You were very quiet, Charles. Mary was now calm after her fit of coughing. You went straight to your bed.
I live forever in your good report, Mary. The heavens shine down on such a sister.
I distinctly heard a noise from your room. Mrs Lamb was not impressed by their show of affection. There was a crash.
In fact Mary had helped her brother to mount the stairs, and had guided him towards his bedroom. She held his arm gently, and savoured the vinous scent of his breath mixed with the faintest odour of sweat on his neck and forehead. She enjoyed the sensation of his physical closeness, which in the past she had lost. He had been a boarder at Christs Hospital, and his departure at the beginning of each term provoked in her the strangest mixture of anger and loneliness. He was going to a world of companionship and learning, while she was left in the company of her mother and of Tizzy. This was the period when, her household tasks complete, she began to study. Her bedroom had been set up in a little back room on the attic floor. Here she kept the school-books which Charles had lent her among them a Latin grammar, a Greek lexicon, Voltaires Philosophical Dictionary and a copy of Don Quixote. She tried to keep pace with her brother but often found, on his return, that she had over-reached him. She had begun to read and to translate the fourth book of the Aeneid, concerning the love between Dido and Aeneas, before he had even mastered the speeches of Cicero. She had said to him, At regina gravi iamdudum saucia cura; but he had burst out laughing. Whatever do you mean, dear?
It is Virgil, Charles. Dido is sorrowful.
He laughed again, and ruffled her hair. She tried to smile but then lowered her head; she felt vain and foolish.
But there were other occasions when they would study together in the evenings, both of them poring over one book, their eyes alight as they pursued the same sentence. They would talk of Roderick Random and of Peregrine Pickle as if they were real people, and invent new scenes or adventures for Lemuel Gulliver and Robinson Crusoe. They would imagine themselves to be on Crusoes island, hiding in the foliage from the marauding cannibals. And then they would return to the intricacies of Greek syntax. He told her that she had become a Grecian.
A crash, Ma? He asked the question with a sense of injured innocence. He really did not know what she meant.
He had toppled on to his bed, and had immediately fallen into a profound sleep; it was as if he had finally escaped.
Mary untied his boots, and began to pull one off his right foot; but she slipped and fell backwards against his desk, knocking off a candlestick and a small brass bowl in which he kept spent lucifer matches. This was the crash that Mrs Lamb, awake and alert across the landing, had heard. It had not woken Charles. In the silence which followed Mary gently put back the candlestick and the bowl; she removed his boots very slowly, and then lay down beside him. She put her arms around him and placed her head upon his chest, so softly that it rose and fell with his breathing. A few minutes later she crept up the stairs to her own little room.
After the meal was over it was customary, on Sunday, for Charles to read from the Bible to his parents and sister. He did not object to this in the least. He admired the artifice of the King James version. Its periodic balance, its cadence and its euphony had come upon him in childhood like the wind. I saw a dream which made me afraid, and the thoughts upon my bed and the visions of my head troubled me. They had gathered in the drawing-room, where Mary had stood in the sunlight, and Charles was behind a small leaved table with the volume in his hand. This, Pa, is the story of Nebuchadnezzar.
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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