Authors: Veronica Bennett
“Ach!” said my stepmother in disgust, and turned her face to the peacock-covered cushions.
“My dear child,” my father began again. “I fear you do not understand the seriousness of this situation.”
“What situation, Papa? That I have fallen in love with a young man who has fallen in love with me?”
“Yes, that situation. And no, not that one.”
“Get on with it!” demanded Mama.
“As you know, the young man in question, Mr Shelley, cannot make you his wife,” said my father. “He is already married, although it is true that he and his wife are estranged.”
“It is true,” put in Mama, “that he abandoned her to misery and humiliation!”
I could not allow this. “It is
true!” I protested. “She has turned to another man, and is carrying his child.”
My father looked at me with pity. “Mary, there is no doubt over the paternity of Mrs Shelley’s second baby. She was already with child when her husband left her.”
“I do not believe you.”
I knew my father’s intolerance of scenes, so was resolved upon keeping my temper and countenance. My tone was measured, my voice calm. I could not tell them that my “friendship” with Shelley had already become much more than that, and that I had reason to believe there would shortly be another child to consider, of whose paternity there was also no doubt whatsoever. The complexities of Shelley’s private life were more sensational than they, or anyone, knew.
“I know more of what has happened between him and his wife than you do,” I continued. “You are repeating rumours in a way that grieves me, and will grieve Shelley when I tell him.”
“Grieve Shelley?” said Mama scornfully. “And so it should!” She snapped her fan shut in a way that could have only been designed to irritate and pointed it at me. “You must never see him again. I forbid it.” She glanced at my father. “Your papa forbids it. You will stay at home and help in the shop, and Mr Shelley will be prevented from visiting. This situation is intolerable. We shall be the laughing-stock of London.”
“Mama is concerned for your reputation,” said my father.
“No she is not!” The bitter words came out before I could stop them. “She is concerned for her
reputation, just as you are concerned for
The colour faded from Papa’s face. “My dear,” he said, taken aback, “I assure you that is not the case.”
“I do not want your assurances!” My resolve to avoid a scene was faltering. “I want to know why you consider it so scandalous that Shelley should fall in love with me! I am not a fool, Papa. I know that when you married my mama she was already carrying me, and that she was never married to Fanny’s father at all. How can you disapprove so violently of
He paused before he spoke. When he did, his voice was icy. “You do not understand, child.”
“I do, Papa! I understand that you do not want your principles of freedom to extend to me and Shelley. To me because I am your daughter, and to Shelley because you persist in considering him as a benefactor, and you do not want your financial association with him tarnished in any way!”
He was rarely angry, and I was frightened at the severity of his countenance.
“Papa,” I ventured, “I do not wish to make an enemy of you. But I will not give Shelley up. I am resolved.”
“Resolved upon ruin!” interjected Mama. “William, the girl has taken leave of her senses.”
“Shelley is not what you think, Mama!” I protested. “He will care for me, and as soon as he is free of his wife he will marry me!”
They both looked at me as if I had, indeed, taken leave of my senses.
“Is that truly what you believe?” my father asked. He was staring at me without blinking. “Does it not occur to you that you are the
young lady, barely out of childhood, whom this man has pursued? What induces you to think that
will fare any better than poor Harriet?”
I was ready with my answer. “Because he loves me and not her!”
“And do you not think he loved her when they eloped?”
Frustration is ugly in a girl of sixteen. I clenched my fists, and my face grew heated. “But he had not met
then!” I cried. “If he had, he would never have considered Harriet. Why do you not understand that I love and trust him?”
I looked imploringly at Papa. “Did you never love my mama enough to trust her? Do you not want me to be happy?”
Throughout this outburst my father had watched me, his expression saddening. When I was silent, and had begun to cry, he took my hand.
“Mary, my dear, I
want you to be happy. But Shelley is not the man to give you the happiness I would wish for. He is not honourable – no, do not protest. We none of us know everything about him. He tells us only what he wants to. He is wealthy but uses his money in a profligate manner. Do you honestly wish to attach yourself to this man?”
