‘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?’
‘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.
‘What is “too deep?”’ She was surprised by her brother’s flippancy. It was insensitive, and she relied upon his sensitivity to give meaning to her life.
‘There are some subjects, Mary, which have no depth. Onions is one of them.’ He was annoyed by his disloyalty towards his friend, and quickly changed the subject. ‘Why is Sunday so horrid? It is my day of rest, but it is so dry and desolate. It presses the life out of me. There is nowhere to think.’ He jumped up from the chair, and stood next to his sister in the bay of the window. ‘It only comes alive by twilight. But by then it is too late. Now I will go to my room and study Sterne.’
She was accustomed to this. ‘Being left by Charles’ was, as she put it to herself, a ‘compound verb’ signifying a coherent and complete sensation of loss, disappointment and anticipation. She did not feel abandoned, precisely. She was hardly ever alone in the house. And here they were. She heard her mother’s key in the lock, and instinctively she held herself more upright; it was as if she were warding off danger. Mr Lamb was wiping his boots on the straw mat by the door while Mrs Lamb was asking their maid-servant, Tizzy, to clear up the leaves. Mary knew that Charles would be sinking deeper into his chair, shutting out the noises of the house with Sterne. She turned back to the window, as her parents entered the room, and prepared herself to become a daughter again.
‘Sit with your poor father, Mary, while I prepare an eggnog. He may have caught cold.’ He shook his head and laughed. ‘What are you saying, Mr Lamb?’ He looked down at her feet. ‘You are quite right. I still have on my pattens. You miss nothing, I am sure.’
‘Take them off,’ he said. And then he laughed again.
Mary Lamb had watched her father’s slow decline with interest. He had been a man of business, quick and efficient in all the dealings of the world. He had marshalled his affairs as if he were engaged in warfare with some invisible enemy and, when he returned each evening to the house in Laystall Street, he had an air of triumph. Then, one evening, he came home wide-eyed with terror. ‘I don’t know where I have been,’ was all he said. Quietly he began to slip away. He had been Mary’s father, then he became her friend and, finally, her child.
Charles Lamb seemed to pay no attention to his father’s condition; he avoided him, whenever possible, and made no comment on his increasing incapacity. Whenever Mary raised the subject of ‘Pa’, he listened to her patiently but offered no comment. He could not speak of it.
Mr Lamb was rubbing his hands eagerly, in anticipation of the egg-nog.
When her mother had left the room, Mary sat down beside him on the faded green divan. ‘Did you sing at the service, Pa?’
‘The minister was mistaken.’
‘On what matter?’
‘There are no rabbits in Worcestershire.’
‘Are there not?’
‘No, nor muffins neither.’
Mrs Lamb professed to believe that there was some wisdom in her husband’s ramblings, but Mary knew that there was none. Yet he interested her more now than he had ever done; she was intrigued by the strange and random phrases that issued from him. It was as if language was talking to itself.
‘Are you cold, Pa?’
‘Just an error in the accounts.’
‘Do you suppose?’
‘A red letter day.’
Mrs Lamb returned with the egg-nog in a bowl. ‘Mary dear, you are keeping your father from the fire.’ She was perpetually watchful, as if something in the world was forever trying to elude her. ‘Where is your brother?’
‘That is a surprise. Drink it carefully, Mr Lamb. Mary, help your father.’
Mary did not like her mother very much. She was a prying and inquisitive woman, or so Mary thought; her mother’s watchfulness seemed to her to be a form of hostility. It never occurred to Mary that it was a form of fear.
‘Don’t slurp, Mr Lamb. Your linen will be soiled.’
Mary gently took the bowl from him, and began to feed him with the porcelain spoon. She spent her life performing such tasks. Tizzy was too frail to deal with all the household cleaning and cooking, so Mary took on the most onerous duties. They could have afforded a young servant, at no more than ten shillings per week, but Mrs Lamb objected in principle to the introduction of another person who might shatter the carefully preserved composition, and the calm, of the Lamb family.
Mary accepted her role willingly enough. Charles went to the office, and she ‘saw to’ the house. That was how it would always be. After her sickness, in any case, she had become more subdued. The scars upon her face had made her an object of pity or distaste – or so she thought – and she had no wish to show herself.
She could hear Charles pacing the floor, in the room above. She had become accustomed to his footsteps and knew that he was preparing to write; he was placing his thoughts in order before he began. He was treading upon a narrow strip of carpet at the foot of his bed, and after three or four more ‘turns’ he would sit at his desk and begin. He had been introduced to the editor of Westminster Words
, Matthew Law, who had been charmed by the young man’s discourse on the acting style at the Old Drury Lane; he had commissioned from him an essay on the subject, and Charles had completed it only three days later. He had ended with a flourish, on the acting of Munden, when he had said that ‘A tub of butter, contemplated by him, amounts to a Platonic idea. He understands a leg of mutton in its quiddity. He stands wondering, amid the common-place materials of life, like primeval man with the sun and stars about him.’ This was considered to be a ‘mighty flare’, according to Matthew Law, and since then Charles had become a regular contributor to the weekly paper. At this moment he was writing an article in praise of chimney sweeps. He had been reading Sterne to discover whether his favourite novelist had ever entertained the topic.
Charles continued to earn his living as a clerk at the East India House, as his mother had insisted, but he wished to consider himself to be a writer. Ever since his school-days as a poor scholar at Christ’s Hospital, all his hopes and ambitions had been directed towards literature. He would read his poems to Mary; and she would listen very carefully, almost solemnly. It was as if she had written them herself. He had written a drama in which he had played Darnley and she had played Mary Queen of Scots; she had been deeply excited by her role, and still remembered some of the lines she had spoken.
‘Call your brother to dinner, Mary.’
‘He is busy with his essay, Ma.’
‘His essay will not be affected by pork chops, I dare say.’
Mr Lamb made a remark about red hair, which neither woman noticed.
Mary had gone to the door, but Charles was already halfway down the stairs.
‘There is pork in the air, dear. The strong man may batten on him, and the weakling refuseth not his mild juices.’
‘No. Charles Lamb. A subtler dish. Buon giorno
Mrs Lamb was guiding her husband towards the small dining-room at the rear of the house; it overlooked a narrow strip of garden, at the bottom of which were a cast-iron pagoda and the remains of a bonfire of leaves. On the previous morning she and Mary had gathered up the leaves in armfuls, from the clipped grass and the slate path, before setting light to them; Mary had breathed in the scent as the sweet smoke rose towards the clouded London sky. It was as if she were performing a sacrifice – but to what strange god? Could it be the god of childhood?
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 Lincoln’s 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 other’s 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.
‘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 Christ’s 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, Voltaire’s 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 Crusoe’s 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.’
‘Is it indeed? How did he know when to cry?’
‘When God chided him, Mr Lamb.’ Mrs Lamb was very emphatic. ‘All flesh is grass.’
Instinctively Mary put her hand up to her face, as Charles continued his reading from Daniel. ‘Therefore made I a decree to bring in all the wise men of Babylon before me, that they might make known unto me the interpretation of the dream.
Excerpted from The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd. Copyright © 2005 by Peter Ackroyd. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, 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.