Excerpt of The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd
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That is a surprise. Drink it carefully, Mr Lamb. Mary, help your father.
Mary did not like her mother very much. She was a prying and inquisitive woman,
or so Mary thought; her mothers watchfulness seemed to her to be a form of
hostility. It never occurred to Mary that it was a form of fear.
Dont slurp, Mr Lamb. Your linen will be soiled.
Mary gently took the bowl from him, and began to feed him with the porcelain
spoon. She spent her life performing such tasks. Tizzy was too frail to deal
with all the household cleaning and cooking, so Mary took on the most onerous
duties. They could have afforded a young servant, at no more than ten shillings
per week, but Mrs Lamb objected in principle to the introduction of another
person who might shatter the carefully preserved composition, and the calm, of
the Lamb family.
Mary accepted her role willingly enough. Charles went to the office, and she
saw to the house. That was how it would always be. After her sickness, in any
case, she had become more subdued. The scars upon her face had made her an
object of pity or distaste or so she thought and she had no wish to show
She could hear Charles pacing the floor, in the room above. She had become
accustomed to his footsteps and knew that he was preparing to write; he was
placing his thoughts in order before he began. He was treading upon a narrow
strip of carpet at the foot of his bed, and after three or four more turns he
would sit at his desk and begin. He had been introduced to the editor of
Westminster Words, Matthew Law, who had been charmed by the young mans
discourse on the acting style at the Old Drury Lane; he had commissioned from
him an essay on the subject, and Charles had completed it only three days later.
He had ended with a flourish, on the acting of Munden, when he had said that A
tub of butter, contemplated by him, amounts to a Platonic idea. He understands a
leg of mutton in its quiddity. He stands wondering, amid the common-place
materials of life, like primeval man with the sun and stars about him. This was
considered to be a mighty flare, according to Matthew Law, and since then
Charles had become a regular contributor to the weekly paper. At this moment he
was writing an article in praise of chimney sweeps. He had been reading Sterne
to discover whether his favourite novelist had ever entertained the topic.
Charles continued to earn his living as a clerk at the East India House, as his
mother had insisted, but he wished to consider himself to be a writer. Ever
since his school-days as a poor scholar at Christs Hospital, all his hopes and
ambitions had been directed towards literature. He would read his poems to Mary;
and she would listen very carefully, almost solemnly. It was as if she had
written them herself. He had written a drama in which he had played Darnley and
she had played Mary Queen of Scots; she had been deeply excited by her role, and
still remembered some of the lines she had spoken.
Call your brother to dinner, Mary.
He is busy with his essay, Ma.
His essay will not be affected by pork chops, I dare say.
Mr Lamb made a remark about red hair, which neither woman noticed.
Mary had gone to the door, but Charles was already halfway down the stairs.
There is pork in the air, dear. The strong man may batten on him, and the
weakling refuseth not his mild juices.
No. Charles Lamb. A subtler dish. Buon giorno, Ma.
Mrs Lamb was guiding her husband towards the small dining-room at the rear of
the house; it overlooked a narrow strip of garden, at the bottom of which were a
cast-iron pagoda and the remains of a bonfire of leaves. On the previous morning
she and Mary had gathered up the leaves in armfuls, from the clipped grass and
the slate path, before setting light to them; Mary had breathed in the scent as
the sweet smoke rose towards the clouded London sky. It was as if she were
performing a sacrifice but to what strange god? Could it be the god of
Excerpted from The Lambs of London by
Peter Ackroyd Copyright © 2005 by Peter Ackroyd. Excerpted by permission of Nan
A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this
excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the