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The Accumulating Man: A Missing Journal of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff · Mar 27, 2019
13,968 words · 51-minute reading time

Photo by Larm Rmah via Unsplash.

From the author: “Still, thou canst listen to me and grant me thy compassion. I demand this from you. Hear my tale. It is long and strange...” — Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley // This story is the genesis tale for the Shadow Conspiracy series of steampunk anthologies from Book View Cafe. It appears as the first "chapter" of the original Shadow Conspiracy tome.


Geneva, Switzerland -- 1816

— My Friend, Immanuel —

The Villa Diodata was just as I remembered it--square and upright and sun-washed...at least on those days when the Sun could be encouraged to shine on us. God knew that I needed sunshine and, as we pulled through the front gate in the barouche George had put at our disposal, Sol came out in full glory, bathing the façade of the house in warm light. My heart swelled and my arms tightened reflexively around my child. We will be happy here, I promised him.

We were five traveling from France--myself, Percy (whom I call my husband), my step-sister Jane, my infant son William and his nanny, Elise. I hate to say that we are fleeing, but of course, we are. Fleeing ill-health, certainly, but also conventionality, and approbation. For Percy is still wed to another in the eyes of Church and State, and Jane conceals a pregnancy that only I know of.

We established ourselves quickly in the house, Elise and I setting up the nursery for my little “Willmouse” in the cozy dressing room of my own suite. (Do I reveal here how many times in a single night I rise to be certain he still breathes? Too many.) By the time we had done with that, and the servants had dealt with our baggage, it was time for Tea. Strange, how even when one eschews the conventions of “normal” English life--the devouring of meat, say, or Anglican piety--one must have one’s tea. It is as if the beverage is a spiritual touchstone. Let the world fling itself into seizures of war and poverty and outrage against humanity--as long as there is tea, we shall manage.

I saw my little William off to sleep in the early afternoon and sat a long while at his cradle, watching. Too long for Elise, for she came to me with that straight-forward Teutonic cheek that I so admire and said, “Mam, the child is fine. See how he breathes good and deep? Go have some tea now. If he needs watching, I can do it as well as you. Indeed, I think my eye clearer, as I’ve more sleep.”

Elise, at fifteen, is an imposing woman--tall, blonde, statuesque, and with an aura of such steel about her that I find it hard to believe she was ever a child or that she moves and bends like a normal human being. 

When Tea had been observed and with my son still napping under Elise’s clearer eye, I determined to walk to Petit-Lancy to a bookshop I knew there. To be sure, there were bookshops in Geneva proper--some quite close by--but this bookshop reminded me of my father’s establishment in Somers Town. It was a lovely hodgepodge of books and games and stationery and smelt of paper and binding glue. It was well worth the two mile walk to the Chemin de Vendee, and the Sun was with me.

In the bookshop, I gravitated toward poetry and philosophy. One does, I suppose, when one loves a poet and has been raised by philosophers. I experienced a strange little thrill when I saw that my mother’s book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women sat upon the philosophy shelf. I could not help but take it down and caress it, opening the pages and touching them gently, as if Mother--wherever she might abide--could feel my touch. I had barely known my mother in the flesh, but I knew her in spirit intimately.

“Young lady,” said the shopkeeper, peering at me from behind his counter, “I think perhaps you would be more interested in the novels.” He indicated a shelf near the window where resided works he apparently felt more appropriate for one of my gender and age. 

I smiled. “Novels bore me, for I’ve nothing in common with the heroines. But this is about me, after all.” I held up the book and quoted: “‘Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.’”

“Alexander Pope,” said a deep, warm voice from just to my left. I looked up and beheld a young man perhaps in his mid-twenties, looking down at me from a considerable height. He leant against the corner of the bookshelf, a small stack of volumes cradled in his arms. 

“And what tome is it, Miss, that our good Bardeau does not think appropriate study for you?”

I showed him the volume. Sleek sable brows ascended into his hairline and his eyes--large and coffee-dark--widened in surprise. I awaited the inevitable gasp of scandalized sensibilities.

“Tsk. Shame on you, Miss, for daring to presume that you had any rights to vindicate. You’d best put that volume down before it stains your gloves with infamy.”

I caught the twinkle in his eye and laughed. “Oh, certainly, sir. How well you put it.” I returned the book to its place (for I had my own copy) and moved to find something else to purchase. I located a volume of poetry and essays by Mr. Pope and, having had such recent occasion to quote him, I smilingly purchased that. 

Monsieur Bardeau warmly agreed that this was a far better reference for a young woman than “Mrs. Godwin’s polemic.” I considered letting him know that I was the author’s daughter, but instead merely observed, “Monsieur, if you don’t like the book, why do you have a copy of it on your shelf?”

“Who said I didn’t like it?” he asked with a Gallic shrug. “I merely think it is perhaps too adult an argument for a young English lady to be exposed to.”

“Why, Monsieur!” I remonstrated, feigning indignation. “If a female in this society is to be aware of her rights as an adult, should she not be exposed to them as a young lady--nay, even as a child?” God knew I had been.

Monsieur Bardeau had no response to that, but I heard a deep chuckle from the opposite side of the philosophy shelf. I suspected my anonymous gentleman friend. Smiling, I took my book and crossed the street to the little park where I found a sun-dappled bench to read upon.

I had been there for perhaps twenty minutes with Mr. Pope, and was contemplating the walk back to the Villa Diodata, when a shadow of considerable size fell over me. I looked up into the handsome face of the man from the bookshop.

“Pardon,” he said, bowing slightly. “But I do hope M. Bardeau did not frighten you into purchasing something you didn’t want.”

“Oh, no!” I protested. “I had already read the ‘polemic’ in question. But I left my volume of Pope in England.”

“Ah. Good. I thought your answer to him just now was quite apropos. When, indeed, should a woman become apprised of her rights if not at your age?”

“You grant that I should have rights then, Monsieur?”

“Dessins,” he said bowing. “Immanuel Dessins. And yes, you are a child of God, and therefore your rights are inalienable.”

“That is not a sentiment shared by many of your gender.”

“I apologize for them...and their sentiments.”

I glanced at the paper-wrapped package he held, tied up and suspended from a bit of twine. There must surely have been four volumes in it, at least. “You’re an avid reader, then?”

“Yes, though these aren’t all for me. I, too, purchased a volume of Pope for my fiancée, Lucille, who loves poetry above most things. I don’t say ‘all’ for I flatter myself she loves me best. The rest are medical journals.”

“You’re a doctor?”

“I will be...soon, I hope. Currently, I am a student at the Academy of Geneva. I hope to finish my degree within the year.”

“I’m impressed,” I said, and quite meant it. My new acquaintance was not only a man of great physical beauty, but his manner was cordial, sunny, and gentle. I applauded the inestimable Lucille. “I know what strivings are required for such a calling. I have known a great many doctors.”

As if he saw the shadow that passed through me at that absurdly mundane remark, Immanuel frowned. “Have you been unwell, Mademoiselle...?”

“Mary,” I said, offering my hand. “Mary Godwin...Shelley.” I smiled, hoping he would not note the slight hesitation. 

He did not. “Godwin! You are the daughter...?”

“Yes. Quite.”

He glanced back over his shoulder at the bookstore and then laughed. He had a lovely laugh--a laugh that put me in mind of well-lit hearths and snug reading nooks, and cups brimming with hot, creamed and sugared tea. He took my hand and bent over it.

“Bonjour, Mary Godwin Shelley. I am pleased to have met such a paragon of restraint. If I were you, I fear I would have embarrassed M. Bardeau horribly by revealing myself.”

“No, you would not.”

He shook his head ruefully. “You’re right. I am bound to my Hippocratic oath to do no harm and my Christian duty to repay impertinence with civility.” 

He bid me good-day then, wished that we might meet again at the little bookshop, and hoped Lucille would enjoy Pope as much as I did. Then he swung away across the park, whistling, his strides long, graceful, and confident. 

 Immanuel, I thought. Meaning God is with us. I hoped it was a further portent of good fortune.

#

— Byron —

 In the following days, I walked to the bookshop in Petit-Lancy whenever weather permitted--which was not as often as I’d hoped. It was a churlish spring, stingy with sunshine and sparing with warmth. Yet there were fine days and, while my little Willmouse slept under Elise’s watchful eye, I took advantage of them.

