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Suffolk, London and Spain
‘Now, what am I looking for?’
Harriet scanned the stoppered phials on the shelves, putting a finger to the label of each one. Some of the bottles were dusty, some had marks of recent use. In her father’s day the laboratory never had this abandoned look. Sir William Guest’s large cabinet stood by the door, its drawers open. Delicate instruments, magnets, loose nails and coils of wire lay jumbled inside. Larger pieces of apparatus and machines were grouped without order against the end wall.
In the middle of the room, its chimney built out through the ceiling, the iron stove sat on a square of delft tiles. As a girl Harriet used to rub the soot off the warm tiles while they waited for an experiment to take, and absorb herself in the story each might tell, a labourer in a heavy smock, a milkmaid with her pail, the blue bridge where they met over a white canal. Black grains of soot coated the tiles now, and a displaced group of bottles with round shoulders and cork stoppers stood on the workbench nearby. In one a lump of yellow phosphorus, Harriet’s favourite, lay in water. Ease it out into the air and it would burst into flame.
‘Nothing is where it should be.’
Harriet wiped her dirty hands on her apron and pushed a lock of hair under the scarf tied round her head. Her hair refused to stay put; her forehead was covered in an arc of dust where she swept it away. She quickened her search, darted along the shelves and read each label.
‘Oh, woe is me, t’have seen what I have seen, see what I see.’ She put her hands up to her face.
‘Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1,’ she said under her breath, and turned to the door. No, there was nobody there; she was alone.
‘Ah here, here.’
She took a slender bottle, rubbed it off on her apron and read her father’s hand. ‘Nitrous acid. Strong.’ Further along she found the sulphuric acid.
‘I can be quick; besides, it is done in a moment.’
It only took a second to unhook a cup from the underside of the nearest shelf with one hand, and with the other pull open a drawer and rummage for the old silver spoon.
‘The last thing: oil of turpentine.’
She found the bottle, tipped a spoonful of the thickened turpentine into the shallow cup and set it down on the hearth by the stove. A stick and string she needed next, and to be careful when she mixed the acids. The world receded.
Harriet loved this experiment for its simplicity and noise, the leap of fire and the sudden creation of a new compound in the flames. Her father told her that he often performed it for her mother, to lift her from melancholy. But that was before Harriet was born.
She remembered her father, his white hair disordered, a hessian apron round his waist and his shirt open at the neck. No matter that they were alone together and at home, Sir William always wore his clothes as if someone might arrive at any moment. How many afternoons they sat in there, with the laboratory full of silence from the park and a gentle hiss from the stove. As darkness gathered, the panel of mica windows on the front of the stove glowed redder. Harriet could see herself, too, hair tied back, her own apron a copy of his. She sat thin and taut on a high stool, proud to hold the scissors to cut litmus paper, or lift a delicate retort over a flame.
‘ ’Tis time I should inform thee further,’ Sir William would say, and wait for Harriet to add: ‘Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2.’
Each time they began a new experiment, her father consulted his Accum or his Parkes, the pages of the books discoloured with drops of the liquids they made and mixed. He read out what they needed to find, and Harriet ran along the shelves, levered down bottles and phials with two hands or crossed to the cabinet to pull string and nails, a ruler or a measuring spoon from the drawers. With her breath held in, careful not to drop anything, she placed each tool or ingredient on the workbench to make the orderly row as her father had showed her. The longer the line grew the happier she felt. When an experiment was done, they put the bottles back and walked hand in hand to the drawing room and tea. Harriet could still hear her father’s voice, with its note of apology, and, in her own chatter, the burden of dissolving it.
Now, she laid a glass phial at the end of a wooden stick and tied them together with several turns of good hemp string. Then she poured in a few inches of sulphuric acid and added in the clear nitrous acid. Her task now was to pour the mixture into the cup of turpentine. She leaned over the hearth, concentrated. When the acid hit the warm turpentine the sudden combustion might throw the liquid fire straight up. Again she heard her father’s voice.
‘Stand aside, Harry. Watch for the moment when the new compound releases the heat. Are you ready?’
‘Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 1,’ he said, and they laughed together, her father with a sideways glance at the hearth, while she flung her hands onto her knees and leaned forward to catch his eye.
She began to turn the stick in her hand, filled with the calm that the laboratory brought her. She had come in to allay her fears and walk along the shelves. It was an afterthought, or an involuntary movement, that had led from that to Parkes’s manual and its well-used section of practical proofs.
The door swung open. Harriet stood by the hearth, the long wooden rod in her hands, about to pour.
She turned towards him, her eyes on his face, and forgot everything. The acids fell onto the hearth, some into the cup, some onto the tiles. In the sudden explosion of flame drops of turpentine jumped up and caught fire. Tongues of flame fell onto the tiles and the floor and burned there, blue and noisy.
‘There, no harm done,’ Harriet said, and pushed her hair out of her face. Now, here was James, in a new white cambric shirt and pressed dress trousers, his hair wet.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I thought I might come in for a few minutes.’ She looked up at her husband, a look of self-containment on her face, a kind of retreat.
‘Have you forgotten that we begin in less than an hour?’
Harriet ran towards him.
‘Oh, darling James, no. That is why I came.’
James took a step back and put his hands out towards her. Harriet glanced at her dusty apron and the acid burn on her gown. She ran to look in the mirror, a mottled glass oval that she and her father had silvered years ago. It was pitted black where the silvering had been too thin and reminded Harriet that when their experiments had gone wrong, as they often did, she would hug her father tightly to make up for something more than an incorrect mix of chemicals and compounds.
In the eaten silver surface Harriet saw that streaks of dust and soot ran down her cheeks. Fire singed the hem of her old day dress.
‘I can get it all off. My gown is brushed and ready.’
James smiled suddenly. A note of warmth was added to his measured, even voice, so that it dropped down a tone to become soft and humorous.
‘Dear girl; dearest Harry. You are absurd. We leave for the Peninsula tomorrow. Major Yallop is already here; Dorothy Yallop and David McBride, too. I had thought to take them over to the hotel in half an hour. What is to be done with you?’
Harriet looked at James, at the breadth of his shoulders and the strong push of his calves against the backs of his trousers. Desire flashed up her body like the twist of a fish underwater.