I did not hesitate. “Yes, sir, I do.”
As I sat there in the drawing-room with my small hand enveloped by my father’s large one, the rebellion which had long been stirring inside me surfaced. There was no escaping the truth that Shelley
eloped with a willing sixteen-year-old. But now he had another willing sixteen-year-old to elope with. Indeed, he had two. We could not leave Jane, our little accomplice, to face my parents’ wrath alone.
My father rose abruptly, and was about to quit the room when Jane opened the door without knocking. She had been crying. In her hand was a letter. She seized my hand and thrust the letter into it.
“He is waiting in the shop! Quick, read this and go to him. Quick, quick!”
“Why are you crying?” I asked her, mystified.
Mama was hurrying towards me. “Give me that letter!” she demanded. “I suppose he thinks himself very clever, to have got in by the shop door!”
Jane stood between me and her mother. “I cannot imagine it needed much ingenuity to enter a shop during trading hours, Mama,” she said.
“Insolence!” She tried to get past, but Jane barred her way. I unfolded the letter.
Have no fear of what your parents say they will do. We shall still be together, I promise you. Jane shall bring your letters to me, and mine to you. She is a dear girl. Please forgive me for causing you all this distress. I did not know I would fall in love with you so hopelessly, and by the time I had, I was far beyond being able to let you go. Please, please write
Your true love, Shelley
At the same moment that Mama at last succeeded in twisting the letter out of my grasp, we heard footsteps climbing the uncarpeted stairs from the shop. Jane yelped in dismay, but I was filled suddenly with the strength which passion bestows. I threw open the drawing-room door, neither caring what my parents saw nor what they thought of it.
Shelley was standing in the hall with one hand holding his hat and the other on the back of his neck. The sight of this familiar gesture filled my heart, and I ran into his embrace as if I belonged there. I
belong there. I held him tightly, speaking close to his ear. “What will you do? Will you take me far away, to France, or farther? Do you know that Jane speaks perfect French? Please, please let us go away from here!”
He released me. Mama shouted for him to quit the house. But he strode into the drawing-room and faced her and my father without fear.
“Madam, be quiet, if you please,” he instructed. “I wish to bid farewell to my future wife in peace. Yes, by God, I
Mama was shocked into silence. Jane, who was still half-crying, put her hand over her mouth.
“And as for you, sir,” said Shelley sternly to my father, “if you abided by your principles you would not object to anything that has passed between your daughter and me. A man should not be bound by the shackles of marriage if he finds a superior love.”
My father did not reply.
“Make way,” ordered Shelley. “I will take my leave now.”
He bowed to them, and, turning to me, kissed my hand. His eyes said, “I will never be allowed into this house again, even through the shop!”, as he spoke aloud, “I hope to see you all on a happier day. Until then, goodbye.”
t first it was a game. Intoxicated with freedom, our spirits remained high all the way to Dover in the carriage, and all the way to Calais on the boat.
I will never forget the sight of Jane on the windy deck, her bonnet-strings flapping about her chin, clutching her wayward skirts, screaming with laughter. And Shelley, his hair wild, his eyes wilder, roaring poetry, the words whipped this way and that by the gale. I held his arm so tightly I could feel his bones through his flesh, shirt, jacket and greatcoat. I was drowning in love.
At the inn in Calais, Shelley and I were too excited to feel tired.
“Tonight is our wedding night!” he said, laughing and kissing me. “Although, of course, we had no wedding…”
“And, of course, you are about to find that your bride is no virgin…”
“And yet her virginity is mine,” he replied softly.
My heart began to thump. If only Jane could hear Shelley when he was at his most romantic!
“The whole world will know I am no virgin now we have eloped,” I reminded him.
He ceased his kisses. “Oh, Mary! Does it trouble you that you are a ruined woman?”
“Not at all. A ruined reputation is without doubt the only kind to have.”
“You will go to hell, dearest.”
“You don’t believe in hell,
, so how can I go there?”
