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The Waking Dream

John Polidori (1795-1821) was personal physician to Lord Byron during the fateful summer of 1816...

London, Spring 1816

He clearly remembered when he first became aware of a hint of unease; a sense of otherworldly darkness. Before then in his life, of course, he had moments of disquiet in terms of worry and fretting, but they were normal daylight concerns.

He remembered as if from a great distance his medical training in the cool grey light of Edinburgh, his careful studies on sleepwalking and the huge effort in gaining his qualifications. These now seemed almost childlike matters as if that period in his life had happened fifty years previously, not merely from a distance of several months.

After a short time of anxiety of trying to gain a professional position to earn sufficient funds to keep himself, he had an extraordinary blast of good fortune. The gallant knight of Romantic poetry, Lord George Gordon Byron, no less, had summoned him for an interview. Polidori knew he had been called most likely on impulse or in a fit of aristocratic pique.

Merely because Byron, no doubt, was tired of his family’s aged physicians’ gloomy prognosis about a quiet country existence and settling down with the aristocratic equivalent of a broodmare being his best bet for a healthy life. He was looking for new ways of dealing with the lingering effects of a serious childhood illness.

John’s initial nervousness at meeting such an important personage in splendid surroundings had dissipated slightly, once he viewed the great man as a prospective patient with specific symptoms. He examined Byron’s afflicted foot and asked intelligent questions about previous treatments. His mobile face winced in response to the descriptions of torture masquerading as medical science that Byron had been subjected to as a boy, all from old-fashioned theories on weak bones.

His initial sympathy and evident intelligence had relaxed Byron’s usual defensiveness, and still stockingless and with his cravat undone, the great lord before him suddenly became the impassioned poet. He began to talk of his latest work, and as John eagerly joined in, they started to debate verse and literature as equals, both forgetting about the strictly allotted time that had been given for the interview.

As John started to expand on the subject of Dante, his limpid dark eyes aglow with fervour, Byron regarded him with a warmth that hinted at a meeting of minds, despite the social divisions between the two men.

They debated Wordsworth and the Revolution in France and the recent war with Napoleon until the light began to fade and the bewigged footmen came in with candles. As Byron called for wine and lazily asked his new friend to join him for a glass, John was dimly aware, without being explicitly told, the position was now his.

Even as he sipped the good claret, he knew this post, however grand, was not going to be necessarily easy. He was aware that Byron was under huge pressure that would no doubt affect his health and well-being. Even from within the relatively modest surroundings of the Polidori family home in London, the name of Byron had a whiff of notoriety.

As John, now his lordship's personal physician, accompanied Byron in exalted circles, he became all the more alert to such socially dangerous scandals. There were the increasingly risque affairs (the ones with women openly talked about, those with men but whispered), the vast debts and a short-lived, unhappy, rapidly unravelling marriage.

In the crush of a ball given by some duchess or other, John watched his patient carefully, as he managed to disguise his faint limp, a sure sign of tiredness. Despite this, Byron roused himself to his titillated audience of titled admirers and blazed like a star amongst the glitter of Regency society.

On John’s visits to a less distinguished part of London, the Polidori family were so proud of his access into London high society. They had mourned his voluntary exile to the far north to pursue his studies, but his Italian scholar father and English governess mother had put all their hopes in their oldest son’s brilliance.

Now, in return, at least by proxy, he gave them and his brothers and sisters an edited view of a glamorous London beyond the walls of their relatively modest surroundings. His mama and sisters clamouring for descriptions of what the ladies wore, and was Byron so good looking in reality? His papa just listened and smiled, so obviously proud of his successful son.

Of course, he knew any entree into society was all due to Byron’s influence, and his new friends would fade as soon as he left his position, but still, he could not help feeling flattered. Even though he realised that the men who offered him friendship exacted a price, that of access to Byron or his fortune; John was human enough to relish invitations to join elite clubs.