‘I shall wash and be down directly.’
Tears stood in Harriet’s eyes.
‘Do not say so, James. I have been dressing myself for years. I do not take the hours that other women do.’
James Raven’s features shifted, as if it was the first time he had caught the beauty and oddity of Harriet’s features.
‘I tell you what. I’ll go back up and ask Mrs Yallop if she will help you to dress. I shall not say anything to the others. I think that will be best.’
Harriet ran down the corridor that connected the laboratory to the main house. She pulled her scarf off as she went and dashed a sooty hand across her eyes. James watched her heavy hair fall down her back. It would be a considerable labour to brush, pull up, tie back and set with ropes of pearls. Harriet would be late, even in Dorothy’s hands. How was it, he asked himself again, that his fellow officers, and even the men, used to a punctual life of rules and self-reliance, made such an exception for her, shrugged their shoulders and smiled?
Why should he ask? He was one of them himself. From the first time he saw her, outlined against the light from the long windows in her father’s drawing room, her narrow face turned to the park outside, he knew he would have to campaign for her attention. There was something about her then, and still now, that was irretrievable. It was nothing she kept apart or hid; but rather as if, long ago, something had dropped deep into her and left no trace, no ripples on the surface, but stayed there, tantalising and out of reach. In all her high spirits, her enthusiasm, and her affection, she was beyond him, a step ahead, or just round the corner.
He had joined the army four years before with the usual portmanteau of dreams: to distinguish himself, serve his king and win promotion. Napoleon had marched across Spain in 1807, invaded Portugal and then turned his attention to his Spanish ally. The British army, under Sir Arthur Wellesley, helped the Portuguese see off the French, but Wellesley was then recalled and Napoleon picked off the Spanish armies one by one. By the end of 1808, when James embarked for Spain, Napoleon had forced the Spanish king to abdicate in favour of his son, confined them both in France and installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte in Madrid instead.
James had landed in Santander as autumn turned to winter, and joined the rest of the 9th Foot with Sir John Moore’s small army outside Salamanca. General Moore had been left to command the rump of the British army in the Peninsula and James arrived at the moment when Moore, without reinforcements, could no longer contain Marshal Soult’s well-fed French force. He ordered his army to retreat to Astorga and then make for the coast and the British fleet.
Soult’s army had pursued Moore’s ragged troops all across the top of Spain. In the snow-covered mountains of Galicia the French picked off dozens of British stragglers as a tawny lion pulls down gazelles from the edge of a moving herd. Cold and bad lungs did for hundreds of others. Men lay down on the iced verges and waited to die or to be taken prisoner. The retreat lasted three weeks, night merging into bitter day. Only the bones of Moore’s small force were left at the end, men who had stripped themselves into marching automatons and hurled their illusions one by one onto thorny gorse at the roadside.
Sometimes a party of them, officers and men who could still bear the sight of one another, laid ambushes for the French vanguard. In the high mountains above Astorga, where their army split in two to make the journey to the coast faster and confuse the enemy, James knew that he, a soldier who had bought his sword in Jermyn Street and his commission for an inflated price, had become a killer. When he faced the Frenchman, looked into his light blue eyes and saw fear slide into them, he saw himself suspended above life like a bird of prey.
Yet he felt nothing; or only a kind of vibration, a thrum of blood such as a hawk might experience as it waited for the moment to lower its head and dive. Then the moment of thrust, intense as an explosion. With that James was certain that he had reached what lay like lava at the bottom of every man; but afterwards, when he sat round the fire back with the division, there was nothing to say about it. The moment had gone from him, its legacy only a mind picked empty the way that carrion strip a carcass to leave a skeleton white against the green.
His senior officer, Major Yallop, had merely nodded at him, and slugged an extra tot of brandy in his tea. The next day the retreat went on. The regiment was sleepless, the men irritable and petty. They jostled for the best bivouacs at night, quarrelled over sticks for fires and twists of tea. With the French at its back the army became a rabble; but James did not dwell on the brutality. All along the way the lightness accompanied him. He forgot about Lady Lavington and the drawing-room life in London he had left when he bought his commission. Like the others who survived the march he learned to ignore the rain that drove at his face as he rode and soaked through the seams of his gabardine. He came to appreciate the dry humour of his men, their fortitude and acceptance, the way they never dwelt on friends who became too sick to go on and fell back towards the baggage train and the advancing French.
They had reached Corunna before the fleet, and the French were upon them by the time the transports got into the harbour. There was only time to put the sick and wounded on board before they had to turn and fight, but James welcomed the battle. Wounded in the shoulder at the end of the day, after their commander Moore was killed, he was mentioned in General Anderson’s dispatches and promoted to Captain.
The next day, with Soult’s army beaten back and the British saved, James boarded a worn-out ship of the line. He disembarked at Portsmouth to the approbation of a sombre crowd. The newspapers excoriated Sir John Moore and described his officers as the bravest of men. By the time he reached Suffolk to convalesce he had grown tired of women who touched his bandaged arm, called him a hero and implied that they would be glad to know how such a man conducted himself on softer ground.
When he was introduced to Harriet at dinner in her father’s house, she had challenged rather than invited him.
‘Captain Raven, you are welcome. But in your regimental jacket? What happened to the notion that “we are but warriors for the working day”?’
At least he had recognised the line: Shakespeare, though he had not admitted it. But he acknowledged the absurdity. In the early years of the war men changed into everyday dress as soon as they disembarked. Today their jackets were everywhere, drops of scarlet all along the streets.
When Lord Nelson was still alive, a sea captain had been the thing. Now that Arthur Wellesley was back as Lord Wellington and Commander-in-Chief in the Peninsula, army officers were the fashion. With his imperious manner and polished boots, the General was a man to rival Bonaparte at last. The shimmer of war accompanied James down the street and into every room. Yet he knew himself to be a killer in a red coat. War was his companion; it lived under his skin. Women sensed its presence; they offered it, as much as him, the softness of their naked bodies. Harriet appeared to ask what else there was.
