Authors: Veronica Bennett
The last gleam of the sun vanished below the horizon. The storm was gathering: clouds rushed in from the west, the wind gusted in the increasing gloom. Along the shore the trees flailed their branches like ghostly dancers. Above the heaving water the clouds looked low enough for us to reach out of the window and touch them.
“How black the sky becomes!” I exclaimed. “See, Claire, how magnificent the mountains look against such a background! That one could be a giant sleeping, could it not? And that one a huge creature of the deep, unnaturally still and quiet?”
“A creature?” said Claire. “What sort of creature?”
As we watched, a fork of white lightning tore the sky. Then another, and another, flickering, flashing, chasing each other as if alive. Then a boom of thunder, loud enough to make us all cover our ears, broke over the house. Screaming with a mixture of delight and terror, Claire put her hands over her face, turned blindly and stumbled into the room.
Shelley, as ready as ever to indulge her, led her to a chair. “You had better come away from the window, my dear,” he advised. “Then the creature will gobble up Mary first, and leave you alone.”
He and Polidori were laughing. Polidori, who was recovering from his own obvious fear of the storm, slapped his thigh and declared, twice or three times, what a good joke it was.
“You are cruel!” Claire said accusingly. “I believe you all prey upon my nervous disposition deliberately!”
I paid her no heed. In the brooding silence of that half-dark room, my imagination had soared. The sunset’s vital beams, and the power contained in the lightning flash, had inspired me.
“Shelley…” I laid my hand on his arm. “Do you not think that the alchemist, experimenting in his castle, might have tried to raise life in dead flesh by the use, perhaps, of electricity?”
He stared at me. “What can you be thinking of? He lived over one hundred years ago. The notion of electricity is a modern one.”
“May we speak of something else?” asked Claire plaintively.
a modern notion, that is true,” I persisted. “But we have not yet harnessed it, and put it to use. Who is to say that the alchemist did not have the
George was still sitting in his chair at the card table. He looked at me intently, but his words were for Shelley.
“My dear Shelley,” he said, amiably but with purpose, “it is very interesting that a young and beautiful woman should propose such a thing.”
Shelley’s face took on the affectionate expression it wore whenever he heard praise of me. “Mary may be young and beautiful, George, but that is not all she is!”
George had not taken his eyes from my face. “What have you heard about the uses of electricity?” he asked me.
“I have heard nothing.”
Truly, I could not tell where the suggestion had come from. I hesitated, looking for reassurance to Shelley, who merely raised his eyebrows. “I have seen lightning in the sky, as has everyone,” I continued. “And I have often wondered, also like everyone else, what makes life? What is the meaning of the Creation?”
All the men, and Claire, were listening. I gathered my wits. “Is it … could it possibly be in the gift of mankind to bestow life on inanimate objects? And if life really is a ‘spark’ of some kind, who is to say that spark will not come from electricity, if only we had the knowledge to bend it to our will?”
George was still watching me. Boldly I looked back at him. Despite his superiority of title, wealth, sex and age, the words of an eighteen-year-old girl in a sprigged cotton dress had impressed him.
“I have a better idea than cards,” he said.
His gaze – penetrating, intelligent, accustomed to his own superiority – never left my face. None of us spoke. George sat forward in his chair. “Shall we all follow Mary’s excellent example,” he suggested, “and spend this evening in the company of spirits?”
“Capital idea!” exclaimed Polidori. Then, with a frown, “But what do you actually mean, George?”
“I mean ghost stories,” said George. “Let us each tell one, here in the darkness, with the storm raging outside.”
My heart was on fire. Many things I had not understood before had linked themselves effortlessly together. Nightmarish visions, dreams that had dogged me day and night for years. The power and glory of the storm. The idea that a scientist might make a creature more monstrous than any God has devised. The earth-shattering possibility that life itself could lie in the ferocity of those sky-sparks which even now crackled their way across the heavens.
No one spoke. I sat down beside Claire. Lightning again illuminated the room; for a swift moment her face became a round, white mask. Thunder grumbled, further away.
“Come, George,” I said. “Will you not be the first to tell us a spine-chilling tale?”
