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Authors: Veronica Bennett

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BOOK: Angelmonster
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Shelley did not reply. Mama’s eyes held his face in a cold, quivering stare. “You are yourself the parent of a daughter, Mr Shelley. Would you not, in similar circumstances, do the same for her?”

I thought Shelley would buckle under this sly thrust at his own parental responsibility. But my anxiety was unfounded.

“You are correct, madam, in one particular,” he said. “I
am
the parent of a beloved daughter, to be sure. But my wish for Ianthe is joy greater even than that which your stepdaughter has given me. If, in willingly fleeing her family for new friends, she found the happiness lacking at home, I would give her my blessing!”

Mama’s outrage filled the room. She stood up.

“How dare you, sir? How dare you –
you
, of all people – accuse me of making my daughter unhappy? All you know is profligacy, adultery, seduction! And may God have mercy on you when your time comes!”

Trembling, stumbling over the hem of her gown, she hauled Jane to her feet. “Come, Jane, let us leave this place with dignity!”

There was no sound except Jane’s strenuous sobbing. She went with her mother to the street door. The carriage Mama had hired was waiting outside.

My feelings were stirred. Here, in this crudely furnished inn room, I saw for the first time what it might be like to be the protector of my own child. Would Shelley, with his fierce love for his little daughter, ever fight to preserve her honour as my father had fought to preserve mine, and as Mama now fought to preserve Jane’s? I looked at him, my eyes stinging. He neither moved nor spoke. I could not read his feelings.

Then Mama, stepping into the carriage first, released Jane’s arm and Shelley saw his opportunity. He seized my sister, sweeping her feet from under her.

Surprise made her scream, but within an instant she put one arm tightly around his neck. “Oh, Shelley!” she cried. “How brave you are!”

“Quick, Mary, coins!” panted Shelley.

I understood, and pressed some sous into Jane’s outstretched hand. As Shelley bore her away, she threw the coins at the carriage man’s feet, giving him rapid instructions in French.

He nodded, kicked the carriage steps up and closed the door.

“Au revoir, Maman!”
called Jane.
“Bon voyage!”

The driver whipped up the horses. Mama’s face, consumed by fury, appeared briefly at the window. Then she was gone.

Shelley deposited Jane on the cobblestones. “Can you not picture her,” he grinned, “pounding the roof of the carriage with her parasol, shouting to the driver to stop?”

“He will not stop,” Jane assured him, her tears drying on her cheeks and her eyes ablaze with admiration for Shelley. “I told him she has the cholera, and must be put on the first sailing, whatever her protests, to rid France of the infection she may spread.”

I had surveyed this scene from the door of the inn. Now I descended the steps and took Shelley’s arm. “You should invest in a parasol yourself, Shelley,” I suggested. “
That
would surely give the gossips something to talk about!”

THE TWO-HEADED GODDESS

F
rom Calais we went to Paris. Then we travelled farther and farther south.

Shelley had left a forwarding address, and at the hotel in Grenoble, near the Swiss border, we picked up letters. The three of us took them up to the bedchamber Shelley and I shared.

“This is from Fanny,” I said as I broke the seal on the only letter addressed to me.

Shelley heard my dismay and looked up from his own letters. But before I could speak, nausea rose. I felt hot. My ears buzzed. Unable to support myself, I leant against the back of his chair. I still had not told anyone about the child, but the child was telling me constantly of its presence. Pretending the French food did not agree with me was making Jane very suspicious.

They both looked at me. “What is it, my love?” asked Shelley. “Come, sit down.”

He pulled me onto his lap. Fanny’s letter fell unread from my fingers.

“Shelley, are you blind?” Jane demanded. “Can you not see that your ‘love’ is in the same condition as your wife?”

He looked at me with his abandoned-child look. “Are you, Mary?”

I nodded, ashamed, ready to cry.

“Why have you not disclosed this sooner?” he asked. “My dear, I have not been caring for you and the child properly! You must not walk so much! You must have a horse, or a carriage!”

“We have not the money for a carriage,” observed Jane.

Ignoring her, he caressed my face and hair. I accepted the caresses gratefully, wetting his collar with my tears. Then I blew my nose on Jane’s handkerchief, and felt better.

Shelley was smiling broadly. “Our own child!” He squeezed me. “How delightful it will be to have our own child! Are you not happy?”