He had stood back when he first observed her, walked to the supper table and watched as other men tried to catch her attention. To be sure she was Sir William Guest’s daughter, and Sir William was a gentleman, despite the reputation for oddity his interest in science had given him, with a long lineage. But it was not Harriet’s prospects, merely, that drew admirers. Neither was it Harriet’s beauty, for she could never be described as beautiful, or even pretty. She was too thin and quick, her face narrow and long, her hair always on the point of escape. No, it was something else; around her, the men were like anglers who crowded a river bank, cast their lines into the water, came up with nothing, and cast again.
After that day the simple life war offered him was not enough. He came back to Suffolk at every opportunity, and approached Harriet with care. At first, for every step he took towards her she had taken two steps back. He learned what it was to be the pursuer, though it was always she who determined, by a gesture, a laugh, a question, how far he might advance.
James found, in the end, that it was best simply to be discovered at Beccles Hall in conversation with Harriet’s father. Sir William welcomed him into his house, and seemed to help James in his pursuit. When they talked Harriet often came into the library, seated herself at a distance and then joined in. If the talk interested her she would move to a closer chair and then throw herself on the sofa next to James or her father, forgetful of everything else. Then James might ask her to show him something outside; the large lens telescope in the observatory on the lawn, or the experiments Sir William conducted with different soil types and seeds. Over the weeks, when he was with Harriet alone, James began to add into the conversation a compliment on her dress or the grey of her eyes. She never showed she noticed such remarks, and James began to think that she had no grasp of his intentions or the state of enchantment she had thrown upon him. Then one day out in the park she said as if it had just occurred to her.
‘The colour of an eye I believe to be like that of our hair, a pigment which fades with the years. Yours, for instance, appear to be of the purest blue, unmixed with any other colour.’
‘Indeed.’ James let the conversation run. He loved to listen, not just to Harriet’s words but to the sound of her voice, which had a depth and certainty unexpected in so slight a form.
‘It is difficult for me to be sure, however, since my vantage point is so far beneath you. If you were to lie flat on the lawn and let the sun shine slantwise into them, I might see better if their blue lies on another tint.’
‘You tease me, Harry.’
‘I wish to conduct an investigation. Lie down.’
James lay down and opened his eyes as much as he could in the evening sun.
‘Quite blue; cobalt, or cerulean.’
Harriet leaned over him. She took her bonnet off; her hair fell across his face.
‘You make a fool of me, then.’
Harriet came so close that he could no longer see her face; just feel her breath and warmth, and the moment when her lips touched his. He stayed as still as he could bear to be, and then felt with wonder the entry of her tongue into his mouth.
‘Is that an investigation also?’
‘In a manner of speaking.’
‘What manner, Harriet? You must know why I come to your father’s house.’
Harriet stood up and threw her bonnet so it skimmed over the grass like a loaded plate. She followed its path as if nothing else interested her.
‘In the manner that, if we wish to mix two compounds to create a new one and have never done so before, we begin with a very small quantity by way of a proof.’
‘That we reach the result we had hoped for.’
James jumped up in a bound and looked down at her.
‘And did you, Harry?’
‘I think so.’
‘Then do it again.’
Harriet came closer. To his delight and amazement she began to unbutton his coat. Her body was hot against his. He wanted to reach down, ease her backwards and put his hands tight over her breasts; but he stood motionless, afraid to make any move that might stop her. When his coat was open Harriet ran her hands round his back, and kissed him again, as if she had been kissing him all her life or as if they were lovers already and she knew everything that he did.
Yet even now, more than a year later, and a month after their wedding, he wasn’t at all sure he had got her. He was leaving for the Peninsula again, with a secondment to Headquarters, he thought as he walked up the corridor to the library, and Harriet was still at it, that disappearing act of hers.
Once she said to him, ‘You do not know me, James. There are things in me that I cannot think about.’
‘There are those things in all of us, Harry. Any man who has been in war knows that.’
She had smiled then, and fallen silent. He did not pursue the conversation; from his own case he knew what he said to be true. At other times she was more simply elusive. ‘I’ll run upstairs for it’, she might say of something she had forgotten, and turn away from him. Half an hour later he would find her under the covers with a book, or in the laboratory, as he had today, covered in soot, when their guests were to arrive any moment.
‘Ah, Dorothy,’ James said when he opened the library door, ‘Harriet is a little late. She would be so happy if you might help her. Just to clasp her jewels and so on.’
‘The poor thing. She is unhappy, no doubt, at your departure and forgot herself.’ Mrs Yallop looked delighted. ‘I could use an iron myself, and a pier-glass. I have quite a surprise for you all.’
She nodded at her husband. David McBride, the new regimental surgeon, who was seated next to the Major, saw Yallop blush and concentrate his gaze on the tips of his polished boots.
‘My pièce de résistance, I think you would call it. In honour of the regiment.’
Dorothy Yallop pressed her shawl and set the iron down flat on the hearth. Behind her through the window the River Waveney spilled out into the meadows and caught the last of the light from the bleached winter sky. A rising breeze moved through the naked willow branches; snow was on the way from the west. In the darkness the current of war came upriver on the evening tide, pushed unnoticed into every rivulet and stream, and seeped into the frosted ground.
‘Now, how are you placed, my dear?’
Mrs Yallop considered the young woman in front of her who jumped from foot to foot in the cold while she washed herself. Harriet Raven was eager for life. She might feel the parting acutely but would not suffer for long, would learn how to put the pain at a distance. Mrs Yallop had heard that Sir William had brought his daughter up alone, that Lady Guest had disappeared, had been odd, too, in her way; but many officers’ wives had endured childhoods of hardship. It was good drill for the job, the Major always said, and after twenty-five years of service, there was not much that George could not tell you about life in the army.
‘Look at me, Mrs Yallop. I ran into the laboratory to forget what was happening, and made everything worse.’
‘Nonsense, there is plenty of time. We will have you right in a moment. I have dressed more quickly and in many a worse place I can tell you. Try a frigate in the harbour at Messina, or a bordello in Lisbon.’
Half an hour later Harriet was ready. Her mother’s diamonds, set in gold, hung around her neck. Mrs Yallop had brushed her hair and tied it with a loop of pearls, and Harriet stood, quite composed, in her blue gown.
