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 is bliss.
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 late, Charles.
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 on.
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 publisher.
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