To See Your Face Again
Spring of 1806
The light of a thousand candles twinkled, filling the ballroom with a beautiful incandescence that could shame any sunrise.
The hum of conversation and the tinkling of champagne glasses gave gaiety leave to rule the evening. Finely gowned ladies and handsome gentlemen moved to the waltz, a scandalous new dance introduced the year before.
Many guests clustered about in groups; ladies spoke in hushed tones about the latest rumor, where as the gentlemen were openly arguing about the most recent speech made in parliament.
Fashionably bedecked young fops stood idly against the wall, more interested in themselves than their surroundings. Pale wallflowers and elderly matrons occupied the gilt chairs that lined the wall, the latter dozing, the former bemoaning their social status.
Two men stood quietly by the entrance, surveying the room for late arrivals, and alternately criticizing the guests. Both were excellent specimens of their race, one being golden and more diminutive, the other tall and dark.
They were an unlikely pairing, but they had been confidants since their school days at Oxford. Alec Sheridan, replete in eveningwear that complimented his swarthy looks, lounged elegantly against the doorjamb. His companion was Reginald, Lord Hayworth, and he stood in the same stance as his friend.
"Such lack of beauty is not to be bourne!" He exclaimed, righting himself, and taking a glass of champagne from a passing servant.
"You are much too fastidious." Alec admonished quietly, taking out his pocket watch with affected diffidence.
"I? You are the one who has just given up the lovely and talented Lady Bernadette Simmons. Though I am sure she shall not be heartbroken for too long." Reginald gestured to that very lady, back against the opposite wall by Lord Richardson.
"I was sure that you would be more prepared to protect your investments!"
"She is merely playing the tease. And besides, she bores me." Alec stated bluntly. "She was a grasping, devious wench only after my money!"
"Oh, but that is a mistress's main occupation. And besides, for such beauty, I cannot name a man who would not be willing to exhaust his fortune." Reginald replied, pressing his glass to his lips.
"I supposed I am too naïve as of yet, but I was hoping to find a woman more suited to intellectual discussions."
Reginald laughed aloud in true amusement.
"You had better not let such innocence get around, or such a truth would leave your reputation in tatters."
Alec did not reply, but continued to survey the room.
"So whom shall fill the position of the illustrious Alec Sheridan's mistress?" Reginald asked.
"No one I have seen as of yet." Alec replied, not in the least enthused by the prospect.
"Oh come now, old chap! Every woman in London wants to be your associate."
"They want my fortune, that is all. Even Bernadette accused me of being a bore."
"You are serious to be sure, but certainly no bore! Only Bernadette would have the audacity to say such a thing."
Alec merely quirked his brow.
"So who is it to be, then? Surely there is someone who catches your eye!"
"No, there is no one. And why are you in such a lather to see me paired off when you have just remarked, ‘that such a lack of beauty is not to be bourne'."
"Oh I was merely speaking of new blood. London society has yet to be graced by a new star..."
Alec was not listening by this point, for someone had just caught his eye.
"Who, pray, is that?" He asked, completed astounded by the vision descending the red carpeted stairs.
Reginald followed his friend's line of sight and immediately shook his head. The woman that so captivated his attention was lovely to be sure, however she lacked the true dazzling beauty that graced many of London's elite. She was gowned in a violet watered silk, the décolletage set fashionably low, but not indecently over her creamy white bosom. Her dark curls were swept into the Grecian mode and bound with silk ribbons.
"Surely you do not find her beautiful?" Reginald asked quietly.
"My eyes have yet to be blinded by an equal beauty." Alec replied dazedly.
Reginald shook his head in amazement. "She is out reach, even for you." He remarked finally.
"Who is she?" Alec asked again, ignoring his friend's disparaging comments.
Reginald sighed before replying, "Lady Sophia Chillingsworth, Duchess of Hastings."
"A duchess? At her age? How did she come by such a title?"
"The way all girls her age do. She is married to the duke." Reginald replied with a smirk.
"That has never stopped me before." Alec responded, standing erect, and starting to move through the crush.
Reginald's hand shot out and restrained him. Alec looked down at him in surprise.
"As I said before ‘she is out of reach'. My lord Chillingsworth is reputed to be devilish possessive of her."
Alec stepped back. "Simon Chillingsworth? Surely such a creature would never consent to marry such a monster!"
