December 2nd, 1814
Sophia was woken abruptly from a dream in which she had desperately been trying to escape. She was trying hard to open her eyes, knowing she must, when the pungent smell of burning reached her nostrils. It caused her to stretch out her hand across the coverlet in alarm, intending to wake Henry. Her husband, Viscount Montgomery, always slept deeply, but on this occasion, she found he wasn’t there.
Sophia’s heart sank as panic rose quickly within her. She stumbled out of bed and grabbed the first dress she could find inside her wardrobe.
The smell of burning was getting stronger. It was soon followed by a loud crash which sounded like something heavy had fallen over downstairs. The tendrils of smoke entering the bedchamber from under the door began to make her choke. Realising she didn’t have a moment to lose, she pulled the dress on top of her nightgown, to preserve her modesty, and pushed her feet into the shoes she had discarded earlier.
She recalled that Henry had said he would be working late in his study. Whereas the light coming into the bedchamber from under the edge of the curtains, and the sound of the birds singing loudly, told her that it was dawn. Her husband must have fallen asleep at his desk. It sometimes happened, when he became too engrossed in what he was doing, that he would fall asleep before he could take the candle and come upstairs. She recalled that when she had called in on him on her way to bed that evening, he had smiled and told her to go ahead, that she shouldn’t wait up for him.
Sophia pulled open the heavy oak door in her haste, crying out in pain because she had not realized how hot the brass knob had become. She was immediately met by a dense cloud of smoke, which caused her to pull her shawl across her head and lower face as she made her way blindly along the corridor. She was horrified by the sight which met her eyes when she looked down the main staircase. All she could see was a blazing inferno at the bottom of it. Nevertheless, she still put her foot on the first step, intending to go downstairs to look for Henry, when a strong hand pulled her back sharply.
She fell into the arms of the butler, Simpson, who had only been with them for a few days. She looked anxiously at him for a moment, wondering why he had taken the liberty of touching her like that. Then, she began to cry as the reality of the situation overcame her. They were trapped inside her husband’s country house in Cornwall, on the edge of Bodmin Moor. The house was on fire, and she didn’t know if Henry was safe.
Simpson was by this time pulling her back by the arm and shouting instructions above the roar of the fire.
“Your ladyship, please, use the backstairs. They were still intact a few minutes ago, so you should be able to get down the ground floor and then outside safely. If you could make your own way there, I shall go back to the bedchamber to rouse his lordship.”
“No!” she cried in an anguished wail.
“But your ladyship, I must wake Lord Montgomery, or I cannot be responsible for the consequences,” Simpson insisted.
Sophia grabbed his arm, to steady herself. “You don’t understand! Henry isn’t there. He was working late in his study. He must already be outside,” she told him firmly. Nevertheless, even before she saw the look of comprehension on the butler’s face, she knew the truth. Henry would never have left her alone in a burning building to save himself. Pushing Simpson away from her, she began to descend the main staircase, since it was the quickest way to reach the study. But before she had gone very far, she realized the fire was already raging down below and the staircase was now impassable.
The heat of the flames and the fumes quickly overcame her, and the last thing she recalled was sinking into darkness. She knew nothing more until she found herself outside, lying on the lawn by the lake. Lizzie, her lady’s maid, was kneeling by her, tending to her as best she could. Sophia ignored the searing pain on one side of her face and, to a lesser extent, on her hands and other parts of her body.
She said Henry’s name only once before she saw the truth reflected in Lizzie’s eyes.
After that, all she could recall was the sound of men shouting, the crackle of the fire, and how it hissed like an angry dragon as water from the lake was thrown on it. As the burning timber and beams fell, the air turned black and grey wit billowing ash and smoke. The servants, whose bedchambers were on the upper floor of the house or in the attic, had saved themselves by using the back staircase. When Lizzie hadn’t been able to find Sophia outside, she had alerted Simpson. The butler had returned immediately to the house through the kitchen at the back after rescuing Sophia., intending to check the master’s bedchamber. Simpson and the footman who had accompanied him had carried Sophia outside. The butler had miraculously only suffered superficial burns, while the footman had sustained some to his right hand when he had pulled the burning shawl from across her ladyship’s face.
