This chapter introduces two things in the context of a country ball. The chief villain (what’s a romance without a villain?) and the plot element that motivates the characters. The plot, like all romances, is girl meets boy, then after various complications and difficulties, they figuratively ride off into the sunset together.
The chemistry, by the way, is accurate. Fulminates were first described in 1803, you can download the paper from the Royal Society, and it makes for interesting, if slightly scary reading. Imagine describing the taste of a mercury salt. Especially one that explodes. Brave men in those days. Lucky too. I wouldn’t do it.
The featured image, a cartoon from 1815, shows the consternation American work along a similar line to Rupert’s produced in the English Navy. This was serious stuff.
My co-author Amelia and I often put the beginnings of books on my, now our, blog. They don’t always make it to the end, but it’s helpful for our writing. This is another Regency Romance. This time without grave robbing or financial dealing and legal chicanery.
A Ball, in the Country.
George surveyed his friend when Rupert emerged from his room. “I say Ga- Rupert, that suit, it’s as queer as Dick’s hatband, positively ramshackle. I’m sure your man did his best, but I say.”
“Have to get you to the Village. That suit, it’s at least years out of date, a sartorial solecism.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Can’t you tell? I suppose it was your fathers.”
“No. Mine, from … back then.”
They were joined shortly by Rachel. There was a hidden advantage at having a small wardrobe. She was dressed in record time.
“Lord Hartshorne, Rupert, you need to take care of yourself. That suit, it practically hangs off you.”
Rupert paused, then said, “I do? … I suppose you’re right, I haven’t been eating.”
“No, not since.” Rupert stopped. A pained expression grew on his face.
“Yes, her. I last danced with her.”
Rachel broke out in a hearty laugh, “Then your next dance can be with me. If you don’t need the practice, I do.”
Rupert flashed Rachel a quick smile. “You’re right. I’m sorry, it’s an old habit and one I intend to break. Worrying about that virago. I’m well out of it.”
“Good. Especially if we’re engaged, even informally. I could still break it off and I will if you’re still holding a candle for her.”
“No. I’m not … please believe me.”
Rachel curtsied to him, “I’d be honoured to dance with you, even more than once.”
Rupert, having thoroughly considered Rachel’s words, said, “You are right. I have buried myself too long … Please dance with me.”
George chuckled at this, “Then I’d best ask now for the second dance, Lady Hayfield. Can’t let my nephew monopolise you.”
Rachel laughed “The honour’s all mine, My Lord … My Lords.”
Lucinda, hurrying in to accompany her charge, said, “What’s this about?”
“Just arranging my first two dances, Lucy.”
“Oh, good, Ma’am.”
George said, “Miss Holloway. Would the first dance be acceptable?”
“I couldn’t. My place … with the chaperones and the mothers.”
“Lucy,” Rachel said, “Of course you could. In fact I think you should.”
“As long as it isn’t a waltz.”
George said, “I would think it will be a country dance. Gas old boy, you wouldn’t know if the Waltz has penetrated these wilds?”
Rupert ignored him.
“Rupert, then. What about it?”
“No I wouldn’t, but I’d think not.” Then he smiled at Rachel and gave her a quick bow, “Though if it has, Lady Hayforth, I must claim your hand for it now.”
Rachel watched the country roll by as she rode in Lord Hartshorne’s carriage. The miserable country road she and Lucy struggled down. It seemed so long ago, although not even two weeks had elapsed, passed by in comfort. Her broken carriage sat where she’d left it. The carriage wright had removed the wheels and rear axle. Until those were repaired, the broken mainbrace and other things couldn’t be finished. What was taking so long? Then she realized that it didn’t matter. She had a carriage, and Rupert would take her to London.
She turned to Rupert and said, “This carriage, it’s so much more comfortable than mine ever was. Even before it broke. Almost luxurious.”
“Padded seats, and dry.”
“Lady Hayforth,” he nodded, “if that’s your idea of luxury, you’ll be soon satisfied.”
Lucy nudged her mistress and whispered, “I told you he was a good one.”
George asked, “What was that Miss Holloway?”
“Just congratulating my mistress on her engagement.”
The orchestra, a pair of violinists, a bass and clarinet, struck up the first dance. Fortuitously it was a familiar country dance in slow time because both Rupert and Rachel were out of practice. It also gave them time to converse, though most of the time Rupert smiled at his partner. Rachel thought It’s as if he can’t believe his good luck. When they finished, he said as he bowed, “Thank you. You must think I’m a poor conversationalist, but I was counting the figures. Wouldn’t do to disgrace you with an awkward partner.”
Rachel talked more during the next dance with George. He started, “I must admit you have made a difference in the poor lad. Good thing I suggested it.”
“You didn’t, you know. Just that I try to befriend him. Anyway he had guessed.”
“Observant little tyke, my nephew. Still.” The figures moved them apart. He continued when they came together again, “Still I am surprised that he proposed.”
“Or that I accepted?”
“To be honest, I refused at first. Hardly knowing him, but Miss Holloway pointed out the certain evils or my choice.”
“That you might not get another offer? He’s an odd one, Ma’am. Full of surprises. I didn’t know.” The figures intervened again, “I didn’t know about his work for the army. Old Gas making bangs.”
Eventually the chords drew to a close and it was time for supper. Disaster struck. A strange man interrupted Rachel and Rupert as they walked together to the table where the refreshments were served. He was dressed in plain and simple clothes, but was clearly important. Or, perhaps, it was clear that he thought he was important.
“Miss Heppleworth.” He bowed to her.
“Do I know you?”
“Surely you’ve not forgotten me so soon.”
Rachel studied him, “Mr Harding, out of fleet prison already; who paid your debts?”