“Of course I am happy. And so relieved!”

While I had been crying, Jane, who had never had any scruples about invading my privacy, had picked up Fanny’s letter. She took it closer to the window.
“I hope this letter does not
find you as it leaves me,”
she read.
“I am greatly distressed by a rumour which is circulating in London, and of which I feel I must warn you.”

“Only
one
rumour!” said Shelley good-naturedly.

“Shelley’s wife, Harriet, has been gossiping,”
read Jane.
“She is telling everyone that Papa allowed you and Jane to go off with Shelley for the price of fifteen hundred pounds. In other words, that he sold you.”

There was an astounded silence. My instinct was to laugh, but Shelley’s expression became serious. He slapped the table with the palm of his hand. “Harriet!” he exclaimed. “Treacherous, infantile, gossiping wretch!”

As he stood up, I slid off his lap onto his vacant chair. He snatched the letter angrily from Jane. “Fifteen hundred pounds!” he cried. “
Fifteen hundred pounds!
Can you bear to listen to this poison, Mary? I will never forgive her!”

“Harriet seeks not forgiveness,” observed Jane calmly, “but revenge. And if anyone believes that our father could do such a thing then they are ignorant scandalmongers worthy only of contempt.”

Shelley looked at her with interest. The flickering candle threw shadows on his face, and in his expression I read indignation but also mischief.

“I am shocked, indeed,” he said gravely, turning to the letter once more. “But what truly aggrieves me is the amateur quality of Harriet’s gossiping. Does she not care to find out the true sum, before she spreads the rumour abroad?”

Jane was staring at him. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that Harriet knows nothing of her own husband’s talent for business,” he said. “I would be a scoundrel indeed if I took two daughters off an honest man for anything less than
ten thousand
pounds!”

Jane gasped. Her small white hand flew to her small pink mouth. Above it her eyes bulged, full of delight and dread.

Poor Jane. She was the perfect butt of everyone’s teasing, always taking the bait and never understanding the joke. I had lived with this characteristic too long to find it entertaining, but for Shelley it was a novelty.

Suppressing an interruption from me, he leant towards her, highly amused. “Think, Jane!” he commanded. “Your papa, having extracted ten thousand pounds from his unhappy benefactor, may now pay his rent arrears fifty times over, and take new premises in a smarter district into the bargain!”

“Shelley, stop!” I scolded.

But he could not stop. Once a joke had suggested itself, he was unable to resist stretching it to its limits. He capered around the room like a drunkard, howling. My remonstrations merely added to the noise.

“How much for an arm or a leg?” he bellowed. “How much for a heart? Or a nostril? Or the nail of a great toe, indeed!”

In the midst of this madness sat Jane, pouting like a child. She was still not certain that Shelley was joking. I could guess what her gullible mind was imagining: Shelley and our father arguing about whether the daughter who shared Shelley’s bed was worth a larger proportion of the ten thousand pounds than the one who did not, then Papa slapping Shelley on the back, and shaking his hand, and signing a document.

Anxiety, mingled with suspicion, showed so plainly in her face that I took pity on her. “Jane, you goose!” I chided. “Have no fear that Shelley is serious. Do you not know by now what a jester he is?”

But suspicion, once aroused, is difficult to disperse. Warily she watched Shelley’s laughter ebb and disappear, and his face compose itself again.

“Why do you use me thus, you wicked man?” she asked him sharply, like a governess interrogating her charge. Jane would make a good governess, I had often thought.

Shelley bowed, then raised his eyes to her face without lifting his head. He looked like a wayward servant abasing himself before his mistress. “I do it because I
can
,” he admitted. “Because Mary is too astute to be taken in.”

“And I am
not
astute, I suppose?” demanded Jane.

“You are innocent, my dear.” As he said this he bowed lower, and kissed her hand. Into his eyes came a look I knew, loved, and dreaded. “And when we find innocence in this corrupt world, must we not cherish it?”

Jane rose and smoothed her skirt. There was agitation in her eyes. “We have an early start in the morning,” she said. “I am going to bed now, and I suggest you do the same.”

When she had left the room Shelley knelt beside my chair and put his head in my lap. “
Am
I a wicked man, Mary?”