I met Immanuel in the bookshop nearly every day and we would browse and buy and sit on the park bench talking of philosophy and politics and medicine and art. Immanuel’s heart returned ever to his beloved Lucille. His face lit from within when he spoke of her, this paragon of womanhood. And I admit, I was impressed with her, even second-hand. She had loved the Pope and wanted more poetry, so I contrived to send her a copy of one of Percy’s most recent works, which our friend Tom had suggested he entitle “Alastor.” Lucille was even, Immanuel divulged, interested in reading my mother’s work and wanted to know if she had written any novels. 

I started to say that my mother’s novels were possibly not appropriate reading for a young woman like Lucille, but caught myself at a wry glance from Immanuel. We laughed at my silliness; I recommended that she read Vindication instead, as it was easier to find. Why even M. Bardeau had a copy!

“Are you a writer too?” my new friend asked me, and I hesitated before saying, “I pen this and that. A story here and there. Nothing worth publishing. Who would wish to read my thoughts?”

“I would,” Immanuel protested loyally. “You have good thoughts, Mary.”

As did he. He spoke much of his passion for medicine and his desire to study malaria and other parasitic diseases. He spoke with conviction and passion and yet, an extreme gentleness of spirit. And as he spoke, he gestured with his elegant, long-fingered hands. His gestures said that, if he could, he would cradle the entire world in them.

And so, when I returned from Petit-Lancy one evening in the gathering twilight, to find that George Gordon, Lord Byron had arrived at last, I was struck by the contrast between Percy’s old friend and my new one. 

Byron’s carriage arrived as I stepped in through the garden gate. A soft misty rain had begun to fall and we entered the house together with him complaining that, “The Damned rain followed me like a stray cat, all the way from Lyon.”

His first words to my poor pregnant step-sister when she hurried into the hall to meet him were, “You look like hell, Jane.” 

Her first words to him were, “I am to be called Clara.”

”Very well,” he replied. “You look like hell, Clara.”

She went up to her room to pine and George rang for the butler and bid him hasten supper. 

It was only when I entered the drawing room that I realized that George had brought someone home with him. It was a young man of surpassing beauty, by which I mean that he surpassed George’s own vaunted good looks. You will understand, therefore, my surprise that George should tolerate him. Only over dinner, for which Jane-Clara had been coaxed from her room by her love’s flashing eyes and dashing smile, and Percy had come out of his study, his fingers stained with ink, did I discover why he did so.

Dr. John William Polidori, George informed us, was a brilliant physician whom he had retained as his personal medic. The doctor had “ideas,” George said, that would revolutionize the practice of medicine and that would save George himself from the predations of his own many complaints. 

Do I sound cynical? I was not then--or not entirely. I didn’t dislike George, but I did find his self-obsession tiresome. I bore with him for Jane’s sake and for Percy’s, for he and Byron were like flint and steel--they sparked each other’s muses. Alas, I sometimes believed they fed each other’s demons as well.

I cannot be so ungrateful. Were it not for our friend’s graciousness and largesse, what we told ourselves was a lover’s holiday would have been revealed as an exile. Truthfully, I was glad of Dr. Polidori’s presence on several counts. First of all, with his willing medical ear available, George would be less inclined to sigh into ours. Second, my baby boy now had a live-in physician; my fearful heart could rest somewhat easier. Directly after supper, I went up to the nursery to hold my Willmouse and fill Elise’s head with praises of the good doctor. She was impressed enough to peek at him over the banister as he and George left the house to take an evening stroll. 

“He’s very pretty,” she told me after. She opened her mouth to say more, then shook her head and put a finger to her lips. 

“What?” I asked. 

“He looks at the lord strangely,” she said, blunt as always.

“As if he loves him?” I suggested.

“As if he studies him,” she replied.

— Polidori —

 George set Dr. Polidori up in the coach house with a laboratory in which he might experiment with his “brilliant ideas”--ideas George assured us would set him completely to rights. No amount of cajoling on my part or Clara’s or Percy’s could get him to divulge what those ideas were. I soon came to the conviction that he didn’t know what they were because the doctor was every bit as secretive with George as he was with the rest of us. The half of the coach house in which Polidori worked was shuttered and locked. Our host even had the door to the adjoining stables bolted.

Of his experiments, the dear doctor would only say (with a sweet, boyish smile) that he was building a machine.

A machine. I tried very hard to imagine what sort of machine would heal Lord Byron’s deformed foot and straighten out the labyrinthine passages of his mind, but I was at a loss. 

One afternoon on my way into Petit-Lancy, I passed rather close to the coach house and heard the strangest sounds coming from it. There was a humming like the chorus of a million angry bees, then a pop, as if someone had opened a bottle of champagne. Then came a rhythmic swishing sound and a second, softer hum. After a moment, this died away and I distinctly heard a man’s voice raised in anger. There was no reply, so I assumed the anger was directed at something other than another human being. 

Only when the sound of the swarm started up again did I realize that I had drifted over to the rear door of the coach house and stood with my ear practically pressed against it. Embarrassed, I cast a furtive glance around and hurried to the bookshop. 

Immanuel was there, and he had no more than said “good-day” to me when I launched into an excited narrative about the strange sounds coming from our coach house. I explained about Dr. Polidori and that he had some idea of aiding Lord Byron through some of his maladies. It would be tragic, after all, I opined, if one of the greatest poets of our time were to find his soul captive in a failing body. In truth, I was ravenously curious about what Dr. Polidori could be doing that required such industry.

It was not until we were walking side-by-side to our park bench that I realized how quiet was my partner. I laughed. “I must strike you as a feather-brain, indeed, to go on so about what is probably nothing at all.”

“No, not at all,” said Immanuel.

I glanced up at him sharply, for the tone of his voice was uncharacteristically solemn and heavy. His expression, likewise, seemed to have lost some of its vivacity and his eyes...

“Immanuel, what is wrong? Please tell me that nothing has happened to Lucille.”

“No. Lucille is well.”

“And everything is all right between you?”

His mouth gave a wry little twist that nearly broke my heart. 

“Have you fallen out with each other, then?”

He shook his head--a strange, awkward movement--and it struck me suddenly and forcefully that his gait, his posture, even his face were subtly less graceful than usual.

“I seem to have fallen out with myself.”

I stopped him at the bench. “You are ill? Well, come with me, then, and see Dr. Polidori. Perhaps he can offer some medicine.”

He smiled at me, then, and some animation returned to his face. “Something that Dr. Dessins cannot offer?”

I laughed at myself again for having forgotten what studies my friend pursued. “Now you must really think me silly.”

“Never,” he said, and together we sat and chatted. 

But though he conversed with me and smiled again, and his eyes occasionally sparkled, still there was something indefinably wrong about him. His speech was not as quick, his facial expressions less refined, his movements almost graceless at times. I went away from our encounter with a creeping dread that he was ill and knew he was ill and simply did not wish me to know it.

 Arriving at the villa, I took my time passing by the coach house and heard, coming from it, the same sounds as before, except that this time, the strange buzzing was sustained and I distinctly heard John Polidori cry out, “That’s it! By God, that’s it!”

Another voice said something in response that I could not make out, though the lilt of the voice was distinctly Italian and had the inflection of a query. One of the servants, then. Perhaps even Polidori’s man, Foggi. 

Polidori’s reaction to whatever the other man had said was swift and emphatic: “No! Nothing! You will say nothing until we have made it work on...!” He paused and pitched his voice lower so that I could not hear. 

I found myself edging closer and closer to the rear door of the building, wondering if I might peek through the doorframe. I had reached out my hand to the latch when I heard Polidori’s voice again just on the other side of the barrier. 

“Yes, yes!” he said impatiently. “The rabbit. We want the rabbit.” 

I retreated swiftly to the house, where I found Percy and George in the drawing room conversing idly over snifters of brandy. 

“George, what is Dr. Polidori building in the coach house?” I asked. 

Lord Byron stared at me over his brandy as if I’d spoken to him in Hindustani. “I have no idea what John is building. Indeed, I thought his talk of a machine was sheer fabrication--a dodge. What makes you ask?”

I sat upon a low ottoman and described what I had heard, including the shouting just now. “Clearly, he’s done something he considers exciting. You have no idea what he’s working on?”

