It had seemed such a good idea. Staying in a Swiss villa, far from stuffy old customs in England. The visit to the Villa Diodati, picturesquely situated by a lake, promised a multitude of amusements and delight. This was to be the first of many such visits this summer, which later would be referred to by them all, for their various reasons, as the Summer of Darkness.
Having arrived late and being hindered by the weather, it had been decided that what had been planned as a shorter visit, for lunch, would be extended overnight.
Mary glanced towards the door, wondering what was keeping her lover, Percy. It was very late, and everyone, with the possible exception of their host, Lord Byron, had retired to their rooms for the night. When Mary had pleaded fatigue, after the drive from their lodgings in Chapuis, Percy had nodded his agreement. He would follow shortly.
Now, more than twenty minutes had passed and there was still no sign of him. Mary felt a stirring of unease. Lord Byron, whose reputation preceded him, had ever, from the moment they had been introduced to each other, caused her to feel vague misgivings.
She had begged Percy not to consort with a man, who by all accounts was 'mad, bad and dangerous to know', but as she had known from the outset, it had been quite useless. Part of her understood. It had ever been their purpose, to flout old conventions and lead lives freed of ancient moral codes. Naturally, a man like Byron evoked images of depravity and thus held a strange allure for them both.
Her half-sister Claire had succumbed to the man's notorious charms, a fact which Mary deplored, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was her dislike and contempt of the younger girl.
Mary once again glanced at the clock on the wall. Although she was reluctant to brave the dark halls of the strange house, she eventually rose from her bed and, donning a robe, she ventured into the hallway.
The salon was empty and the fire had died down in the grate. No servant could be seen, though as Mary recalled, only a local woman came in during the days to cook and keep the place tidy. There was no one in the house except their host, Claire, Doctor Polidori, Percy and herself.
All was quiet. Mary decided to venture into the room in which, ostensibly, Claire resided. Mary knew well that it was Byron's custom to visit her sister at night, or to call her to his own chamber.
Mary knocked lightly on Claire's door and waited. No sound could be heard from inside and compelled by her vague apprehension on Percy's behalf, in her desperation, she opened the door. Standing in the doorway, poised for flight, should she spy anything of an intimate nature within, she listened. The sounds of Claire's deep and even breathing was all that could be heard. She was sleeping soundly, perhaps too deeply.
Hastily, lest she should change her mind, Mary tiptoed over to the bedside table and sniffed the empty cup standing there. The dregs smelled of laudanum. Why should Claire need to resort to such mesures to find sleep? It did not make sense. The girl always slept soundly, whatever the circumstances. Had Byron, for reasons only known to himself, decided to drug Claire? For what purpose?
A shiver passed over Mary and she pulled her robe tighter at the neck. Something was amiss in this house, but she could not waste any more time wondering over that. She still hadn't found their host or Percy.
There was also another room, spacious and comfortable, that Byron used as a study. Slowly and reluctantly, she sought out this room, rather than braving their host in his own chamber.
The need never arose. From inside the study, she discerned an odd chanting. Frowning, at the moment more puzzled than frightened, she pressed her ear to the door.
From outside, came the loud rumbling of thunder, making it all but impossible to overhear anything from inside the study. She waited while the noise died down. There it was again, that odd chanting. Suddenly, she caught what sounded like the cackling of a hen.
This was so absurd, Mary forgot her earlier anxiety and without even knocking, she stepped through. The scene she beheld struck her as at once ludicrous and ominous.
Byron was holding the creature by the feet. It squirmed and strained to be let free. In Byron's hand was a butcher's knife.
In the split second it took for Mary to register the scene, she realized that Percy was there, stripped to the waist, as was indeed their host. Odd paraphernalia littered the room, but seemed to be arranged into a semblance of order.
A ritual of some sort? Occult practices in a rented villa in Switzerland? Although she knew that Percy worshipped mediaeval times and the heroics and mystery of the distant past, this went against all propriety.
Mary never stopped to consider the potential consequences of her actions, she merely walked across to Byron, snatched the poor, frightened beast from his hand and cradling it in her arms, she turned and headed for the door.
Angry shouts followed her outside, but she ignored them. Men could be absurd at times. If Percy wanted to enact a childish ritual, he could. She would not sit awake, waiting and worrying. Depositing the creature outside the kitchen door, in the pen where its sisters were already settled in for the night, she then returned to her room and put the entire incident out of her mind.
However, the night was to have far-reaching consequences, beyond her control. Little did she know that this night's relatively uninterrupted sleep, uninterrupted, save for the thunder rumbling outside, would be the last that she would know in a long time. Peace of mind would for the most part elude her, throughout the rest of her life.