None of the other bedrooms on the first floor were occupied. Henry’s mother, Lady Helena Montgomery, had moved from her rooms into the Dower House on the estate a few days before her son’s marriage to Sophia. She professed to being most comfortable there, along with her treasured possessions and Clara, her lady’s maid, who had been with her longer than she cared to remember.
After some investigation, it soon became clear that the fire must have started in the study, which had burned to the ground. Most of the other rooms and the main hall were still partially standing but were now in ruins. The majority of the family heirlooms, including many valuable family portraits and antiques, had been destroyed. Only those which Lady Helena had taken to the Dower House had survived. Fortunately, the fire hadn’t reached it, nor the tenants’ cottages either, for the wind had been blowing in the opposite direction.
However, the memories which steeped the house walls were all gone. The Montgomery family had lived there for centuries, and the house had been added to or changed in some way by each generation. There was nothing anyone could have done to save the old place. At least, that was what everyone told her. Nevertheless, Sophia blamed herself for not being able to save the man she loved. Every time she closed her eyes, she could still see the smouldering ruin of the home she had grown to love, even though she had only lived there for three weeks after her marriage to Henry, inside the old church in the grounds.
Sophia couldn’t think of anything else, so she barely heard the quiet voice in her heart telling her that, somehow, she had to carry on. She could have sworn later that it was Henry who was speaking to her. It sounded like his voice, reminding her that none of it was her fault, that it had been down to the cruel hand of fate.
Whereas it was her destiny… to love again.
The Necessity of Wearing a Veil
It was May 1816, and it had been a long winter. It was lovely to see the brightly coloured clumps of tulips in the garden again, Lady Sophia Montgomery thought as she stared from the window of her modest London townhouse. She loved to sit there, watching the passersby go about their own affairs without noticing they were being observed. She didn’t recognise many of the faces walking past, since she had only bought the house in the autumn of the previous year. The plan was to be closer to Lady Helena, who lived nearby on the same street. The London Season had begun again, and the City was bustling with activity.
Sophia had noticed the familiar sense of excitement in the air outside. Debutantes were coming out for their first Season, or a later one if they hadn’t been fortunate enough to have already secured a marriage proposal. Not that any of that concerned her anymore. Admittedly, she had been part of that world once upon a time when life hadn’t been quite so lonely. But, at twenty-three years of age, she believed herself to be an outsider now. She considered herself still in mourning for the loss of her husband, Henry, whom she continued to love dearly. She would always have the scars on her face to remind her of his loss.
She sighed heavily, glancing around the empty parlour again, as if to check that there really wasn’t anyone there with whom she could share her thoughts. When her attention returned to the garden, she took a deep breath to calm her racing heart and remind herself that she couldn’t change the past, however much she wished to. She also told herself to stop blaming herself for the fire. However, deep down, she still believed that if only she hadn’t fallen so deeply asleep and had instead gone downstairs to find Henry, he would have joined her then. He would be with her now. He would not have fallen asleep at his desk in the study and knocked the candle over, which had been generally assumed was how the fire had started. She had plenty of time now to think about everything that had happened and discuss it with her mother-in-law, who tried her best to guide and help Sophia despite her own intense feelings of loss.
Almost immediately after the fire, Lady Helena had returned to the Dower House in Henry’s carriage, which bore the family coat of arms emblazoned on the doors. She had received the sad news of her son’s death and daughter-in-law’s injury from her friends in the adjacent county of Devon, where she had been staying, once the messenger had reached them. Her old friend, the Countess of Fairfield, had insisted on accompanying her on the return journey to Cornwall. However, her kind offer had been met with a polite refusal. Lady Helena had already straightened her spine and reminded herself that she had survived the death of Henry’s father. She would have to do the same now for her son, whilst supporting his young widow. It was her duty, and it was what Henry would have wanted.
