Published in Deep Water Literary Journal, this story is inhabited by the same characters as another story of mine, Recovered Memories. I managed to get a lot of mileage out of the Byron/Shelley encounter — two stories and an opera.
At the very moment that Mary Shelley entered the drawing room of the Villa Diodati a fresh breeze came up from Lake Geneva, the force of which blew open the French doors leading to the terrace. Nature seemed to beckon to her directly, inviting her outside to take in the glorious view. She held a newly arrived letter from England and was eager to read it, but she decided that the letter could wait a few moments more. As Mary stepped onto the terrace she was greeted by an overwhelming profusion of sensory delights. The meadow that went all the way down to the lakeshore was rife with wild flowers, the balmy air was suffused with a heavy sweetness. The distant mountains of the Jura sported a coating of snow and beneath them the lake sparkled. It was a splendid scene. This day in late June of 1816 was the first sunny day in many weeks. All living things now reveled in this respite from the unremitting rains. Mary went back into the drawing room, hoping to read her letter undisturbed.
With Byron and Shelley away on a sailboat tour of the lake, Mary and her half-sister Claire Clairmont had the place to themselves. But they weren’t completely alone. There were the servants, of course, and then there was John Polidori who resided in the villa as well. They all called him Polly. He served as Byron’s personal physician and traveling companion. Polidori was born of an Italian father and an English mother. Although still only in his early twenties, he had earned his medical credentials in Scotland the previous year. Polly, small of stature and slight of build, was endowed with the swarthy good looks of his father. His primary function in Byron’s service was to provide the poet with the ‘special stimulants’ to which he was addicted. John Polidori had not been asked to join the party in the sailboat. This was one more thing that irked him to no end. Until the Shelleys and Claire showed up in Geneva he had had Lord Byron all to himself. After their arrival, and especially after the move to the villa, he had been pushed aside. Polidori was now treated as little more than a servant.
Claire stormed into the drawing room, clearly overwrought about something. She threw herself onto the settee. The moods of the two sisters on this day could not have been more different. Claire was devastated by the contents of a note left for her by Lord Byron. Mary had received good news from London.
Claire’s dark curls shook in agitation. She was on the verge of tears. “I can’t believe it! How could he do this to me?” she wailed.
Mary ignored her as she usually did when her younger sister was in a dither. “Oh Claire, look, it’s a letter from Thomas Peacock; he’s found us a house not too far from London, in Marlow. Percy and I will finally have a home to call our own!”
Claire continued to stare at the short note. “He has forbidden me to come to the villa alone.” She read the exact words for Mary’s benefit, with exaggerated deliberateness: Only in the company of Mary and Shelley will you henceforth be welcome in this house. The note fell from her hands to the floor. “How cruel Albé can be!”
“You know how strong-willed he his. I warned you from the beginning that you were playing with fire, but you wouldn’t listen.”
Claire’s suspicions were suddenly aroused. “Did you know about this?”
“Well….yes. He did mention it to me on one occasion.” Mary’s casual tone did little to mollify Claire who promptly exploded in a rage.
“And you didn’t tell me? You’re in league with him against me, I see that now!”
Mary grew increasingly exasperated with Claire’s tedious outbursts. “I’m sorry, Claire; and nobody is ‘in league’ against you.”
“But why? What have I ever done to him? I’ve been so attentive to Albé; he knows that.”
“You’ve been too attentive, and that’s the whole problem.”
“Too attentive? Whatever can you mean?” Claire conveniently overlooked the fact that she had pursued Byron in London a few months earlier with a fierce determination to become his lover. She succeeded. When she later discovered that she was pregnant with Byron’s child she concealed that fact and maneuvered Mary and Percy into taking a trip to the continent. Claire knew that Byron was going to be in Geneva, at the Hôtel d’Angleterre. They simply showed up, unannounced. Byron had already tired of Claire before he left England. Although he was delighted to finally meet Shelley, whose work he greatly admired, he was not at all pleased to see Claire again, and especially not to hear her bit of news.
Polidori entered the room unobserved by the sisters. They barely acknowledged his existence anyway. He made his way to Byron’s writing desk in one corner of the room. It was conveniently unlocked, affording him unfettered access to Byron’s letters and documents. The first paper he picked up was the draft of a letter Byron had sent to his half-sister Augusta in England. He read the opening words aloud, barely audibly: My sister! My sweet sister! If a name dearer and purer were, it should be Thine! He flung the page onto the desk in disgust. “Well! Still after the sister, are we?” he hissed. “And see where that has gotten you—disgrace and exile!” He recalled how Byron had been forced to leave England when the rumors of his alleged affair with his own sister had become too shrill. Polidori knew that the rumors were true. Continuing to rummage through the pile of papers before him, he found the particular manuscript he was looking for and secreted it in his vest.