“No indeed, Mistress Mary,” he replied. “I wish to hear one from
. We all want to be witness to your far-reaching imagination.”
I took a bottle from the wine-cooler on the table. “I would far rather hear a tale from the imagination of a true poetic genius than from my own,” I insisted. “And so would Mr Polidori.” I poured more wine into Polidori’s glass. “Would you not, Mr Polidori?”
Polidori blushed. “My dear Mrs Shelley, whatever you say.” He raised his full glass to the company, spilling some wine on his breeches as he did so. “Let George begin the storytelling. Indeed, I am content to listen, and be bewitched!”
George did not question his friend’s election of him as performer. But as I filled his glass he made one last attempt to persuade me. “I know you have a story to tell,” he said, his eyes searching mine. “And, like the ancient mariner, one day you will feel compelled to tell it.”
I bowed my head and said nothing.
The only sound was of the wind in the chimneys. Shelley made himself comfortable on the sofa beside me. Claire, looking for intimacy, sat on a cushion at George’s feet. I glanced at Polidori. His eyes, reflecting the candlelight, looked like mirrors in his pale face. George leant forward in his chair, the firelight flooding his face, and began to speak.
How potent the imagination can be when circumstance and location combine to nourish it and make it strong! George’s gift for the dramatic, so evident in his poetry and in his life, spellbound his listeners tightly. We could not escape. The events of the story were as chilling as Claire could have wished: the spirit of a medieval knight who had been walled up alive in a remote castle was unable to rest until it had slaughtered a virgin. It stalked the beautiful heroine while her lover and would-be rescuer lay wrongly imprisoned in the castle dungeon. Slowly, slowly, the terrible, armoured apparition climbed the spiral staircase to the rooftop whence the girl had fled. Slowly, slowly, George’s voice lingered on the horrifying detail – the perspiration on the maiden’s brow, her exhaustion, her desperation. And all the time, the knight’s footsteps…
The words became an incantation, a pulse as physical as the blood in our veins. Their strange music resounded in that firelit room like the murmuring of something beyond our understanding. Like apparitions, the tragic characters rose from the page and hovered in the air. On and on he went. And as the tale quickened to its climax I felt Shelley clutch my gown, then my arm, then my shoulder, as if to keep a hold on reality. I looked at his face. Fear took hold of me.
“Shelley my dear, what is the matter?”
A terrified scream rose in his breast. He struggled from his seat and lunged towards George, knocking the glass from his hand. The blood-coloured wine stained my dress, George’s shirt and the sofa cushion. “Stop!” he shrieked. “Stop, I tell you!”
“Shelley, Shelley, my darling!” I stumbled towards him and pulled him away. As my arms enclosed him I felt assailed by the familiar emotions the touch of his flesh always gave me: love, jealousy, anxiety, exhilaration, delight. “Be calm, my love,” I urged. “It is only a story. It is not real. ”
“It is the sound of the dead!” he cried. “Their poor corpses have been cut up for experiments, for a madman to try to make them live again! I feel their presence. They are all around the room! Can you not see them?”
“Shelley, Shelley…” murmured George.
For the first time in our acquaintance, I saw George not in control of his countenance. Having not seen this madness before he was shaken to his bones by Shelley’s looks and words. “I pray you,” he begged his friend, “lie down and drink some water, and let us look after you. You are not well.”
Shelley had sunk to his knees. He was sweating, and trembling as if in a fever. Claire, who had scrambled off her cushion and retreated to the shadows at the edge of the room, stared. Polidori’s eyes were larger than ever. Immobilized by his injured ankle he looked repeatedly at the door, as if willing help to arrive and carry him away.
I found some of the courage Claire had recently accused me of losing. I stood beside Shelley and looked round the room. “Leave it to me!” I commanded. “I have seen him like this before. And,” I added, my voice breaking, “I am partly to blame. I should not have spoken my thoughts aloud.”
It was true. The heaving water, the fire in the sky, the demons which stalked my memory – these had all contributed to Shelley’s nervous collapse as much as the power of the story and his own unceasing anxiety.