‘And now for my masterpiece.’
Mrs Yallop unwound a small, carefully wrapped bundle that she laid like an offering in Harriet’s lap.
‘What is it? A new creation, I hope.’
‘A novelty, certainly. I made it myself. Here is Britannia, our badge; to this side of her, “9th Foot”, and there, to the other, “East Norfolk”.’
A fat Britannia, embroidered in white and blue, sat with her left hand at rest on a shield. In her right hand she held a sturdy stick stripped from a living tree and sewn onto the backing cloth. Tawny feathers encircled her like the laurels of a victor. Were they pheasant, Harriet wondered, or something more domestic?
‘And what do we do with it?’
‘Do not tease me, young lady. It will sit beautifully.’
Mrs Yallop lifted her handiwork to her head and tied it with a bow behind. Wiry tufts of hair lay flattened on her forehead.
‘I consider it to have an eastern effect that recalls the Major’s service overseas.’
‘Oh, it is marvellous. You have quite restored my good humour.’
‘My dear.’ Mrs Yallop tested her headdress for security. ‘You take this all too seriously. Tomorrow they leave; I have known an overseas campaign to last a year or two. The Major admires Napoleon and does not believe he will surrender the Peninsula lightly.’
‘I know you are right; but I find it hard to be light-hearted. It is shocking to say, and do forgive me, but if my father had not died I should have been married much longer and this parting might be easier.’
‘No, my dear. You may be wife, mother, daughter or sister; the misery is the same. Who knows, we may never see them again. It does not do at all to dwell upon it. After the first time, you learn to endure with good humour.’
But Harriet was sure that Dorothy had no idea of her feeling for James. In the nights after her father’s death and the postponement of their wedding, the thought of James took her breath away even when grief gripped her; one animal passion vied with another and life got the better of annihilation. Though they had finally married last month those few weeks were scarcely time to learn to live together. Now James could only say he would come back to her, and she could only say she would wait.
Then she was afraid. Suppose, as the months went by, James faded? Suppose he became a kind of ghost, a shadow so indistinct that another man might interpose himself in the space between them? Worse, she might wish one to.
‘Mrs Yallop, I will try to endure. But what if I forget him?’
‘And fall in love with another man?’
‘Not in love; but one might become lonely.’
A keen look crossed Mrs Yallop’s face.
‘It is easily dealt with. Do not pretend it does not happen. I have experienced it myself, although one must never speak of it; a blow that comes down just like that. You must hold your nerve. Do nothing and it will go away. In a few months you will be as you were before, and the better for it, I assure you. There is nothing to worry about if you love your husband as I see you do.’
Harriet heard a knock at the door. Here he was, then, come to take her downstairs and to the hotel in the square, where the officers of the 9th had assembled in farewell. A vibrant picture of James, tall, fair and muscular, came complete into her mind, like a gloved and golden Florentine on a white horse. She turned to greet him. It was not James who stood there, but Dr McBride, ponderous and solid as a seal, with his hands behind his back and his topcoat made lopsided by a book in one pocket.
‘Oh, Dr McBride.’
David McBride watched Harriet’s eyes darken and narrow in disappointment. He stood in the doorway a moment and examined her the way he hoped a physician might study a patient. He looked at her mouth, thin and red, the lips slightly parted; her eyes, grey, or perhaps greyish blue; her slight form; her bosom, surprisingly full, its curves just visible above the lace of her gown. He coughed, and Harriet looked at him as if trying to get him into focus. But this examination, for such a thing he permitted himself, did not describe her. No medical man could find it satisfactory, he thought. For a start it stopped somewhere above the waist, and he felt it inappropriate, even for a man of science, to drop his eyes further. But, more than that, the words in his head pinned things down, made a report in fixed ink and lines, and the fact was Harriet Raven was a person of movement, of an upward tilt of the chin, and sudden deep laughter. Not one of her features was of the best. Her mouth for instance—he gazed at it without emotion—was too wide to be pretty; it curled up at the ends in a way that defied nature.
Dr McBride sighed heavily and shifted his shoulders inside his ugly topcoat. Harriet looked at him with amusement; the best way to approach James’s friend was to joke with him.
‘ “Now sits the wind fair?”, Dr McBride?’
‘A westerly, I believe. It should run us down the Channel and into the Bay of Biscay in no time.’ He coughed again, ‘Henry V, Act 2—’
Harriet laughed, and David added to his description of her features the fact that when she did so two creases framed her mouth in the way that commas surround speech. How did she guess he liked to be teased?
‘You know the source of my nonsense. How is that?’
‘I attended the medical school at Edinburgh. In Scotland, and away from home, winter stretches out. I lodged with my grandfather and read a good deal at night.’ He looked at his shoes and then back up at her.‘You never know when you might need words to put life at a bearable distance.’
‘You do not need a book now, Dr McBride. Mrs Yallop here counsels us to be cheerful. We shall simply dance and say farewell.’
David held out his arm. Harriet slipped her hand through it.
‘Lead on,’ she said, and smiled at him as if he was not there.
Dorothy Yallop advanced into the ballroom of the Grand Hotel in Bungay with a buoyant shake of her head.
‘The waltz! Gentlemen, I ask you to put away your swords and dance.’
‘But first, a toast.’ Edward Tillett, a grain merchant with a fortune from supply to the navy, lifted his glass.
‘The King!’ Tillett took a forward step and paused theatrically, to acknowledge the King’s madness, and his audience’s understanding of it.
‘King George; and the Regent.’
‘The memory of Sir John Moore, and Corunna,’ Major Yallop added.
‘And to the 9th Regiment that buried him,’ another officer shouted.
The group of officers around the supper table broke up. Obediently the men unbuckled their swords and laid them in a pile by the fireplace. Orders from Mrs Yallop were tantamount to orders from the Major. Wives and daughters of local merchants came forward to take their hands.
Mrs Yallop’s headdress shook with her efforts to organise the dancers. ‘Ladies, listen now.’
The waltz was recently introduced from the Continent, whirled from Vienna with the officers of the Allied armies. Familiar only with the twos and fours of marching tunes, the band struggled with the lilts of triple time.
