Sunday Snippet, After the Ball.

A Formulaic Romance

This is the start of another story Amelia and I are putting together. There’s a pun in the title that will become obvious in time.

It starts with the trope, Lady Rachel on her way to London, is stranded in the country by an unfortunate accident. They’ve made their way to the house in the distance, but not without slipping in the muddy lane.

The Master was introduced here. He was somewhat annoyed at the disturbance, but willing to see that his guests were properly entertained.  The housekeeper, Mrs Hobbes, leads Rachel and Lucy to their rooms to prepare for dinner The carriage wright makes a cameo appearance in a previous snippet.

Last week saw the arrival of Rupert’s Uncle George and a hint at the complicated family history – a history that was not completely … harmonious.

After a peek into Rupert’s history, George makes a somewhat unusual proposition to Rachel which was continued. The rain finally scuds off to the North Sea leaving a fine day – for riding and other things. Rachel, unsure of her own feelings, arranged for her companion to use the only sidesaddle.  Meanwhile Rupert and Rachel discover a shared interest in music, which leads to a proposal.  George has just returned from finding a magistrate to deal with a mob. At the ball a slippery character from the past makes his first appearance. George disposes of him, for the time being, in the previous snippet.

This week Rupert explains things.

After the Ball – What George Did.

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.”

It’s probably obvious that the title, “A Formulaic Romance” refers obliquely to chemistry. There’s another arcane reference in the text. Anyone caught it yet?  It’s sort of, maybe, perhaps, important, given what Rupert worked on in the past.  What are Spirits of Hartshorne?

Anyone who considers making sodium safe is either incredibly brave or incredibly foolish. I leave that decision to the reader.

I suppose the secret is finally out. Oxymuriate of potash is potassium chlorate. An interesting and um, somewhat explosive oxidizer. Spirits of Hartshorne is Nitric acid. Nitrates, and particularly organo-metallic nitrates are … unpleasantly unstable. They tend to complain violently about shock. In 1803 a brave and in my informed opinion exceedingly foolish chemist made mercury fulminate by mixing ethanol, mercury and nitric acid. It is something of a surprise that he died a natural death.

The British army, seeing the advantages of the pill-bottle locks – namely that they almost always work, won’t set your hair on fire like a flintlock, and are generally faster and more reliable – wanted to use them on an army-wide scale. The trouble is that Dr Forsythe’s original design used mercury fulminate and at the scale an army would require is especially dangerous. The armoury at the tower was nearly destroyed before they abandoned the idea.

The percussion caps of the American civil war (or earlier – the Crimean war) were a mixture of oximurate of potassium and sulfur. It worked and was far less dangerous than mercury fulminate. The same mixture was used in strike-anywhere matches until recently. The Native Americans used matches to re-prime cartridges during their long rebellion against those nasty european immigrants (us). It used to be possible to hit matches with a hammer and get a decided bang.


Amelia reminded me to put a link to our book page.

Author: rharrisonauthor

International man of mystery. Well not really, although I can mangle several languages and even read the occasional hieroglyphic. A computer scientist, an author and one of the very few people who has both an NIH grant and had a book contract. An ex- booktrope author and a photographer.

9 thoughts on “Sunday Snippet, After the Ball.”

  1. It seems that there is a lot more involved than Rupert is saying. I don’t know why it would worth money otherwise. I’m also wondering what is the relationship between Rupert’s work and Lord Biddle.


    1. There is a lot more involved. Lord Biddle, unhappily deceased, was a source of funds for Antonia. The way to think about the Napoleonic war is to think of WW2. Rupert worked on effective and reasonably modern weapons – something like the Manhattan project. At the moment, that Corsican monster is imprisoned on St. Helena and his loyalists are not happy about it. They need explosives.


  2. Quite a bit of information given in this snippet and yet I feel there is so much more that went unsaid.


    1. THank you.
      The fulminate was and is in the open literature. They really had an unfortunate experience with it at the tower armoury and realized how close they came to leveling it. It wasn’t until the 1840’s that more stable mixtures were popular – I don’t know if you remember cap rolls? They were first invented as primers for the 1851(?) springfield rifle and approved by Jefferson Davis (before the Confederacy). It, like the confederacy, didn’t work very well and was replaced with percussion caps.


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