George shook his head. “None. Except, of course, that it’s supposed to cure me or save me from my various curses. God, was ever a man so vexed?”

I stared at him. Perhaps no man, but many a woman was, including myself. I could have reminded him what I had suffered in the past two years--losing a daughter born too early, waking numerous times each night and running to William’s crib to make sure he still breathed. I think, for a moment, I almost hated my beloved’s narcissistic friend.

“Surely, Dr. Polidori will soon have some great medicine to offer you,” said Percy. “He works in his lab day and night and what might he be working at but your salvation?”

“Will you ask him, George?” I inquired. “Will you ask him what he’s doing?”

“If it pleases you,” said George indolently, but I could see that I had lit the fire of curiosity in him and it wasn’t long before he rose and excused himself to go outside. “For a walk,” he said, but I watched him from the front window and I saw that he went toward the coach house.

I was upstairs with William and Elise some half-an-hour later when Percy came into the nursery with a bemused expression on his face. 

“What is it, love?” I asked.

“He won’t let George in.”

“He...you mean Polidori? Dr. Polidori won’t let Lord Byron into his own coach house? Extraordinary.” I laughed at the thought of the good doctor holding the lord at bay. George was nothing if not assured of his rights in the world and I could only imagine what response Polidori’s refusal evoked.

Percy nodded, a curl falling across his brow. “George was beside himself, at first--you should have heard him. It took John fifteen minutes to calm him down.”

“What reason did he give for his secrecy?”

“He doesn’t want to disappoint his patron--to raise his hopes only to dash them. He wants to be sure that he can offer the best possible solution to his problems.”

Well, he had certainly disappointed me. “He would divulge nothing?”

“Only that it was the complete solution he was working on. Not a palliative. Not a brace for the club foot or a medicine for the black moods, but rather a complete cure for ills both physical and spiritual.” He smiled and Helios rose from the horizon. “If he can do that for George, Mary, might he not also expel my demon moods?”

Might he? “Is such a thing possible?”

“John Polidori thinks so, and therefore, George thinks so.”

When Percy had left the room I turned to Elise and found her looking at me shrewdly. 

“Here, you wily miss,” I said, “what are you thinking?”

“That you want to know what goes on in that coach house, Mam.”

I smiled at her, and suddenly we were two young girls, plotting together. I leaned forward, prompting my darling Willmouse to peep in surprise, then cradling him more comfortably, I said, “An Italian servant works with Dr. Polidori.”

She nodded slowly. “His valet, Paolo Foggi. I sometimes take him his tea when the downstairs maid is not available.”

“Do you now? And does he sometimes want a bit of conversation with his tea?”

Scopriamo,” she said, her eyes wide and uncharacteristically innocent.

“Yes,” I agreed. “Let’s find out.”

#   

Foggi was not immediately forthcoming, but Elise was nothing if not persistent. She began to take him his tea every day and, over a period of several days, M. Foggi conceived the notion that Mlle. Elise was enamored of him. As I had hoped, the desire to impress her began to loosen his tongue. 

The doctor was keeping small animals in his lab and had charged his man with their care and feeding. This was the first intelligence that Elise brought me. I had suspected the presence of animals in the lab, of course--or at least of rabbits--but Elise had discovered that there were squirrels, cats, dogs and even a capuchin monkey. 

Elise laughed in the telling of all this. Paolo had divulged it in high disgust. 

“I am valet, not a veterinary or a zoo-keeper,” she mimicked in a thick Italian accent. “Whatever are Lord Byron and Dr. Polidori thinking to impose so upon a man’s station?” 

I was quite enjoying the thrill of all these de cape et d’épée goings-on. Every day, while Willmouse slept, I would slip into Petit-Lancy to regale Immanuel with my tales of subterfuge. I told him about the animals, the fact that the machine the doctor had built was full of gears and wheels and connecting rods and that it “made lightning.” 

Or so Paolo Foggi said. The lightning, he confided in Elise, was molto bello, indeed, molto romantico with its blaze of blue-white light. “Come scrittura con il fuoco,” Paolo said. “Like writing with fire.”

Immanuel, who had shown very little interest in my revelations this day, at last showed a spark of curiosity. “Electricity?” he murmured. “He works with electricity?”

I was thrilled at his interest, for his new moodiness troubled me greatly, as had the fact that he had taken to wearing a broad-brimmed hat that left the upper part of his face in shadow. He had taken also, to mumbling his words so that, at our last meeting, I had had to strain to hear him.

“Yes. What can it mean? The animals, the machine, the electricity?”

He shrugged, then grimaced as if the action was uncomfortable. “I can’t imagine. Although, I have read...no, it’s too absurd.”

“What?” I begged. “What’s too absurd?”

“In my reading of the London Medical Journal,” he said, his words sounding labored, “I’ve come across mention of an alchemist named Johann Dippel who proposed that convulsive disorders might be ameliorated through the induction of a seizure. He claimed to have somehow harnessed electricity to cause this. Over one-hundred years ago.” 

“One hundred years! How extraordinary! I had no idea serious men of medicine concerned themselves with such things.”

“Well, as I said, he was an al-alchemist and a theologian.” He shrugged stiffly. “Born to wealth, though, I gather--outside of Darmstadt, Germany at Castle Frankenstein.” He chuckled, a low, grinding sound nothing like the warm laughter I had found so engaging at our first meeting. It raised hairs on the back of my neck despite the warmth of the day. “The rumors say that he dug up fresh bodies to experiment on.”

I shivered. “How horrible. Why would he do such a thing? What could grave robbing possibly have to do with treating convulsive disorders?”

“T’wasn’t his only interest. Dippel was looking for the elixir of life. For immortality. Men are fools--and worse--who wish to be immortal,” he added, and I could not mistake the bitterness in his voice.

I put a hand on his sleeve and he winced, but did not pull away. “What’s wrong, Immanuel? You...you seem...unwell.”

“Unwell...I am unwell.” He turned to face me, though the brim of his hat kept me from seeing his eyes. 

What I could see of his face looked...different somehow. His jaw heavier, his skin roughened. “Mary, I cannot come to town for a time. My studies, you understand. I’m not sick, precisely, but I’ve slept poorly of late and have gotten behind.”

I was crushed, in part, because I enjoyed our dialogues so much and could not disown my anxiety for him, and in part because I knew he was lying. Something was wrong and he was simply refusing to tell me what it was. I wished with all my heart that I he had introduced me to Lucille so that perhaps she might confide in me, but in all our conversation, he had never even given me her surname.

“I shall miss our discussions,” I said, for lack of anything better to say.

“No more than I, Mary. You have been a d’light.” The last word came out slurred and, with a queer little jerk of his head, he rose, turned and moved quickly away. 

I watched him go with mounting concern, for he shambled along, rolling a bit from side to side as if his legs were stiff or painful. I almost rose up and went after him, but I lacked the courage.

This bothered me, and when I reached home to a new report from Elise regarding Polidori’s doings, it bothered me yet more. 

You’re a cowardly thing, I told myself harshly as I listened to Elise’s newest intelligence. Sitting like a lump on a park bench when a friend requires aid, sending a servant as a snoop to satisfy your curiosity. Whatever are you about, Mary Wolstonecraft Godwin Shelley? And what will you do next--hire someone to read Percy’s poetry and offer their critique as your own?

I had worked up a most righteous dudgeon against myself by the time the gentlemen retired to the drawing room--all of the gentlemen, including Dr. Polidori. Clara (I had finally gotten used to calling her that) went to bed early with a headache, leaving me rather at loose ends. I could have just gone to the drawing room with the others--we didn’t stand on that silly ceremony of separating the men from the women, but I’d found that their conversation could be somewhat tedious in the first throes of postprandial satisfaction, until coffee stimulated or brandy relaxed. 

I could have gone in...but my curious and self-deprecating mind seized on another plan of action. I would go to that damned coach house and find some way to peer within. Paolo Foggi was at his own dinner in the staff dining room, the evening was fine (for once) and I was now all but suffocating with curiosity about Dr. Polidori’s Machine

I left the dining room and moved lightly up the stairs. I had a black velvet riding habit with a split skirt. It would be ideal for an evening’s sleuthing.

— Polidori's Machine —

 I had donned my riding habit and pulled a soft black toque Percy had given me over my coiled braid when Elise came into the bedroom.

“Why, Mam,” she said curiously, “where are you going at this hour?”