Meanwhile, Simpson the butler and the housekeeper arranged for Sophia and Lizzie to be installed in the spare bedrooms at the Dower House. The servants anxiously awaited the arrival of Her Ladyship, for whom most of them had worked for many years. The doctor arrived as soon as he was called and tended to Sophia’s burns. He shook his head sadly when he saw the extent of the damage to her face and estimated the size of the scar he thought she would be left with after the burns had healed. Lady Helena returned to the house to an atmosphere of stunned sorrow among the inhabitants and those who dwelled on the estate. Her son and his new wife had been held in high esteem, by both the servants and tenants on the estate farms, as well as herself.
Equally, no one knew how events would affect their own future, though not a word of their concerns was uttered by the majority, from a sense of loyalty to the family. However, there were still some who whispered amongst themselves. In the end, and since Henry’s father had passed away many years ago, it was left to Lady Helena to do her best to resolve matters with the help of Bates, her son’s land steward. There wasn’t any male relative to come to their assistance since Henry’s brother, Vincent, remained estranged from the family.
Sophia continued to be distraught from time to time. Often, Lady Helena would hold her in her arms as she wept, to comfort her daughter-in-law in the only way she could. Then, for a long time, Sophia had barely spoken and merely stared unseeingly at the walls of the cottage in a worrying display of deep sorrow.
Since the estate farmland hadn’t been affected by the fire, the tenants were able to retain their livelihood, at least for the time being, until a decision could be made regarding the future of the estate. Lady Helena had also done her best to find suitable positions for the servants, personally recommending them to her friends and finally managing to find employment for all of them. All except Lizzie, who stayed, for she had been with Sophia for years and was more like a friend to her. Also, Simpson the heroic butler, soon found himself another position through the agency which Henry had used to employ him.
Sophia’s best friend, Lady Beatrice Stanhope, arrived as soon as she could after the tragedy, but it wasn’t until early the following year since the bad weather had made the roads from Somerset impassable. She had also done her best to help Sophia stop blaming herself and recover. Both Lady Helena and Beatrice had so much more experience of life than she herself, Sophia thought, and she was very grateful to them for the kindness and consideration they showed her. Beatrice was nearly thirty years old and very happily married to James, the Earl of Stanhope. Her only regret was that so far, she hadn’t managed to produce a child, and felt she was almost too old now to do so. Sophia didn’t know what she would have done without the stalwart pair, or Lizzie for that matter, who never once complained about the change in her own circumstances in moving from the big house to the much smaller Dower House.
Sophia recalled how Lizzie had been so excited when they had first arrived in Cornwall from Somerset, to see the old house looming through the mist on the edge of Bodmin Moor. Henry had come with his carriage to collect them from Sophia’s home, and Lizzie had whispered to her mistress that she felt just like a grand lady, travelling in such style. That was until the journey became quite exhausting, for the roads had become muddy and badly rutted, jolting them uncomfortably in their seats as the vehicle crawled along at a snail’s pace.
After the fire, everyone had been so kind to Sophia. Thinking about it now, as she started out of the window, a sad smile crossed her lips. Her husband had been well liked everywhere he went, particularly by his neighbours and workers at his country seat. Many of them had come to the Dower House to pay their respects to her, even though she hadn’t felt able to see anyone for a long time afterwards.
Sophia shook her head sadly. However hard she tried, she still couldn’t understand why fate had intervened so cruelly in what had seemed to be their perfect life. Henry had been a good man and certainly hadn’t deserved to die so young, at only twenty-six years of age. But as Lady Helena had told her many times since then, none of us knows what the future holds. In their case, not knowing had been a blessing. She comforted herself with the thought that they’d had a very short but very happy courtship and marriage before tragedy had struck. They had first met as children, then from time to time at various events as they were growing up. Across the years, it had seemed inevitable to both them and their families that they would one day become sweethearts. Her heart was broken now; of that she was in no doubt.
Sophia turned away from the window and sat down on the nearest chair. Henry had been at the heart of everything, at the centre of her life. And now, it was almost beyond her comprehension that she was facing the start of the London Season. But this time she was without her own dear mama, who had passed away four years ago, and Papa had been gone even longer. The thought of what she faced made her utterly miserable.
