“Weekend at Byron’s” by Justin Teerlinck
August 28th, 1812. Lake Geneva, Switzerland. I pen these lines from the wine cellar of the Villa Diodati. I fear that they may be my last. The mortar around the frame crumbles a little with each assault upon the barred and barricaded door. The strength with which this last barrier between myself and my death is being battered is, needless to say, both super-human and not human at all. I have but one half-candle left, one brace of ornamental dueling pistols, whose operability is questionable at best, and this…these last few scraps of paper, hastily retrieved from the doctor’s hands before he gasped out a few final outlines and expired somewhere above the granite spiral stair-case that brought me here. Like the other diaries, poems, and epistles from this journey, these too shall certainly be devoured as well. How ironic that the fiend that perpetrates these crimes against humanity and literature is he who most inspired my writings. Lord B, you were my friend. You are now my angel of death.
You took Lady Caroline Lamb and Claire Claremont, then you destroyed my girlfriend, Mary Godwin, and finally, your own trusted physician, Dr. John Polidori. And when their wanton deaths would not slake your rage, you consumed their works, critiquing each in turn, just before rending every diary, book, scroll, letter, map, and piece of parchment — only to masticate and devour the scraps.
I now understand that this is just consequence for disturbing the dead. I have no further peace to make, for I have no maker but the dirt from whence I came. I see that the door will be staved in any moment. From this chamber, there is no retreat. The ways of reason hold no more light for you, my chocolate-covered friend. Must our final parting be so bittersweet? I shall try to persuade you with these pistols, but I doubt they shall give you pause. Why should they? For whose crime is more hideous, yours or ours? Bedlam itself would wince with shame at what we have here achieved. All that remains to be said is goddamn that story of Mary’s for giving us the inspiration! My friend: however unreasonable you are now, know that it was only our love for you and our fear of your creditors and spurned lovers that drove us to it. I will now bury this last communication behind a bottle of your least favorite vintage in hopes of avoiding its discovery — and thus consumption — by you and that our contemporaries might find this desperate note and forbear our mistakes.
Affectionately and stoically yours even in death, Percy Shelley, Esq.
What ended sordidly, began splendidly. On June 7th, 1812, Lord Byron decided to retreat to a small villa at the edge of a lake, in the middle of a landmass called “Europe.” He had been seeking solace for a goodly length of time, for both himself and his pet bear, Rufus. There were few bear doctors in Europe at that time, and almost none in England. Rufus suffered from an addiction to spirits, and every time Lord Byron attempted to curtail Rufus’ nightly aperitif, the bear would commence a most hideous moaning, rolling about on the ground until thus placated with grog. Additionally, Rufus suffered from separation-anxiety syndrome, having been removed as a cub from his mother bear before the maternal bond had been firmly entrenched. More to the point, Rufus also suffered from perianal itching, which caused his anxious master to place a lampshade on the bear’s head and pants to cover his bottom-things, in order that the poor creature refrain from an excess of perianal itching, with damage to the hypodermal and dermal tissues, including the stratum corneum and Pacinian corpuscles.
It was Byron’s personal physician — also a noted bear physician — who examined and diagnosed Rufus. “I say, my man, how are you today?”
“Raaaar,” answered the bear.
“I see,” said Dr. Polidori, the noted man of medicine and writer of horror tales. “How goes it with the itch? I see no marked improvement, my friend.”
“Speak clearly, sir, for English is not my first language, and your accent is — how is it said? Somewhat, ah, difficult, yes?”
“Ah, yes! I prescribe low fiber, no more nuts or berries, but only smooth, Swiss chocolate. Also, topical petroleum jelly, thrice daily. Laudanum for pain as needed. Capisci?”
“Ah! Byron, my friend, are my instructions clear? Can you, ah, assist this ursine companion of yours to comply with my, ah, instructions?”
“Of course, dear boy! But confound it all, where shall I obtain a quantity of Swiss chocolate?”
“Where else, my friend? You, and this bear must go to the Switzerland. It is there, by the shores of Lake Geneva, that you will find rest, respite, and cure.”
“Then off we go, old thing, and I enjoin you to come with us. No better physician for what ails man, bear, or manbear could there be!”
“Ah! Thus it shall be,” decried the good doctor. “Are you also going to bring Frothy, the rabid rescue fox?”
“Well, I know that Swiss import laws forbid it, but I promised the Nottinghamshire No Kill Shelter that we would feed him only Swiss Miss Foxy Chow, and I’m afraid that is only obtainable in quantity in that country which we have been presently discussing.”
“Very well then, sir,” said Dr. Polidori. “We shall place a bib and a bonnet around Signor Fro-thee, and we will pretend that he is your…ah…what is polite? ‘Love child.’ In this way, we shall elude the Swiss customs authorities.”
“Good show! This is exactly why I retained you, you rogue,” cried Lord Byron playfully.
Preparations were made, and off they went, landed gentleman, literate doctor, itchy bear, and rabid fox to a small, chocolate-producing villa by the side of a wonderfully clear lake, full of the things a bear could want.
Rufus the ill bear, Mr. Frothy the rabid, bonnet-clad fox, Lord Byron, Dr. Polidori, and a good many porters and chroniclers made their way to Lake Geneva. Rufus, in spite of his ailments, was strong enough to pull a wagon that housed Lord Byron and his doctor, though his lumbering and somewhat intoxicated gait and lampshade-impaired peripheral vision made their journey slow and wrought with zigzags, round-a-bouts and errors in navigation. Once they crossed the border into Switzerland, a long-mustachioed customs official was plied with enough absinthe to believe the fox was a baby and the bear was…well, a silly thing that bore no further notice other than an extra few francs by way of bribe. Byron’s charm and the bear’s innate silliness made up for any lack of understanding of the brilliant Italian doctor’s scientific explanations of ursine chocolate requirements.
Once the party was ensconced at a suitably Byronic estate called Villa Diodati, Byron, bear, fox, and doctor commenced to settle in. The villa was equipped with a larder, wine cellar, treasure room, map room, and a small chocolate processing and storage facility that were more than adequate for all ursine medical needs. Dr. Polidori even entertained thoughts of starting an ursine perianal itch commune for underserved but well-deserving bears. It was not long before a continuous, howling rain began to set in. Soon there was little to do but eat chocolate and opium cakes and read Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno aloud to Rufus and Mr. Frothy.