“To the coach house,” I said, tucking a few wisps of hair under the cap. “I intend to find out what sort of machine our dear doctor is building that requires the use of a small zoo.”

Elise’s eyes glinted in the lamplight. “I’ll come with you...that is, if you like, Mam.”

I shook my head. “I’ve been altogether too passive, Elise. Sending you to do my snooping for me. I’m ashamed of myself. You don’t have to carry on like a spy any longer.”

Elise took a step toward me. “Oh, but I want to, Mam. Please, won’t you let me come with you?”

I stared at her a moment, then smiled. Elise was more than my son’s nanny. She was a co-conspirator. “Have you anything black to wear?”

She had--an old black dress of thin wool that she’d made for a funeral. She didn’t say whose, but she didn’t seem to mind wearing it for such nefarious activities as I had planned. 

We slipped out by a garden door that gave onto the grounds from the conservatory on the south side of the house. The moon gave sufficient light by which to find our way across the fifty or so yards to the coach house. I became concerned, as we approached, that perhaps we would have to light one of the candles I had stuffed into the pockets of my riding costume, but as we reached the rear of the building, I saw that we were in luck--a lamp had been left burning within. Its dim light seeped from the crack between the upper and lower portions of the dutch door.

We pried at the door to no avail. Nor could we peep through the meager slit between its halves. We moved to the windows next, but those on the ground floor were shuttered and locked. Finally, I decided we must hope that the entrance from the stable had not been so carefully done up. 

Alas, it had been, and at length, we stood in the center aisle of the stable in silent frustration, ready to give up. I glanced around, hoping for an epiphany or a miracle. I got neither, but I did catch a flash of light shining on a tumble of hay up in the loft. This, despite the fact that the stable itself was in complete darkness.

I touched Elise’s shoulder. “The hayloft,” I murmured. 

Up we went. My split skirt made the climb easy, but after two attempts, Elise was compelled to roll her skirt up around her waist, and climbed the ladder showing her shockingly white knickers. 

At last, we were rewarded, for behind the haymow was a large, square door that provided access to the loft from the adjoining coach house. In inclement weather, a wagon could come into the building through the broad front doors so the men could pitch the hay up into the loft without the hay becoming soaked. 

 I had hoped for a crack large enough to see through. I got something much better--the door was poorly fastened and stood slightly ajar. The latch was on this side of the door as, of course, it had to be, for on the opposite side was a two-story drop to the coach house floor.

 I opened the door and gasped aloud. There was nothing between us and the cobbles far below but the broad, heavy beam from which hung the pulley and rope necessary to lift hay up to the loft. But that was not what made me gasp. My surprise and awe was for the collection of items that inhabited the shadowy interior of Dr. Polidori’s laboratory.

There were two tables or beds--both really, and yet neither. Both were fitted with odd leather harnesses. And there were cages, just as Elise had reported, each with an occupant or two. I saw dogs, cats, rabbits, and yes, the capuchin monkey. He must have had them all brought in under cover of night, while we were asleep or otherwise engaged in the main house. I promised myself I would try to be more wakeful from now on.

The thing that captured my attention most awfully was the Machine. It sat between the tables and was half-again as long--perhaps nine feet. It was, as Elise had said, an amalgamation of wheels and gears and rods and strange little cylinders, and at its apex, which was perhaps four feet from the low trestle it sat upon, were two thin rods that curved toward each other like lovers frozen just short of embrace.

The hay rustled and Elise whispered, “Is there a way down, Mam?”

I peered at the beam. “Just that. We could possibly lower ourselves to the floor using the ropes and pulleys.”

Elise looked at the apparatus skeptically. “I don’t know, Mam. It’s a fair piece down.” 

It was indeed a fair piece down, but I had the sudden urge to attempt it. “I’m going to try,” I said, pleased that my voice did not quiver in the least. “You can help me balance.” So saying, I slid my legs out of the little door and straddled the beam. 

Elise gasped. “Maybe I should go first, Mam.” 

It was too late. I was already a foot away from her and then two and then I was right over the pulley assembly. I stopped to consider the best course of action.

“Throw one leg over the beam,” advised Elise as if she had done this sort of thing before, “and lie across it on your stomach. Then you can wrap your legs about the ropes and let yourself down until you can get a foot on the pulley.”

She was right, of course. “Smart girl,” I applauded her, then set out to do as she’d suggested. I had just gotten sideways on the beam on my stomach, when I heard the sound of a door being unlatched. The rear door of the coach house, I realized. I froze. 

“Miss!” hissed Elise and held her hand out to me. 

I wriggled around trying to throw my leg back over the beam so I could scoot to safety. 

The rear door creaked open. 

All that separated it from this room was the narrow expanse of the tack room, which was little more than a broad hallway. I got my leg over the beam, but overbalanced and almost went down head-first. 

Light spilled into the laboratory from the tack room. 

I wobbled for a moment, then felt Elise’s hand grasp my habit at the shoulder. She had come half out onto the beam, herself, to get me. I righted myself and frog-hopped in ungainly fashion the two feet to the loft. Elise, exhibiting surprising strength, hauled me in and shut the door. 

“Who’s that?” said a man’s voice. There was silence, then: “Paolo? Is that you?” 

Directly below us on the ground floor, the door between the stable and coach house rattled and opened with a sigh. We held our collective breath.

Sì, medico. È me.

“Ah,” said Polidori. Then, “Lights, Paolo. Luminosi, per favore.”

We waited--we fine, brave spies--until they had gone off to work at the far end of the lab before we made our escape from the hayloft, through the stable and back to the house. 

Only when I reached the safety of my bedroom and stood before my mirror did I realize that in my haste to escape the laboratory, I had dropped my toque.

John Polidori did not accost me the next morning, though I went to breakfast in full expectation that he would do so at any moment. I tried to tell myself that that was silly. It was a man’s cap, for one thing, and certainly not traceable to me. After a quiet breakfast, during which the doctor seemed distracted and agitated, but said nothing, I relaxed and spent the rest of my day torturing myself with indecision: should I tell Percy what I saw? Or George, perhaps? Should I reveal my espionage to all, then laugh it off? 

The memory of what I had seen in that lab was like one of those caged animals; it prowled the inside of my head hungrily, desperate to be let out. 

Finally, in the late afternoon, I walked to Petit-Lancy though it was raining sporadically, and went to the bookstore, hoping against hope that Immanuel might be there. He was not, and at last, as the Sun settled toward the horizon, I left and walked home. 

I entered the house just before supper and quickly divested myself of my wet coat, boots and stockings. Changed and dry, I went down to supper. Dr. Polidori was still not in company as the cheese course was served. I relaxed a second time and began to anticipate the hour when I might repair back upstairs and have a quiet conference with Elise. I’d had no opportunity to speak to her during the day with servants (and Clara) constantly within earshot, and I was eager to exchange notes with her and get her impressions of Dr. Polidori’s laboratory.

“Join us this evening, Mary?” Percy asked as we got up from the table. “You were sorely missed last night. George was in one of his moods and could not be persuaded to do more than snipe at John and try to extract information from him.”

I blushed, for I had been trying to extract information from his untenanted lab. “Perhaps after I’ve checked on William,” I said. “Elise said he had a fitful nap.”

“Don’t be too long, my love,” Percy begged me, and bent to give me a kiss. 

“I shan’t,” I promised, and watched him cross the entrance hall to the drawing room, before I scurried upstairs to the nursery. 

William was asleep and Elise had apparently gone downstairs for her supper. I determined to wait for her. I watched the baby sleep for a time, then retired to my sitting room. I was still there reading, when the door behind me opened. I smelt cigar smoke and started guiltily, reminded of my broken promise to Percy. 

I dropped my book into my lap with a sigh. “I’m sorry, my love,” I started to say when something soft and slightly damp landed atop my book. A few stems of gleaming golden straw fluttered down atop it. I touched it gingerly--my black toque. I looked up to see John Polidori gazing down at me with huge, solemn eyes. 

I pretended innocence. “What’s this, sir?”

“I believe it is your bonnet, madam. Along with some of the wheat straw you tumbled from the hayloft into my lab during your...excursion.” 

His voice was soft, almost gentle, with no hint of anger. I immediately distrusted him. 

“Surely that’s a man’s cap,” I objected. “Why would you think it’s mine?”

