Titus Alone(13)

By: Mervyn Peake


No time for tears: it is enough, today,



That we, meandering these granular shores Should watch the ponderous billows at their play like midnight beasts with garlands in their jaws...



It was obvious that the poem was still in its early stages. The novelty of seeing so distinguished-looking a man behave in a manner so blatant, so self-centred, so withdrawn at one and the same time had intrigued Titus so keenly that he had outlasted at least thirty guests since the poem started. The lady with the sapphires and Mr Thirst had long since edged away, but a floating population surrounded the poet who had become sightless as he declaimed, and it would have been all the same to him if he had been alone in the room.

Titus turned his head away, his brain jumping in his skull with words and images.





TWENTY-THREE



Now that the poem was gone, and gone with it the poet, for truly he seemed to follow in the wake of something greater than himself, Titus became aware of a strange condition, a quality of flux, an agitation; a weaving or a threading motion - and then, all at once, one of those tidal movements that occur from time to time at crowded parties, began to manifest itself. There is nothing that can be done about them. They move to a rhythm of their own.

The first sensation perceived by the guest was that he or she was off-balance.

There was a lot of elbow-jogging and spirit-spilling. As the pressure increased a kind of delicate stampeding began. Apologies broke loose on every side. Those by the walls were seriously crushed, while those in the centre leaned across one another at intimate angles. Tiny, idiotic footsteps were taken by everyone as the crowd began to surge meaninglessly, uncontrollably, round and round the room. Those who were talking together at one moment saw no sign of one another a few seconds later, for underwater currents and crosseddies took their toll.

And yet the guests were still arriving. They entered through the doorway, were caught up in the scented air, wavered like ghosts and, hovering for a moment on the coiling fumes, were drawn into the slow but invincible maelstrom.

Titus, who had not been able to foresee what was about to happen, was now able to appreciate in retrospect the actions of a couple of old roués whom he had observed a few minutes earlier, seated by the refreshment table.

Long versed in the vicissitudes of party phenomena, they had put down their glasses and, leaning back, as it were, in the arms of the current, had given themselves up to the flow, and were now to be seen conversing at an incredible angle as they circled the room, their feet no longer touching the floor.

By the time some balance was restored it was nearly midnight, and there was a general pulling down of cuffs, straightening of garments, fingering of coifs and toupees, a straightening of ties, a scrutiny of mouths and eyebrows and a general state of salvage.





TWENTY-FOUR



And so, by a whim of chance, yet another group of guests stood there beneath him. Some had limped and some had slid away. Some had been boisterous: some had been aloof.

This particular group were neither and both, as the offshoots of their brain-play merited. Tall guests they were, and witless that through the accident of their height and slenderness they were creating between them a grove - a human grove. They turned, this group, this grove of guests, turned as a newcomer, moving sideways an inch at a time, joined them. He was short, thick and sapless, and was most inappropriate in that lofty copse, where he gave the appearance of being pollarded.

One of this group, a slender creature, thin as a switch, swathed in black, her hair as black as her dress and her eyes as black as her hair, turned to the newcomer.

'Do join us: she said. 'Do talk to us. We need your steady brain. We are so pitifully emotional. Such babies.'

'Well I would hardly-'

'Be quiet, Leonard. You have been talking quite enough,' said the slender, doe-eyed Mrs Grass to her fourth husband. 'It is Mr Acreblade or nothing. Come along dear Mr Acreblade. There... we are... there... we are.'

The sapless Mr Acreblade thrust his jaw forward, a sight to be wondered at, for even when relaxed his chin gave the impression of a battering ram; something to prod with; in fact a weapon.

'Dear Mrs Grass,' he said, 'you are always so unaccountably kind.'

The attenuate Mr Spill had been beckoning a waiter, but now he suddenly crouched down so that his ear was level with Acreblade's mouth. He did not face Mr Acreblade as he crouched there, but swivelling his eyes to their eastern extremes, he obtained a very good view of Acreblade's profile.

'I'm a bit deaf,' he said. 'Will you repeat yourself? Did you say "unaccountably kind"? How droll.'

'Don't be a bore,' said Mrs Grass.

Mr Spill rose to his full working height, which might have been even more impressive were his shoulders not so bent.