“So,” quoth the doctor, “in the third circle of hell there dwelt the naughty, bum-licking bear, who did not take his medicine, but commenced to drink the grog all day and night…”
“I am just making a little sport,” said Dr. Polidori. “Do not take it personally, my friend.”
Lord Byron allowed a long sigh to escape his large, perfectly formed lungs.
“What is the matter, my friend?”
“Is it just me, old man, or is this becoming dreadfully boring? All day it rains, all day I write, and all night…”
“Nothing…” The doctor smiled.
“Nothing!” said the 6th Lord Byron, smiling sadly.
Just then the door rang. A servant fetched the two gentlemen and offered Lord Byron a letter which had arrived by post. It had been weeks since either of them had received any mail, for they had hidden their presences out of fear from their flagrant violations of strict Swiss laws pertaining to animal importation — as well as Byron’s numerous creditors and spurned ex-lovers both in England and abroad. Lord Byron immediately took the letter and deposited his supple yet taut Byronic frame into a plush, red-velvet chair next to a fireplace in the drawing room. Once seated, he ran his long, delicate, and sensitive yet hardy man-hands through his curly, flaxen Byronic locks and raised a curious eyebrow, before ripping open the envelope.
“No word from whom this is come,” his Lordship informed the doctor, who hung on to the side of the chair in waiting suspense.
“A map of some faraway treasure, perhaps?” said Dr. Polidori.
They both had a laugh, and then the doctor watched on as Byron’s brow became more knit and less mirthful as he began to digest the missive. At the doctor’s urging, Byron read the letter aloud:
Dear heroic sir,
May the devil find you before I, because he would have an easier way with you than myself. Sir, you smote my heart with your charm and you smote my flower-blossom with your anti-heroic, flesh-spear. Now, I am with child. I mean for my child to know its father. Sir, I am no unicorn tamer but I was once pure at heart, at least until we played poke-about-in-the-silly-sauce. I was once smitten by your boyish looks, curled locks, your man-brambles, iambic meter, and silly, lampshade-clad bear. I could be — nay I SHALL BE — so smitten again. I know where you are, and with whom you are staying. If you make any move to exit your residence, I shall notify the Swiss authorities immediately. You are in no position to pay the 1,000-franc fines they levy against the owners of non-registered, drink-laden mammals. I only seek your company again, your glow, as it were. Soon, we shall again be a family: you, I, and the future Lord Byron the 7th.
At the conclusion of the reading, Rufus and Mr. Frothy the Rabid Fox crowded around, accustomed to hearing their master’s voice carry a sonnet, a ballad, or the contents of lovers’ letters. Their loyal but dull minds could not comprehend why such stormy clouds had come to pass over their master’s Apollonian, perfectly drawn features. Rufus stood up on his hind legs and wobbled precariously, being full of drink and love for his worried master; he placed a forepaw on his Lordship’s hand, belched loudly, and proceeded to lick his Lordship’s face. Mr. Frothy curled up and nudged Byron’s soft yet perfectly muscular thigh, dripping small dollops of rabies-foam upon Byron’s imported, custom-made red leather shoes. These efforts were met with kind head-pats and ear-rubs from their master, a lover of downtrodden beasts and men alike.
“There, there, my friends! Papa simply has another threatening letter and a false paternity claim! There, that’s a good little rabid fox. Soon we will both be running from the hounds and I shall be foaming at the mouth too, my friend.”
Dr. Polidori began to inquire as to what they should do about the situation when suddenly, the most odd sound commenced upon their ears. It brought animals and men alike to their feet. It was a most unusual, musical sound, but like no music ever heard. It seemed to come from outside. The two men opened the south window of the drawing room, where they beheld a figure dressed in monkish garb beneath the shade of a large jack pine. His face and features were shrouded by a wide-brimmed black hat and robes, and he leaned upon an ebony cane or walking-staff. It was a rare, sun-filled day outside. The tune he whistled was jaunty and spirited, befitting the climatic mood, if not that of the household.
“What the deuce is going on out there?” cried the doctor. “Who is that figure down there, whistling in the shade? You there, sir, please identify yourself.”
“For aught I know it is a shade,” said Byron, “but likely not. One of the servants stated that there is an abbey not far from here, ‘run’ by an eccentric ghost/chocolatier-abbot. He is known to come to this spot on occasion and whistle a tune, not before heard by human beings. It is said that his own personal angel inspires the song.”
“Or perhaps the devil,” said Polidori, “or a spy sent by your friend to ensure we do not take flight from here.”
They dispatched a servant outside to investigate the lone whistler but by the time the tree was reached there was no trace of the musical shade, nor was he witnessed leaving the spot.
The two gentlemen soon forgot the unusual figure, however, and turned to the task of dealing with the discommodious news carried in the letter.
“This is a most inopportune turn of events,” moaned Byron. “We cannot run and we cannot thwart this affront. Like a bear with dermatitis, we are doomed to lick the same spot over and over again, making it more inflamed.”
The doctor had a glint in his eye. “Do not despair, sir, for, though we cannot run, we may be able to requisition the materials of our own comforts.”
“Why not invite your other friends to join us for a weekend or two? We can tell ghost stories by the fire and practice animal magnetism. All that is dour and insipid will wash away in the tide of our merriment!”
Byron perked up at this. “I love your mode of thought! Such a simple, splendid notion. Misery abhors jocularity. Let her just try to vent her spleen! We’ll dress up like ghouls, run amok, and tell tales to make the gods shit grapeshot. She — whoever she be — will run out on her heels, or join us in the lark. Whatever her temperament, we win the game.”
With that, Lord Byron set pen to paper and invited two of his dearest and brightest friends, Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley, to come vacation with them at the Villa Diodati.
Mr. Shelley, Esquire, and Honorable Miss Godwin
Salutations my friends! How long it has been since we have had a jaunt together, cast away my allowance on expensive wine, or supped together whilst reading each others’ works aloud. How a lonely gentleman misses the company of his libertine friends, especially now that he is in exile in a beautiful yet boring countryside…
My estate is especially in want of cheer and intellect that you could so easily provision. Things are not dire here; the good doctor and I as yet enjoy each others’ companionship, and Rufus appears to be recovered enough that we may remove his therapeutic trousers–though not the lampshade, poor wretch. And Mr. Frothy soldiers on, having outlived his expected course of termination.