It caused a thrill of excitement to rub shoulders with the great and the good at the gaming tables, or to have a few rounds in the boxing ring at Gentleman Jackson’s high society establishment; as well automatic access to parties and soirees in exclusive mansions of the very rich.

At such elegant social gatherings, it was not only the men who were after Byron’s favour. As his personal retainer, titled ladies approached him coyly; fluttering their fans, giving him speaking glances or even occasionally briefly pressed their delicious, plumply-pale, silk-clad bodies against him for an instant. Even though it was all for Byron, he was man enough to enjoy the attention.

He did not think to object to this toadying behaviour, for was he not present as Byron’s loyal servant, his faithful chevalier? As well as dazzled admiration, he had grown to feel protective. For this world-weary man, not much older than himself, was inextricably trapped by a fatal combination of his noble birth and rebelliously poetic genius.

As a result, John did his best to diligently care for his patient’s health and stimulate his tired and anxious mind. As for the flurry of social solicitations, despite gently rebuffing them, he was still dizzy with such close association with his patron’s fame or infamy. It was thrilling to realise that with his own youth and good looks, together with his Lordships’ prestige, the double doors of the grand drawing rooms of London were flung open for him.

Also, this unprecedented access extended to professional courtesies from well known London doctors and men of science. John knew full well such attentions would never have happened without his intimate association with the name of Byron, unlocking doors like a magical key.

His thesis on sleepwalking was much discussed at such meetings with medical grandees, and one or two of the more forward thinking of these gentlemen asked his advice on his area of expertise and even invited him to examine and interview afflicted patients.

John saw this as a great opportunity to further his studies and took hastily scribbled notes, with a view to writing them up perhaps for a medical journal or paper when his lordship’s health did not take up so much of his time. As Byron’s personal physician he had to justify that appointment, but it did him no harm to have an eye to the future as well.

So why at this busy time of excitement and enjoyment was there this underlying feeling of unease? Even now, he could pinpoint that precise moment when he perceived it first. He was seated at a gaming table at an exclusive club one evening, close to midnight.

His eyes and attention were on his hand of cards. He had drunk, but not heavily compared to some of his fellows, as there were men at the table whose eyes were crossed as they tried to lay down their cards and so missed the table entirely.

John found a modest intake of alcohol quickened his gambling instincts and sharpened his senses. After all, he did not have a vast fortune to throw away in a single night at the card table like the assembled company here.

Then from nowhere, he sensed an icy cold draught on the back of his neck in the stuffy, smoky room reeking of candle wax. Someone behind him was whispering his name in a way that froze the very sweat on his forehead. Ghostly fingers trailed their way around the back of his neck that made him regret his fashionably short haircut. He glanced around quickly, but there was no one there.

One the men, mocking him as an adult to a child, great lord to an insignificant commoner, half-joked that the brief hesitation must mean that John had lost his nerve and his cards must be bad. He looked steadily at the malicious, flint-grey, glittering eyes in the flushed, arrogant, ham-faced visage, and smiling mechanically, he played his hand without fuss, taking care not losing too much or too quickly.

Almost imperceptibly, he quietly eased himself out of the game as the others continued to lose impossible sums and drink themselves into insensibility.

He was glad to get out of the over-heated room and on the way back to Byron’s London residence, he rationalised the strange experience and gave himself a talking to. Too much London influence and high living, he told himself. As he was let in through the solid front door by one of the footmen and entered the fine high-ceilinged entrance hallway; his luxurious surroundings still startling to him, he made his way up to his room with a rueful smile, keen to reform his ways.

He slept as if the very dead and woke in the morning with a start. Instead of feeling refreshed and bright he felt ill and oddly haunted. He looked in the mirror for a self-diagnosis and found his olive complexion pale and his dark eyes dull and shadowed.

He felt as though he had done ten rounds in the boxing ring with the Gentleman. Also, that strange whispered voice calling his name was ringing in his ears. He doused his head abruptly with cold water, dressed carefully and went about his duties.

