Swelter Sings (from Titus Groan–by Mervyn Peake)

“I shall sing to you, Steerpike, to you” whispered the cook, reeling and supporting himself with one hand against the stone pillar that was glistening with condensed heat, little trickles of moisture moving down its fluted sides.

“To you, the newcomer, the blue mummer, and the slug of summer–to you the hideous, and insidious, and appallingly cretinous goat in a house of stenches.”

The apprentices rocked with joy.

“To you, only to you, my core of curdled cat bile.  To you alone, so harken diligentiums.  Are you harkening? Are you listening for this is how it goes.  My song of a hundred years ago, my plaintively most melancholic song.”

Swelter seemed to forget he was about to sing, and after wiping the sweat from his hands on the head of a youth below him, peered for Steerpike again.

“And why to you, my ray of addled sunshine? Why to you alone? Taking it for granted, my dear little Steerpike–taking it for more than for most granted, that you, a creature of less consequence than stoat’s blood, are so far removal’d from anything approaching nature–yet tell me, more rather, don’t tell me why your ears which must have originally been designed for flypapers, are for some reason better known to yourself, kept immoderately unfurled.  You move here and there on your little measly legs.  I have seen you at it.  You breathe all over my kitchen.  You look at things with you insolent animal eyes.  I’ve seen you doing it.  I have seen you look at me.  You’re looking at me now.  Steerpike, my impatient lovebird, what does it all mean, and why should I sing for you?”…

“It is a song, my Steerpike, to an imaginary monster, just like yourself if only you were a trifle bigger and more monstrous still.  It is a song to a hard-hearted monster so listen most fixedly, my pretty wart.  Closer!  Closer! Can’t you come a little closer to a dirgeous masterpiece?”…

“I am Swelter, the great Chef Abiatha Swelter, cook to his Lordship, boardship, and sorts of ships that sail on slippery seas.  Abiatha Swelter, man and boy and girls and ribbons, lots of kittens, forty year of cold and sunny, where’s the money, thick and hairy, I’m a fairy! I am a songster!  Listen well, listen well!”

“Are you listening?”…

The kitchen had become as silent as a hot tomb.  At last, through the silence, a weak gurgling sound began to percolate, but whether it was the first verse of the long-awaited poem none could tell, for the Chef, like a galleon, lurched into his anchorage.  The great ship’s canvas sagged and crumpled and then suddenly an enormousness foundered and sank.  There was a sound of something spreading as an area of seven flagstones became hidden from view beneath a cataleptic mass of wine-drenched blubber.

Swelter: Copyright, The Mervyn Peake Estate

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