‘So, ladies, place your left hand on his arm, just below the shoulder. Now gentlemen, put your right hand flat on her back, and no whacking. She is not a pony.’
She considered the dancers. A few of the men inched their hands round their partners for a squeeze; most stood stiff, as if they waited for an order to advance.
‘Now; the other hands come together and out. Stand close together! This is the waltz! Elbows up and out, ladies. Lightly, that’s it. Now lead with the left, gentlemen. Imagine you tread round the edge of an ammunition box. Forward, along, back. Lightly now; anticipate the second step. There, you have it, ah ha!’
Mrs Yallop laughed in delight. Her high voice always carried the possibility of pleasure. Britannia nodded on her head.
‘Now, off we go.’
One or two couples hurried on to the open floor, afraid they would forget the sequence. Others hesitated and banged into one another, toe to toe. But with the help of the melody, a kind of order soon prevailed. Like novice skaters who clung to one another on the ice, the dancers began to turn, and the defiant gaiety of the music caught them up.
Harriet pulled James towards her till she could feel his jacket buttons through the thin silk of her gown. They launched themselves into the waltz, and circled on its rhythm. She came close, then bent away, and, when she came back, flowed along with him for a moment. Round the room they went, sky-blue and scarlet, past the supper table where Dr McBride stood alone, past the long windows curtained in dusty red brocade and into the open space in the middle. James held his upright poise, light on his feet. He threw off his stiffness beat by beat in the turns and in the music.
‘Harriet, you will not forget to call on Lady Wellington when you go up to town?’ he said as they turned at the far end of the room.
‘James, do not let us talk of it now. It is our last evening.’
‘Indulge me, dearest. And do dance with the Major; you will put him in good humour.’
Before Harriet could protest, James steered her to Major Yallop’s side, squeezed Harriet’s hand and left her.
Major Yallop saw Harriet glance back at her husband.
‘Just one turn, eh, to please him?’
‘I see I must make the best of it.’
‘Well now, you will have him back soon enough. Shall we show them how it is done?’
Harriet put her hand out to the Major. George Yallop was a wiry man, forty-five or so, she thought. She could sense him vigorous and light on his feet when he grasped her hand. His chin, when he drew her close, brushed across her hair. Harriet felt his grip tighten and a new alertness run through him. As she leant back into the turn his body pressed against hers, below her waist, below his belt.
David McBride stood with James by the supper table, his glass loose in his hand. His eyes followed Harriet round the room.
‘Your wife is a very fine dancer.’
‘Yes. She knows how to lean away; to make it look as if she is yielding, when in fact she makes one follow her.’
David touched the reassuring square of the book in his pocket. Beside James he felt his outline to be indefinite.
‘You speak as if she was a strategist.’
‘Perhaps she is; but it may be simply that the elegance that others have to learn comes to her by nature. With Harriet one never really knows.’
‘To leave now is very difficult.’
‘To be sure, we are only just married; but it catches one up, the anticipation to get out and try oneself against the worst. Do you not feel it yourself?’
David coughed. A soldier was trained to kill. His trade could only be the opposite.
‘I will come up to death in a different way, if that is what you mean. I go for myself, for advancement in my profession. A surgeoncy is as good a way forward in my line as a captaincy in yours.’
An eager look crossed his face.
‘Many of the medical men in Edinburgh learned their trade in the army. They put it this way; a battle will test your skill in twenty-four hours more than a whole year’s work in London.’
‘And no one will remark your mistakes.’
‘You are too harsh on us, James. No surgeons are more skilled than those in the army; but we must experiment also, take risks that may save lives. There is so much to learn, and the future pulls me on.’
David lowered his voice. He turned away from the dance floor, where Harriet still circled with the Major.
‘I walked through the churchyard on the way here, and you know what I found?’
‘The dead, I should think. Men beyond the surgeon’s art.’
‘Four small graves, besides; from the inscriptions I believe them all the children of your servant.’
‘Yes, one after another, year upon year.’
Thomas Orde was a worsted weaver, a proud man put out of work by the collapse of trade between Britain and the Continent. He went with James as his servant to save money for his family.
‘Listen, David, that is something Thomas does not speak of, so I beg you do not mention it. After his first son, Nelson, each was stillborn. Nelson is five now. Thomas feels it like a curse and fears they may never have another.’
‘It is a phenomenon I wish to investigate. With progress we may understand it.’
‘A battlefield is not the site for such investigations, David. Few children, I believe, are born there.’
‘No, you mistake me; it is their deaths that interest me; how death may be prevented. In Spain I may learn.’
‘Ah yes.’ To David’s surprise James sighed. ‘Your job is to pluck up wounded, patch them up and send them out to face death all over again.’
James straightened up and saw the Major steer Harriet towards them. George Yallop glided like a water-boatman across the floor, composed and not even out of breath. Dorothy Yallop walked up, and pushed the lapsed Britannia up her forehead. The Major lifted his hand from Harriet’s back, and bowed.
‘Mrs Raven, it has been a pleasure. I shall see you again when I return. Take good care of yourself.’
‘I shall have plenty of time to practise my waltz, Major. You will find me an expert when you get back.’
The Yallops made their way to the door, one neat and immaculate in outline, the other disordered and unkempt. George Yallop breathed in a gulp of night air.
‘That girl will cause trouble, if I am not mistaken.’
‘Nonsense, George. She is charming, that is all.’
‘Well, my dear, I leave that kind of thing to you who has much more discernment than I, but there is something in her dancing I cannot quite place.’
‘It is simply that the world knows her story; her mother’s nervous disposition, and her flight, if flight it was: that she never returned, at any rate. That hangs about Harriet, I think, makes people talk.’
George Yallop squared his shoulders, tightened his arm round his wife and kissed her powdered cheek.
‘As long as it does not affect Captain Raven it is not for me to enquire, eh Dorothy? Let us forget it; we have our own business to attend to.’
‘Time to be off,’ James said. He walked to pick out his sword from the careful stack at the other end of the room.
‘Good night, Dr McBride.’ Harriet did not look up at David. ‘I had better find my cloak. I may see you in the morning, perhaps.’
Dr McBride looked at her again as he had done upstairs, with concentration, as if he were considering certain worrying symptoms.