Your countenances would be most welcome here in Lake Geneva, more so now that I seem unable to unring the bell that calls the harpies as well as maidens, the banshees and the comely debutantes — and how my sad, sparkling eyes would beg to gaze on more of the latter most. Alas, what a cruel burden it is to be cursed with the skin I have! Like milk and lace. And to behold what a brilliant mind lies in my head and heroic heart pounds within my breast is to be made to stagger and swoon. Can one really blame the hysteric for whom I am the source of imbalance?
But enough of this: I entreat you to make haste in joining us here, and to whisper a word of it to no one, as the gall of a good many mercurial souls is already making steady progress in its journey toward my idyllic estate.
I pray this missive finds you both in capital health and spirits.
I am, your humble servant,
Shelley and Godwin soon returned the correspondence, responding in the affirmative to Lord Byron’s generous invitation. It was several weeks before they arrived, having had to make the arduous fortnight crossing of the English channel, and passing through the same forlorn and roadless terrain to reach the oft gloomy place of retirement of the young gentleman and his entourage. Mary was with child at the outset of the journey, and by the time of their arrival the child had been birthed and already understood how to seek the satiety of its wants using only iambic tetrameter and trochaic.
During this passage of time, the young lord had been visited on numerous occasions by both his creditors and the mysterious shade that whistled beneath the tall pine only on warm, sunny days. Before long, Lord Byron and Dr. Polidori took the presence of the shade as an omen of good fortune for both the timing of its appearance and the jauntiness of the tune it whistled. Even the delirious Mr. Frothy would sway in time to the song and Rufus the perennially and perianally itchy bear would temporarily cease his attempts to lick himself in order to moan along with the tune in ursine delight. Each time the shade appeared, attempts were made to contact the spirit, and each time the spirit retreated to its phantasmagoric dimension of origin before the seeker could come within a few yards of its countenance. Shade they knew it was, for the eccentric chocolatier-abbot’s whereabouts were independently confirmed at the times of the sightings; and though the decrepit monk was ancient, he was altogether mute, rendered so by an accident some years ago where his voice-trap had been torn asunder by an ill-advised attempt to sing soprano. Indeed, the sad church man was very much incapable of whispering let alone whistling.
As for the creditors, they found and harassed the young gentleman as honeybees flit about a bear who has disturbed their hive. It seemed that young Byron was marked. The letters of the creditors were filled with even more animus than their personal visits to the villa.
Dear esteemed sir,
This marks our fifth attempt to reach you with no success. We respectfully wish to remind you that the line of credit extended to you in the amount of 5,000 pounds-sterling paid to you in rabid fox feed and Swiss chocolate is considerably past due. We are sending our representative, one Mr. Jameson Cartwright, to your present abode in order to negotiate a speedy settlement of this matter. As a gentleman, your lordship has our utmost respect for his rank and title. But while superior pedigree may prevent his lordship from facing the horrors of debtor’s prison, we fear that your as yet stainless reputation may fall to ill fame if this situation is not graced with your immediate attention. In short my lord, we urge you to meet with Mr. Jameson and follow his instructions that both parties may resolve this troubling matter with no undue damage to either.
With unfailing respect, we are your humble servants,
Mr. Jonathan Stevens, worrisome accounts manager
Barlow, Barrow & Drake Lending Company, Ltd.
In addition to these letters, visits from creditors also afforded poor Lord Byron and his impeccable, Adonis-like chin a considerable bout of nerves. For days he began to pace about, eschewing even the company of Rufus and Mr. Frothy, who by now was knocking at death’s door — so grave had his case become. But at the arrival of Byron’s friends, all was gay again. The four adults and one genius baby spent many an evening penning and sharing their brilliant turns of verse, and a renewed creative energy surged through them.
One fortnight after Shelley and Miss Godwin’s arrival, there came a tapping at the door during a late-evening soiree. The servants looked ghastly pale as they interrupted a game of erotic charades to obtain the lord of the manor, who writhed about on the floor, made silly with chardonnay and a good half-dropper full of Mrs. Wentworth’s Phlegmatic Tonic, whose constituent parts consisted of one part laudanum to five parts laudanum.
“What am I then? What am I?” sputtered Byron in between peals of lewd giggles — his own and that of the others.
The party threw up their arms in bemused helplessness.
“A phallus!” cried their host. “Damn you all! I’m a syphilitic phallus! My dear doctor, you of all people ought to have known! I thought physic and general anatomy were part of your studies.”
“I stand duly accused and shamed,” sighed the doctor in mock ruefulness.
“Sir,” said Mr. Ingram, the manservant, “there is a young lady here to see you. She says it is a matter of life and death.”
“Let Rufus represent me in this matter. He has better manners than I.”
“Sir,” entreated the servant gravely, “I’m afraid the lady is threatening to involve certain uniformed authorities if she is not given an audience with you forthwith.”
At this, Byron’s boyishly handsome countenance turned to a mask of rage. “Pray, who seeks our company in such a way? Name the wretch at once.”
“She refuses to be named.”
“How uncivil! I will handle this in my own way.” The entire party anxiously followed their host to the front door of the villa, where a young auburn-haired lady was arguing animatedly with the other servants. A flash of recognition crossed her face upon the arrival of the young lord.
“Pooky!” she cried. “I knew you would not desert me in my…hour of despair and trepidation!”
“Miss Claremont, and what an hour it is! The bell tolls half-past-one. I am of course charmed by this exceedingly unexpected visit,” Lord Byron stated neutrally.
“Oh stop it, Pooky! Can you not see I am heavy with child, and it is yours! I am ready to receive your invitation to marriage. Did you not receive my numerous correspondences these past weeks? It is I and I alone who stood between your noble personage and the greed-besotted ogres who torment you. Darling, I am here to save you! Do you think our child should be named Arnold Harold Harvey Byron? Oh I am sure it is a boy! One to carry on your noble lineage! He shall go to Eton, and then Oxford! Do you think we should make him a naval or an army officer? I think it would be easier for him to win fame and medals in an overland campaign. Perhaps we’ll still be fighting those dreadful, beastly colonials by the time of his maturation. Ah, one can but hope!”
“‘Torment,'” Byron repeated under his breath. “Yes, that is a word whose meaning I feel I shall know and know well before I exit this place of renewal.” Still, he offered a wan smile and took Miss Claire Claremont’s hand, bidding her welcome while Mr. Ingram fetched her copious belongings from the chaise and four parked outside.