“Your husband, madam, recognized it as having once belonged to him. He gave it to you early in your courtship, he said, when you admired how ‘jaunty’ it was.”

“Well, perhaps someone else--” Had I actually been going to suggest that Elise had stolen my cap and invaded the doctor’s sanctum on her own? I blanched at my own wretched instinct for self-preservation. “It seems you have me, Doctor. Yes. I sneaked into your lab. My curiosity was unquenchable when you refused to let anyone know what you were doing.”

He moved to stand before me at the hearth where a little fire burned against the cool and wet of the spring evening. Amusement and surprise were written on every feature. “And you sought to lower yourself from the hayloft? You are a singular young woman, Mrs. Shelley. What is it you imagine I’m doing?”

I looked up at him, my head suddenly full of mysterious sixteenth century alchemists and distant castles and machines that channeled electricity to shock the sensibilities--and perhaps more. “You have built a machine after the fashion of Herr Dippel and you intend to use it to shock Lord Byron in the hope that it might set his mind to rights.”

Silken brows rose in a surprised arc and I knew a moment of absurd smugness. “Do I, indeed?”

“Yes, you do. The only thing I can’t fathom is how that will have any effect on his club foot.”

Dr. Polidori smiled at me. “I hate to disappoint you, my dear Mrs. Shelley--may I call you Mary?” At my hesitant nod, he continued, “I hate to disappoint you, Mary, but you are mistaken. I have no intention of shocking Lord Byron out of his dark moods. I intend to do far more than that.”

“What?” I asked, mesmerized by the glow of zeal in that dark gaze.

“Ah, no, I cannot tell even you. Not yet. But soon, I think. Very soon.”

He left me then, sitting before the fire with my spy’s cap and a tiny pile of straw.

— Puzzles —

I fully expected the doctor to tell the others what I had done, that they might all have a good laugh at my expense. He did not. He even came to breakfast the next morning and, though he sent me several enigmatic and wry looks during the meal, he said nothing of my intrusion into his laboratory.

For the next fortnight it rained on and off and kept all of us indoors. I was even loath to take my usual forays into Petit-Lancy and instead worked on my journal, toyed with writing a couple of short stories that I was unable (or unwilling) to finish, and played with my baby. Elise begged continually to be allowed to try again to breach the doctor’s defenses and ferret out what was happening in the lab. I was just as curious as she --even more so--but I was chastened by my exploits...at least enough that I preferred to wait, pretending that I believed Dr. Polidori meant to confide in me.

He did seem to spend more time with us in the evenings, which I thought meant he was having some success in his pursuits. One singular evening we were all together in the drawing room of the villa. Yes, even Clara and Dr. Polidori were among us as the fire warmed the cool, damp room and the rain tapped at the window like a thousand desperate finches seeking asylum from the storm. 

I stared out the window, thinking of Immanuel, while in the room behind me, the already desultory conversation fell away to nothing. 

At length, Clara sighed hugely and said, “I am bored to tears. We cannot even go into town to the Tea Room with it raining so. Invent something for us to do, George.”

“Cards?” he suggested. “We have enough of a party for Whist. Or even Hearts.”

“I am sick to death of cards. If I never behold another playing card, I’m sure it will be to my benefit.”

“Shall I read to you then, my love?” asked George. “I have a new poem I’ve not quite finished.”

“And it is a wonderful poem, I’m sure, but I am too restless to be read to. Think of something else.” 

She did not look in the least restless, draped as she was across a chaise near the hearth. Lord Byron rose from his own chair and moved to sit at her feet. 

“Well, my darling, if you are too distracted to read a work, perhaps you would be better disposed to write one.” He looked around at us brightly. “Yes, that’s what we should do. We are all writers of one sort or another, let us put that talent to use. Let’s have a competition. Let us each write a tale of these haunted days in an effort to terrify and amaze.”

Clara’s laughter came out in a musical trill. “Haunted? What about these days seems haunted to you? Drowned days, rather.”

“Nonsense! What is this weather suited to if not the creation of haunted tales?”

He had a point, and I had to admit that I might easily describe my life of late as being haunted. Haunted by my dead daughter, by my beloved’s living wife, Harriet, by constant fear for William. I counted off my personal ghosts and added Immanuel to their number. I needed no haunted tales, but George was nothing if not avid once he’d conceived an idea. He would brook no dissent. He literally ran into the hall and zealously commanded the butler to bring papers and pens to the drawing room. He passed them out among us and we each commenced to pondering our tales. 

John Polidori announced that he intended to write about vampires--and waxed poetic about their wraithlike qualities: “Flitting down from above, dark and gossamer.” He gave me a sly look as he said it, and I feared he would reveal my espionage then, but he did not.

Still, I couldn’t meet his gaze, for my thoughts, which were scattered, focused on secret laboratories in which dark things were done. In that gloomy spirit, I began to write.

 When at last the weather was fine enough for me to return to my walks, I all but ran from the villa. I was no more informed of what was happening in the laboratory; Polidori had said nothing more to me of his work and when he did speak to me, it seemed to be in riddles as if we shared a fine secret--which I suppose, in a way, we did.

I went to the bookshop and lingered there the afternoon, even missing Tea. Immanuel did not come and M. Bardeau had not seen him. Still, I crossed the street and went into the little park to our bench and there I sat, working on my story until I lost the light. I rose, then, dejected, and started for home. I had gone perhaps ten feet, when I saw a silhouetted figure move between two trees. Surely that was the very hat Immanuel had worn at our last meeting. I turned and pursued the figure, circling an elm to cut him off. 

He stepped out from behind the tree and into a shaft of ruddy, dying sunlight just as I came around to confront him. His face was lit in lurid hues, which, to my mind, took on the aspect of the fires of hell. How can I describe that horrific visage? Twisted. Yes, that is the single word that best conveys it. The heavy brow that cowled the eyes, the wrenched mouth, the ape-like jaw. Oh, it was not Immanuel...but it was.

I cringed back, terrified, my hand to my throat. “What have you done?” I cried. 

“I?” His expression was unreadable, inhuman. “Ask God, rather, what He has done to saddle me with this affliction.” His words were slurred--barely decipherable.

“What is it? What has happened to you?”

The grotesque mouth twisted further. “I don’t know. I’ve no name for’t. Nor has any doctor that’ll see me. Ought to turn myself over to the college for classes. What a fine cadaver I’d make, eh, Mary?”

I realized as he spoke, his voice strangled and garbled, that his face was very near the level of my own. His body was also bent and awry, his shoulders sloping.

“Don’t think it, Immanuel. Don’t ever say such things. Surely some doctor might help you.” I thought of Polidori. “I may even know one who--”

“No, you mustn’t try to help, Mary. Surely I’ve done something to deserve this. I must have done. I would die if my disease cast shadows on another life.” He ground his teeth and I knew he thought of Lucille.

“Does Lucille--?” I started to ask, but he shook his head spasmodically. 

“Lucille and I are done. She cannot know of this.”

It took every ounce of courage I owned to put my hand on his sleeve, but I did it. And I leaned close to him and murmured, “I will help you. I must help you. Let me speak to my doctor friend. Meet me here tomorrow at this same hour. Please, Immanuel,” I begged when he shook his head again. “Please.”

He relented, nodded, his head low. Then, pulling his hat down over his face, he shambled away into the twilight.

The doctor was at dinner that evening and I chafed all through the meal awaiting an opportunity to speak to him. I rose from table swiftly at the end of the meal and stopped him as he opened the front door of the house, intent on returning to his work. The others had gone through into the drawing room.

“Doctor, may I have word?”

“Now, Mary, I told you, I will confide in you only when I am ready.”

“It’s not about your work, doctor,” I assured him. 

“The evening is fine--for once,” he observed. “Shall we walk?”

We took a turn around the front garden and I described to him all of Immanuel’s symptoms as nearly as I could catalogue them: the thickness of feature, the increasingly guttural quality of his voice, the twisting of his body. I had not quite reached the end of my recital when I knew that John Polidori was fascinated. He asked me a series of questions, his eyes intense and glittering in the light of the gas lamps. 

“I know I’ve read of these symptoms, if I could but remember where,” he said when at last I had answered all to his satisfaction. He shook his head and smiled at me. “Mary, you are a demon in disguise. I have hours of work to do tonight and now I want only to consult my medical books.”