For the next while, during the day, his concerns were all for Byron who, as his patient had begun to confide in him. Byron’s creditors were hounding him, and his wife’s family were making his life hell. What made that situation even more painful were the rumours, quickly spread in their tightly knit society, that he had fathered a child with his beloved half-sister Augusta, the result being that she could no longer visit him without scandal.

Byron missed her calming and supportive influence and became more unhappy and Quixotic. Then, his estranged wife had publicly declared him as, “mad,” rather than with the addition of, “bad and dangerous to know,” a less damning phrase that another lover had coined for him. As the pressure grew so did Byron’s need to escape.

“I can stand this place no longer, John,” Byron said in weary despair during a consultation, where his foot was evidently paining him more than he wanted to admit. Now that Napoleon was no longer a martial threat, a trip to the Continent seemed like the best plan.

Byron wanted peace of mind to commune with his poetic muse. He had been inspired by a recent friendship with a fellow poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who not only shared Byron’s radical views on life and poetry but had also been deemed a social outcast in the same way as Byron for leaving his wife.

With these shared circumstances, the idea of a poetic collaboration over the summer away from the outrage of their narrow and confining society seemed both a necessary decampment and creative opportunity. Plans were made, routes were drawn up and Byron’s strength returned to him at the very idea of this journey.

However, despite his enduring and optimistic support for his patient and master, John’s energy was sapped. This was nothing to do with his days or his duties but the increasing terror he felt each night, which had not abated by the following morning. He awoke spent, his nightshirt pulled up to his chest, the bed pulled about.

So convinced was he that he could not be alone, he even glanced over to see if a society lady had deigned to fill his bed for the night, as a pleasurable compensation for not having caught Byron’s eye. But his bed was empty.

Despite a sensual languor, any glimpsed memories were not of a warm armful of soft womanhood but a sensation of a cold, clammy, salacious slithering across his body.

Daytimes were bearable, and he gladly used the distraction of planning the journey and caring for his lordship. But when out in town at night, he felt himself looking around nervously around him at the dimly lit streets and felt an indefinable sense of danger that was nothing to do with the city hazards of footpads or cutpurses.

He often felt there was someone behind him as if he was being stalked by an unseen animal. If he closed his eyes he could almost sense the orbs of some looming, predatory creature glaring at him as he nervously glanced behind him. He took care to be accompanied on any rambles after dark.

In time, he got used to the nights; the sensation of being deeply unconscious but awakening with the bed thrown about as if in burning fever or heated passion. He learned to disregard this and embrace his daylight duties.

Then one morning, as he was donning his breeches, he noticed a mark on his inner thigh. It seemed to be a scratch so he automatically reached for something to cleanse it. Once the dried blood had been washed away, to his amazement he could perceive two neat puncture wounds just on the vein at the top of his thigh. He was puzzled and could not comprehend the fear this gave him.

He simply ordered a change of bed sheets to repel any fleas or similar blood-sucking irritants. Thus, he dismissed the incident from his conscious mind. He told himself that his weariness and lassitude must be a lingering illness to do with the pollution of the metropolis and once he was in bright sunlight and the clean, country air of the mountains, this would all fade like a dim nightmare.

The travel arrangements were finalised, and he and Byron left in a blaze of publicity for Switzerland, for a golden summer of poetry and stimulating company.

 

Villa Diodati, Lake Geneva. Summer 1816.

After a smooth passage through Belgium, they finally arrived at the villa Belle Rive that Byron re-named in honour of the family he had borrowed the house from. As they made the final approach, Byron pointed out the gracious building on the edge of the clear blue waters of Lake Geneva, framed exquisitely by the distant mountains as if a pastoral scene in a perfect landscape painting. John marvelled at the view and hid a smile at the airy way his lordship referred to this magnificent mansion as a mere summer villa.