“It’s Mr Oliver, Mr William Oliver. May I be introduced to your partner?”
Rupert’s face stiffened. “I believe we’ve met as well. How to you know my fiancée?”
Mr Harding or Oliver or indeed one of several other names chosen for convenience and anonymity bowed to him and said, “I knew her father, quite well. She was promised to me.”
“I wasn’t. Never.”
“Clearly your father didn’t tell you. It was made shortly before his unfortunate demise.”
“All I know is you helped him spend his money. Left us to rusticate on a mortgaged estate that could barely support itself.”
“I shan’t ask much for a settlement, breech of promise is such an ugly idea. Very destructive of one’s reputation, even if it is ultimately voided.”
Rupert glanced at Rachel. She was pale, barely fighting off a faint. He turned to the man and uttered “You puppy!” from his clenched mouth. Then turning to Rachel he said, “Rachel, let me help you to a seat.”
As they walked to the far side of the room, neither of them noticed the grim smile of satisfaction that coursed over Mr Oliver’s face. After he’d helped her to a seat, Rachel looked up and said, “Did you say you knew him, how?”
“That cad, that puppy, he carried the letters between Antonia and Lord Biddle.”
“Oh Lud! What a mull I’ve made.” Rachel put her face in her hands. “I wish that … that … that fellow were at Jericho.”
“What do you mean ‘I’ve made’? I fail to see that you’ve done anything.”
Rachel bit her lip and looked up at Rupert, tears forming in her eyes. “I didn’t know about him … him and that awful woman.”
“How could you know?”
“I suppose you’re right, I couldn’t have. Please believe me that I have no interest in seeing Mr Harding or Oliver or whatever he calls himself now ever again. His effrontery.”
Rupert shook his head sadly, “I know.”
“He really did lead my father to perdition with the dice box, faro table, and … I don’t know what all they did. My father caught an ague from some.” She stopped, unwilling to voice ‘barque of frailty.’ “That man played him for a jobberknowl until he was skint.”
“Don’t let that dandiprat cut up your peace.” Rupert paused, “Unless there is something you’re not telling me.”
“No. Well maybe. He did have some of my father’s vowels. They should have been settled with the estate. There could be something like those. Who knows what my father may have signed before he died. It was a desperate time, and he wasn’t truly in his right mind.”
The musicians chose this auspicious moment to start tuning their instruments for the next dance. Rupert bent down and took Rachel’s hand. “This dance is ours.”
“We’ll talk later, I’ve had my dealings with that puppy, too. Not just with that woman.” Rupert led her to the middle of the floor where they started the line for the next dance. It felt to Rachel as if everyone in the room were staring at them. Sir John certainly was. Rupert bowed to him and said, “I should like to lead this dance, with my newly affianced wife.”
“Oh,” He laughed, “I guess you meant what you said.” Then he tapped on a glass and shouted to get attention. “Dear guests, before we begin, a toast – to our neighbour Lord Hartshorne and his intended. Newly engaged. May their marriage be long, and happy.”
Rachel thought, If it isn’t happy, it will certainly be long, then she shook her head and studied Rupert. It will be happy. I will make certain of that.
Mr Oliver started to object, when he felt a firm hand on his shoulder. It was George. “You, sir, are coming with me. This is the last time you will bother Lady Hayforth. Do I make myself clear?”
The dance started with both Rachel and Rupert lost in each other, both too overcome with emotions to say much.
Part way through the dance, George re-entered the room, dusting his hands. He strode to his host, Sir John and said, “That’s done. What ever possessed you to invite such a rotter?”
“He’s the man of the moment. Helped break those revolutionaries in Pentridge, at great personal risk.”
“Knowing him, I doubt it.”
“I must remind you I’m the host, and General Byng will be most displeased when he hears of how you’ve treated his best agent. A real British hero.”
George indicated his lack of concern when he said, “If you say so. I don’t know the general well, but I’m good friends with his cousin Poodle. I think I can weather the storm.”
Once the ball was finally over, in the carriage home, Rachel asked, “What happened to that man?”
“Mr Oliver?” George said, “I suggested that he make an early night of it.” He smiled, “rather forcefully I might add.”
“And Rupert, my love, you said you’d known him.”
Rupert hesitated, then said, “Yes … he offered me money … to see, make a copy of what I was doing for the army. I think it was when I refused that he introduced An- that woman to Lord Biddle.”
“What were you doing, Gas … Rupert that would be worth money?”
“I guess what I did is not really secret, the secret details aren’t interesting anyway. You’ve shot with one of those scent-bottle locks George.” Rupert stretched back in his seat, ready to be expansive.
“Dashed good gun. Yes. Faster and more reliable than my Manton.”
“The Army thought so too. Started working on them in the Tower Armoury. They came within aces’ aim of levelling the place with all the fulminate they made. Guy Fawkes would have been delighted. His Majesty less so.”
Rachel and George leaned forward to hear every word. George said, “I see. So…”
“So I worked on more stable fulminating mixtures. Oxymuriate of potash, various … fillers to make it more stable. I was, ah, more than moderately successful. Had the war dragged on, it would have made a big difference. General Shrapnel’s shells with my fuses, mayhaps on rockets. Torpedoes that exploded on contact. Can’t say too much more. It would have been ‘interesting’ to say the least.”
Rachel gasped, “So he was a French agent?”
“Maybe. More likely working for the highest bidder – French, American, those damned Prussians or even the Tsar.”
“Good Lord Nephew. I never knew. Just thought you were playing around.”
Rupert laughed, “I’m not saying it wasn’t fun, but I’m glad to work on safer things.”
Lucy, who had been quiet because she was tired and had consumed more than her share of the punch, said, “I bet Lady Hayforth is too.”