Excerpt of The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd
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Tizzy was putting a dish of sauce upon the table; she had a slight palsy, and
spilled some upon the waxen polished surface. Charles licked his finger and
scooped it up. A few breadcrumbs, mixed with liver and a dash of mild sage. It
Nonsense, Charles. Mrs Lamb was a member of the Holborn Fundamental Communion,
and had firm ideas on the subject of bliss. Her somewhat dour piety, however,
had no obvious effect upon her appetite. She intoned the grace, in which her
children joined, and then served the chops.
Why should the act of eating need a blessing? Charles had once asked his
sister. As distinct from silent gratitude? Why not a grace before setting out
on a moonlight ramble? A grace before Spenser? A grace before a friendly
meeting? Ever since childhood Mary had disliked the ceremony of the family
meal. The handling of the plates, the serving of the food, the chinking of the
cutlery, induced in her a kind of weariness. On these occasions, only Charles
could lift her spirits. I wonder, he said now, who was the greatest fool who
ever lived. Will Somers? Justice Shallow?
Really, Charles. You forget yourself. Mrs Lamb was looking in the general
direction of her husband, without seeming to single him out.
Mary laughed, and in the sudden movement a piece of potato lodged in her throat.
She got up quickly, gasping for air; her mother rose from the table, but she
waved her violently away. She did not want to be touched by her. She coughed the
potato into her hand, and sighed.
Who will buy my sweet oranges? asked her father.
Mrs Lamb resumed her seat and continued eating her meal. You came home very
I was dining with friends, Ma.
Is that what you call it?
Charles had come back to Laystall Street very drunk. Mary waited up for him, as
always, and as soon as she heard him trying vainly to find the lock she opened
the door and held him as he staggered forward. He drank too much on two or three
evenings each week; he was sozzled, as he would put it apologetically the next
day, but Mary never rebuked him. She believed that she understood the reasons
for his drunkenness, and even sympathised with them. Had she the courage or the
opportunity, she would be drunk every day of her life. To be buried alive was
that not motive enough to drink? Charles was in any case a writer, and writers
were well known for their indulgence. What of Sterne or Smollett? Not that her
brother was ever loud or belligerent; he was as mild and as amiable as ever,
except that he could not stand or speak with any degree of precision. It is
the cause, it is the cause, he had said to Mary the previous night. Lead
He had been drinking sweet wine and Burton ale at the Salutation and Cat in Hand
Court, close by Lincolns Inn Fields, with two colleagues from the East India
House, Tom Coates and Benjamin Milton. They were both very short, dapper, and
dark-haired; they spoke quickly and laughed immoderately at each others
remarks. Charles was a little younger than Coates, and a little older than
Milton, and so he felt himself to be as he put it to them the neutral
medium through which galvanic forces can be conducted. Coates spoke of Spinoza
and of Schiller, of biblical inspiration and the romantic imagination; Milton
spoke of geology and the ages of the earth, of fossils and dead seas. As he
became drunker, Lamb imagined himself to be in the infancy of the world. What
might be achieved, in a society that had such great intellects within it?
Did I wake you last night, Ma?
I was already awake. Mr Lamb was restless. Her husband had a habit of trying
to urinate out of the bedroom window on to the street beneath, a habit to which
Mrs Lamb was strenuously opposed.
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