During their progress through the Continent, Byron seemed to have thrown off his gloom with each border they crossed further away from England’s shores. John was glad of this, as he had a received a letter from Byron’s publisher warning him that Byron’s wife’s family had made public his marital transgressions.

John made sure to keep this unwelcome news from Byron for the sake of his patient’s health. He knew all too well that London Society would only react further to this tidbit with damning outrage.

In no time, they settled into the gracious villa, with all the arrangements and household staff a pleasing combination of all that was charmingly French and efficiently Swiss. By this stage, Shelley had arrived at a more modest establishment a little way along the shore. On visiting him with Byron, John noted quietly that this residence was a cottage in truth, rather than just in name.

Having eagerly anticipated Shelley’s company, Byron was full of enthusiastic plans for the summer. Not only was he eager to collaborate with Shelley in a literary sense, but was looking forward to his company. It helped that, as well as being like-minded in poetry and politics, the two men shared a love of swimming and boating.

Therefore, Byron had devised several schemes for outdoor expeditions in the predicted balmy days of a long, hot summer. These prospective outings were designed to exploit to the full the potential delights of the beautiful lakeside surroundings.

John was just glad to see Byron so happy in mind and as a result, stronger in body. For himself, however, he was not so sanguine. His strange night-time unease persisted, following him across Europe like a stray dog.

Privately, he was not just looking forward to such exuberant outdoor distractions but counted on them almost desperately. He told himself that in the spacious, delightful surroundings of the villa, his disturbed nights would fade into natural, healthful sleep.

Aside from his own peace of mind, there was a distinct threat that Byron’s good name (or what remained of it,) would be further compromised. To John’s hidden dismay, Shelley was not alone at the cottage. He had brought with his constant companion, Miss Mary Godwin and their infant son William; the very association that had condemned him in the eyes of society, as he was seen to be casting off his lawfully married wife and child at home in England. This echoed Byron’s circumstances uncomfortably.

Even more ominously from Byron’s point of view, the final addition to the party was Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont.

She was one of a number of women who had run after Byron in London before he tired of her after the briefest of affairs. Byron was flattered that she had crossed half of Europe just to see him, but her enthusiasm for his company also made him wary; as her feelings for him were not reciprocated in the way she obviously hoped.

He made sure that they were not left alone, and only spoke to her if she was in the company of her sister or brother in law. John noted, with a quip that he kept to himself, that the sexually adventurous and notorious Byron seeking out chaperonage was a concept that would have scarcely been believed in the gossip-filled coffee houses back home.

With Byron’s full consent, Polidori kept up a correspondence on their continental tour with Mr. Murray, the publisher of Byron’s works. The fact he would be paid handsomely for such a memoir took any pressure off Byron’s precarious finances. John showed each instalment of the journal for Byron’s approval and in his musings, he wrote of their summer visitors in such a way that the most respectable dowager who glanced over it could not flinch, and would even be slightly disappointed by such decorous behaviour.

He knew that whatever he wrote would not be taken at surface value, but have other salacious meanings put upon it, as scandal would cling to Byron’s coat tails whether deserved or not; but John could but try. Byron, so often exploited and then bad-mouthed by those who courted his company was genuinely warmed by the sincere show of loyalty.

Although John kept up the role of a personal physician, the men were now firm companions rather than simply lordly employer and humble employee. This cemented their friendship as apparent equals. However, John was interested to note that Byron, in contrast to the open manner of Shelley always had the touch of the great lord about him in his demeanour.

Despite this, Byron increasingly confided in John about his personal fears for his health and his future; but even though John felt honoured by such unburdenings, he did not sense that the friendship extended to such equality of shared feelings.

He instinctively perceived that such confidences could not be reciprocated, and told himself did not want to bother Byron with his own vague disquiet, especially as the feeling vanished like a London fog when he tried to find the words to describe it. Even if Byron noticed John’s weary visage, the result of his tortured nights, nothing was mentioned and John felt he could not speak of such nightmarish visions for fear of being mocked or blanked.