Miss Claremont proceeded to pester Lord Byron nearly every day with regard to her marriage prospects, proposed names of their child, what sort of academy to send it to, and the young gentleman drank more and more heavily and took to secluding himself in his private chamber. Even the company of his friends was not enough to mitigate the toll of this and the now daily missives from creditors.
Finally, on one stormy afternoon, to gain to relief and lift their spirits, Dr. Polidori and Miss Godwin took turns reading aloud from Tales of Horror and Phantasmagoria. Byron saw how enrapt the party became, even hushing Miss Claremont into silence.
“By Jove I’ve got it,” he whispered.
At the conclusion of the reading he suggested that all retreat to their separate spaces and write their own horror tale and then share it with their fellow companions. He knew that this would occupy much time, most especially for the literary-minded but untalented Miss Claremont.
“It should buy me a fortnight’s worth of peace at least,” sighed the beleaguered gentleman.
Byron was forced to check his displeasure, for just a few hours after the assignment was given, Miss Claremont came running and giggling down the stairs flapping some papers about in her hands and squealing, “I’m done, I’m done, I’m done! Gather round me friends and listen to my ripping yarn!”
“My dear, are you sure you do not wish to revise and edit before sharing your masterpiece with us?” asked Lord Byron, without any audible trace of judgment or derision.
“The very idea is preposterous and revolting,” cried Miss Claremont. “I believe in checking no impulse, censoring no unconscious thought, curtailing no whimsy. It is an angel that moves my pen. Could I insult an angel by changing the words that she moves my pen to inscribe?”
The assembled party had no answer for this, but Lord Byron smiled gamely and held out his well-poised, perfectly proportioned arms and made motion for her to begin the recitation of her story.
Miss Claremont began, “Once upon a time there was a mad unicorn named Henry. The unicorn devoured sour-berries and frolicked inappropriately with centaurs, and played sensual games with its spiraled horn…”
It went on in a similar vein for some time.
Some hours later, Byron was observed soundly sleeping in his overstuffed chair. Seeing this caused a sudden rise of gall within Miss Claremont, for her cheeks became flushed and she took several quick strides before the peacefully resting gentleman and planted a series of hellacious slaps across his brow before anyone could restrain her. Finally, Dr. Polidori escorted her off to bed.
After Byron had composed himself again, Mary Godwin read from a tale-in-progress that featured a monstrous creature that was raised from the dead through galvanistic means, raised by a mad doctor called “Frankenstein.” No one breathed a word during the airing of the tale, for it was so unlike anything they had ever heard, and so unlike anything concerning naughty unicorns. At the conclusion of the reading, Byron rose to his feet and offered an ovation and a bow, as did the others.
“Miss Godwin, I cannot allow you to exit this villa until you have finished writing this masterpiece, for I must conclude that your fame throughout the ages shall outstrip even my own in its brilliance. I warrant this Frankenstein will surely be noted as the greatest tale of horror ever devised. Modern Prometheus indeed! Miss, you are yourself like Prometheus, bringing knowledge and unparalled expression of the most unsullied literary impulse to the unwashed heathens gathered before you.”
Godwin attempted to thwart these and other laurels provided by Byron and their friends. “You are all far, far too gracious and complementary of this rough outline. I shall gather in your every enthusiasm and use it to inspire this humble personage to finish the tale, despite the limitations of my finite talents with the pen.”
“You must, my dear” said Percy Shelley, “for if your talents are limited, then so is the sea, and so are my abilities piloting small sailing craft!”
This reading seemed to greatly arrest the effect of the horrors that troubled young Byron. For a few hours thereafter, he appeared bright and happy. Then he retreated to his bed chamber. Very late there came another pounding at the front door. It was one Lady Caroline Lamb, who without leave immediately ran throughout the house demanding the presence of his lordship. Dr. Polidori and Percy Shelley went to warn him. They found him in his usual chair beside his bed and by the cogitations writ large on their faces he understood that something was amiss.
“Out with it gentlemen,” he cried.
“What ho, old thing” said Shelley, “I’m afraid an unwelcome visitor is come and is running amok in this very villa seeking your presence.”
“Lady Caroline Lamb. She has quite taken leave of…what the deuce? Oh no! There, there, my friend! Nothing is amiss at all!”
At the very sound of that name, Byron’s eyes went wide; he trembled violently and gave up a great gasp, and of a sudden his breath ceased to spring forth from his heroic lungs. He sat stiff and cold, his face frozen to a mask of despair. In short, he went to join the heavenly choir and took his place in God’s legions amongst the saucy poets. The doctor checked his humors and opened several veins in the hopes that he could be revived by release of toxic bile salts and malicious animalcules — all to no avail. The poet sat as still and stone-like as if he had gazed into the eye of the Gorgon.
“What shall we do?” cried Shelley. “Lady Lamb is already at the door and she will not leave until she has had an audience. She means to force Byron to love her. Not only that, but several of Byron’s creditors have appeared with her, as well as a train of unclaimed bastards with questionable sireage begging alms and several lions, cotimundi, and tapirs with collars and tags bearing Lord Byron’s seal. It is a shame that the life of our good friend and noble personage was cut so short in the bloom of its flowering, not only to muse upon the great works of verse that will forever be left unfinished but also due to these many financiers and questionable kin closing in on us with hammer and tongs!”
“Now now, my friend! This is a sad and vexing situation indeed, but all is not lost!” said Dr. Polidori. “I have a notion. Here, you take the legs.” The two friends bolted the door against any unsuspecting and expected intruders. They moved the recently deceased gentleman to his bed and undid his shirt, half-covering him with his monogrammed, blue silk sheets. Polidori then removed his own shirt and slipped into bed beside Byron. “Now then, you unbolt the door and let Lamb in. Stay behind the door and pretend to speak for Byron while I move his limbs about.”
“This is absurd, man! She will never be taken in.”
“Hush! It has been several years since their last meeting. It is entirely possible that she will not recognize your voice for his.”
Shelley did as he was instructed. As soon as the door was unbolted, Lady Lamb burst in to see Dr. Polidori with his arm around Byron, grinning like an orangutan. “Oh, oops!” said the doctor. “Well, you have caught us in quite a compromised position.”
“Indeed,” cried the Lady, with disgust. “Byron you always were a filthy pig…and that is why I cannot have done with you, you randy-making man-mast!”
