In this excerpt, Mary Crawford (a character from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park,) is having an affair with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and decides to reveal herself to Mary Shelley. They are in Bagni di Lucca, a resort in Italy.
My novella, Shelley and the Unknown Lady, which is excerpted from my Mansfield Trilogy, will be released on Kindle on October 5th.
After a few moments of dreadful suspense, the door was opened by a man she had never seen before; not a servant, but an older English gentleman, carelessly attired in rumpled clothing, with thinning hair and a prodigious nose.
“Yes, madam?” the man said.
“I am Mary Bertram,” Mary heard herself say. “Is Mrs. Shelley within?”
The man opened and closed his mouth twice, then said, “I—well—just a moment please.”
He turned back into the hallway and called, “My dear! My dear, there is a young lady here—she is looking for Mary....” A female voice answered from within, and at last, a handsome-looking older woman, plainly but neatly dressed, came to the door.
She looked up and down at Mary with an intelligent, appraising look and said, “I am Mrs. Gisborne, a friend of Mrs. Shelley. I’m sorry, I did not hear your name.”
“I am Mary Bertram—I have been staying here at Bagni di Lucca, and made the acquaintance of...” Mary stopped herself—she could not actually claim acquaintance with Mrs. Shelley, because the lady might appear in a moment and deny it.
“Oh! Mary told me, most positively, she had met no-one at all since coming here.”
“Yes,” added the man. “We thought she would be passing her birthday all alone, you know. That’s why we came from Livorno.”
Mary nodded. “Her birthday—yes, just so.” She had not anticipated having these two strangers for an audience and was adjusting her thoughts, when the lady asked: “Did Mrs. Shelley not inform you of her departure? Did she send you no note? But, to be sure, it was unplanned and she left in such a hurry!”
“What—is she gone then, ma’am?”
“Yes,” the man chimed in. “Yes, Mrs. Shelley and the children left for Venice this morning.”
“Not Venice, Mr. Gisborne,” the lady corrected him. “They are going to—”
“But wait!” cried the man, looking at Mary suspiciously. “You are not enquiring in any official capacity, are you?”
Mary was too confused by the question to make any sort of reply, even in denial.
“Oh, tush, husband!” cried the lady. “She is English. Pardon me, madam,” she added, turning back to Mary. “Mrs. Bertram, you say? Mrs. Shelley, I am certain, did not mention meeting a Mrs. Bertram.”
“Rather,” Mary suddenly thought to say, “that is, my acquaintance was with Miss Clairmont, in point of fact—you say they are gone?” Mary tried to look past the Gisbornes, into the house behind them. “All gone?”
“Yes, this morning,” Mrs. Gisborne repeated politely.
“And—she took the dear, dear children with her?”
This last improvisation convinced Mrs. Gisborne that the stranger on the doorstep was indeed a friend of the family, and she responded in a more confiding manner: “Yes, gone very early in the morning, and the poor baby was most unwell. She is teething. I am very anxious for her. It is dreadful to be travelling with little children in this heat! I advised Mrs. Shelley against it, but she would go!”
“I am quite surprised—that is, I was given to understand they intended to remain here for another month at least, so I did not expect to hear they are gone so abruptly.”
“Yes!” nodded the man. “In point of fact, Mary—I mean Mrs. Shelley—had just invited us to come and stay with her here, whilst her husband was gone. It is her birthday, you know. Poor girl. Then a letter arrived from Shelley yesterday, urgently demanding she come away, and now, here we are, left behind to pack up the last of their things.”
“How very obliging of you, Mr.—Mr. Gisborne?” Mary murmured uncertainly.
“Yes,” his wife repeated patiently. “I am Maria Gisborne, and this is my husband.”
“So very pleased to make your acquaintance,” Mary returned, trying to think of an opening, more questions to pose. The sun was beating down on her back and she longed to be invited in. “Perhaps, Mrs. Gisborne,” she ventured, “perhaps Mrs. Shelley’s sudden departure has to do with the Italian servant, and the—incident. Perhaps they wanted to remove their manservant from the reach of the authorities here.”
“Incident?” said Mr. Gisborne.
“You recall, dear, Mary mentioned it to us. A stabbing in the village,” Mrs. Gisborne replied, then turning again to Mary, she added decisively, “I think not, Mrs. Bertram. Why would Mrs. Shelley risk the health of her child for a servant of no very good character? Especially if he was the culprit? And I do not imagine that word of the affray would have reached Mr. Shelley by the time he sent his letter. But he was most insistent that she leave immediately—immediately!”
“I see. Then—where did you say they were going?”
“Dear, recollect that Mary asked us—” Mr. Gisborne said.
“Oh, very well, Mr. Gisborne, but surely she meant, not to communicate anything to the landlord or the tradespeople. Mrs. Bertram,” Mrs. Gisborne added, turning to Mary with a nod, “no doubt Miss Clairmont will send you word of their new direction, but you see, we cannot, after promising Mrs. Shelley so faithfully. I do know she is not gone to Venice, and Mr. Shelley and Miss Clairmont have departed Venice as well.”
“I—I see,” Mary said again, and for perhaps the first time in her life, words failed her. She did not know what else to say, or to ask.
“Well, then,” said Mrs. Gisborne, placing her hand upon the doorknob.
“You are unwell, I fear, Mrs. Bertram!” she heard Mr. Gisborne say. “Pray, come inside, come inside.”
“I shall fetch you a glass of water,” added his wife. “Pray, sit here, ma’am. Fortunately, we still have the furniture which belongs to the house.”
Mary glanced furtively about her and perceived the remains of a household in disarray—cupboard doors hanging open, a few books and papers strewn about, dirty platters on the table, a child’s hoop and stick abandoned in a corner. Everything spoke of a hasty removal.
“Do you mean to say, ma’am—is it your understanding, then, that the Shelleys have no intention of returning?” said Mary faintly.
“I hardly know. I doubt it. And at any rate, you may know enough of Mr. Shelley to be aware of his predilection for revising his plans with very little notice. They were going to settle in Pisa, then they left Pisa, they were going to live with us in Livorno, but—”
“Shelley did not care for Livorno,” Mr. Gisborne interjected. “He did not think it interesting enough.”
“Here is some water. Plain boiled water, from the kettle. May I offer you my smelling salts, Mrs. Bertram? You are very pale. Are you indisposed? Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“No, no, nothing—nothing at all, I thank you. It is only the heat. Just permit me to rest for a moment.” Mary leaned her head against the wall behind her and closed her eyes. Out of the turmoil of her mind arose certain conviction—and despair.