Mary picked up her letter again. Her ebullient mood could not be so easily dampened by Claire’s whining. “It’s called Albion House. Isn’t that lovely? Our cottage will be a refuge in which Shelley’s poetry and my novels come into the world.”
“And what about me?” shot back Claire. “Don’t forget that I have something coming into the world: a child! Where am I to go?”
The reality of this situation sobered Mary considerably. Of course, she could not abandon her sister, and their parents must never learn about this sorry state of affairs. She and Percy would be stuck with Claire for many months, even years. They would never be alone. It was a depressing thought.
Polidori had found another copy of a letter sent to Augusta: And even at moments I could think I see some living thing to love, but none like thee. “Milord, don’t you see? You are blind!” He no longer made any effort to restrain himself and was nearly shouting. “Am I not a living thing to love? You loved me once. But here—I curse this place! I curse the whole lot of you!” With that he stormed out of the room.
Polidori’s dramatic exit barely registered with Claire and Mary.
“I do wish that odious man Polidori would be more considerate,” Claire sniffed. “He’s always huffing on about something or other.”
Immersed in her own thoughts, her mood much deflated, Mary remarked, “Life has so many disappointments.”
* * * * *
There had been a kind of contest a few weeks before, Byron challenging Shelley to see which of them could come up with the best ghost story. Due to the inclement weather they were confined to the villa; they had to amuse themselves somehow. Shelley wrote an eerie poem about a corpse in the wintery moonlight. Byron wrote a story about vampires, but it remained unfinished, just a draft. And this is the manuscript that Polidori purloined from Byron’s desk. He planned to rewrite it in his own fashion and pass it off as his own work. He was going to become a member of the literati, one way or another. After much pleading by Polidori, Byron had reluctantly permitted him to participate in the reading of their individual stories. Polly’s ghost tale wasn’t quite finished in time and he became quite flustered while reading it aloud. Byron had humiliated him, had declared before everyone that it was the work of a schoolboy, not worth the paper it was written on. Polidori seethed but said nothing. Several times he had overheard Byron encouraging Mary to continue work on her own story, some nonsense with the ridiculous title of Frankenstein. Polly was sure it would come to nothing. She was only a woman, after all.
That very afternoon the two poets returned from their extensive tour of the lake. The party gathered on the terrace that evening as the fine weather continued to hold. Byron took the floor and recounted the highlights of their expedition. The undertaking had been a great success, but it had not been without some dangers. Their most harrowing experience had occurred one afternoon when they were caught in a squall in the middle of the lake. Byron had pleaded with Shelley that it was time to abandon the foundering boat, but Shelley wouldn’t budge from his place at the tiller. It turned out that Shelly couldn’t swim. Polidori listened to these tales in silence. Nobody asked his opinion anyway. He thought it was ridiculous that a man like Shelley, a man with a passion for sailing, couldn’t even swim. These people are utter fools, he thought.
Throughout the evening Claire sat as far from Byron as she could manage. She sulked the whole time. Mary had regained her equanimity and was genuinely interested in hearing about every detail of their travels. Shelley hardly said a word. He gazed upon Byron with a look of profound admiration and affection. When Byron was done recounting anecdotes of their adventures he turned to Polidori. “Polly, we’re in need of refreshment. Bring us some drinks. There’s a good fellow!”
It was the first time since they came out onto the terrace that Byron had even acknowledged his presence. Polidori was prepared for this moment. As a physician he knew all about potions, about which ones could cause a man discomfort, or severe pain, and which ones could kill a man outright. He had carefully concocted a special brew. He went in the house and returned with a tray of drinks. He was careful to serve Byron last, keeping his glass at the back of the tray. As he picked up the glass Byron stroked Polidori’s hair in a gesture of unexpected intimacy. Polly relished the moment; but it was too little, too late. Byron’s attentions were fleeting and insincere; he saw that clearly now. He wondered how he could have been so taken in by the great Lord Byron. The love and admiration he once harbored for the poet had turned into a blinding hatred.
The poet abruptly turned to the others. “Allow me to propose a toast. To my dear friends! What a glorious summer it has been. And especially to you, my dear Shelley, my brother in the dominion of the Muses. Our vision is poetry: grasping for the moment, living in the essence, making deep connections, seeing all the patterns, becoming an instrument of the everlasting universe of things.”
Polidori again took his place on the low balustrade, not even daring to sit in a chair. He listened to Lord Byron’s fine speech, knowing how easily such words came to the poet. These florid phrases would be forgotten moments later, just as Byron had so easily forgotten the pledge of friendship and affection he had made to him during their journey across the continent. Just words.
George Gordon Lord Byron lifted his glass. “To poetry!” he exclaimed. The others echoed the phrase. Byron touched the rim of the glass to his lips and downed the amber liquid.
“Polly, what have you done?!” he exclaimed, flinging the glass to the ground and clutching his throat. He staggered towards the doorway.
The others immediately rushed to his aid, but John Polidori looked on calmly. He felt quite pleased with himself at that moment.