“I’m sorry,” I murmured, uncertain how to take the comment. 

He laughed and raked his fingers through his hair, his eyes alight with strange zeal. “Don’t apologize, Mary, for bringing me a puzzle to solve. I thrive on puzzles.”

The next morning, Dr. Polidori came late to breakfast, dark circles beneath red eyes that took on an exultant gleam when he saw me. He sat down across from me, and snapped open his napkin. “I have found it, Mary,” he said, smiling at me.

Conversation around the table ceased as the others turned to stare at us. John Polidori and I rarely spoke two words to each other in company.

“Found what?” asked Percy, his gaze darting between me and the doctor.

“I had asked about a peculiar set of symptoms I had--” I started to say that I had observed, but the logical question would have been “where” and I did not wish to reveal poor Immanuel’s condition to all and sundry. “--come across in my research,” I concluded.

“Ah,” said George. “For your story. What symptoms are these?”

“Now, George,” said the doctor. “Would you have her reveal her plot aforetime? You might resolve to steal it for your own story.”

“Oh, very well. Be secretive.” 

They returned to their breakfast conversation, though Percy gave us a final bemused look.

“Come to the lab later,” Dr. Polidori told me, sotto voce

To the lab! Was this what it took to win his confidence--presenting him with a puzzle to solve? I nodded and finished my meal in child-like anticipation of that “later.”

“It’s called Noel’s Disease at present,” John Polidori told me as he let me into his lab. “For the French physician who first described it in Le Jour de Med almost eighty years ago. I knew I’d read of it.”

“It’s been known for sometime then,” I said, trying not to stare past him at the contents of the room. I needn’t have bothered. He’d covered everything of interest with drop cloths. “Then there’s a cure, surely.”

“None, I’m afraid. It’s extremely rare and not many cases have been studied.”

My heart fell. “Then nothing can be done for him?”

“Not by conventional medicine. His body, you see, is accumulating bone mass, and it will continue to do so until he can no longer function. Or so Dr. Noel writes. For your friend Immanuel there is no going back.”

The tears stung my eyes as they fell. “Hopeless, then.”

“This means much to you.”

I nodded. “He is such a sweet soul. So gentle and kind. He had been destined for such happiness, I thought. He was to be married, and studies to be a doctor.”

“I said that conventional medicine could not help him. But I do not practice conventional medicine.” 

Dr. Polidori moved farther into the lab, beckoning me to follow. He led me past the shrouded Machine and over to a row of animal cages in which were several cats, a ferret and a rabbit. The rabbit slept, but the cats looked up at us expectantly, the ferret with some distrust. 

“Do you notice anything peculiar about these animals?”

I looked at them. They seemed perfectly normal. One of the cats rose and came to rub itself against the wire of the cage. Polidori opened the cage door and lifted the animal out, putting it into my arms. It began, at once, to purr.

“They seem perfectly normal. Is there something peculiar about them?”

He smiled. “This cat, that seems so content to snuggle in your arms, was dead less than twelve hours ago.”

I stopped petting the cat. “What?”

“It was dead. I resurrected it.”

“What can you mean?”

 “It drowned. I gave it a new spirit and now it lives. Well, rather, to be more accurate, the cat spirit that inhabited this body was in another. I transferred it from that body to this one.”

 “That’s not possible.”

“Oh, but it is.” He lifted the cat from my arms and returned it to its cage, then moved to the Machine and uncovered it with a flourish. “With this.”

The Machine was twice as impressive at close quarters as it had been from the loft. It gleamed in the light of the lamps--all gears and oddly shaped bells and metal wire brushes and cables. I could only stare at it until its bright contours blurred, unable to quite grasp what he was telling me. 

“Mary, this is how I will cure our mutual friend. This machine will enable me to place George’s spirit--his soul--in a new, healthy body.”

I was stunned beyond description. I felt as if my own body had rooted itself to the cobbled floor of Dr. Polidori’s laboratory, as if my soul was reaching down into the earth to maintain its hold on solid reality. “That isn’t possible,” I murmured. “It can’t be.”

“But it is. That cat--these animals--prove that it is possible.” 

He told me the same tale Immanuel had told of an alchemist named Dippel who thought seizures were caused by a misalignment of a person’s soul and body, and that an electrical shock might possibly realign them. 

“I have taken the idea further,” he explained. “I have theorized that it might also be used to drive a soul from one body to another. That it might cause a soul to align itself to a new vessel.”

“You can’t be serious,” I said, trying to read his face. “That’s...it’s--”

“What--blasphemy? Don’t tell me you believe that superstitious nonsense, Mary Shelley.”

My face suffused with sudden heat. “Yet, are you not playing at being a god?”

“What of it? If we can perform the acts of gods, then are we not gods? What is a body, after all, but a vehicle for the soul? If your carriage springs its frame, you simply acquire a new carriage, do you not?”

“But bodies are not built by men as carriages are. They are born. They have lives of their own.”

“But if that life flees, Mary, if the vessel is empty, what wrong is there in refilling it--reanimating it?”

“What harm? What harm came to the cat whose spirit has now been dispossessed?”

He blinked at me. “It...it is gone. Dead.”

“And would this not be true of a man whose body you sought to use?”

He paled. “What are you suggesting? That I might commit murder to acquire a new body for our friend? I would do no such thing!”

“What then? Rob graves like your alchemist?”

He was suddenly suspicious. “I said nothing about him robbing graves.”

“I’d heard of him before.” I turned away from him. “What you are suggesting is--is--”

“What I am suggesting, Mary, is the only way that my friend and yours can live unfettered by a malformed body and a diseased mind.” 

He came around to stand before me. “Yes, diseased, Mary. Lord Byron is a great poet. Potentially the greatest who ever lived. You say your friend Immanuel was destined for happiness. Well, now both of them--the great poet and the great doctor--are destined for nothing but decay and death. Indeed, they are already dead...without this--this miracle.”

I met his zealot gaze. “Are you proposing to give Immanuel a new body? Why?”

“I have experimented on animals successfully. I have yet to do it with a human being. I would that George perhaps not be the first.”

I felt the blood drain from my face. “You mean to experiment on Immanuel. No. It is too cruel!”

“Too cruel? To offer him a future he does not now have? A future that holds more than a slow, agonizing death, or a swifter self-administered one?”

I recalled what my friend had said about serving as a cadaver for the medical college and I knew that Dr. Polidori was right. 

He saw the realization in my face. “Bring him to me. Tomorrow. Let me see him--speak to him.”

“But where would you acquire a--a suitable host for his soul?”

“People die every day, Mary. True, they do not every day die relatively young and of causes that leave the body unscathed. We must have a drowning victim, or someone who has been struck by lightning or suffocated or had an allergic reaction to something perhaps. And we must have it as soon after death as possible. In fact, I have already put the word out among my colleagues to be on the alert for such circumstances.” He smiled a strange, fierce smile. “I am ready.”

I left for Petit-Lancy that afternoon, knowing that I was not.

I brought Immanuel to the doctor as he proposed, the next morning around eleven o’clock. George, Claire (for so she now styled herself, both Jane and Clara forgotten) and Percy had gone down to a favorite tea room in Geneva. I had begged off with a headache and had taken a tilbury into town to collect Immanuel. It had not been easy to convince him to come--he was so torn between wretchedness, hope, and absurd guilt. 

Whatever could he imagine he’d done to deserve such a fate, I asked him, and when he named some ridiculous oversight, I asked him what he thought I might have done to deserve to lose my little daughter--or what she might have done to deserve to die before she had yet lived. 

That quieted him, and he came.

I do not recall all that was said during that interview. Indeed, while John examined Immanuel in his office, I wandered the laboratory, peering at the animals, looking for signs of deterioration, running my hands over the gleaming metal of the Machine and wondering...

I was still standing by the machine when John and Immanuel returned to the room. I realized, only when they’d jarred me back to reality, that I had spent the time deep in my own imagination. A second realization struck me as I stood blinking at them--the Zealot and the Wretch. I had been more than hoping Polidori might save Immanuel--I had been praying.

“I believe,” John said, smiling, “that M. Dessins is a perfect candidate for my procedure.”

“And does he understand what your procedure entails?”

The doctor looked at Immanuel, who nodded.

“You are willing to accept this?” I asked him.

“Yes,” Immanuel said. “God help me, yes.”