"If rumor can be trusted," Reginald started to expound, a dubious look in his eye, "consent had nothing to do with it."
"Whatever do you mean?" Alec answered, keeping his eye on the Lady as she joined her husband.
"Apparently, her father, Lord Ackerly, held the Duke in highest regard. Whether he was blind or just refused to acknowledge the truth, we shall never know. On his deathbed, he named Chillingsworth as guardian to Sophia. He had not been in his grave a fortnight when they were married quietly at St. Paul's."
Alec continued to watch Sophia, his heart hammering in his chest. He had never known such a desire to possess something in his life.
"I cannot understand how you find her attractive. She is much too pale for my taste."
Alec turned on his friend. Sophia was pale, however it did not detract from her winning features.
"Whatever happened to your taste for healthy girls?" Reginald asked cheekily, his gaze shifting to Bernadette once more. Her voluptuous figure was barely concealed under gauzy silk chiffon.
Alec did not answer him, he had other things on his mind. "I must meet her."
Reginald sighed angrily. "Are you daft? Have you not heard a word I have been saying? My lord Chillingsworth never lets his wife out of his sight. No one, save his personal acquaintance, may speak to Lady Chillingsworth."
"Surely I could maneuver a private meeting..."
"No!" Reginald cut him off. He paused before trying a different approach. "What woman on earth clings to her husband's side? Only the ones who have had a lesson in submission do that."
Alec bristled at his friend's words. The gaiety of the party seemed almost to fade as he focused on Sophia's unhappy countenance. Even when she smiled, it was with sadness.
Had she known the power of her husband's hand? Surely no man on earth would wish to mar such a lovely face.
Reginald watched his friend's reaction, knowing his words had finally brought the truth to light. "Say perhaps, you should make her acquaintance. What makes you think that she would want to dally with a commoner, even one as wealthy as yourself?"
"Are you saying that she is not responsive to the charms of other men?" Alec asked carefully, his eyes never leaving Sophia.
"I am saying she is perfect in every way. She dresses immaculately, she is known for her role as a hostess.... Above all, she is always calm and composed, as if she were made of ice."
"Even ice melts." Alec replied, lounging against the wall once again.
"True, but not when one's husband is Simon Chillingsworth." Reginald replied darkly. "My friend, you have met your match. Look away and find some other beautiful face to brighten your existence."
At that exact moment, Sophia met his gaze above the crowd. For him, he thought the earth was moving beneath his feet. The Lady in question tore her gaze away and focused on the conversation before her.
I should never want for another face to brighten my days if I had Sophia Chillingsworth by my side, Alec thought. He knew then that he would go to the ends of the earth to have her.
June of 1806
Alec Sheridan had always thought himself a man of intelligence and reason. So his burgeoning obsession with Lady Sophia Chillingsworth was somewhat of a shock to him. Her tragic, lovely face haunted his dreams, and disturbed his daytime ramblings.
He found himself waking every morning to his usual cup of coffee and a stack of newspapers. He would scour the society pages in vain, hoping against hoping to find some mention of her name. More often than not, it was printed:
Lord Chillingsworth and his wife attended the soiree...
Alec had never put much stock in the round of social distractions, but when the post came, he would seize the stack, prepared to accept every invitation. He would fervent wish that one invitation would begin:
Lord and Lady Chillingworth would request the honor of your presence...
No such invitations arrived, and Alec began to think that his cause was lost before it had even begun.
It was with a heavy heart that Alec retired to his club one rainy summer afternoon, his head filled with the claptrap of his fellow parliamentarians.
All hell had broken loose that afternoon when it was announced that the Prime Minister had put up a bill seeking the abolition of the slave trade. He himself was in favor of such a bill.
He thought it indolent of rich aristocrats to make money off the suffering of others. Much could be said for his class as well though, the wealthy landed gentry made money from the earth that was in their possession. He however, had always considered himself a just and liberal landlord, and this had been affirmed when he won the MP.
This whole slavery issue was a complicated business, and he knew that his party's members would call upon him to provide an affirmation of the bill. Alec did not have it in his heart to do so, but he knew it to be his duty.
For the moment however, he would put it all away from his mind.
He entered the dark and lush confines of his club, and weaved his way through rooms of gambling gentlemen, as well as ones engaged in heated debate. Alec promptly sought out Reginald, who was lounging in an overstuffed leather chair, reading the newspaper.