I knelt beside him, but he would not let me touch him. “Look, how they whirl around the room!” he insisted, flailing his arm at the ceiling so suddenly that it almost struck my face.
I looked up. Around the walls was a marble frieze. Shelley may believe in his distraction that it contained the figures of the dead, but the strange thought came to me that George, Claire and Polidori, frozen by horror in the eerie light, resembled the marble carvings themselves. I longed for daylight and fresh air. I longed once more to run away from the unremitting oppression of the Villa Diodati, and hold my son in my arms.
“It is a dream, a mere dream,” said George. He was trying to soothe Shelley, but in his voice I heard the edge of hysteria. For all his enthusiasm for the “company of spirits” he saw that Shelley’s mind had succumbed to real terror, and he was frightened.
I strove to recover my composure. “Yes, it is dream,” I assured Shelley. “You shall be well, my darling. Let me take you home. You must sleep. Sleep will restore you.”
We did not go home. George sent for a physician, who gave Shelley a sedative and ordered that he be put to bed. Claire and I fell, exhausted, into a shared bed, since George was in no mood to be amorous. I do not recollect whether it was she or I who wept more that night. But each time I closed my eyes, the sight of my angel and master kneeling on the stone floor, fighting for his reason, rose in my memory. And it will stay there until I die, as indelible as the wine stain on my dress.
FOLLY AND CRUELTY
or three days after the night of the storm Shelley lay in a stupor at the Villa Diodati. When he awoke he was more melancholy than I had ever known him. His consumption of wine, already large due to George’s generosity, increased, and he continued to take sleeping-draughts in large doses. Some months earlier he had forsworn the consumption of meat or fish, and existed on a diet of greens, bread and olive oil. His skin, always pale, took on a translucent appearance. He looked more like an angel – or a Renaissance artist’s vision of an angel – than ever.
On Shelley’s return to our villa, George did not visit him. Handsome, amiable George was preoccupied with his own affairs, and ignored us all – even Claire, whom I suspected to be carrying George’s child. I was disappointed but not surprised. I admired George’s charm and easy manners, and the way he controlled Claire’s melodramatics, but I did not like him. I was sure he would betray Claire if some greater prize presented herself.
“Claire is with child, is she not?” I said to Shelley eventually, after waiting in vain to be told. “You must have forgotten that I am a mother myself if you think I do not recognize the signs.”
He adjusted his pillows – he had not yet risen from the sofa. “If you know, why are you asking me? Are you shocked that Claire has tried to trap George in the time-honoured way?”
“No, I am not shocked,” I replied coldly. “Neither by Claire’s folly nor by George’s cruelty.”
“Poor George,” he sighed.
“I merely point out that George is not a man to settle down to family life. He will not see Claire or her child as an impediment to his freedom.”
He poured a glass of wine, sipped it, and grimaced. “My thoughts are as bitter as this vile draught. I cannot stop thinking of Harriet, and my two children whom nobody will let me see. It is pitiful, do you not think, that a man should pay so dearly for the mistakes of his youth?”
“Very pitiful,” I agreed. “Shall I make you a pen, so that you may write down such a pathetic thought before it is lost in drunkenness?”
He took another sip. “I cannot speak to you when you are in such a humour. Please go away. I must rest.”
And with that he replaced the wine glass on the table and turned his face away from me, as petulant as a child.
I went into the kitchen and paced up and down for a few minutes. Then, my agitation subsiding, I wandered into the garden where Elise was playing with William. He was in the almost-crawling stage of babyhood. The nursemaid, in a dirty apron and a straw hat with a torn brim, sat beside him on the grass, righting him whenever he collapsed. I sat down on an iron garden chair to watch this pleasant scene.
In my pocket was a letter. The usual kind of letter, from the usual person. I took it out and reread it.
, Fanny implored,
do you and Claire not abandon your poet-lovers and return to our father’s household with William? Do you not realize the shame Mama and Papa are enduring? London society is now not only alive with gossip about you and Shelley, but Claire and Lord Byron also. They are saying that Byron cannot marry her any more than Shelley can marry you. So why do you persist in a style of living that will only end in ruin?