In Byron's study, his cries of dismay went unheard. In a fit of pique, Byron flung the knife from him, into a corner beyond their magic circle.
Shelley did his best to soothe his friend's temper.
"Sorry, old boy. Women, eh? Was that - erm - fowl - necessary for the - uh - procedure?"
For a considerable time, Byron did not move or reply, making Shelley feel tense. He was beginning to consider making his excuses and return to his room and the bed he shared with Mary. After all, that was one of the main reasons for this holiday in Switzerland - to be able to enjoy young Mary's companionship in peace.
At last Byron turned and fixed his friend with an unnerving gaze.
"No. Let us proceed."
"Very well. What do I do now?"
"Come here. Oh, do pick up that knife on your way. No, wait. Don't bother. This will do."
He walked over to his desk and pulled out a ceremonial dagger, which had cost him a fortune. A funny little Greek fellow had sold it to him, assuring him it was a genuine Egyptian antiqute, though it did rather look more as a Turkish or Arab work. No matter. It would do the trick.
"Right. Do you want that lock of Mary's hair that you asked for?"
"What? No, throw it into the fire."
Byron busied himself with an elegant dish with an Italian pattern. He cut a few locks of his own shoulder length hair - the heroic look suited him admirably well. Shelley looked almost as handsome.
"Stand still, there's a good fellow."
"Steady on. What are you up to, old man?"
"Won't be a minute. There. I have it. Eureka, as the Greeks say."
Shelley couldn't for the life of him see why Byron should need a lock of his hair, but he had no doubts this would be the most splendid escapade. Never a dull moment in Byron's company, that much could be said about the fellow.
Of course, Shelley didn't like the way he was looking at Mary, but that was just rot. He knew that. In the new century, people would no longer subscribe to old ideas about morality. Why shouldn't two fellows love the same girl? Byron kept telling him so all the time. It was rather stimulating to consider the idea.
While his friend pondered, Byron placed the locks of hair on the dish. This wouldn't do. More would be required. Since he did not have that blasted hen, the blood would have to come from somewhere else. His gaze lingered on Shelley's rather fine chest and arms. How Grecian, how heroic. Hightly inspiring.
"Kneel, there's a good fellow."
"I say - what?"
"Kneel. There. Go on. Don't spoil this for me."
"Oh, very well. I suppose I might - There. Will that do?"
Byron followed his friend's example. He studied the smooth, hairless chest with relish. Why should he seek to conquer two sisters? Anyone could have that, and indeed, he already had. Not Mary and that vapid little Claire, but Madame Duval's twin whores, famed throughout Paris and Ile de France. No, to at last break out of the mould, it was clear that he would need to do something far more - outre.
The ancient Greeks could do it, why not he? He was Byron. Did he not stand above mere mortals, akin to the Titans of old?
With a great deal of delight, Byron slashed Shelley across the nicely shaped chest.
"Ouch. Why did you do that?"
"Sh. Be quiet."
Byron raised his sacrificial dish to catch some of the blood oozing from the shallow wound. Pressing the dish into Shelley's hands, he proceeded to cut himself, close to the left nipple. Pensively, he watched the dark red fluid splash onto the dish. Already, he was more aroused than filled with reverence for the occult ritual he had been so eager to perform. Now the ritual itself meant nothing, it was its end that interested him. The object of all this would be to bind Shelley to him, to make of him an obedient slave - and his faithful lover.
Byron seized the dish, walked over to the fire, clasped a piece of kindling in his hand and held it briefly into the fire. It burst into flame and excitedly, he called Shelley to his side.
Watching his friend and soon-to-be lover, Byron took pleasure in the way the dancing flames moved across the handsome features.
He tossed the burning twig onto the dish and watched it burn. Quickly, he recited a few words in a mysterioius language he'd once heard during a seance. He had no idea if it existed in this world. Truth be told, he made most of the words up as he went along.
Shelley watched his friend's actions with interest, a slightly puzzled look on his face.
"Sh. Percy - swear on your blood and on the fire burning between us, that you will obey me without question and be my - friend for as long as we both shall live?"
"Uh - I suppose so. I mean, yes. I do. Well? Is this all? Aren't we going to do something more - exciting?"
"Just wait. Don't spoil it."
With a dramatic gesture, Byron flung the dish with its burnt offerings into the fireplace, where it broke into little pieces.
He leaned over and covered Shelley's lips with his. This did not cause any particular reaction in his friend. Shelley, partially correctly, assumed this to be part of the ritual. A formal kiss to seal their vow. He was eagerly awaiting the conclusion to the rite.