Very late, I awoke from a brief sleep to find that Shelley had opened our bedroom shutters to the moonlight. He looked pensive but released from care. Reaching for his travel-stained shirt, he pulled it on over his head like a child.
“Why have you no nightshirt?” I asked.
“Because I have lived so long with nobody to see to such things. I was cast adrift. But now you are my anchor, and I am cold. Warm me up.”
It was late July. The cheap room, high up in the eaves, was airless. But I put my arms around him and we lay and talked, and he took me and ruined my reputation further, and we talked more.
I did not tell him about our baby. I wanted to keep the news inside me, as deeply embedded as the child itself, until the moment came to reveal it. My happiness was real, but even on that momentous night I was aware of the ease with which happiness, like other fragile objects, can be destroyed. What had happened, I wondered, to the happiness of Harriet Shelley, in the arms of whose husband I now lay?
As the sky lightened over the roofs of Calais, Shelley slept. I lay curled up, my arms around him under the dirty shirt. He turned onto his back, snuffling like a dog. His head lolled off the bolster. He did not look handsome, but the sight of him stabbed me with desire.
Angel, lover, master. All these adored things, until a few weeks ago utterly unknown, lay beside me in this foreign bed. The fancy came to me that Shelley, too, was as safe and adored as a baby inside its mother. My love was stronger than my parents’ outrage, or Harriet’s prior claim, or Shelley’s father’s dismissal of him. Only death, I was convinced, would part us from one another. I kissed his unshaven cheek.
But it was not my kiss that awoke him. The sound of raised voices made us sit up. Groaning, Shelley put his head in his hands.
Mama had pursued us. She was arguing with the landlady in the fluent French she had learned in her youth and taught to Jane. Her voice was accompanied by the noise of the ebony handle of her best parasol repeatedly striking the door of Jane’s chamber, which lay opposite ours.
She began to shriek in English, “Jane! Jane! I command you to see me!” Another parasol strike. “If you do not open the door, I will have this woman instruct her servant to break it down!” Two more strikes, then what sounded like a kick with a stout boot. “Open the door this minute!”
The cacophony was enough to wake everyone in Calais. Shelley slid out of bed and looked through the keyhole. He put his finger to his lips, stifling giggles. His bare feet noiseless on the wooden floor, he mimed Mama’s shuffling gait. He tied imaginary bonnet strings and waved an invisible parasol. I stuffed the corner of the sheet into my mouth.
Then all was quiet. I heard a door slam and the land lady’s footsteps descend the stairs. “Jane has let her in,” I whispered. “What shall we do?”
Shelley was putting on his clothes. “
shall do nothing,” he told me with authority. “
can deal with this.”
“But she is
stepmama, so –”
“You and Jane are my responsibility.” He was bending towards the mirror, hastily brushing his hair, and the shoulders of his coat, with my hairbrush. He inspected his reflection. “But if your stepmother thinks I intend to take
along with my two dear girls…” He looked at me in horror. “Get dressed and meet us downstairs. She will be on the next sailing home.” He struck the hairbrush defiantly upon his other palm. “And without Jane, I give you my word.”
He was just in time. Mama and Jane emerged from the room opposite as he opened our door. Both saw me in the instant before he closed it again. Both conveyed messages – contempt on Mama’s part, anguish on Jane’s. I did what Shelley had instructed; stepping into my travelling gown, I fairly flew down the stairs and tumbled into the public room of the inn.
“Mama…” I began, but Shelley gestured to me to be silent.
He was standing at the empty fireplace, his hands in his pockets, his eyes alight. Mama’s bulky form filled an armchair. Jane, her luggage at her feet, wept softly into a handkerchief.
Poor Jane, I thought. She loves to imagine fictional dramatic scenes but is powerless to deal with a real one.
“I insist upon it, Mr Shelley,” Mama was saying. “I must save my own daughter from the clutches of infamy while I can.” She nodded in my direction. “My stepdaughter’s fate is out of my hands, but Jane has nothing to do with you.”