DARK SUMMERS

5.  Death of Shelley 1822

Despite Allegra's death, the plans to move to the Livorno area still proceed. Shelley with Trelawney and Williams head for the Gulf of Spezia where Shelley takes a villa. Mary is pregnant again, but once again Shelley ignores her condition. The weather pattern in the Gulf of Spezia is quite unsuitable for a comfortable confinement and there isn't a doctor for miles. The inevitable occurs and Mary has a miscarriage. All except one of Shelley's children are now either dead or abandoned: he hasn't seen his first wife's children for years, Clara died at Venice, William in Rome, and now there is the miscarriage. Byron is secretly appalled. His own daughter's death was due to a sudden outbreak of typhus and there was little he could have done, but Shelley scattered a trail of dead and abandoned children behind him.

Shelley appears to be extremely upset, but Byron knows he is over it when he asks Trelawney to provide him with a phial of prussic acid: Shelley's over dramatisations should never be taken too seriously.

Shelley soon has a new play thing. While he was at Ravenna, he had learned to sail, and had kept a small skiff on the river. But in Spezia he now has a sleek sailing boat named the Don Juan. Sailing is now the thing, and not to be outdone, Byron who is now living in Pisa has a much larger boat built complete with cannon, the Bolivar, named after the recent revolution that had taken place in that state.

Byron is very much aware that he has been manoevred into a position of competition with Shelley, although it is difficult to grasp how it came about. When they were at Ravenna and Byron and his friends had ridden out to the farm for target practice, nobody seemed to treat it as casually as Shelley. And yet was it so casual? For years Byron had practiced at shooting pistols and he knew he was an excellent shot, and yet he found Shelley hard to beat. How hard was Shelley working to win under Shelley's apparently casual exterior?

Another point of contention was swimming. Byron is a superb swimmer - he has swum the Hellespont - and he considers swimming to be an essential skill for a sailor. But Shelley treats that precaution with disdain: while Shelley was at Ravenna, although he was unable to swim a stroke, he was always setting off alone and covering vast distances in his little open skiff. In Shelley's eyes it was better to appear to disdain danger than to learn to swim and thereby invite unfavourably comparisons with Byron's prowess which he would never be able to match.

The same thing appeared to be happening with the boats. The Bolivar is bigger and intrinsically by far the faster, but Shelley is not to be outdone. The Don Juan is altered and now carries every possible scrap of sail. Byron wonders: does Shelley honestly think the Don Juan can outrun the Bolivar?

Byron is sure that once again Shelley is manipulating him. It was Shelley's idea to start the newspaper, and that is now proving a fiasco - it is costing a fortune to get the recalcitrant Leigh Hunt away from England. And then it had been Shelley's idea that he should buy a boat. Would he have bought one if Shelley hadn't bought one first - Shelley had dragged him into that! Why did he need a boat? And what on earth did he need with cannon? How had all this come about?

The inevitable happens. The Bolivar and the Don Juan are scheduled to sail together from Pisa to Spezia, and Byron knows it is going to turn out to be a race. Everybody is talking the subject up. Trelawney of course is full of his unlikely exploits when he sailed around the world - cynically Byron wonders if Trelawney has ever even been on a boat. But fortunately the race is postponed: the Bolivar is delayed at the last minute by paperwork and the Don Juan sails on alone manned by Shelley, Williams, and a local youth.

The next time the Don Juan is seen is when it is spotted from the shore near Spezia. A storm sweeps across the bay, and when it clears, the Don Juan is no more. A tragic accident: but Byron knows it didn't happen quite like that. Days later the bodies are washed up and immediately buried in the sand to comply with the quarantine laws. Trelawney has an iron casket made, and on the 15th July Byron watches Shelley's body being incinerated on the beach.

It takes a long time for the body to burn. Byron dives into the sea and swims out far from shore; a mile, two miles, he can swim for far longer than that.

Byron was sure Shelley's death had not been an accident. It was obvious to anyone that a storm had been boiling up. All the local fishing boats were making a hasty retreat to the safety of the harbours. One of them had passed the Don Juan and seen it racing along under full sail. The men in the fishing boat had yelled out: either the Don Juan should run for the harbour, or if not, at least lower its sails. But the Don Juan did neither. Williams was seen to hesitate as if wanting to comply, but a voice that could only be Shelley's yelled 'No!' - Under full sail the Don Juan drove on into oblivion.

Byron could hardly see the shore now. He wonders as the icy waters start to sap his strength: would he have the nerve to die like Shelley had? To just plough on, ignoring the elements? Could he just swim on uncaring what fate lay ahead? Could he take this posthumous dare?

Byron had never had any qualms about being miles from shore. The thought of sharks and sea-monsters held no fears for him: he has seen the unknown shadows that glide past the lonely swimmer in the sea; he has swam with Leviathan. But he could not do what Shelley had done. Slowly Byron swam back to the land. Smoke was rising from the distant beach. He didn't know what game it was that he and Shelley had played, but he knew that he had lost.

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