She began to stroll seductively toward the bed. “Ah, no!” cried Dr. Polidori. “I’m afraid he cannot return your zealous affections.”
“Then let me hear it from his lips!” There was a cough that seemed to come from behind the door, and Byron’s head lolled from side to side, like some obscene marionette. “What is this strange behavior?” asked the Lady.
Then, Shelley started speaking for Lord Byron, throwing his voice awkwardly while Polidori attempted to move Byron’s jaw muscles. “Well my dear, I’m uh…afraid that uh…I no longer love you…”
“You rogue!” she cried. “At least kiss me one last time!”
“Now then…I’m afraid it’s quite impossible. My lips are numb from taking too much ether,” said Percy, pretending to be the more superior and manly poet.
“Is that the origin of the smell?” said Lady Lamb. “By the devil I’d have sworn that something had died in here. Sir, you are the most depraved individual a lady ever beheld. I bid you farewell for now, but I shall return after I have etched your name ten more times into my milky, delicate thighs with the very same paring knife that I will use to cut out your heart if you do not learn to love me like a good boy!” With that, Lady Lamb departed the room.
For a few moments after Lady Lamb’s departure, Percy Shelley and Dr. Polidori paced the room, deep in thought. At the last, the latter said, “well sir, I think our scheme was highly successful. Now, we must only carry on the ruse for a bit longer until this malevolent entourage has taken its leave. We must tell them straightaway that Lord Byron is gravely ill and cannot bear their presence for long, and then try to answer all of their entreaties and demands in the affirmative, no matter how peevish in the presentation of their grievances or fanatical in the exactness of their punctilios.”
“Surely they cannot all see him up here in his covert.”
“How strong is your back, my friend?” said Dr. Polidori.
With that, they dressed their deceased friend in his finest robes and each held him up by one arm, so as to affect the facade of facilitating his ambulations. This task was not aided by the fact that Byron’s head lolled randomly from side to side and his feet dragged behind him, making a “thump” sound with each stair they descended to greet the throng amassed below. Being the mad genius that he was, Dr. Polidori even liberally doused Byron’s raiment with a quantity of wine, so it might be believed more intoxicated than ill.
“If all else fails and the mob turns ugly,” Polidori instructed Shelly with a grin, “call out ‘He has the drip! He has the drip!’ and watch them scatter!”
“What is the drip?” the poet who was inferior to Byron asked.
“It is a type of pyretic dry rot based in the green bile that ravages the gonads.”
Though the gathered mob was a cacophonous mass of roaring, unfed, musky beasts, ex-lovers wailing, bleeding and brandishing cutting implements and throngs of bastards and candidate bastards holding up empty bowls, and cantankerous, hidebound creditors opening and closing leather-bound ledgers detailing unpaid debts — a profound hush, and then tremulous murmurs swept across all when they saw Byron making his descent down the stairs toward them. Polidori the puppeteer and Shelley the ventriloquist kept up a good show for some time, setting on each side of the seemingly beleaguered nobleman, whose head nodded and whose legs and arms appeared to alternatively dip, flail and go limp when making some point, attempting to sign documents binding him to compensate his lenders, offer boundless apologies and promise undying love and fidelity to twenty gathered women, ten men and four score ragamuffin children. Unfortunately, the task was too great for a corpse with even the greatest two advisors acting as his eyes and ears, voice, brain, muscles, arms, legs, hands, feet, and heart. Shelley had to play the roles of contrite scofflaw, romantic confessor, enthusiastic new father, and competent exotic pet owner while Dr. Polidori accounted for each sentiment expressed with a corresponding gesture on “Byron’s” part. Due to the limitations of this arrangement, Byron appeared a bit more theatrical than usual, and at length his patrons took him for drunk rather than ill, and began demanding immediate redress.
“My honor has been tarnished,” said one financier. “I will have the satisfaction of a duel to the death with this dandy!”
“In that contest, sir, you would have a distinct advantage,” said Dr. Polidori. Under his breath, he said to Shelley, “We must get him out of here now. Help me take him to the cellar. I have an idea that will solve every problem.”
They made an excuse to allow a hasty but brief retreat. By now, all of Byron’s house guests were also seeking to know the nature of these strange goings-on. Dr. Polidori and Percy Shelley managed to get Lord Byron to a place of rest on a large oak table in a corner of the chocolate processing room that the good doctor had been using as library, laboratory, and examination room whilst lodged at the villa. He turned conspiratorially toward the poet who was Byron’s lesser.
“We have little time,” he said. “Do you remember Mary’s story about reviving the dead using galvanism?”
Percy nodded. “It is possible! I have seen the same muscular action on frog’s legs using voltaic piles. If we could but accomplish the same response in our friend here, we could temporarily stimulate him to his former corporeal state for a brief enough time for him to better manage the closing of his accounts, and the resolution of all his earthly affairs, but not so long as to keep him from his eternal peace. He could be made to explain in his own voice that he is dead and that these claims hold no more legal sway! And then you and I and he, might finally obtain some respite.”
“You are mad,” said Shelley, “mad and ghoulish. If the dead could speak, would they not have other designs than closing delinquent accounts? And even taken so, who would listen to — let alone allow — a corpse to make the case for their own legal exculpability? And what makes you think Byron would cooperate with this mad contrivance?”
“Do not be so hasty to strike down the plan. The objections you raise precisely point to many elements of genius working in concert. Taken point by point, they seem contradictory — like viewing only one weak beam of light from a distant star. Ah, but view the whole star, and no one can question its blinding brilliance!” said the doctor with fanatical sincerity.
“If only I was a believer,” said Shelley, “I would implore god for aid! Instead, I can only listen to your ravings and lamely follow your lead.”
Seeing no other way to quell the violent tendencies of the crowd above, Shelley agreed to assist the doctor after numerous assurances that Lord Byron’s return to life would only be temporary, and that his behavior, speech, and movements would be well controlled by the commands of the doctor through his expertise in animal magnetism within less time than it takes for the sun to rise and set, Byron would calmly and of his own volition, lay his head in his own casket like a lamb and sleep for eternity, thus creating no imbalance, and broaching no violation of natural law of the living or the dead. Furthermore, Polidori reminded Shelley that he thought that Mary had been pondering a happy ending to the Frankenstein tale where monster and scientist were to live together in Venice like brothers, creating sculpture, walking arm in arm for merry romps over hill and dale, and entertaining elite guests. Though this shift in the narrative had not come to pass, Polidori assured Shelley that Mary had intimated that it was forthcoming. Shelley pondered these things, and, missing his brilliant deceased friend, wished that he too might gambol about with Lord Byron one last time after this melancholy, sordid business had been seen to.