Byron talked of his life in England with such disgust on his handsome features, as though it were a disease that he was recovering from. He said frankly to John that he could not countenance a return. As his physician, John could not but agree that the stifling social conditions and marital pressures in London made Byron ill both with physical and mental strain.

As Byron talked, ideas and plans formed in his imagination and he began to speak impassionedly of returning to his beloved Greece and making it his home for the foreseeable future. In this way, John knew without being told explicitly that their association would be over after this summer, with Byron heading further south like a bird seeking sunlight, and John would return to London.

So, Polidori not only made up his mind to enjoy the flow of conversation and radical ideas of Byron and Shelley for these few short months but also to put in order the medical notes he had brought with him. He made it his task, while the great men were writing exquisite poetry and prose, to properly amend his thesis on his specialist subject of sleepwalking. Murray’s advancement for his memoirs would not last forever and he would need to be employable and have his professional life in order ready for the autumn.

Shelley’s presence evidently relaxed and inspired Byron, but John knew that even the association with a political radical and atheist like Shelley would only increase his notoriety at home. The presence of the woman who society condemned as Shelley’s mistress was bad enough, but a one-time lover of Byron’s too!

John winced at the thought of what the scandal sheets would invent about wild orgies taking place amongst the members of the party, especially given Shelley’s outspoken advocacy of free love.

Despite the ever-present threat of scandal that accompanied Byron, this was agreeable company indeed. John found he relaxed in Shelley’s presence, which was not difficult as he was the most convivial and generous of men, who wore his heart, as well as his radical ideas on his sleeve.

Given Shelley’s political and social theories, John was not surprised that Miss Godwin was an equal partner to Shelley, as any contribution from her showed her learned pedigree and her evident intelligence.

However, the one element that they were all relying on that could have helped the group escape inner and outer tensions failed them miserably. Mary later described those months together as a “wet ungenial summer.” John discovered that this unexpected weather was evidently caused by some natural catastrophe on the other side of the world, but at the Villa Diodati, it changed the mood from the expectation of carefree outdoor fun to dull and restless confinement.

After each sodden day became a week and then a rain filled month, they became resigned to the fact that the Villa Diodati could not be used as a comfortable base from which to swim or sail, or to enjoyably explore the countryside from each and every day. Instead, the gracious mansion became a refuge, even a prison.

oOo

As Byron became restless and bored, John did his best to entertain him with books or enlivening conversation. His own peace of mind was too set on edge, tainted by the great wafts of mist rolling in from the silent, gloomy lake as though a portent of something dark and ominous. He started to avoid going down to the shore, as in the wet gloom he swore he could almost hear that dreadful, ghostly voice whispering his name, getting ever closer.

He tried to dismiss such primitive superstitions and put this pervading sense of unease as due to bad dreams and the oppression that the poor weather put on the activities of the household. As a distraction, on Byron’s behalf, John accepted an invitation from an eccentric neighbour to view his menagerie as his lordship was well known for his affinity for animals. It was a pleasant outing and Byron forgot his boredom as his delighted host introduced him to an exotic array of tame creatures.

Byron’s favourite was a small monkey who climbed on to his shoulder, chittering charmingly in his ear. Byron joked with John that such a picture would convince society of Byron’s lewdness since, in previous centuries, a poet’s portrait with a monkey was a knowing symbol of outright sexual debauchery.

As the pretty little creature clung to a laughing Byron, it glanced fleetingly in John’s direction. Looking into its bright eyes even momentarily, he was seized by a forgotten memory of the previous night.

He had woken at dead of night as if his name had been called softly by a familiar voice. For a confused moment, he thought he must be outside as he could see stars about him, but when his mind cleared a little he realised that could not be so. Not only was he in the comfort of his bed, but those bright pinpricks of light, unlike the fixtures of the night sky, seemed to be drawing rapidly and inexorably closer.