"Good afternoon, old chap!" Reginald declared upon sighting his friend.
Alec motioned for him to remain seated, and took a chair next to him.
"What are you having?" Reginald asked, signaling a waiter.
"Brandy, if you please." Alec replied, when the man neared. The waiter left quickly to fulfill Alec's wish.
"Nothing harder after a hard day's work in the Commons?"
"Hard day, to be sure, however I do not wish to befuddle my mind with strong drink this night."
Reginald quirked a brow and said, "So I shan't ask how it goes in the House?"
Alec groaned and reached for the brandy that had appeared at his side. "All this slavery business has caused quite a row."
"Most assuredly." Reginald replied, "I certainly did not have any doubts on that score." He raised his empty glass as a signal for replenishment.
"Please let us not speak on the subject, for I have had my fill for the day."
Reginald acquiesced and swilled from his glass. "So have you made any progress in the search for the elusive Lady Chillingsworth?"
"No." Alec said quietly, taking another sip from his brandy.
"I told you it was hopeless. Chillingsworth guards her like the crown jewels. She has no acquaintances, save the ones he deems worthy. They entertain even more rarely than their visits to Town."
"What a miserable life she must lead. Surely she could..."
"What? Divorce him?" Reginald interrupted in a scoffing tone. "How does one divorce the one of the most powerful men in England? And besides, she would be a pauper, and I do not care how perfect she is, women do have a liking for money."
Alec remained silent, weighing his friend's words.
Perhaps Reginald was right. His search for Lady Sophia was futile and even if he could meet such an angel, what would become of it?
His thoughts turning in such a darkening direction, he opened a copy of the Times and scanned its pages for anything interesting.
It seemed as if every article addressed the slavery issue, and he sighed tiredly. However, an article that contained Chillingsworth's name caught his attention.
My Lord Chillingsworth, Duke of Hastings, is expected to align himself the Prime Minster's views on slavery.
As if a bolt of lightening had struck him, a plan began to form in Alec's mind. His excitement must have translated on his face, for Reginald gave him a warning look.
"Whatever goes on in that head of yours?" Reginald asked.
"You said only the Duke's personal acquaintance could be entertained by Lady Chillingsworth?"
"Yes, but I am beginning to think I should have never said such a thing!"
"That is it! Chillingsworth is advocating the slavery bill in the Lords, and I am the head of the Commons on the subject. I am sure to catch his attention I speak in the Lords, and if not, I should have the entree to speak to him on the subject!"
"You are mad, my friend!" Reginald declared.
"Oh but I shall be even more so when I have met the lovely Sophia Chillingsworth. Mad with happiness of course." Alec replied quietly.
Reginald shook his head. "If this plan of yours blows up in your face, you cannot say I did not warn you!"
Alec nodded in reply. But that shall not happen, he would see to it that his plan worked.
Sophia Chillingsworth flinched as the door of the elegant drawing room opened on a burst of air and then slammed shut. She continued to focus on the flowers she was arranging without comment.
"Sophia!" Simon barked, stalking to where she stood by a table.
"Yes, Simon?" Sophia replied, trying to remain calm. Even after three years of marriage, Simon's black moods still made her freeze with fear.
"Did I or did I not tell you to replace that incompetent twit of butler?"
Sophia slowly turned around to face him. He hated when she did not face him. She hated when she had to face him, he had a chance to plan his blow when she was facing him.
"You did tell me Simon. However what shall our friends think if there is no one to receive them at the door? I thought it best that I hire a replacement before firing Cunningham..."
The slap came from out of nowhere, as it always did. Sophia sucked her breath in with pain, but did bring her hand to her cheek.
"I am sorry Simon, I shall dispose of him immediately."
Simon, who had become a tower of rage, visibly relaxed. "That is exactly what you should have done today. I shall not be disobeyed Sophia."
"Now get out of my sight! The children should be needing you, but as always you are neglectful..."
Sophia scurried to remove herself, her silken green skirts swishing around her feet.
Once outside, she backed against the wall and put a hand over her mouth. She composed herself quickly, lest a servant pass by.
Sophia quickly repaired to her chamber, where she immediately inspected the damage. Compared to others, the bruise would not be too hard to conceal. Simon had meant it that way, when they were town he never hit her face. He must have not been thinking to have dealt such a blow.