What on earth am I doing here in London, especially during the Season?
The Season was a time for laughter and fun, and the thrill of finding an eligible bachelor, one whom you wished with all your heart would turn into a suitor. It was a time for endless talk of new gowns and Paris fashions and the latest hair ornaments with your own dear mama and friends. She appreciated that Lady Helena and Beatrice had been trying hard to persuade her to move forward with her own life so that she could find happiness again, but she just knew that would never happen.
I do not belong here.
She traced her finger along the jagged scar on the right-hand side of her face which ran from her temple to the middle of her cheek, then from there down to her neck. How would she carry on without Henry, and with this dreadful scar, which was a constant reminder of the night that had changed everything? If only she could turn back the clock, but that was impossible, of course, however much she wished for it.
Fishing out her hanky, she wiped the tears away from her eyes, telling herself that she must accept the way things were. Henry was gone, and she was still here, without him. She could remember her father saying quite clearly after Grandmama had passed away that life was for the living. As difficult as it was to accept, she knew she was going to have to try to take that to heart from now on.
Not knowing what else to do or how to begin changing her own circumstances, she stood up again to stare at the street outside. She tried to imagine herself being part of the throng of people hurrying past— because she also had somewhere to go. Maybe it would help her to recover if she started going out again. There would be plenty going on, once the Season was in full swing. She would need to choose where she went carefully, as some of the places still wouldn’t be appropriate for her. She was no longer a debutante wearing a white gown, but a widow dressed from head to foot in black, who had never once imagined that at twenty-three years of age she would be mourning the loss of her much-loved husband. She would never be able to understand why life had to be so cruel.
As she withdrew her hand from her face, quite by chance, she noticed the paint brushes and canvas which had been long forgotten sitting on the table next to the wall. She had always been able to lose herself in her art in the past, but since the fire, her inspiration had completely disappeared. She no longer knew how or what to paint. However, all of a sudden, as she continued to look at her old painting paraphernalia, she knew she couldn’t carry on as she was any longer. She felt suffocated and overwhelmed by life.
The clock on the wall struck midday, pulling her from her gloomy thoughts. Sophia became conscious that it was a beautiful spring day outside, with the sun shining brightly. She decided that it was far too nice to still be stuck indoors, feeling sorry for herself, knowing it wasn’t possible to change the past and that pretending it was would only lead to further heartache.
Sophia suddenly became determined to reclaim some semblance of her former life. After closely examining her paintbox and brushes, she realised that there was absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t pay a visit to the Royal Academy of Arts to look at the paintings. It was a perfectly respectable thing for a widow in mourning to do. She had been there in the past, with only her maid for company, and it would soothe her to be amongst the fine works of art on display. As a quiet excitement began to overcome her, Sophia wondered if she might not also gain some inspiration from the visit. She dared to imagine being able to paint again after seeing the work of the famous artists on display, many of whom she knew had had their own troubles to bear.
To stop herself from changing her mind, Sophia quickly instructed Soames, the butler, to have her carriage made ready. Whilst Lizzie, also excited by the thought of an outing, helped her dress appropriately in one of the black gowns Sophia wore when she did occasionally leave the house. It was quite plain, without any ornamentation. Lastly, and most importantly, Lizzie carefully helped her put the black veil over her face which Sophia never left the house without. Wearing it prevented the ladies of the ton from scrutinising her scarred and disfigured skin and therefore reduced the possibility of her overhearing them talking about it afterwards. Such things distressed her and destroyed any fragile confidence she had managed to rebuild.
Once the pain from the injury had lessened, she had become used to the reaction of others if she didn’t wear a veil in public. She had not so far been able to completely get beyond the shame she felt in revealing her face to strangers, who had no idea how it she had gotten her scar. Whilst she had never thought of herself as exactly beautiful—something Henry had always gallantly insisted she was—she had at least believed her features were satisfactory.
A short while later, Sophia and Lizzie left the carriage and stepped inside the Royal Academy of Arts. As they walked through its corridors and hallowed halls, Sophia allowed herself to become lost in the beauty of the paintings on the walls around her.