Once Shelley’s cooperation was secured, Polidori explained the steps required to bring Byron back from the land of no return. First they had to start up the chocolate-making works until a man-sized vat of chocolate was made liquid. Then, Byron would be lowered by a platform suspended by chains into the chocolate vat below. This was necessary because only liquid, Swiss chocolate had the correct concentration of ions required to conduct the harnessed power of lightning from a voltaic cell into their friend. Additionally, the newly reanimated Byron would not have the benefit of the digestive system that in life held him in good stead and would be in need of some other energy source. The chocolate exoskeleton created by the process would slowly be absorbed by special lipid absorption cells only present in cadavers and, by a special formula, would be pliant enough that Byron would be able to move and flex his limbs without breaking the chocodermis sustani…or so said the doctor. As if that alone were not enough, the chocodermis sustani would itself be overlaid with a combat-ready exoskeleton consisting a mysterious, fast-hardening resin called Impervinite! The newly emerged Byron would now passively and effectively resist all earthly torments, for nothing could by force penetrate the inviolable outer shell. No animacule, no cold of winter nor heat of summer, nor the blows of unconvinced creditors would ever again thwart the poet’s enjoyment of love and beauty, truth and verse.
They commenced the work immediately and, within a few hours, they raised the newly chocolate-dipped and electrified Lord Byron from the brown, enigmatic, swirling void from whence many magical Easter treats are created. Shelley and the doctor gazed over their work with awe, admiration, and horror. There stood before them their former friend, whose brown, glazed eyes gave no sign of their intent, whose stiffened limbs offered no hint of animation. There came from above great cries of consternation, as the mob was not placated by Mary Godwin’s entreaties to patiently await the return of the two gentlemen from the cellar.
“Blackguards!” said one voice. “Toadies! They have probably made their escape through a window! Let us go see if they are still here, and if so make them to pay for the excesses of their friend.” With that, there came a loud banging at the cellar door, which the scientist and the poet had bolted lest the product of their alchemy be too soon discovered. They both looked anxiously from the door to Byron and back to the door.
“Why does nothing happen?” yelled the doctor. “If you are alive, then speak, poet! Obey me!”
There were a few more moments of pregnant stillness, in which nothing happened. Then of a sudden, the lips began to move! The limbs awkwardly groped about and a gurgling, malty voice emerged from the beast that was not Byron’s and yet was able to utter strange, half-formed, meter-less verse:
To say…I live is but a lie
I am a corpse in life’s disguise
Ere sweet the shell that coats the guy
What rots beneath, is compromised
Dr. Polidori threw up his arm in the air and fell to his knees. “It writes!” he said. “It writes! Welcome home, our dear friend.”
Lord Byron showed no sign he understood these words or recognized the doctor or Shelley. He took two menacing steps toward them and flexed his arms, which were now more ripped and developed than they had been even in the perfection of human form. A new set of striated, impermeable licorice-whip fibers provisioned the dead poet with new muscular tissue that gave him the strength of twenty men. He bore a kind of chocolaty, inappropriate grimace on his face as he advanced.
Just then, the door to the main cellar burst in, and two of the mob descended the steps brandishing torches and pitchforks. Byron wheeled on them, and ascended the stairs half-way to meet them in hostile combat.
“What in the name of the devil?” said one of the mob. “It is a candy-coated freak, sent from hell to tempt us to veer from our strict diets! Send him back to Hades!” He took a jab at Byron with the implement, but it merely bounced harmlessly off of the harder-than-steel chocolate exoskeletal-armored alloy.
“You will put down the fork and remove all verse,” uttered the creature with the deadpan tone of an automaton.
The former Byron took the steel tines of the fork and bent them in half as easily as though they were blades of grass, then rudely shoved and menaced the figure and his compatriots back up the stairs.
More sorties followed, and were thwarted as easily by the fiend, who roamed about the villa, smashing into bookcases and consuming and devouring every piece of literature he could lay hands to. For a time the sounds of musket reports echoed through the villa, as small groups of survivors attempted to make a stand and formed makeshift barricades, piling all of their notes, letters and works-in-progress behind them. Many direct hits yielded only flattened grapeshot, bouncing harmlessly from the exoskeletal chocolate armor of the pitiless beast. Sulfurous smoke filled every corridor. In desperation, one of Byron’s creditors ignited a powder keg as the fiend approached and cornered him. He succeeded only in sending forth scraps of his own flesh and broken contracts in an explosive burst that did nothing to slow the undead poet’s advance. Bent swords and pikes lay strewn like so much bric-a-brac, a testament to the efforts of the combatants to defend themselves after their ammunition was spent. Finally, nothing was left of their literary efforts and no two words remained side-by-side on any page, and no verse remained ordered by any discernable meter or rhyme, having been rended and consumed by the monster poet.
At length, the Byronic verse-killing machine stumbled upon Mary Godwin huddled in a corner, clutching the only copy of her incomplete Frankenstein manuscript. The Byron Daemon pointed his finger at her, then curled it toward itself, bidding her come to him. “Mine,” he said. She shook her head no. The Byron beast advanced, snatching the book from her hands and gulping it down like an animal, before felling the poor writer in her tracks. Scenes of horror and fear ensued throughout the house, as the once boyishly handsome heart-breaker had now become an oddly delectable, candy-hardened, bone-breaking freak. The sugar he rained down was far from sweet or sensual now, yet many of his former mistresses still tested this theory.
“Byron, my dear,” said her Ladyship Caroline Lamb. “How good you look. How I long to taste you to see if you offer as delectable a sensation for a lady’s pallet as you once did for the whole body!” With that, she grasped his arm and attempted to lick him limb from limb. The creature recoiled and staggered away, making a horrified moan. It roamed the entire house until the villa was cleared of every scrap of manuscript or parchment from epic works like the Iliad down to the charwoman’s four-sentence laundry list.
In addition to paper with writing on it, the Byronic freak also cleared the house of all the lovers, creditors, children, pets, and friends. Upon seeing their master, even Rufus the ill bear and Mr. Frothy the rabid fox loped away as quickly as they could. They who had not fled in terror — or were not fleet enough — lay still in the corridors and on the carpets and rugs of the villa, or hung draped over the balconies and railings, their hands now empty of the prayerbooks, personal diaries, and memoirs that the deceased poet had lately forcefully removed.
