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Mary Shelley in Rome



“What a beautiful day, husband,” said Mary to Percy. “How I love Rome this time of year! It’s almost summer! We did well to leave Naples. Are you feeling any better?” And turning to caress her step-sister’s brow, she asked, “And you, my dear Clare, how are you doing? Are you feeling better?”


Assessing their bright, upturned faces, Mary did not wait for verbal confirmation of the pair’s recovery, and turned to fuss with little Willmouse, 38 months. William, Mary’s third child, was named for the grandfather that rejected him. His little sister Clara, named for the aunt with whom his father was currently polyamorously involved, had never made it into her third year, as he had done, several months ago now. Clara was just past two when she died. He missed her and still communed with her when he was free from the grown-ups in his party. It didn’t really matter that she was dead. He called her “Ka.” And he still made silly faces at her and she still giggled and batted her hands.


No one ever spoke of the first Clara, the child who had died after only a few days – the shortest-lived off all Mary’s babies – so named before her father had had the affair with the aunt who traveled with them; and no one now seemed ever to wonder if calling the second baby girl by the dead child’s name had been a good idea. Certainly chubby, curly-haired Willmouse, with his lisp and his love of breast-milk, was in no position to weigh in on it. He missed his Clara desperately.


“I want you to stay forever,” he said to her as she suddenly appeared in his crib beside him.

To the grownups in the room it sounded like, “Thththth, babamala.”


Mary leaned over the crib and love poured out of her eyes at him. It was simultaneously like lolling loosely in a warm bath and being held tightly, skin to skin. “Nnnnnnnnn mabalala,” the grownups heard her say back to him. But Willmouse heard, “Now you’re talking.”


“Mary, don’t use baby talk with William, please,” Percy said.


“Shall we go for our stroll?” Clare asked. “I’ve been enjoying our promenades ever so much!”


The foursome emerged into the Piazza di Spagna, its marble marvellousness beating the white sunlight back into the sparkling skies above them. All of Rome seemed to be outside too. There was a tinker with a monkey on a leash. There was a vendor of perfumes, his wooden doors thrust wide apart. The music of the Fontana della Barcaccia at the foot of the stairs reached out and twined its arms around Mary’s waist.


“Let’s go to the fountain, Willmouse!” she said to her baby, and scrambled off with him. Percy and Clare were welcome to follow if they wanted. And they did. As the little party stood and looked and listened and let the moisture of the waters evaporate from their cheeks and brows, cooling the recently feverish Percy and Clare, little clouds of mosquitoes puffed up, around, and past them. Deft, determined spiders made their way into the plaza’s damp cracks. Ants paraded past them. Pigeons cooed and soared. Percy went to see about some wine for supper and the two women took William into the shade for a bit. Mary examined the child’s cheeks and rolled up his sleeves and pant legs for a look. Here and there his so very white and satiny infant head and limbs showed fresh red swellings left by visiting mosquitoes, as well as a few faint and brownish bumps from older visitations. Mary checked in her bag for a little salve and laid the child across her lap to best apply her ointments. “Ka,” William said, “bapabapa malalaththth.”


“Yes,” Mary agreed, “Clara would love to have seen these pretty clouds too.” She was not worried that the little boy’s command of English was so small. The only English word he actually used was “Don’t.” Not mama, not dada. He thought that “don’t” was a noun meaning “bite,” since his father said it whenever the baby bit him. He was a particular little chap. He wouldn’t eat eggs and loved bread; he hated cheese and loved potato. He clapped, but did not wave;he had made up a little dance: step-touch, step-touch, turn. He resisted drinking from a cup, and would only do so if he was very thirsty; he wanted the breast. He could walk, but preferred being in someone’s arms or in the carriage. He liked to chew his fist. He liked to stack blocks.


Each woman holding one of his hands, little Willmouse was walked up the Spanish steps by his mother and his aunt. Clumps of visitors perched on the wide, comfortable stairs, chatting in the sun, comparing purchases, sharing stories. Many of the people here were English, like them. This neighborhood was even termed “the English ghetto.” The June sun was at its most welcoming at this time of day and the little group was in no hurry. “Clare,” Mary said, “I was worried about you in Naples. Are you quite sure you’re up to this exercise and being outdoors? Is it too warm for you?”


“No, dear, I’m quite well,” Clare replied, “but look how Willmouse is shaking!” and she drew Mary’s attention to the little boy’s sudden unsteadiness and his glistening brow. Mary pressed the back of her hand to the small forehead and found it hot.


“Let’s get him back to the hotel as quickly as we can,” Mary said, scooping him up. “Don’t,” William said.


The next few hours scared the young women immensely. William seemed especially fitful during his battle with the fever; and when he finally relaxed, Percy pronounced him a stout little trooper. After a dosing with lobelia – passively resisted, much of it spit or dribbled out – his system purged itself of what seemed like a gallon of liquid, soaking his lower half and occasioning a change of the linen in his crib. Afterwards, the little boy rasped quietly, lying on his side. Percy reasoned that he and Clare themselves had just had some sort of ague; and it was not surprising that the little boy might also have to let it run its course. He made liberal pourings of the good red wine that he had come home with and the adults feasted on sausages, garlicky pasta, and cheese. William put his hand into his mouth, and looked towards the ceiling.

He slept or seemed to sleep for a few hours, waking up at dawn to a bout of retching so heartbreakingly harsh, that Mary began to cry. “Should we not call the surgeon to bleed him?” she cried.


“It would be a shame to have to bleed so young a child,” Percy said. “But I saw an apothecary while shopping for wine. Let me go rouse the fellow. Clare, help Mary.” And he ran out into the morning. Nothing I can say about how he banged at the doors or called at the windows, finally dragging the apothecary out of his bed, matters. And never did.


By the time Percy returned, William’s face, hands, and feet were all cold and his pulse was gone. Mary was 22 years old, the mother of three dead children and four months along with her fourth. “Balalaala,” she sighed.




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