‘There is nothing wrong with me, you know.’
‘Indeed not. It must be with me. So, good evening, Mrs Raven, and farewell.’
McBride put his empty glass on the table and walked out of the room before Harriet could reply.
Outside the hotel in the market place, soldiers sheltered from the snow under the shallow dome of the Butter Cross and lined up along the cowslip-yellow walls of the hotel.
‘Eve-nun, Cap-un Raven,’ they shouted. Their voices rose with the first syllable of James’s name in the East Anglian way.
‘ ’Night, men.’
Hunger drove these men to sign up. They did not fight for their king; Suffolk meres and Norfolk broads had never bred a love of crowns. But they were sturdy; in their speech James heard the slow, water-circled self-sufficiency of East Anglia, the dogged stubbornness that, for a few moments, filled him with pride to be one of them.
Down a narrow street off the market place stood the remains of Bungay castle, that had once sat sentinel above the valley. The castle commanded wide views all around, snug on its mound in the narrow neck of the oxbow bend of the river. Now all that remained was the lumpy curvature of the curtain wall and the towers of the gatehouse. Where the castle keep had once risen, clusters of sheep stood amongst the ruins like ancient boulders, luminous in the darkness. Sleety snow soaked into their long fissured coats and water dripped from their narrow bowed heads. War had reached this far before; but now it seemed impossible that any invader would ever threaten this green world. Yet what did they fight for if not to stop Bonaparte declaring that this, too, was a part of his empire?
Harriet jumped out of the open carriage door onto the hard-standing in front of the house and ran in. She held up her long skirts with one hand. James followed; he took the shallow steps in twos and arrived in the hall in time to see Harriet turn into the bedroom at the top of the stairs.
Perhaps he looked at it the wrong way round. The war was not to stop Napoleon invading Britain or turning all of Europe blue in the image of France. No: to the victor would go not just safety but the spoils, the whole world, or all the world where war had reached; the serrated coasts of South America, the pointed Capes in India and Africa, islands in the China seas; the Union flag would rise over them all.
When James reached the bedroom he found Harriet seated at her small table. She fiddled with the clasp of an earring, one hand buried in her straight brown hair. Light from the candles danced over her mother’s necklace. James came up behind her and slid one hand underneath the gathered top of her gown and over her breast.
James kept his hand there, and Harriet tipped her head back to gaze up at him. His body, pressed to the chair-back, was already taut.
‘You will have to help me.’
‘Get me out of this.’
‘Mrs Raven, I shall be delighted.’
The gown slid to the floor with a sigh. Harriet lifted her arms and James bunched the shift with care. He held it out of the way of the points of the necklace and lifted it over Harriet’s head. He had seen her naked, how many—thirty times, now, but each time his own body registered a shock. This evening he looked at her with especial care and a kind of detachment. His eyes travelled down her narrow body past her breasts, the slight indent of her waist, and came to rest on the sharp curve of her hip bone. How had he never noticed the way it sat under her skin, and gathered a shadow in its lee like a tarn on a mountainside? He must touch it, kiss it, remember.
In the dark river valley a dog barked and settled. James watched with impatience as Harriet walked to the bed. He had learned from Lady Lavington how to wait, to extend the moment before he pulled her to him. Usually he could bear it; he could kiss slowly, stretch the time until it nearly broke. But tonight he was different. He felt close to panic; he wanted to dive into her, grab the thing he always sought, and carry it to the surface the way a pearl-fisher brings his prize from the depths of the sea.
Loose flakes of snow floated down into New Court and melted on the flags. They fell like cotton fragments, frayed at the edges. Nathan Rothschild watched them twist out of the sky and remembered winters in Frankfurt. That was real snow: solid flakes, that sat one on top of another till the steep roofs of the Judengasse were dressed in white. The next day he and his brothers would wake, two in a bed, and run to the gable windows to see the street sparkle in the sun. Just west of the Judengasse the River Main froze thick and glittered. Oh, they were skating days, if there wasn’t shul; snowball and stamping days with the little ones wrapped up tight and good strong boots on.
Long ago, when he must have been a man of seventeen, with years of Hebrew behind him and a stool in the office already, he had come to the door to see Jakob hard at work piling snowballs in a perfect pyramid like the cannon balls they saw in the Prince’s arsenal beyond the zig-zag of the city walls. Lottie with him, under orders; Jakob with a serious look on his face. ‘Zehr kalt, zehr kalt,’ Jakob said when he saw his brother, and held up two red hands, palms out. The rascal could not have been more than three years old and he complained already, even at play.
Well, he had been nowhere to rival it since. Frankfurt winters were real winters, blue-skied, with air crisp as starched Virginia cotton. In Manchester, from October to March, the air was soft and wet, like soap, and the sky so dark he had to take samples right into the street to see their quality. Nathan shook his head. In Manchester the winter seeped down into you and never drained away, and summer was unworthy of the name.
But then, he admitted it: cottons had never held his attention. Patterns in calico had none of the beauty of a bank draft, however much you bought, unbundled, retied, and sold on. Clients complained; Harman—old Jacob, who bowed low to him these days—wrote to his father about arrears on his account. Letters from Mayer Amschel Rothschild arrived in England, heavy with his disappointment and admonition.
Nathan had lasted five years in Manchester; long enough to bring a goodish fortune south to London, parlay it into his Hannah’s hand in marriage, set up at 12 Great St Helen’s, move to better quarters in New Court right in the centre of the City, and so begin. Set up home, some would have said.
Nathan went out of his office and opened the door of his house. New Court was narrow and high. The houses looked close at one another across it. He had chosen New Court not just because it was a few steps from the Exchange, but for its familiarity. In the Judengasse, until the French burned down half the street, scores of families lived crushed together, a thousand souls at least, in a hundred houses set right on the pavements with tiny courts behind where children played and washing hung in sagging lines. Even after the French came, his people were slow to move. He liked life like that, the press of humanity, sounds of children, packages delivered, the street cleaner and lamplighter close enough to see the quality of their britches, a ring of metal on the flagstones.