They finally reached a gallery which she hadn’t visited before which appeared to be empty. Sophia’s attention was immediately caught by a particularly striking landscape hanging on the wall opposite entrance. Finding its rolling hills and lush countryside too captivating to simply pass by, she stopped directly in front of it, unable to take her eyes from the canvas. While Lizzie sat on a nearby bench to rest, Sophia’s curiosity and fascination soon overcame any self-consciousness she might usually have felt. So, without even glancing around to make sure no one else had come in, she gently lifted the veil from her face so she could see the painting better.
Oblivious of all else, she indulged in her pressing need to inspect the brush strokes and discover how the artist had achieved such depths of colour. She smiled to herself, recalling how, when she had only just started to paint, she had believed there was just one shade of green. It was Henry who suggested that she examine the leaves, grass, flowers, and foliage in the garden more closely to test her hypothesis. And he had been right to do so. She had quickly realized that Nature had an entirely different view on the matter of green and corrected herself accordingly.
What will I do now, she wondered, without him to guide me? She still didn’t know the answer to that question, but she believed the little voice she had heard speaking to her in the weeks after the fire was right: Somehow, she needed to carry on. With that in mind, she continued admiring the landscape until she felt a sense of hope stirring somewhere deep within her again.
A Passion for Art
The gentlemen’s club near The Strand was one of Lord Benjamin Willoughby’s favourite places in London. He had known his friend Robert since childhood, and they often met there. They would often enjoy a coffee together while reading the newspapers, discussing whatever came to mind at the time. That morning, however, it wasn’t long before Robert could see that Benjamin was preoccupied and asked him what was bothering him.
Despite knowing his friend very well, Benjamin was embarrassed to tell the truth at first. He did not wish to air his domestic troubles with his friend or appear to be complaining and spoil their coffee. Nevertheless, Robert was clearly waiting for a reply.
“It’s hardly worth mentioning, since it’s the same old story. I had an argument with my mother last night. I find it difficult to believe sometimes just how relentless she can be in her quest to see me married off to a woman of what she calls ‘impeccable lineage.’ Not forgetting that she must also, of course, be a great beauty.” Benjamin attempted to grin before drinking another mouthful of coffee and then sighing heavily. He found himself quite unable to keep up the pretence any longer that Lady Rosamund Willoughby’s behaviour on the previous evening hadn’t affected him.
“She simply can’t see what the problem is and refuses to understand how it appears to me when all of the marriages in my family have been arranged. As a result, she takes the view that what she is doing in trying to press me into a marriage of convenience is perfectly acceptable. It’s unlikely I shall be wealthy enough to match the circumstances of the woman of my mother’s choice, but she will be gaining a husband, which, for some unknown reason, is apparently what she desires from the bargain. Whereas I regard it all as highly unacceptable and appalling, however I look at it,” he elaborated, feeling slightly uncomfortable at his outburst, given that he hadn’t intended to express his feelings quite so strongly.
As Robert was looking thoughtful and didn’t appear to be about to reply, Benjamin continued.
“I would also say that, irrespective of her persistence, I really don’t believe that such an arrangement will suit me. Especially when I wish more than anything else to be happily married for the majority of my days on this earth. I simply don’t see how that will be possible without me first having a deep connection to the woman I marry. I don’t want some superficial arrangement with one of this Season’s latest debutantes, who will more than likely not have a mind of her own. Or will be unable to think of anything other than gowns and bonnets. At the same time, I don’t fancy being hotly pursued by another one of those dreadful mamas who are as relentless and persistent as the one I already have. It all seems like far too much to ask,” Benjamin finished, bristling with indignance.
Robert was by this time nodding sympathetically. He completely understood how his friend felt. Having been fortunate to marry for love the previous year, he was feeling a little guilty, for as yet, he hadn’t been able to come up with a plan to extract Benjamin from the predicament he was in. In comparison to his friend’s, his own life was perfect in ways he had never dreamed possible. He loved his wife dearly, and she him. So much so that neither of them could imagine life without the other.