“Of course you are,” I told him solemnly. “Why else do you think I love you?”

He raised his head. “Thank Providence you do,” he said softly. “Otherwise, I would be lost.”

I could not do otherwise than believe him. But I was capable of greater penetration even than he knew; I had seen that he needed something I was unable to provide. He loved me, but he resisted what he had tactfully called my “astute” nature. Equally tactfully he had referred to Jane’s slower intelligence as “innocence”, a quality I transparently lacked, but which he nevertheless found temptingly attractive.

His poems were full of immortal visions of feminine beauty. But could it be that Jane and I furnished him with a two-headed goddess more divine than any in his imagination? In us, had he found one perfect mistress?

His curly hair felt warm beneath my palm. A dart of affection entered my heart, and I bent and kissed him. As I caressed him, and watched his eyes soften like a dreamer’s, I told myself that jealousy is a madness greater even than the madness of love. And there is no escape from its torture.

Shelley, Jane and I were chained to one another, as securely as prisoners. Tomorrow we would continue our journey into Switzerland. The humdrum life Jane and I had known in England lay behind us. What lay before us, we could not know. Our fate was in the lap not of the gods, but of the two-headed goddess.

CONCUBINE

S
witzerland is a country of such dazzling beauty that every day unfolds a new joy. To live amid such glory is privilege enough, but to see it for the first time when already intoxicated with love, and in the company of the beloved, is heaven.

One evening, Shelley was sitting with his hand under the collar of his shirt, casting his eyes over the splendour of the Alpine view. Deep-blue shadows lengthened beneath the mountains. Green fields, bedecked with flowers, sloped to a lake which displayed a perfect upside-down picture of the peaks and the purpling sky. Beside him on the grass sat my sister and I in equal contentment.

To a passing stranger our party must have seemed mysterious in its composition. Two ladies, similarly dressed in muslin and light shawls, drinking wine with a man too young to be their father, too well-dressed to be their manservant, too affectionate to be their brother. The pretty face of one of these ladies was shaded by a bonnet, the brim of which was adorned with local flowers, but the other displayed to the world her bright red-gold hair, pinned up in windswept strands that had earlier been curls.

“Who is for a ghost story?” asked Shelley, pouring the last dregs of wine. “I can think of no better way to pass the hours before bedtime.”

“Oh, yes!” enthused Jane. “I have no inclination to return early to that sluttish landlady’s filthy rooms.”

“No more have I,” I agreed. “Last night Shelley found a bedbug the size of a halfpenny crawling up his arm.”

“Shelley, dear,” Jane urged, turning to him, “tell a really frightening ghost story! Make my flesh creep!”

Jane and I had always delighted in feeling our flesh creep. Papa’s mild disapproval had never discouraged us from reading every horror novel we could obtain – fashionable and unfashionable, of literary merit or otherwise. In Jane’s room, by the light of the dying embers of her fire, our education had been enriched by haunted castles, bloodthirsty murders, torture and depravity of a considerably more violent nature than Papa ever knew. These were subjects very appealing to our young minds, and much more entertaining than the needlework we always managed to “forget” to do.

Shelley was a showman, especially after wine. He jumped up and spread his arms wide.

“Indeed, can you imagine a more appropriate setting for a ghost story?” he asked. “Behold, the lake! The mountains! The cobblestones! The gathering dusk! The picturesque pony and cart winding its way up the incline…”

“But to the
story
, Shelley…” encouraged Jane.

He smiled conspiratorially, taking a leather-bound volume from his pocket. Shelley was never, ever without a book about his person. Usually poetry, but on this occasion a collection of ghost stories.

“Steel your nerves, ladies,” he warned us.

As the darkness gathered above the lake, the mountains disappeared and the village street emptied. Flickering candles began to appear at windows. No pony hooves or nailed boots broke the silence. Shelley’s voice was the only one we heard.

But while he read well, I found myself less interested in the story than in Jane’s conduct. I watched her edge gradually nearer Shelley until her leg pressed his. Both his hands were occupied in holding the book and turning the pages, but she found some exposed flesh between his wrist and his shirt cuff, which he had pushed a few inches up his arm. Jane’s excited fingers encircled his forearm, and she leant towards him, exaggerating her décolletage by squeezing her upper arms close to her sides.

BOOK: Angelmonster
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