But home? How people liked to talk of it. English or foreign, it made no difference. You could hear them on the Exchange, solid men from Holland or Riga or the East; watch them turn misty-eyed and vague and begin to picture it; the light off a canal, the dome of the Hagia Sophia, the fall of a particular brook or slant of an apple tree. Nathan shrugged and walked back into his office. He looked with indifference at the blue flames of Newcastle coal in his hearth. Meadows, bricks, country turns of phrase, even the snows of Frankfurt: why put faith in them? For a man of ambition, home was a portable commodity. Keep it in your head, carry it with you, and you can never lose it.
To be sure, he said to himself, one can deposit a little of it here and there; but never the balance. A piece of home now stood above him, in the three upper storeys of the red-brick house, with his dear Hannah, the children, the solid bedroom furniture, and curtains of best damask that he had off Rathbone wholesale at ten shillings the yard before he left Manchester. Pieces about and beneath him, too: his own office on the ground floor, clerks in the back and the reassuring presence of the kitchen below. Underneath me the cooks are at work, he thought, and slid out his watch; and where would we be without the solid comfort of food? You could keep the books in credit—though a clever man always had more money out than in—but he had made a rule in New Court always to run a surplus in foodstuffs. A dinner that ended with empty plates was no dinner at all.
Nathan pulled his small brass bell from under a pile of papers and rang it briskly.
His clerk Moses Solomon came in through the doors that divided back and front on the ground floor.
‘Lady Wellington’s accounts, and call down for the coffee to be prepared.’
Moses nodded once and left. Nathan’s brother Calmann in Amsterdam had recommended Moses as a man with a neat economy of word and gesture. He had come off the packet already sharp, and now he was done with deference, Nathan noticed with satisfaction. Outside synagogue, where a bow joined one man to another, he himself disdained to bob about. The English rated politeness far too highly; any man could bend and produce a smile.
This afternoon, Nathan expected Lady Wellington. He kept a number of private clients, taken on, why not, with an eye to the future. A junior minister with a promising career, an heiress who had just married well, a merchant with a good balance already at Coutts. Investments, really. He could meet such people once a month, deal in stocks and consols for them in a small way; wait.
By the Bank of England, Kitty Wellington pushed down the window of her cab and listened to stockjobbers swap prices, heads-together at the railings: the manly hum of the City at work. Men were everywhere; bankers with top hats; delivery boys who held trays from the chop-houses high above the crowd; printers and newsmen; Frenchmen in exile, Russians in furs, street sweepers in ragged soldiers’ topcoats, and mud-larks with pennies up from the river. The colours men wore gave the City of London its palette. Engrossing black, chestnut, creamy buff, the egret-white of cravats and shirts; solid tones, unfickle and restrained, but lit with a flash of buckle and watch chain and the sheen of expensive velvet.
Off St Swithin’s Lane, the cab wheels rang on cobbles. The sounds of the city withdrew as they came to a stop in New Court. By no. 2, a groom held a pony fresh from the stable, saddled and ready to leave. Its black hide absorbed the fallen snow. Warm soupy steam drifted from its nostrils.
Kitty climbed the four shallow steps and pulled the bell.
‘Mr Rothschild expects you, my Lady,’ the footman said, and held out his hand for her cloak.
At the same moment Nathan Rothschild came out into the hall and ushered her inside with an arm that shadowed her shoulders. He slapped his feet heavily on the boards and turned them outwards with each step. ‘Come into the shop. It is my honour to see you, and on this good day, also.’
The room was small and panelled to the ceiling. Stacks of paper stood all over the floor like the shaken remains of an ancient empire. Letters and scribbled notes covered the desk, and across them lay a leather dispatch bag, its underside dark and greased with pony sweat. On the back of the chair hung Nathan’s fine cotton cravat, pressed and unworn.
Nathan handed Kitty into her chair and eased back onto his calves. His stomach pressed through his waistcoat like a hard-boiled egg. Nathan Rothschild, Kitty thought, was a man born to be fat; largeness became him. The buttons on his silk breeches were undone at the knees as if his legs demanded more room.
‘Never mind the disorder. You see how it is; and my brothers deride me for it, though except Jakob they have never yet been here.’
Nathan laughed sharply and banged on the connecting door. His high collar scraped against his jowls. Moses Solomon brought a volume of papers and a maid came in with a silver tray of coffee and small almond biscuits.
Kitty looked forward to her appointments with Mr Rothschild, and sat down with anticipation, as if they were to play a hand at cards. There was something complete about Mr Rothschild’s attention that sharpened and calmed her mind and answered to a need. Looking back at the day, she was more glad than usual that she was here in the city surrounded by men and figures.
‘Show her in,’ she had said to the butler.
‘Mrs Fitzwilliam, Piccadilly’, the card announced in ornate letters. When Kitty ran her finger across it she found that the indentation was shallow. Up the marble stairs, a minute later, the tread was a soft scrape, slow and hardly audible. Her caller wore court slippers, to show she came in a coach.
Kitty’s visitor stretched out a hand covered in lace to the fingertips. Kitty did not get up.
‘Yes, he told me I should find you cool. You hold yourself back, he said.’
‘Of whom do I have the pleasure?’
‘I am Mrs Fitzwilliam.’
‘I do not believe we are acquainted.’
‘Oh, but I feel I do know you; I feel that we know each other.’
‘Arthur talked of you. I am just back from Spain; an officer’s wife.’
Mrs Fitzwilliam glanced at Kitty again, and swayed a little.
‘I have known Arthur for three years.’
‘Please sit down, Mrs Fitzwilliam. You appear to be unwell.’
Mrs Fitzwilliam sat down promptly on the divan. Beneath her bosom two pink ribbons lay crossed and knotted over her gown in the latest style.
‘I knew him since before he went to Portugal; but lately in camp.’
Mrs Fitzwilliam gestured out to Harley Street, as if the leafless trees bent to listen to her.
‘Times are hard, my husband on half-pay. The plate is gone already.’
‘And so, Mrs Fitzwilliam?’
‘And so, your Ladyship, I have been forced to contemplate the sale of my memoirs. Loving Arthur as I did, I kept a diary of his visits. No detail will prove too small for the press.’
Mrs Fitzwilliam pulled a calf-bound book from her pocket.
