Authors: Veronica Bennett
“Before you ask,” she said, throwing herself into the very chair in which I had found Shelley writing that morning, “I am
going back to live with Mama and Papa.”
“And Fanny,” I added.
Jane gave me a relieved look. “You see, even
understand how impossible it is!”
In those cramped rooms, as autumn darkened into winter and the candles had to be lit earlier each day, we three formed an uneasy triangle. Shelley, whose poetic output was great but whose talent as a salesman was not, published little, and we sank daily into further debt. I learned to cook and keep house, as we could not afford a servant. Jane trimmed her bonnets and hems, and dressed her hair, and bemoaned the unfairness of life. To my relief she did not return to her notion that Shelley preferred her. But, as if to confound me, she suddenly began to indulge a different fantasy.
“I no longer wish to be called Jane,” she announced one day at the breakfast table.
Shelley and I stared. The obvious question was on my lips, but Jane answered it.
“From this moment everyone will call me Claire. It is my new name.”
“Is there a reason for this change?” asked Shelley.
“You will do as I ask, will you not?”
Shelley nodded, and raised his eyebrows in my direction. I did not return his signal. Jane’s, or rather Claire’s, tendency to self-reinvention was as wearisome to me as it was to him, but in my case was tinged with sisterly indulgence. She was still the child who had played our “The man I marry will…” game. Although I was no longer such a child, I understood.
When Shelley had gone out, and Claire was in her room, I pushed myself to my feet and knocked on her door.
“Come in, Mary!” she called.
She did not rise from her dressing stool. She was putting on her best bonnet.
“Claire…” I began, experimenting with her new name, wondering if she would respond to it.
She turned brightly. “Yes?”
“Where are you going?”
“May I come with you?”
Turning back, she began to tease out little black curls around her temples. Her face was as smooth and expressionless as a doll’s. “Oh, Mary … you walk so slowly these days!” She tied her bonnet-strings and picked up her gloves. “And now I’ve hurt your feelings!”
“No, you have not.” I smiled, to show her I was not offended. “Will you talk to me awhile, though, before you go?”
She sat down on the bed, looking at me carefully. “Are you unhappy?”
“No,” I assured her. “But it is lonely, waiting in this comfortless place, day after day, for the child to be born.”
“And of course I
want to talk!” she trilled. “How well you know me!”
know her well. Or perhaps, as the friend and conspirator of her childhood, I knew only Jane. How well would I come to know this bolder, more calculating girl who had rechristened herself Claire?
“Come, sit down,” she said with her artless air, patting the bed.
It sagged a little beneath my weight. “The child grows fast,” I said ruefully.
“It will be a boy,” predicted Claire. “And Harriet will have another girl.
, not she, will be the mother of Shelley’s son.”
“I would like that,” I told her.
“It will be so,” said Claire, taking my hand. She looked at me with unexpected affection. “After the child is born, my dear Mary, you shall have a new gown. A beautiful one, more beautiful than the one you ruined by soaking it in water. Do you remember that night? What fun we had!”
“It seems long ago.”
“A great deal has happened since. But you and I are still those two merry people, are we not?” She gripped my hand tighter. “We have not grown so old and important that we cannot enjoy ourselves, have we?”
Smiling meaningfully, she took my other hand. “And we shall be merry again, Mary, I promise you. Merrier than we have ever been, and wealthier, and admired by all. We have escaped from Papa’s interminable dinner parties! Do you think that means we may never again have any sport with gentlemen, and laugh ourselves sick when they have gone?”
I withdrew my hands. “I do not understand you.”
At that moment we heard the door slam downstairs. Shelley, having taken the stairs three at a time, plunged into Claire’s room. He looked sweaty and red-faced; he had been drinking or running, or both.
“I have a son!” he declared triumphantly. “Harriet’s child is a boy, born two hours ago!” He was halfway out of the room again. “I have come back to change my coat. I must go to my father-in-law’s house immediately. Surely the birth of a grandson will encourage him to dig deep in his pocket!”
laire was wrong on two counts. Not only was Harriet’s baby a boy, but mine was a girl. She was born in the middle of a cold February night, and bundled so tightly that I could hardly see her little face when she was placed in my arms. I loosened the shawls, and she opened her eyes upon me for the first time.