She pressed a cold cloth to her swollen cheek and took a few deep breaths. Her calm demeanor was gone and was unlikely to return. Her chamber did not do anything to help her; it was done up in dark greens accented with walnut wood. She detested it, about as much as she detested coming into town. Her chamber on their country estate was fitted to her specifications. Simon had seen to it, of course that was before he had turned so completely against her.
Once the compress had gone tepid, Sophia applied some heavy rice powder and departed for the nursery. She opened the door and found her daughter, Isabella playing with her dolls. Her son, Julian, was dragging himself across the floor towards a bright red ball.
"Hello darlings." Sophia called as she entered the chamber. Isabella looked up with a smile and jumped to her feet.
"Mama!" She cried wrapping herself around her mother's legs.
"My angel." Sophia replied, and hoisted the three year old on her hip. The little girl immediately gave her a kiss and threw her arms around her.
Sophia hugged the girl hard, holding back the urge to cry. She sat the girl on the ground and went to pick up her son. He gave her a toothy grin and gurgled a variety of sounds.
"My prince!" Sophia cooed in return. Julian grinned wider and popped his thumb in his mouth.
Sophia turned to their nurse and asked, "Will you have cook prepare their supper, I should like to feed them myself tonight."
"Yes, my lady," the nurse replied, coming to her feet and exiting the room.
Sophia spent time with her children for some time, seeing that they ate their supper. Julian still had not been weaned from his bottle, Isabella, however, was learning to conduct herself at the table.
Once they had finished, Sophia saw that they were bathed and put to bed.
She then went back to her chamber to change for supper. She chose one of Simon's favorites, hoping to sooth his temper. While dressing, her mind wandered to the handsome stranger she had noticed at Lady Chalmers ball some weeks ago.
She had no idea who he was, but she knew she could never forget that intense green-eyed stare of his. At the time, she had been dreadfully frightened; if Simon had noticed, he would have thought that she was acquainted with the stranger. Sophia would have been the one to pay then.
Once she was dressed, Sophia replied powder to her face, for Simon never liked to she her marked. She straightened her hair and pinched the one cheek that needed color.
Sophia descended the carpeted staircase and walked back to the kitchen. Chivers and the housekeeper sat at the table.
"Chivers, may I speak with you for a moment?"
"Yes, my lady." He replied and stood to his feet. He followed her out into the corridor.
"Chivers, I have valued your services, however the Duke is displeased. I shall have to ask you to pack your things and leave us. I shall have a reference for you before you leave on the morrow."
Chivers did not look surprised, nor was he anger, at least not at Sophia.
"Yes, my lady, and thank you." He bowed and exited with much dignity.
Sophia sighed and made her way back to the drawing room. She hated what she had just done, for Chivers had been one of their best. Simon apparently had other ideas though.
Her husband sat by the empty hearth, reading the evening edition of the Times and drinking a brandy. He did not even acknowledge his wife's presence until she sat down opposite him.
"Are the children abed?"
"Of course, Simon." Sophia replied quietly, taking up a piece of nearby needlework.
Simon did not reply for some moments.
Finally in a burst of anger, he declared, "Those insipid fools!"
Sophia started and simultaneously drove the needle into her finger. She did not utter a sound, put merely placed her finger to her lips.
Simon threw the newspaper aside and went to pour himself a harder drink.
"May I ask whom?" Sophia asked tentatively.
"The vote is coming soon of he slavery issue, and yet the Commons is stalling! I declare they are useless lot!"
Sophia did not remark.
"I cannot believe that any man in his right mind would vote against the abolition of slavery! No one is benefited by it besides the siphoning drudges who have not the inclination for finding money elsewhere!"
Sophia nodded in agreement. For once, she was proud that her husband was for the abolishment of such an evil institution.
Of course, the only reason he was voting for the measure was so that other untitled gentry could not make more money. He was uneasy that men who had not the title could make as much or more money than he had inherited.
Fortunately, it was his vote that counted, not his general opinion.
Simon did not get a chance to continue his ranting, for the tinkling of a bell announced that supper was served.
Sophia gave a sigh of relief and stood to her feet. Simon took her arm brusquely and escorted her to her seat. He was formal, even in his cold disdain of her.
He took his seat at the opposite end of the table and immediately began drinking his glass of wine. Before the night was out, he would consume six more glasses and be well on his way to inebriation.
And Sophia dreaded what might result from it.
© 2001 Copyright held by the author.