"You know who he is, eh?"
"No, sir," I said, "I do not."
"No? Then shall I tell you?"
It was Harry Peake.
The name clawed at the skirts of memory as I sat down by the fire and warmed my jaded heart on the image of that proud rough man. America--for some reason as I gazed at him I thought of America--I thought of the Revolutionary War, and of all that I had learned of that great conflict from my mother, herself an American who pined in exile for her country every day of my childhood. An incident by the sea--a burning village filled with women and children--a red-haired girl with a musket at her shoulder--these ideas tentatively emerged from out of the mind's mist, but all else remained shrouded and obscure. I found myself sitting forward in my chair and staring into the fire as I tried to remember. At last I looked up, and told my uncle I saw a village in flames somewhere on the coast of North America, but no more than that. For some moments there was little sound in the room but the hiss of the coal in the hearth, and the wind rising in the trees outside.
"Come, Ambrose, sit closer to the fire," he murmured at last, turning away from me, seizing up the bottle of Hollands at his elbow. "Here, fill your glass. You shall hear it all. I have held it in my heart too long. It has blighted me. I am withered by it. He never got to America. God knows he wanted to."
My uncle put his fingertips together beneath his chin and closed his eyes. Silence.
"Many a man," I murmured, "has never got to America."
A sort of sigh, at this, and then silence again. I waited. When next he spoke it was with a clipped asperity that belied the desperate pathos of what he told me. To know Harry Peake, he said, you must first know what he suffered. Then you will understand why he fell. Why he turned into a monster.
" 'Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families'--eh?"
He was quoting an author, but I missed the allusion.
"He devoured his young--?"
Then I had it. Tom Paine.
"Lost his mind. What a waste. What a mind."
"But who was he?"
Here my uncle turned to me, and again fixed me with that gimlet eye. "One of those cursed few," he said, "to whom Nature in her folly gave the soul of a smuggler, and the tongue of a poet."
And so it began. Much of the detail I have had to supply from my own imagination, that is, from the ardent sympathetic understanding of the tragic events my uncle William described. His recall was patchy, for time had worn his memory through as though it were an old coat. The seams had split open, there were fragments of alien fabric, rudely stitched, and everywhere the pattern was obscured by foreign substances, such as those that were liberally splattered about the papers I later received from him, blood, soil, gin, etc. So I was forced to expand upon the materials he gave me. But when it was over I felt that I understood, I understood the extraordinary life not only of Harry Peake, but of his daughter also, of Martha Peake, who died at the hands of her own countrymen, and who, by her sacrifice, helped to create the republic to which my mother swore allegiance, and whose spirit I have come to love.
Later that evening the wind came up, it started to rain, and I was glad indeed of the shelter of Drogo Hall, for I had no desire to be out on the Lambeth Marsh in such conditions. We supped in the grand dining room downstairs, and a strange meal it was, the two of us up at the end of the table, a single branch of candles to light us, the wind howling about the house and that peculiar little man Percy, now wearing a ratty scratch wig, presumably on account of the formality of the occasion, serving us with silent swiftness, appearing suddenly out of the darkness with tureen or decanter and just as suddenly vanishing again. From the high, dark-panelled walls of the dining room the portraits of the earls of Drogo of centuries past peered down at us through the gloom, and our conversation seemed at times to struggle forward as though burdened by the span of years that separated us from the events of which we spoke, indeed that separates me now from that dismal stormy night so long ago.
Excerpted from Martha Peake by Patrick McGrath Copyright© 2000 by Patrick McGrath. Excerpted by permission of Random House, 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 publisher.
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