Oh God, must I remember that moment? No one can know such love until they see their own child. It surged around me like sea water, obliterating all other feeling. I had drowned in love for Shelley; now I was drowning in love for our daughter.
But I was a daughter too. And after that surge of love came another of equal power – the recollection that my own mother had experienced this emotion on the day of my birth, seventeen years ago. I now knew how happy I had made her before she died. The secret, silent guilt that I had murdered her had weighed upon me for years. What could I do to atone?
Fancy plays curious tricks when the brain and body are exhausted. As I lay there, transfixed by the sight of my baby turning her head, searching for the breast, wanting to suck, wanting to live, the guilt of years began to trickle away. I told myself that fate, destiny, fortune – Shelley would not have allowed me to include God in such a list – had sent this beautiful baby girl as a messenger between my mother’s spirit and mine.
Mama, I offer you my child. Her life for your death. And I will bring her up as you would have brought me up. Strong, free, worthy of your love. Worthy of her grandfather’s love
Shelley held the baby and kissed her, declaring her the most beautiful child he had ever beheld. Then he kissed me and thanked me for my labours, and together we looked at our child.
“Your father will not resist the power of his first grandchild,” he declared. “Look how she grips my finger! I am confident we shall see him here within the day.”
Some hours later I awoke from a dreamless sleep to find Claire standing over me, the baby in her arms. “You have a visitor,” she said.
I raised my head from the pillow. “Papa? Is it my Papa?”
“It is not. It is Fanny,” she replied, placing the child proudly at my side. “She is impatient to see her niece. I have washed the baby and brushed her hair. Does she not look nice?”
“She does indeed. Thank you, Claire.” I squeezed her hand. “Where is Shelley?”
“He has gone to see Harriet and the children,” said Claire, arranging my pillows. “He will not be back before evening.”
I did not allow this news to wound me. I had become accustomed to Shelley’s manipulation of his relatives. He would use the new baby as a way of extracting money, as he had used the birth of his son a few weeks earlier.
Fanny and I had not met since before my flight to France the previous summer. When she entered the room, her face was full of apprehension. My heart swelled with affection. She had shown both kindness and bravery in coming to see me.
“Come in, come in,” I urged her. “Put down that basket and kiss me.”
She allowed Claire to take away the basket, brimful with spoils from my stepmother’s larder. Then Fanny took off her bonnet, deliberately slowly, it seemed to me, and sat beside the bed. She did not kiss me.
“We are all relieved at home that you are safely delivered,” she announced primly. “Our brother Charles sends his affectionate regards.”
“I thank him for them,” I replied, copying her sombre tone. “And what do Papa and Mama send, apart from a basket of food?”
“Papa sits in the shop, writing, hour after hour. And Mama has been crying ever since we heard the news.”
“They will not visit their granddaughter, then?”
“No.” She paused, fidgeting with her bonnet-strings, looking down at her lap. Then she seemed to make a decision, and raised her head. “Mary, I do not believe they intend to acknowledge the child. Papa is resolute.”
I held the baby tightly, my chin resting on the downy hair that Claire had brushed so carefully. “Thank you, Fanny.” Her moral sense was very strong; I knew she had struggled with her conscience. “You were right to tell me.”
“I did not know what to do,” she confessed. “You and I share a mother. I am of this child’s blood.” She leant towards me, her hands clasped tightly, her lip quivering. “I feel our mother’s spirit in the room. Now, as we speak. Do you not feel it too?”
Fanny had always been a nervous individual, prone to attacks of despair which had tried my stepmother’s patience sorely over the years. But I pitied her the joyless existence in the family home I had left. She was not my father’s child; neither was she my stepmother’s, and her own father was long dead. Apart from our mother’s two unmarried sisters, whom Fanny and I had scarcely met, her only true relatives in the world were my baby and myself.