To his astonishment, Byron did not stop and now he shoved his tongue into Shelley's mouth. This time, Shelley withdrew, the puzzled look on his face deeper than before.
"Steady on, old man."
"You swore an oath just now. Do not question me."
The commanding look in Byron's eyes silenced Shelley and docilely he stood immobile as Byron resumed the kiss. It had to be said that by now, Shelley was beginning to find his friend's expert kissing somewhat arousing. Mary did not have much experience in the more intimate practices of the French.
Eventually, Byron pulled back and regarding Shelley with an unmoving gaze, he suddenly bowed his head and began to lick the drying wound on his friend's chest.
He looked up, staring peremptorily at Shelley.
"You do it too. Drink my blood. Hurry. It's drying."
Not quite as enthusiastically by now, Shelly complied. The salty taste was not unpleasant but somehow, the idea of drinking another man's blood turned his stomach.
Impatiently, Byron pulled Shelley close again and let his mouth continue its exploration of the well-nigh perfect chest before him. He suckled the nearest nipple causing delicious sensations to flow through Shelley's body. This was something he had never before experienced, not even with demimondes.
As the waves of pleasure washed over him, he closed his eyes. They opened in alarm, when Byron without warning bit into his nipple, hard. From then on, Byron alternately licked, sucked and nibbled and once again, Shelley let himself go.
To the right of the fireplace, a sofa was standing and this was where Byron began to tow his friend. He lay him out, flat on his back and renewed his efforts at seduction. At this point, he encountered no resistance.
Not even when his hands began to travel down the chest, across the abdomen until they found their goal, did Shelley squirm and attempt to free himself. This, the center of Shelley's pleasure, received for a while, all Byron's attention.
Shelley's last objections were silenced, in part by Byron's mouth covering his, effectively muffling any sound issuing from it.
Thus, as the last paroxysms of rapture rocked Shelley, he drifted off to sleep, pinned to the sofa by the languid weight of his friend.
There seemed to be no reason for Percy's sudden change of demeanour. Whereas last night, when she left him in Byron's study, he had seemed excited, almost giddy with exhilaration, today, he appeared to be deflated.
Mary concluded that perhaps the two men had stayed up late, drinking and gambling. Such carousing might cause a man's spirits to be dampened, at least such was the experience she had of her father.
Byron insisted they stay another night, and Mary, knowing it would be useless trying to influence Percy now, unenthusiastically agreed.
This time, there were no attempts at bizarre rites. Instead, the evening began quite pleasantly, with dinner, then conversation. Towards midnight, accompanied by the sounds of thunder and the flashes of lightning, which showed even through the thick curtains of the room, Byron began to dramatically recite the poem Christabel, by Samuel Coleridge.
Mary's attention was torn away from their host's compelling voice when she heard Percy cry out.
"It is you. You are the sinister lady."
"Percy? What madness is this? Come, let me -"
"No. Do not touch me."
To Mary's alarm and chagrin, Percy would not let her calm him and he ran out of the room, knocking over a table, filled with bric-a-brac, causing a great deal of commotion. He slammed the door shut behind him, leaving an uneasy silence in his wake.
Distraught, Mary excused herself and went off in search of her lover. She did not find him, however, and was forced to retreat to her room alone. Percy did not join her that night.
She spent a sleepless night, towards dawn experiencing a strange vision, akin to a dream, yet without being aware of having dozed off.
In it, she was alone and loved by no one, but was hailed as a great authoress. Literary success was some consolation, yet she felt utterly alone and abandoned by all who cared for her.
With a sickening feeling of clarity, Mary sensed that this was how it was going to be. Her future had revealed itself to her, without rituals and sacrifices. She felt a chill steal over her and she longed for Percy's embrace.
Later in the day, Percy did return to her, shamefaced, yet silent and subdued. After a few days it was almost as if the ominous incident had not occurred, almost, but not quite. Forever after, that Summer of Darkness cast its shadow over Mary's and Percy's lives, blighting them.
And forever after, Percy felt compelled to engage in intimate relations with Byron, whenever he chose to exercise his power over him. Percy could not bring himself to refuse, though he sensed that Mary guessed something was amiss, and though before long, he lost all taste for such perverted pleasures.
Sadly, it was Claire who was forced to pay the bitterest price of all. Perhaps it was Byron's revenge on Mary, but when Claire bore him a child, Byron took the babe away from her mother and the girl perished in a foundling's home. Claire never recovered and, sensing she was somehow responsible, Mary never ceased to feel guilty.