He tried to move, to speak but found that although his mind was now screamingly awake, his body would not respond at all. He was lying there as if in paralysis, gazing in a kind of fixed terror as these bright sparks of malignant light came closer still.

He could bear the tension no longer and with a force of will closed his eyes. There came a faint noise, perhaps a gust of wind outside, perhaps a breath, even a snarl, followed by a momentary piercing sensation and blissful unconsciousness.

The next morning saw the Shelley’s and Claire arrive from the cottage to shelter in the comfort of the far larger establishment. Mary, with the natural fear of a new mother, was anxious for John to check the baby’s health, fearing the cottage was damp with all the inclement weather.

John was relieved to be drawn from his night terrors to the mundane tasks and routines of his practice. He acknowledged that it was about time he faced his own strange happenings with a medical and scientific eye, and during yet another wet day, he wrote in detail of his experiences. He decided that even though he had not stirred out of his room, that it would help to study what he was experiencing to add to his notes on sleepwalking.

The presence of the few extra people seemed to make the grand reception rooms of the villa a little less empty and forlorn. Despite the relentless chill in the air, the inhabitants of the Villa Diodati felt warmed not only by the ensemble but also the heated energy of rebellious conversation. John became accustomed to Shelley and Byron either busy writing together at a desk, one or the other breaking off to discuss a newly written passage for the other’s insight and opinion.

This picture of creative inspiration was made all the more interesting by the ever-present Claire. She was either hovering on one side of Byron or the other, inevitably leaning over their work with exclamations of pleasure and interest, evidently enjoying the male attention and always eager to catch Byron’s notice.

It was an elevating group undivided by social or gender restraints. Shelley relied on his peer to correct or help him with his work and asked Mary’s opinion with evident egality. John felt himself in exalted company indeed, with a free and frank exchange of ideas that was almost intoxicating.

John felt the creative force flowing from these talented people and this almost convinced him to write some trifle of his own, but no inspiration came to him. So he returned to the more familiar layout of his detailed medical notes and his faithful, if edited, journal for Murray.

Otherwise, John took to sitting with Mary, as she told him the romantic story of her and Shelley’s forbidden love. This started at literary meetings at her father’s home and progressed to secret assignations at her mother’s grave, while the lovers quoted passages from her most famous work vindicating the rights of women.

He grew to admire her intelligence and her devotion to Shelley, regarding the match as a meeting of true minds. Claire, he decided, was quite another matter; not leaving Byron alone, always making sure to arrange her ripe figure in a certain pose so that her considerable bosom almost fell out of her low-cut bodice in front of his face. Without any other amusement, given the weather, it was clear Byron could not help but to give into her blatant advances before long.

In John’s opinion, given the hopes on the lady’s side and the indifference on the gentleman’s, this was a disaster waiting to happen; especially as Mary had confided in him as a physician, that Claire thought she might be pregnant as a result of her short fling with Byron in England earlier that spring.

oOo

Since the dreadful weather did not look to lift at all, Byron had decided to have a change of tactics in his carefully laid plans. Despite collaborative attempts, neither of the poets were inspired by the gloom and damp, and Mary also looked strained under the pressure of having to compose something in such pressurised circumstances and poetically exalted company. If the days were uninspiring, then Byron decreed that they would create by night.

So one chilly evening, Byron ordered the shutters to be closed and the logs piled high in the great open fireplace and all the available candelabra to be lit as the guests gathered in the elegantly proportioned drawing room. The staff seemed stoical at what might be considered a strange request, evidently now used to the eccentricities of their temporary master.

John felt inwardly glad that with the shutters closed there was no chance of that lurking lake mist pervading the room. It was a pleasant relief to gaze on the heat of the living fire and the flicker of candlelight around the assembled quintet.

With the scene now set to his satisfaction, Byron leaned against the fireplace looking every inch the heroic figure. With one shoulder resting against the mantel, he started to read from the ‘Fantasmagorica’, a famous collection of German ghost stories. Thus, each of them was challenged to write a ghost story of their own.