The doctor tried to stop the Byronic fiend by melting him after his animal magnetism failed, but one mere lantern was no match for the super-hardened chocolate exoskeleton he had forged in a vat using sugar, milk, Impervatite, and the craft of Satan. The doctor’s screams were shrill and long, and gave no indication of what terrors or what ill-made verse his final moment bore witness to, though the reanimated Byron proved himself capable of meting out both.
At the last, the poet Shelley was the only remaining soul still conscious, and the quality of his poetry at last bested that of Byron’s, for now Byron uttered verse without form, meter, or theme. Shelley took comfort in that as the Byron freak found him and pursued him to the deepest, darkest corner of the villa: the wine cellar.
“You used to excel in sentimental verse,” Shelley taunted his old friend as he fled, head-long down the staircase. “But now, it’s just saccharine!”
“Cannot form verse,” uttered Byron. “Feed Byron verse. Feed now!”
Shelley slammed the door to the wine cellar closed and barred it, just as the fiend was about to enter. A pair of rock-hard, chocolate-dipped fists pounded on the door like iron balls. “Feed me verse!” demanded the fiend as the abominable poundings continued. “Feed me verse!”
The door began to splinter and give way. Percy Shelley took a quick swig from a glass of wine he had obtained in the cellar. The taste was dry, with a slight peach accent. It was not unpleasant, which was the opposite of how he pictured his impending doom. Sweat poured from his brow as he raised one of the brass-ornamented dueling pistols he had also found, aiming it squarely at the center of the door.
For several, breath-stealing minutes the poundings ceased; Shelley almost undid the bar to make his escape. Then it recommenced with greater force than before. The pistols trembled in his hand. His entire frame quivered. “Courage!” he told himself. “Hold fast now. Hold fast.”
With a final crunch the door burst off of its hinges and a figure surged forward. Percy yelled, “Die demon! Return to Hades or the chocolate vat from whence you emerged!”
He pulled the trigger and there was a bright flash and a burst of black, sulfurous smoke. The ball hit not its intended mark, but flew past and split an oak beam with a loud crack. In a frenzy Shelley raised the second pistol. A black-robed arm swept up and pushed the atheist poet’s arm aside just in time to deflect the second shot into the ceiling of the room, sending a burst of pulverized mortar raining down on them. Shelley was filled with animal fear and began to swing the empty pistols at this perceived assailant.
“Never!” he cried. “You shant take my soul with you!”
The black-robed personage stepped closer still, and suddenly, Shelley’s arms were in the grip of a pair of powerful, freckled hands. The poet realized that this black-robed figure was not his undead friend, but the mysterious whistling shade.
“Show me your face,” the poet uttered weakly.
“Gladly,” said the figure in an optimistic and disarming voice. He dramatically pulled aside the thick-brimmed hat to reveal a friendly, if wholly unexpected face. It was a bright-eyed and optimistic, clean-shaven face with two dense thickets of eyebrows that stood out from the rest of the features like overgrown shrubberies. A great, boyish smile lit forth from the face like a sunbeam casting off the shadows of the darkest gloom from the deepest dungeon.
“You are the whistling shade?” said Shelley, slumping to the floor, his fear subsiding, only to be replaced with shock and exhaustion.
“Indeed I am, sir, and I mean you and your companions no ill will.”
“Keep them in your prayers if you are a believer, for they are dead and there is no one to whom I may send such invocations.”
“What happy news I have for you then, if such is your mind. You have had quite a start. Rest here for a turn and when you have regained your strength, come with me, for what I have to say may be better shown than told.”
“You speak in riddles, but I am too weary to protest. I can only ask what of the fiend who was once my friend? He was here a moment ago seeking my death and is likely still at large in the villa. If that is so, then we are both yet in grave danger — if, as I suspect, you are a man and not a shade at all.”
“It is the rarest privilege to witness the skeptical, observing nature to which history has borne witness. I am indeed human, on that you may rest assured. I must ask you to suspend your disbelief for a moment, and understand that all that was done has been undone. Your friends have all returned to you. Lord Byron’s recovery will take a little longer than that of the others, but he will soon be set aright and you will be convinced as soon as you see him that his recovery is imminent.”
“Do not toy with my hopes, stranger, for weak though I am I will not suffer fools, liars, or the whimsies of mad men.”
“Well spoken,” said the shade. “Follow me.”
The Whistling Shade revealed himself to be short of stature but stout-hearted, and full of vigor, for he physically aided the shocked and weakened poet back up the granite stairs and onto the main floor of the Villa Diodati, just as the last of the candle turned to molten wax, and snuffed out in a single, silent wisp of smoke leaving the space behind them a darkened void.
The scene to which they entered looked as if it had been licked by perdition’s flames and touched by the whirlwind hands of the devil’s minions. All was chaos and dishevelment. Upturned couches and broken windows, velvet curtains ripped asunder, and a half-smashed plaster-of-paris bust of Voltaire strewn on the floor greeted these pilgrims from below. Rufus the bear was quivering on his haunches in a corner, crying loudly, his lampshade hanging in tatters from his neck. Cuddled up next to him was Frothy, who had just regained enough strength to rally and hide beside his larger and more powerful yet cowardly friend. They had been fortunate to escape early and make their return. The shade helped Percy up to the second floor of the villa, which, although in disarray as well was clearly touched less by the maelstrom of madness than the first floor had been. A light was burning in the master bedroom.
“What is this?” sighed Percy. “A dream? My death?”
“No, my friend,” said the shade. “Look well, for all is good.”
Inside the room, the battered poet’s eyes perceived a miracle: all his friends, every companion — Lady Caroline, Miss Claremont, his lover Mary Godwin, Dr. Polidori — they were all gathered, filthy, wounded, and bruised but alive, around the bedside of the one and only 6th Lord George Gordon Noel Byron, who lay prostrate and peacefully sleeping in the ample bed. It was a bed that had seen little of sleep in its time, and far more of procreative activities, but that now bore its occupant off in innocent dreams. Chocolate stains lay all about his pillows, but human skin and hair protruded from the sleeves of his robes, not the mask-like chocolate skeleton of doom.
All at once, Byron opened his eyes and rallied enough to prop himself up on his elbows and ask groggily, “What the deuce?”