“God will not help you,” John said, laying a hand on my friend’s shoulder, “but I shall.”

A strange, fleeting haunted look inhabited Immanuel’s eyes for a moment, then he bowed his head in acquiescence. 

John had his man Paolo escort Immanuel to his residence for he had other plans for me.

“I’ve said before that you are a singular woman, Mary Shelley,” he told me. “Because of this I have a proposition to make you. I need someone to assist me during the procedures. Someone who possesses your qualities of courage and intelligence.”

I was chilled. “You have Paolo.”

“Paolo is a servant--a valet and dogs-body. He is neither brave nor remarkably intelligent. He follows instructions, but he has no capacity to understand the principles behind what I am doing. You, on the other hand, will assuredly understand them, which means you will understand why you must obey my orders to the letter.”

I started to object. I was not as brave as he thought, nor as intelligent. I knew little of science or medicine.

“Mary,” he told me, fixing me with that sharp, dark gaze, “your friend Immanuel must abide the procedure. Can you not find it in your heart to stand by him?”

In my heart, yes, but in my soul something clamored that this was not right. Still, I nodded and accepted his proposition. He taught me that very morning how the Machine worked.

— Poet King —

We were still in the coach house when the others returned from the Tea Room. The doctor cursed and brought our lesson to a close. I slipped out through the stable and pretended to have been out taking the air for my headache. At first I thought my simple story was believed, but that afternoon at Tea, I looked up to find Percy watching me closely with the most extraordinary mixture of expressions on his face: doubt, curiosity, bemusement...and something altogether darker.

Finally, when Claire had gone over to the spinet to play and sing one of her amour’s poems to the tune of a lullaby, he leaned forward in his chair and said, “I thought you had a headache this morning, Mary.”

“Yes. I did.”

“Yet when we arrived home, you were in the coach house.”

He did not say, “with Polidori,” but I was certain he thought it.

“Yes. I was.”

“Was the doctor there, as well?”

“Well, of course he was. Did you think I sneaked in secretly?” I must have blushed as I spoke the words, for he pounced upon them.

“You might have done whether he was there or not.” He was frowning now, clearly dismayed at my coyness.

I was puzzled by his attitude. Before we’d left England he’d actively encouraged me to take our mutual friend, Thomas Hogg, as a lover and yet now...

“He invited me,” I told him.

“Indeed? And so you forgot your headache?”

I set down my tea cup. “Is this jealousy? What of your pressing me about Thomas?”

“That was different,” said Percy, pouting a bit. “I approved of Thomas. I’m not at all sure I approve of John Polidori.”

“I am not making love to John Polidori.” 

“Then for what purpose did you accept his invitation?”

“For the purpose of receiving a palliative for her megrim.” 

I looked up over my shoulder to see Dr. Polidori himself standing just behind our chairs. He was solemn and looked every inch a doctor. I was suddenly struck with the urge to giggle. Instead I picked up my tea cup and hid my inappropriate mirth in the Earl Grey.

But now, we had been overheard. George was there in a moment, hovering. “So, Mary, you’ve seen the inside of my good friend’s secret laboratory? Tell all, dear girl. What does the doctor do in his dark and murky offices?”

I exchanged a glance with the doctor, who smiled and put a hand on George’s shoulder.

“I have been cruel, haven’t I, denying you knowledge of the work I’m doing on your behalf. Hardly fair, is it? Very well. I relent. I will tell, if not all, certainly the heart of my plans.” 

And, as we sat like children at story time, Dr. John Polidori told our gathering most of what he had told me that morning. The effect was, I am sure, very gratifying to him. There was, at first, mirth over a suspected prank. Then resentful skepticism and finally, with my added testimony, which the good doctor pried from my lips, awed acceptance that he really meant to do this thing. 

“You will be whole, George,” he told our friend. “You will own a new, well body. No club foot. No black moods. No need for the palliative crutches of opiates or drink to hold your shadows at bay. You will be the Poet King you were meant to be.”

“When?” George insisted on knowing. “How soon?”

“I have but one more experiment,” his would-be savior told him. “I must prove that it can be done as simply for a human spirit as for an animal one. With that accomplished, you will be reborn.”

“Who will you use for your primary experiment?” asked Percy. 

I stiffened.

John met my gaze and said, “A village lad with a degenerative disease. Someone I discovered quite by accident.”

I smiled my thanks at this discretion, and he took the others to his lab to show them his work. I stayed behind, telling myself it was only because I wanted to hold my baby. 

It was more than anticipation I felt. It was hope and worry and dread. It was purgatory. 

I wanted Immanuel to be...cured? Healed? Reborn? That was the word our doctor had used--but was it really rebirth? How could it be when I knew deep in my heart of hearts that as much as I was waiting for Immanuel to be reborn, I was waiting for someone else to die. 

I attended Dr. Polidori in the lab and even assisted in the reanimation of the capuchin monkey. He chilled me that day by casually wondering what might happen if he were to try to put the spirit of a monkey into the body of a cat. 

He looked up to see me staring at him, open-mouthed, and smiled. “I was jesting, Mary. What do you take me for?”

I didn’t know what I took him for and said nothing.

He came to dinner one evening about a week after his unveiling of his great plan in a high humor, virtually glowing. He was lightning in human form. White-hot and pulsing, his face almost too bright to look upon. Something had happened and I was certain we would hear about it when he felt the moment most dramatic.

George was in a rare mood, as well, and had clearly been thinking a great deal of what the doctor proposed to do. 

“John,” he said as coffee was served, “how many times might you perform this feat--this soul transfer--on a single person? That is, how many times might you transfer a single soul?”

The doctor shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t imagine any reason it could not be done repeatedly, if necessary. I suppose there is a chance the procedure might not take--”

“No, that’s not what I was thinking,” said George, leaning forward avidly, his slender fingers tight around the bowl of his coffee cup. “Look, John, if you can transfer me to a new body because this one is flawed, could you not just as easily do it if my new body became diseased, or aged?”

John fixed him with the most extraordinary look, as if he had just seen through a doorway into heaven. He breathed out a solitary word: “Immortality.”

“Yes. And if you can do it for me, why not for Percy, for Claire, for Mary, for yourself?” He leaned even farther forward. “We could be immortal, John. A race of immortal Poet Kings.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Immortality? For all of us? Suddenly, I was looking down a corridor in time, back to Johann Dippel, digging up his graves, then ahead to us, waiting like vultures for someone somewhere to die. Or far, far worse. I recalled what Immanuel had said one afternoon: “Men are fools--and worse--who wish to be immortal.”

I didn’t realize I was on my feet until Percy touched my elbow. 

“Mary, whatever is wrong? Isn’t this the most exciting thing? The most glorious thing?”

I opened my mouth to spill out my fear and loathing at the idea, but a glance at my husband’s face checked me. “Glorious,” I said and hurriedly left the room.

— Death & Rebirth —

The young man drowned late on a Saturday. I was the first one Dr. Polidori told of it. The body had been brought to a clinic in which he had colleagues, and when the young man--who had been flung from his horse into the channel--was pronounced dead, Polidori’s colleagues drained the lungs and packed the body in ice from a neighborhood glacière. It was on its way.

I was in an extreme state of agitation as he gathered the rest of our group in the drawing room and made his momentous announcement: “We have a body. A drowning victim. I am informed that it is quite perfect. A young man of twenty-four, the son of a merchant of Geneva, strong and healthy.”

“But for want of the ability to swim,” George added in an unseemly jest. 

“Oh, what does he look like?” asked Claire. 

“I’m told he’s quite handsome. Blond and gray-eyed.”

Claire smiled and glanced mischievously at her beau. “Indeed.”

The corner of George’s mouth twitched, whether in humor or irritation I couldn’t say.

“The body will arrive late this evening. I’ll perform the procedure at first light with Mary assisting.”

All eyes turned to me and I realized that I had become associated with Polidori’s enterprise. The thought chilled me to the marrow. 

“I’ll send Paolo to tell...to tell the--the patient,” I said, though “victim” was the word that had come to my mind. Nonsense, Mary, I told myself. The doctor is saving Immanuel, not harming him. He will be reborn. Renewed. 

“There’s no need for that, Mary,” said John quietly.

“Oh, have you already dispatched your man, then?”

“M. Dessins will not be my first subject after all.”