John marvelled at Byron’s theatricality and his ability to create an impressive atmosphere, even given the limited number of close friends about him. As he started to read in his measured and lyrical tones, the stories caught the imagination of all present, and the reactions were typical of their personalities.

Byron’s expressive eyes glowed as he read, a stray lock of hair falling onto forehead as he intoned each phrase with passion. Shelley sat nearby, leaning forward in order to catch every word, his face lit with enthusiasm, drinking it all in. Beside him, Mary sat quietly, holding Shelley’s hand, her whole demeanour reflecting silent composure at each ghoulish tale.

All the while, Claire was creeping ever closer to Byron, shrieking with deliciously frightened shock at every story until was near enough to jump into his arms. John surmised that this was not so much a genuine result of alarm at the stories but rather the spellbinding allure of the storyteller.

As Byron had decreed, the party from the cottage was to stay each night at the villa until his literary experiment had succeeded. It was the early hours of the morning when Byron’s voice finally tired, and they retired upstairs to their bedchambers, each clutching a candelabra and trying not to start at the murky shadows along the dark, silent corridors.

One night during this project, John awoke suddenly at the sound of a scream. His heart pounding, he felt momentarily relieved that the sound came from without, rather than from within his room. Given the bedroom arrangements, he hesitated before climbing out of his bed, as a propriety against disturbing a fit of fear-induced passion. However, when the cry came again it was clear that it was of pure terror.

As he left his room, he saw Shelley rushing towards him, clutching a candle, seeking his assistance. As they returned to the bedchamber he shared with Mary, he garbled that she was having a terrible dream that he could not wake her from.

When both men arrived at the bedside, Mary was lying in bed, eyes wide open but in a sort of trance, unable to speak or communicate. John spoke to her quietly until she began to respond and her eyes to close and to drift off naturally into a normal sleep. Having reassured an alarmed Shelley, John went back to his own bed and blissful unconsciousness.

It was a late-rising group the next day, given the late and disturbed night. At breakfast, Mary was very pale but collected, and quietly acceded to Shelley’s request to tell the company about her strange experience. She started to describe what she called her, “waking dream,” as if it were a vision: a nightmarish jumble of modern man’s scientific endeavours and what horrors that might unleash in the wrong hands.

Her voice did not falter as she told of what her mind had conjured in response to the nightly diet of ghost stories; a ghastly creature deliberately assembled from various body parts re-animated with a spark of electricity as a hideous scientific experiment.

She was visibly trembling as she finished her tale. Shelley announced to the breakfast table that Mary must write this down, and was visibly proud that she alone from the group had managed to be inspired by Byron’s literary experiment. Later, John took her aside to discuss her experience, so that he could add her, “waking dream,” as an addendum to his copious notes.

He was concerned that this might distress her, but rather, Mary seemed reassured and comforted by his academic interest.

“I knew you would understand such night terrors,” she said calmly.

This made him wonder how much she had noticed of his evidently disturbed nights. He mused on the power of dreams and the phenomena that could make them seem so real; a dim memory of a snarl and a flash of something sharp gleaming in the darkness made him shudder, even in the cold light of day.

oOo

The sexual and creative tensions of the villa simmered. Byron’s and Claire liaison was explosive at the very least; in some ways, it seemed like Byron could barely stand her, but he could not resist her either. Claire’s overbearing admiration of Byron was almost to the point of obsession. John was only glad that she had not set her sights on him.

Claire was very desirable physically, with animated features and a full figure, shown off to succulent advantage in the sheer muslin gowns of the current fashion, but John could not find her attractive despite the pretty packaging. She was too rapacious and needy and he also felt that she did not compare favourably with her step-sibling’s fierce and self-possessed intelligence.

