DARK SUMMERS

4.  Lord Byron at Ravenna 1821

Byron is now in Ravenna, and once again his life is becoming jaded. It is with mixed feelings that he receives a visit from Shelley who is currently living at Pisa, and who he has not seen since the fiasco at Venice. Shelley always assumes everybody will be glad to see him, although Byron is well aware that Shelley could not care less whether one was glad to see him or not.

Byron is hopelessly entangled with a new enchantress, the Countess Guiccioli. He has caused a separation between her and her husband - formalised by the Pope himself - now his 'fame' has even reached the Vatican.

The Countess comes from Ravenna and after the separation she wanted to return. Byron moved there with her and she and her father now live with Byron; a semi-acceptable arrangement in Italian circles where Byron is the Countess' cavaliere servente, a pseudo-historical role where Byron plays the chivalrous Launcelot to the Countess' Guinevere while her husband King Arthur is not supposed to get jealous. Fortunately King Arthur has now left the scene, but Byron is getting rather fed up being a 'fan carrier'.

Byron greets his guest warmly, although as usual he wonders if there is an ulterior motive behind Shelley's visit. But Shelley's conversation soon charms him and they end up talking until dawn. However Byron now knows more about Shelley than Shelley realises. The servant, Elise, had returned to Venice and she had a strange story to tell the Hoppners. After they had left Venice, instead of returning to Livorno, Shelley and his party had headed for Naples. Shelley had made a point of secrecy, riding on ahead to find rooms and therefore avoiding the need to stay at a hotel where Claire's condition might start tongues wagging.

Elise explained that she had not realised the full extent of Shelley's plan. She knew about Claire - that was obvious - and she assumed that off-season Naples had been chosen as an attempt to hide the birth. The baby had been born as expected, and after a couple of months Shelley began to make arrangements for them to leave. It was only then that the full horror of the situation struck her: the baby, now known as Elena, was to be left with foster parents - in effect abandoned. The Shelleys left Naples immediately, discharging both herself and another servant, Paolo Foggi, leaving them to fend for themselves in Naples. Then Elise looked quite upset: apparently the child Elena had died when it was little more than a year old.

The Hoppners were not sure what to make of Elise's story; after all, she was only a servant, while Shelley was a gentleman. Although they did seem to recall their impression that Claire might have been pregnant when she was in Venice. But Byron had no illusions: Shelley, the guest sitting with him now in his drawing room, had abandoned yet another life. Byron feels no inhibitions about bringing the matter up, but he has no intention of making an issue of it and soon lets the matter drop. Shelley, however, silently decides that Elise's story should be scotched as quickly as possible, and when he leaves Byron he immediately writes to Mary in Pisa.

A few days later Shelley returns. He brings with him a sealed letter he has received from Mary addressed to the Hoppners in which she refutes everything that Elise said. Perhaps Byron would be good enough to foward it? asks Shelley innocently.

Byron is extremely embarrassed. What he has told Shelley about Elise was communicated to him by the Hoppners in confidence. He can hardly forward the letter and show he has betrayed that trust. When he is alone, Byron opens it and reads Mary's version of what happened in Naples. According to her the baby was Elise's, fathered by Paolo Foggi. Outraged, Mary had insisted the pair should marry, and then dismissed them. There is no truth in Elise's story at all.

Byron has his doubts about Elise's integrity, but he knows which version of the story has the ring of truth. Mary would do anything to protect Shelley's repuatation, and therefore her own. And could anyone be expected to believe that Mary, who had lived with Shelley out of wedlock, carried his bastard, shared him with Claire and the Lord knew who else, would really be outraged by a pregnant servant?

Or did it go deeper? Might Mary's coldness towards Elise be based on the possibility that Elise had been more than just a servant? There were rumours that other woman of Elise's class had played a part in one of Shelley's menages.

Byron puts the letter away: it is one the Hoppners will never receive.

It soon became clear that Shelley's visit to Ravenna is not an idle one. Byron had plans to show his Countess Switzerland, but the idea Shelley has come up with begins to sound much more interesting. Shelley was now based at Pisa, and if Byron were to move there as well, they could start a newspaper together. Shelley had a friend Leigh Hunt who used to be the editor of The Examiner, and with a little finacial assistance from Byron for his passage, Shelley could guarantee he would be prepared to be involved.

For Byron, the idea had come at exactly the right time. He was bored with his current existence, and itching for something new. Plans were laid immediately. With Byron' name and Leigh Hunt's editorship, the venture could hardly fail - or so Shelley convinced Byron.

The friendship between them has been reinstated, and Byron sees no objection to Shelley making a visit to Claire's daughter, Allegra, who is now located in a nearby convent. Byron knows a report will go to Claire, but he hardly cares. After all - according to Shelley - both Claire and Mary are far away.

The newspaper venture does not go to plan. Leigh Hunt is marooned in Plymouth because his wife will not travel during the winter storms, and things will be delayed. But there are other diversions. A rather jolly bunch have assembled around Lord Byron in Ravenna: Shelley, Edward Trelawny a self-styled adventurer and sea dog, Charles Mathews a friend of Byron's from Cambridge, Count John Taafe an Irish littérateur and traveller, and Captain Hay who spends most of his time hunting wild boar.

Perhaps the party is too jolly. Forbidden to shoot pistols within the town walls, every day Byron & Co ride out to go shooting at a nearby farmhouse. One day on their way back, they are inadvertently jostled by a Serjeant-Major of the Tuscan militia: their horses are blocking the road and the Serjeant-Major is late and in a hurry. Once again Lord Byron becomes involved in an incident started by his presumptuous friends which he knows it will be down to him to finish.

If he had been alone he would written a brisk note to the officer in charge: no gentleman wants an apology from anyone other than an officer. But he is not alone. Before he is aware of what is happening the horses are speeding up and beginning to galop. The group of horsemen are chasing after the Serjeant-Major, and Byron is sure that it is Shelley's words which brought that about.

At the town gates their is a violent confrontation. The Sergeant-Major draws his sabre. Shelley is knocked unconscious. Hay goes down with a sabre slash across his forehead. Horses are rearing. The Sergeant-Major is bellowing to the guard to get out and arrest the maledetto inglesi! The skirmish breaks off, but shortly afterwards the Searjeant- Major crashes from his horse after being stabbed by a pitchfork wielded by one of Byron's faithful servants. Fortunately for all involved the man lives, but it hastens the departure of Byron's party from Ravenna.

But something far worse has occurred: Claire's daughter Allegra has died of typhus. Byron is deeply upset; he was very fond of Allegra, whatever her parentage. Claire is distraught and instinctively blames Byron, but it is noticeable how quickly she recovers. Within two months, Shelley says she is La fille aux mille projet.

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