“What?” I had turned to leave the room and now stopped and swung back.

John’s voice was gentleness itself. “Understand, Mary, that bodies of young men of this age and in this condition--bodies of a quality to be a fit receptacle for Lord Byron--are exceptionally rare and difficult to acquire.” 

The look he sent George Gordon was one that made my flesh creep, and I knew that they had likely cooked this up between them days ago and were only now telling me. I looked at Percy, but he was nodding as well. 

I wanted to scream at them that it wasn’t fair, that Immanuel had been given hope and now they were to dash it. I wanted to put myself away from them quickly and emphatically. Instead, I nodded, too. “Of course,” I said. “It sounds a perfect match for Lord Byron.” 

I turned and continued from the room, making my way upstairs to the nursery. I could feel John Polidori’s eyes on me until I was out of sight of the drawing room.

Elise was with William. She stood when I entered the room, her gaze bright and wary. “What is it, Mam? What’s happened?”

“The doctor has his body,” I told her, for she knew virtually all of what had transpired between me and Polidori over the past weeks. 

“Well, then...?”

“He doesn’t mean to use it for Immanuel.” Yes, I had told her that too. “He means to make Lord Byron immortal. Lord Byron and the rest of us, if we’re so lucky.” I laid harsh emphasis on the last word.

“That ain’t natural, Mam.”

“No, it isn’t. Nor is it fair. He promised Immanuel...I promised Immanuel.”

“Well, then,” said Elise, giving me a strange look from beneath her lashes, “what will we do?”

I sent Elise to Immanuel with a note. I gave her further instructions as to what she was to do when she returned to the villa, then I fed my baby and rocked him to sleep in my arms.

The body arrived at half-past eleven under cover of darkness. There was a moon, but it frequently hid its face behind wisps of cloud. There was much activity around the coach house then. I pretended to be asleep in my room, but watched instead from the darkened window as Polidori and his Poet King returned to the house. They seemed in rather high spirits, but as they traversed the hall to their rooms the tenor of their voices changed.

I moved closer to the door to listen.

“What will it be like, John? How shall I feel when I awake?”

“Free, my friend. Free of the limp. Free of the blackness. Free of all disease.”

“But what of him? Will he leave nothing of himself in the shell?”

“He is gone. A ghost. Less than a ghost--a vapor. Look, when I began these experiments I carefully charted the habits of the animals I used. Their preferred foods, their responses to certain stimuli. I chose as subjects those with the most clearly defined personality traits, for want of a better word. In all cases, the personality of the transferred spirit was preserved. You will be you--George Gordon, Lord Byron--and no one else.”

“I am afraid...” George began, then stopped. 

“Afraid of what?”

“My poetry. How much of it is influenced by my sickness and informed by my trials? What if...what if I am so whole I no longer hunger. I no longer have reason to write?”

There was a long silence, then John murmured, “That shan’t happen. You are brilliant. And your brilliance transcends all physical factors. In this new body, your powers will be amplified, my friend, not diminished. Besides,” he added, his voice taking on a teasing tone, “if being young, healthy and beautiful does not suit the Poet King, we will find you an old cadaver that looks like Punch. Cease worrying, George. You can be anything you desire.”

“Yes. I can, can’t I?”

Dear God, they spoke of it as if they might shop for bodies as they shopped for a new chapeau. You don’t like this one or it goes out of fashion, simply select another. I returned to my watch and waited, as the windows of their respective rooms lit, then darkened.

Immanuel met me behind the coach house at a quarter past one in the morning. I had a key to the lab now, for I had asked to be entrusted with the care of the animals. I wore it around my neck on a satin ribbon.

Once in the lab, it took both of us to get the frozen body of the young drowning victim onto the host’s table. I had gotten towels, a fur throw and blankets. Immanuel had brought a change of clothing--clothing that had once fit him and which should fit him again, for the dead young man was very like him in stature.

I bid Immanuel lie on the other table. I strapped him down carefully. I had witnessed several animal transfers now and knew that the reaction from the donor could be violent. To the heads of both Immanuel and the other young man, I affixed the strange little caps the doctor had fashioned. They were of silver mesh which he insisted would best allow the electrical current generated by the machine to flow, pushing the spirit along on its fiery tide. 

Forgive my want of scientific precision. I am a writer, not a scientist, and have lived for some time with a poet--this is the best description I have.

The hardest part, I knew, would be to generate that flood of electricity. I had seen John Polidori do it several times but I had not his physical strength. Yet, for Immanuel’s sake, I must find strength. I went to one end of the Machine. 

“Are you ready?” I asked and Immanuel grunted in the affirmative.

I took a deep breath, wrapped both hands around the crank that would turn the gears against the metal brushes, and threw my entire being into the task. The Machine hummed, the “bees” buzzed, then a blue arc of electrical current raced up the dancing rods and flashed between them, completing the “touch.” The blue flame danced down wires attached to those rods and out to the silver cap on Immanuel’s head. He was suddenly cocooned in pale azure radiance. He roared aloud and I knew a horrible fear that we would be heard. I turned the crank faster...but not as fast as I had seen Polidori turn it. 

It was taking too long. Much too long. The spirit of the capuchin monkey had been transferred by now--the donor body dead and cooling, the host body twitching to life. My arms were aching, but I had no more to give, I was slowing when I needed more speed. 

I heard a sound behind me and turned to see Paolo Foggi standing in the doorway to the tack room. I almost cried out in defeat. We had been discovered, but the sight of Polidori’s man galvanized me. I cranked harder, fear pumping through my every vein. I would do this thing. I would

Paolo paused only long enough to take in the situation, then rushed toward me, his hands outstretched. 

No! No! I would not be deterred. I must not.

He reached my side and put his hands over mine on the crank shaft. I tightened my grip. But instead of trying to rip my hands from the handle, he began to turn the crank with me--faster and faster still. Immanuel roared again. The light exploded from his cap, raced back up the silver wire, leapt the gap between the rods and flashed through the second wire. There was a bright burst of radiance from the cap on the drowning victim’s head. Then the aura subsided as if the body had absorbed it. 

“Stop!” I cried to my unexpected helper. “Arresto!”

We stopped turning the crank and I hastened to the table, grabbing a blanket as I went. I threw the blanket over the naked man and put my cheek near his nose. Did the flesh beneath my fingers feel warm or was that imagination? Was the pallor of the skin lessening? 

I felt a thin breath of air on my cheek. He gasped suddenly, convulsing, quite as a drowning victim might if he regained his breath. His eyes opened--fine gray eyes. They met mine. 

“Mary,” he said and I all but collapsed.

But there was no time for weakness. Paolo was chattering at me in Italian, telling me that we must flee. There was a carriage awaiting us at the top of the lane with Elise and little Willmouse in it. It was Elise who had sent him, of course, and he had come because he loved her and would do for her anything she asked.

He helped Immanuel--Immanuel reborn--into his clothing, while I agonized over whether I should leave a note for Percy. Something begging his forgiveness even as it condemned what he and his friends meant to do. But a note seemed too poor a vehicle for all that I felt: horror and fear at what I had done and what they had meant to do, grief for Percy whom I shall always love, and hope that Immanuel might take from science a future nature had denied him.

I turned to Paolo. “Prendalo al carrello. Take him to the carriage.” I gestured toward the back door and added that I would meet them up at the road; I merely wanted to make sure we left nothing behind. (Nothing but Immanuel’s empty shell.)

The door closed behind the two men. I turned to the Machine and set about making sure that it would grant rebirth to no immortal poet kings. 

Only later, as the carriage bore us into the night, did I resolve that I would do something more. I would complete the tale George had challenged me to write. And, by God, it would be more than a mere ghost story meant to dull the boredom of a rainy night. 

I looked up at Immanuel as he sat across from me in the chaise. And, miraculously, it was really Immanuel I saw behind those gray eyes. He smiled at me, though weakly.

“Thank you,” he said, his voice hoarse from drowning. “Thank you, Mary.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” I said, “until we have crossed this unknown land. I fear we may have far to travel.”

He met my gaze levelly and I knew he understood; I was not speaking of the darkened landscape outside the rocking chaise, but the dark land within us.

This story originally appeared in The Shadow Conspiracy.


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Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Writer of speculative fiction as the result of a horrible childhood incident involving Klaatu and a robot named Gort.

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