would be vastly different. In that final, gloating triumph, he would finish Fuchsia as well; and oh, the irony of it tasted sweet on his tongue. Then he, Steerpike, would rule this cursed castle and its demented denizens, and he would tear it apart, stone by stone, until nothing remained of it, in life or in memory. So it would be, for nothing now stood in his way.
The silhouette of the skewbald Master of Ritual might have been that of a raven, hunched blackly against the sky upon the narrow spine of the roof. Gormenghast groaned beneath those red, avenging hands, and the walls grumbled with ancient, dusty anger as he threwback his headand cawed and laughed exultantly at the wide sky.