“I felt our mother’s presence last night, when I first held my child,” I confessed. “She loved us, Fanny. Whatever else happens to us in this world, we can adhere to that truth. She loved us very dearly.”
Fanny put her head down. Sobs shook her thin shoulders. She wiped her nose on her glove. “Forgive me,” she kept saying. “Forgive me.”
“There is no need,” I told her. “It is you who have suffered for your forgiveness of
. You are the only one who corresponded with us when we were away, and kept us informed about the malicious gossip Harriet Shelley was spreading. It is that gossip, and Mama’s outrage, and Papa’s obstinacy, which has done such harm. You are blameless.”
She was looking at me with gratitude. “Oh, Mary, I wish you could come home!” she said warmly. Then, after a pause, “You are aware, are you not, that all Papa wants you to do is…” She faltered. She could not say it.
“Leave Shelley?” I suggested. “Of course! I shall deliver him back to his wife and children and appear on Papa’s doorstep with my baby in my arms, begging mercy. ‘Behold your prodigal daughter!’ I shall cry. ‘Take me in, and let me work in your shop!’”
Even Fanny, a stranger to gaiety, allowed herself a small smile. “You are not going to do that, are you?” she ventured.
The baby answered for me. She set up a loud wail, alarming her aunt and amusing her mother, and was not quiet again until I had put her to the breast. Fanny studied the tiny mouth working and the tiny fists waving. On her face was an expression of profound sympathy.
“If I could only be loved by a man like Shelley,” she said, “I would never leave him either. Truly, love is the only thing that can conquer all evil. Even death itself, as Jesus teaches us.”
Fanny’s visit assumed great importance in the light of subsequent events. I remember it even now with affection, as the one point of light in the dark world that embraced me only two weeks after my daughter was born.
Love can conquer evil, she had said. But what kind of love could possibly conquer the evil which befell us so suddenly, and snatched away our happiness? How, after the release from guilt which the baby’s birth had brought me, could I bear to be thrown into that prison again?
One night I laid the child down in her cradle before I went to bed. Shelley was sleeping in the drawing-room. The baby lay on her back, her head to one side, her fist denting her cheek in peaceful sleep. Instinct woke me a few hours later, at the hour she usually needed feeding. She was not crying.
I got out of bed and went to the cradle. She was still in the same position as when I had left her, so deeply asleep I was reluctant to wake her. It was when I slid my hands under her body to lift her that I felt my heart explode with shock. She was not asleep. The dent in her cheek made by her fist did not disappear when her hand was moved. She was quite, quite cold.
Summoned by my screams, Shelley and Claire rushed into the room. I remember the sound of their raised voices, and Shelley clasping the baby to his breast, his face convulsed. I remember Claire’s insistence that we call a physician and an undertaker, despite my pleas to have the small cold body beside me for the rest of the night. I remember Shelley, in the end, agreeing with her, and strangers coming up the stairs. After that I remember only darkness and muddle.
“Send for Fanny, send for Fanny!” someone’s voice urged.
But Fanny did not come. I learnt afterwards that Claire had written to her, pleading with her to comfort her sister at such a time. But no reply was received, and although Claire watched for her day after day, Fanny did not appear.
People, places and events distorted themselves in my feverish brain. I told myself that Fanny could not bear to enter the house where the baby with whom she had expressed such a profound connection had died. I begged my dead mother to forgive me for not being able to keep my baby from the same fate which had befallen her. I imagined them together in heaven, my child as she was when I had seen her lying in her cradle for the last time, my mother as she looked in the only portrait my father had of her. Stiffly-corseted, severe.
I felt I had lost my mother, my sister and my daughter because I had not deserved to keep them. They had been taken away as a punishment far greater than my father’s hard-heartedness. But
, when I had never wished anyone harm?
Driven by grief, my rebelliousness rose.
“Let us go back to Europe! Please, Shelley!” I implored. “Claire is wild to go. She says she cannot stay in England a moment longer, with people gawping at her as if she were a bear on a chain.”
Shelley’s eyes brightened. “Switzerland?”