Her eagerness to continue the affair with Byron, and her evidently swelling belly, made John wonder at Byron’s gathering plans to depart for Greece. He did not doubt that Byron was keeping this quiet from her, or no doubt the redoubtable Miss Clairmont would suddenly appear in the Hellenic isles in the guise of a Grecian nymph!

Those late nights of ghostly storytelling by the roaring log fire became the norm, with the servants tucked up in their beds and the five of them arranged around the fire. The flare of Claire and Byron’s connection began to dominate those late evenings, when like a moth to a flame, she could not bear to wait a moment longer without touching him.

John, although a doctor, and so accustomed to the human body, came from more conventional stock than the others and tried to be as relaxed as Mary and Shelley at the increasingly sensual behaviour unfolding brazenly in front of them.

Byron was sitting in the winged chair by the fire, Claire wriggling on his lap, the thin fabric of her dress pulled nearly up to her knee as she lounged across her lover’s lap, eager to distract him from his reading aloud to the others and to have his attention alone. Almost as if to quiet her, Byron’s hand cupped her swelling breast through her low cut bodice. She turned to kiss his neck, her bodice gaping so that his fingers could slide easily under her neckline.

In her enraptured response, Claire’s skirt slipped further up her legs, past the knee and the firelight danced on the creamy curve of her inner thigh, the shadows hinting at the delights above. As John admired the wonderfully voluptuous and unselfconscious view, he noted that this was not an episode best to be included in the public journal.

In bed that night, he closed his eyes to recall that deliciously erotic appearance. Now he was alone, he could simply enjoy the memory of the sight of Claire’s near-nakedness without any complications of the real woman herself.

The images were clear in his mind’s eye as he sensed a slight depression on the bed, as if something had lightly landed there beside him. He half-opened his eyes, almost unsurprised to see those familiar bright stars so close to him. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw these bright orbs slowly morphing into a sweetly human face, almost feline in its prettiness.

He felt a sense of delicious shock as his gaze trailed over her body. He saw she wore only a black lace peignoir, completely open at the front, inviting his eager touch. Her long blonde hair trailed over John’s face as he gladly fondled the revealed expanse of pearly skin. Who would have thought that such desirable flesh could be so icy cold? He marvelled.

He felt a movement on the other side of the bed, so light as to be only just noticeable. He turned his head and almost moaned with desire as he saw another delectable creature, dark-haired and opulent. She was leaning over him hungrily, quite naked apart from a several stranded crystal necklace gleaming about her throat.

As the two houris writhed over him, he realised that this sensation was oddly familiar. This was no dream, no sleepwalking phenomena. Somehow, only now could he hold onto the remembrance of the sheer pleasure, along with the unnerving sensations it produced. As his lips moved from one rapacious mouth to the other, his rational mind wondered if it were the gloomy atmosphere heightened by the nightly diet of ghost stories and the vivid sexual intensity between Claire and Byron that had brought this to his conscious mind.

His base instincts took over as these rapacious, exquisite, animalistic creatures brought out a side in him he had never embraced before. His explosion of pleasure was intensified consummately by the piercing sensation near his groin.

When he awoke the next grey morning he was alone, and the bed was tumbled as if by a storm. He was drained and weary but he no longer feared or questioned what had happened to him; in a strange way, he found it liberating and inspiring.

When he went downstairs, the household was already engaged in the occupations for the day. Despite continuing with the nightly stories, Byron and Shelley were resigned to a lack of new inspiration and were simply adding to unfinished works in the drawing room, with Claire ever-present between them.

Mary sat in the morning room at a desk by the rain-splashed window, writing page after page, painstakingly building on her nightmarish vision in novel form. As he entered the room, she looked up, smiled briefly and carried on with her work. John put all his papers on the unoccupied table and sat down.

Taking up his pen, John pushed aside his sleepwalking notes and reached for a fresh sheet of parchment. In those final, damp days of summer, he started on his own, brief, literary work, entitled ‘The Vampyre.’

 

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