Excerpt from The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Lambs of London

by Peter Ackroyd

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2006, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2007, 224 pages

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Chapter One

‘I loathe the stench of horses.’ Mary Lamb walked over to the window, and touched very lightly the faded lace fringe of her dress. It was a dress of the former period that she wore unembarrassed, as if it were of no consequence how she chose to cover herself. ‘The city is a great jakes.’ There was no one in the drawing-room with her, so she put her face upwards, towards the sun. Her skin was marked by the scars of smallpox, suffered by her six years before; so she held her face to the light, and imagined it to be the pitted moon.

‘I have found it, dear. It was hiding in All’s Well.’ Charles Lamb rushed into the room with a thin green volume in his hand.

She turned round, smiling. She did not resist her brother’s enthusiasm; it cleared her head of the moon. ‘And is it?’

‘Is it what, dear?’

‘All’s well that ends well?’

‘I very much hope so.’ The top buttons of his linen shirt were undone, and his stock only loosely knotted. ‘May I read it to you?’ He dropped into an armchair, and swiftly crossed his legs. It was a rapid and economical movement, to which his sister had become accustomed. He held out the volume at arm’s length, and recited a passage. ‘ “They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons to make things supernatural and causeless seem modern and familiar. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.” Lafew to Parolles. That is exactly the thought of Hobbes.’

Mary generally read what her brother read, but she did so more slowly. She was more thoroughly absorbed; she would sit by the window, where the light had touched her a few moments before, and contemplate the sensations that her reading had aroused in her. She felt then, as she had told her brother, part of the world’s spirit. She read so that she might keep up these conversations with Charles which had become the great solace of her life. They talked on those evenings when he returned, sober, from the East India House. They confided in each other, seeing the same soul shining in each other’s face.

‘What was that phrase, “seeming knowledge”? You enunciate so well, Charles. I would be glad to have your gift.’ She admired her brother precisely to the extent that she did not admire herself.

‘Words, words, words.’

‘But would that apply to the people whom we know?’ she asked him.

‘Would what, dear?’

‘Seeming knowledge and unknown fear?’

‘Elaborate.’

‘I seem to know Pa, but should I submit to an unknown fear concerning him?’

Their parents, on this Sunday morning, were returning from the Dissenters’ chapel on the corner of Lincoln’s Inn Lane and Spanish Street. They were only a hundred yards from the house, and Mary watched as her mother and father crossed slowly from lane to lane. Mr Lamb was in the first stages of senile decay, but Mrs Lamb held him upright with her powerful right arm.

‘And then there is Selwyn Onions,’ Mary added. He was one of Charles’s clerkly colleagues in Leadenhall Street. ‘I seem to know his pranks and jokes, but should I submit to an unknown fear concerning his malevolent spirit?’

‘Onions? He is a good enough fellow.’

‘I dare say.’

‘You look too deep, dear.’

It was a day in late autumn, and the brickwork of the houses opposite was stained red with the declining sun. The street itself was littered with orange peel, scraps of newspaper and fallen leaves. An old woman, draped in a voluminous shawl, was clutching the pump on the corner.

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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