In an attempt to restore their previous good humour, Benjamin turned the conversation back to politics and began to raise counterarguments to the views on universal suffrage that Robert had expressed earlier. After the two men had thoroughly explored the topic and finished their excellent coffee, Robert asked to be excused; he had an important business matter to oversee. Benjamin pretended his good mood was restored and bid Robert a cheerful adieu. However, as soon as Robert had walked through the door and there was no longer any chance of him turning around to look behind him, Benjamin’s smile fell away, he leaned his chin on his hand and reverted to his former dark train of thought.
After sitting there lost in thought and refusing the waiter’s offer of another cup of coffee, or possibly a different newspaper, Benjamin left the club. On the spur of the moment, since he was passing by the august building, he decided to pay a visit to the Royal Academy of Arts. He entered and began wandering aimlessly through the many corridors and galleries, trying his best to take an interest in the latest exhibition, but without a great deal of success. In truth, his thoughts were still focused on the disagreement he’d had with his mother earlier about his marriage prospects. Being involved in arguments or disputes with others wasn’t at all like him, so he found the current one particularly upsetting. Especially since it concerned his mother, whom he held in high regard.
Sighing deeply, he persuaded himself to return to the present and at least try to enjoy being surrounded by the most spectacular and stunning art currently in London. He had been an avid patron of the arts for several years on a modest scale. He prided himself on being always on the lookout for new and talented painters who might be encouraged in some way by his support. The intention was that his support should place them in a position where they could achieve greater acclaim, followed by success. Benjamin also knew the majority of the prominent figures in the art world, with whom he was on first name terms. What still amazed him was to see how a gifted artist could develop across the years, heightening their skills as they worked. Creating so much beauty to release into the world and add to that which already existed seemed a minor miracle to him.
However, despite his efforts to put it aside, the argument with his mother popped into his thoughts again. Although he had tried earlier to make light of it when talking to Robert, it had been a particularly harsh one. His mother had been very angry that he had refused once again to accept her help in finding a wife, and she had resorted to making a number of bitter accusations, all of which, in his opinion, were completely untrue. His mother had finished her diatribe with the wounding remark that he was deliberately behaving badly by not doing as she asked simply because he no longer cared for her. She had become tearful after that and announced she felt faint. Naturally, Benjamin had felt responsible for her ill turn because of upsetting her so badly. Whilst the truth of the matter was, though it pained him to think he was being unkind to his mother, he knew he would feel a whole lot worse if he agreed to do as she wished and pursue a romance which his heart wasn’t in.
Unable to see a resolution to their differences, he had been desperately hoping to find solace in his visit to the Academy. He had believed that he would be able to lose himself in the beauty of the paintings, escaping the pressures of life, even if just for a short time. If only his mother understood that he knew how to appreciate a lot of different forms of beauty in the world. His enjoyment of it didn’t need to solely revolve around having a pretty, vacuous debutante on his arm. Nor would it necessarily be true, as she argued it would, that his life would be complete once he was successfully matched and then married well. Of course, he was well aware that it was the opinion of the ton. Essentially all that mattered to them was that his bride should be from one of the oldest families in the land and look absolutely stunning. Whereas however hard Benjamin tried to change his view of the matter to please his mother—and he desperately wished not to continue hurting her—as far as he was concerned, the ton’s expectation of him was unrealistic. Moreover, it had become a burden which weighed far too heavily on his shoulders.
As he entered one of the side rooms at the Academy which he couldn’t recall visiting for some time, he was surprised to see a woman standing perfectly still in front of a large landscape painting. She appeared to be mesmerised by it. Her tall, slender figure, and chestnut-brown hair also caught his attention. She appeared to be accompanied by her maid, who was seated on a bench nearby, looking bored. Following the lady’s example, he took a leisurely moment to admire the landscape painting. It was indeed stunningly beautiful, and Benjamin soon appreciated the depth of mood captured by the brushstrokes and the kaleidoscope of green tints the artist had used to create his effects. The skill in execution it was truly astounding, but Benjamin could not see the name of the painter.
Not wishing to stare too long at the painting or the woman and risk intruding on her thoughts, he couldn’t help wondering if she shared his passion for art.