The shade raised his arms to hush them all, and this was no trouble given the shocks, the deaths, and rebirths they had witnessed. “I am a traveler,” said the shade, with boyish enthusiasm. “I am come from the distant land of Los Angeles, America, from the future. I created what you would call a ‘time engine’ and it took me from the year of our lord two-thousand-and-twelve, to this time.”
“But you sound as if you come from the past, sir,” said Mary Godwin, “not the future.”
“Are you certain you come from those horrid colonies?” asked Miss Claremont. “Your accent is not rough, like those brutes. In fact, you sound like one of us.”
“I thank you for the compliment,” said the shade, bowing deeply.
“Were it not for your silly garb, I would mistake you for a peer,” whispered Byron.
“And in your error, you would be correct, for I am the Baron Joel Van Valin of Los Angeles, son of the Duke of Ames at your service. I am a man, and not a shade for, as your empirically minded friend has pointed out, shades are a matter of active imaginings, and not the stuff of fact.”
In a flash, they saw that all this shade had said was true. There was no other explanation for the events that had lately occurred.
Shelley was the first to ask the mysterious Baron Van Valin how all of this could have come to pass, how he and especially his companions still had their lives after he had witnessed their fall, and how his dead and then undead friend Lord Byron had at last became undead again, or rather alive. It was most perplexing.
The former-shade explained it all with perfect, scientific certitude. He told of how Shelley’s companions had merely been knocked unconscious with the physical and psychic shock of Byron’s having taken leave of his senses. He explained how Byron, whom they all thought deceased and then undead, was actually suffering from a form of ionized chocolate-induced electrical fontal-lobe damage, which caused his usual spontaneity and impulsivity to explode into homicidal rage. His ashen appearance had been caused by a transient ischemic attack, from the stress of seeing Lady Caroline Lamb, which temporarily stopped the flow of oxygenated blood from flowing to the centers of reasoning and dignity, the blood pooling in the brain stem, where autonomic reflexes stirred his lordship to heights of irrational (yet symbolically significant) maladaptive behaviors such as consuming the written works of his friends. The galvanistic effects of the electricity restored the autorhythmicity of Byron’s sinoatrial node, but enhanced these other mental responses and temporarily retarded the verse-production areas of the brain. They were all assured that these effects had subsided and the sanity of Byron restored. From the vantage of 200 years’ hindsight, the Baron had been able to see events unfold, and thus he had spent years designing a projectile weapon that rapidly dissolves lipids and exfoliates chocolate-based life forms. It was with this large, nozzled device that he was able to subdue Byron whilst causing him no harm.
The Baron also explained that the tune he whistled beneath the tall pine was “Two Sisters,” by the Kinks, and that he only appeared on sunny days because the time-space vortex coincided then most precisely with his sunny disposition, rendering it possible to steer his time-vessel to the most precise day, date, time, and place of his choosing. The time-engine took the Baron’s optimistic mood directly as its sole energy source, and also required good weather at the destination point in order to properly maintain its course. So many recent stormy days had caused the navigational system to become a bit fogged-up, and thus it took a few trial runs before a safe landing had been possible.
“What do you christen your vessel?” asked Dr. Polidori.
“What else?” said the Baron. “The Whistling Shade!”
“Sir, I still do not understand this ‘Kink,’ you speak of,” said the doctor. “You call it a rock, a rock that speaks through electrical waves…and then rolls? Sir, either you make sport of our ignorance or these are metaphors for wondrous things far beyond our ability to comprehend them.”
To this point, the Baron politely acquiesced. “My dear doctor, I would happily play for you the song — indeed the album — in its entirety, but I fear that doing so would forever alter the course and development of rock and roll, and give the Kinks an unfair advantage in their sonic evolution.”
Not only did the Baron explain the cause of all preceding events in a cool-headed, professorial manner, he also handed out several crates filled with tiny rings with transparent sheaths attached. They bore the mark of the warrior, for they had the word “Trojan” stamped on their strange, metallic coverings.
“Free love is not without consequences,” the Baron lectured. “Therefore you must use one of these devices, called a ‘con-dome’ in order to prevent profligate scattering of man-seed, and all ensuing dramas and damage to one’s reputation. The convents are filled with enough sickly children, my friends. You must wrap it before you tap it.” The crowd ran the strange rubbery things through their fingers and stared with awe. “In this way,” he continued, “you will vanquish the drip!”
“I must very soon take my leave, friends,” said the Baron. “Though I could spend an eternity savoring this moment with you, I must rescue my fellow, time-traveling friend Bingo who has somehow become trapped in an institution that is infamous to you even in your own time: Bedlam. They say he wears only a brief there, and that he raves loudly day and night, but that it is but an act intended to prevent an even worse fate.”
“I shall pen a letter to secure his immediate release from that despicable facility,” swore Lord Byron. “It is the least we can do to express our boundless gratitude. I would say we are in your debt, but then you would be but one more creditor with which I am forced to cavil.”
“For that you have my and Bingo’s utmost gratitude,” said the Baron. “Once I have secured Bingo’s release, I must travel back to the 3rd of July, 1776, and slip ten thousand micrograms of LSD into water supply of the signers of the declaration of independence. We must all do our part to keep the colonies under Crown control. But before I go, I must warn the esteemed Mr. Shelley to stay clear of small sailing craft. However skilled you may think yourself, sir it is not enough to save you.”
“Before you make your exit,” said Lord Byron, “I must know, does my fame and brilliance extend to your time?”
At this, the Baron beamed broadly. He place a familiar hand on Byron’s shoulder, a hand that began to slowly descend down the Byron’s back until Miss Godwin coughed and offered a glance that was once stern and mirthful to the Baron.
“Oops, sorry! Indeed, you are noted as the greatest poet of all time and the original Byronic Action Hero, the very template for my own romantic ideals put to practice and that of many thousands — nay, millions — of others through the ages. Sir, you are immortal.”
“I am a god,” said Lord Byron deliciously, and lay his head back down on the ample, goose-down pillow, closing his peerlessly brilliant eyes and falling to sleep with a mischievous grin plastered across his perfect cheeks.
|Justin Teerlinck is a humor writer with work published published in the Cynic Online, Primalzine, RestroomRatings.com and Whistling Shade, where he maintains a regular column called “Fun Patrol.” He is currently an occupational therapy graduate student and trouble-maker living in the Portland, Oregon, area.|