Titus Alone(11)

By: Mervyn Peake


Titus, who had found himself cornered, had turned to the vast, purring, topaz-studded lift not knowing exactly what it was. That its elegant jaws should have been open and ready was his salvation. He sprang inside and the gates, drawing themselves together, closed as though they ran through butter.

The interior of the lift was like an underwater grotto, filled with subdued lights. Something hazy and voluptuous seemed to hover in the air. But Titus was in no mood for subtleties. He was a fugitive. And then he saw that wavering in his underwater world were rows of ivory buttons, each button carved into some flower, face, or skull.

He could hear the sound of footsteps running and angry voices outside the door and he jabbed indiscriminately among the buttons, and immediately soaring through floor after Door in a whirl of steel the lift all at once inhaled its own speed and the doors slid open of their own accord.

How quiet it was and cool. There was no furniture, only a single palm tree growing out of the floor. A small red parrot sat on one of the upper branches and pecked itself. When it saw Titus it cocked its head on one side and then with great rapidity it kept repeating, 'Bloody corker told me so!' This phrase was reiterated a dozen times at least before the bird continued pecking at its wing.

There were four doors in this cool upper hall. Three led to corridors but the last one, when Titus opened it, let in the sky. There, before and slightly below him, lay spread the roof.





TWENTY-ONE



No one found him all that sun-scorched evening and when the twilight came and the shadows withered he was able to steal to and fro across the wide glass roofscape and see what was going on in the rooms below.

For the most part the glass was too thick for Titus to see more than a blur of coloured shapes and shadows but he came at last to an open skylight through which he could see without obstruction a scene of great diversity and splendour.

To say a party was in progress would be a mean and cheese-paring way of putting it. The long sitting-room or salon, no more than twelve or fifteen feet below him, was in the throes of it. Life, of a kind, was in spate.

Music leaped from the long room and swarmed out of the skylight while Titus lay on his stomach on the warm glass roof, his eyes wide with conjecture. The sunken sun had left behind it a dim red weight of air. The stars were growing fiercer every moment, when the music suddenly ended in a string of notes like coloured bubbles and to take their place a hundred tongues began to wag at once.

Titus half closed his eyes at the effulgence of a forest of candles, the sparkle of glass and mirrors, and the leaping reflections of light from polished wood and silver. It was so close to him that had he coughed a dozen faces would, for all the noise in the room, have turned at once to the skylight and discovered him. It was like nothing else he had seen, and even from the first glimpse, it appeared as much like a gathering of creatures, of birds and beasts and Dowers, as a gathering of humans.

They were all there. The giraffe-men and the hippopotamus-men. The serpent-ladies and the heron-ladies. The aspens and the oaks: the thistles and the ferns - the beetles and the moths - the crocodiles and the parrots: the tigers and the lambs: vultures with pearls around their necks and bison in tails.

But this was only for a flash, for as Titus, drawing a deep breath, stared again, the distortions, the extremes, appeared to crumble, to slip away from the surge of heads below him, and he was again among his own species.

Titus could feel the heat rising from the long dazzling room so close below him - yet distant as a rainbow. The hot air as it rose was impregnated with scent; a dozen of the most expensive perfumes were fighting for survival. Everything was fighting for survival- with lungs, and credulity.

There were limbs and heads and bodies everywhere: and there were faces! There were the foreground faces; the middle distance faces; and the faces far away. And in the irregular gaps between the faces were parts of faces, and halves and quarters at every tilt and angle.

This panorama in depth was on the move, whole heads turning, now here, now there, while all the while a counterpoint of tadpole quickness, something in the nature of a widespread agitation, was going on, because, for every head or body that changed its position in space there would be a hundred flickering eyelids; a hundred fluttering lips, a fluctuating arabesque of hands. The whole effect had something in the nature of foliage about it, as when green breezes flirt in poplar trees.

Commanding as was Titus's view of the human sea below him, yet however hard he tried he could not discover who the hosts might be. Presumably an hour or two earlier when even a deep breath was possible without adding to the discomfort of some shoulder or adjacent bosom - presumably the ornate flunkey (now pinned against a marble statue) had announced the names of the guests as they arrived; but all that was over. The flunkey, whose head, much to his embarrassment, was wedged between the ample breasts of the marble statue, could no longer even see the door through which the guests arrived, let alone draw breath enough to announce them.