‘Lady Wellington, I am a woman, too; a woman first, I should say. I see how these revelations will hurt you.’
Kitty was silent. On the mantelpiece a clock ticked; a gift from the city of Lisbon to her husband last year.
‘I am prepared, of course, to delay publication. It is quite a simple matter, as I am sure you know. The sum would not be large; we could settle on a hundred guineas.’
Mrs Fitzwilliam sighed. She appeared to be surprised at the modesty of her own demand.
‘You are not the first, Mrs Fitzwilliam, who has come to me. Some have suggested publication; others have Arthur’s letters.’
‘Indeed; but, Lady Wellington, Arthur cared for me in a particular way.’
‘You may print what you like. I do not read the papers.’
‘But your reputation, Lady Wellington, and your children. What of them?’
‘I will look after my reputation, Mrs Fitzwilliam. Yours is your own affair. Please go now.’
Mrs Fitzwilliam rose and took a step towards Kitty.
‘You leave me no choice, Lady Wellington. I assure you, you will regret what you have said to me today.’
Kitty finally stood up and faced her visitor. Besides Mrs Fitzwilliam’s rounded form she felt angular and slight though she could look her straight in the eye.
‘You see me as your enemy,’ she said. ‘But I have long since given up thinking of you, or others like you, as mine. I think you may find in the end that we are on the same side.’
‘I will never be on the same side as you, Lady Wellington.’
Mrs Fitzwilliam raised her voice.
‘It is not just my memoirs. I have something of his, a precious gift.’
He has given her a ring, Kitty thought, some sort of signet ring which has his crest on it or a seal that all the world knows to be his.
‘Goodbye, Mrs Fitzwilliam. I do not think we need meet again.’
Money, money was what she needed, Kitty thought as her carriage turned into New Court. Not the small amount Mrs Fitzwilliam requested, but much more. Enough to give her independence; enough for a life.
Nathan Rothschild sat down, poured coffee, threw several spoonfuls of sugar into his cup, and stirred it with an almond biscuit. The top of his bald head gleamed.
‘So, let us begin, dear Lady Wellington. I have been buying three per cent consols on your account, as you requested. But there are better things you may do.’
‘Yes,’ Kitty said.
‘You will never make a fortune with a few thousands laid out in that way. That is why I gave up the textile trade. All is far too slow.’
Nathan thrust a hand into the pocket of his velvet breeches and leant back in his chair. His voice was more modulated than his heavy looks suggested.
‘I did not come to London to dabble on the ’Change and hang a few pictures on my walls. Here we trade in something else, much bigger. Risk.’
‘And news, of course. We deal in risk coupled with news, or, let me put it another way, risk tempered by news. To make a good guess, yes? To guess when to move, when to go in, you must know the strength of your forces and those of your rivals. That Lord Wellington can understand.’
He pulled forward a sheet of paper, covered with notes in angular black letters.
‘From my brother Jakob in Paris, just arrived with our courier.’
‘Good news?’ Kitty asked.
The familiar shiver ran across her skin. Any news from abroad might be about Arthur or her brother Ned Pakenham, golden-haired and eager to please. Ned wished too much to prove that his promotion owed nothing to family ties; it made him reckless.
Nathan handed her the paper. Beyond the date of four days ago, Kitty could make nothing out. The hurried cursive was not a Latin hand.
‘What is this script, Mr Rothschild?’
‘Jeudendeutsch. German with Hebrew letters and a few private words thrown in; very safe from curious eyes.’
He laughed again, a harsh note in his light voice, and threw the letter back onto the heap on the desk.
‘We write well, neither of us. Jakob howls down my German, dear lady, and my English is hardly better; but this is good news. My brother tells me the Assembly in Prussia has voted to allow the Emperor across that territory. You understand his meaning?’
‘The result will be the Emperor marching east to discomfort our Russian friends.’
‘So another game begins. It will be a good one, and long, I think. Would you care to join me in it, Lady Wellington?’
‘You must explain it first.’
‘Well then: Russia and France will be at war. We must sell Russian bonds now and buy them back later, and at a discount.’ Nathan leaned towards her. ‘Do you understand me?’
‘Not well enough.’
‘What I am saying, dear lady, is that we have the information first. The stocks are bound to fall when the news gets out, so we sell now. We place a bet, as it were, on the panic on the Exchange to buy in again.’
‘And take the profit?’
‘No, no, of course not. We lay out the profit on something else. Bullion, for instance; our Russian friends will be needing of that. Or we might lend it, at greater risk, to the Spanish king in exile.’
‘That sounds most adventurous.’
‘A bet, merely, on the King’s return to Madrid.’
After a pause Mr Rothschild said, ‘There is another way, which asks a cooler head.’
‘And what is that?’
‘We do not, exactly, sell stock, say; but we promise to do so, at a fixed price.’
‘But in this moment we know that the stock will fall, and fall before our buyer must pay for it. So we wait a day or two.’
‘What good does that do us if we have already agreed to sell?’
‘Lady Wellington, you must pay good attention. We do not own the stock when we agree to sell it and so we must buy it, and then sell it. Our buyer has already made a bargain with us, which he must keep, and he may do very well by his purchase in the end. But we are not interested in the end, but in how we make a profit with speed. When we come to buy we pay less than we will sell for and before any money has been exchanged, we have already a good profit, to which we will add a small commission for the purchase in the first place.’
Nathan drew an arabesque in the air the way a painter makes a stroke on his canvas.
‘The fact is this. Because we know the stock must fall, we make our money in that moment; and a lovely moment it is. One such has come today.’
‘With your courier?’
‘Exactly, dear lady. You are a fine pupil. Now here is still the more beautiful part. Sometimes our information informs merely. Sometimes it has a magic of its own.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that a word from New Court can have a shrinking effect upon a stock; or, indeed, it may have the contrary.’
‘Forgive me, Mr Rothschild, but that has a whiff of sulphur about it.’
‘Yes, yes. It is how we can create the world anew. That is the business I am in; none of the old stuff. But the devil is not always on our side. Rothschilds is not always correct. A clever man is merely correct more often than his rivals.’
Nathan Rothschild considered Kitty. He preferred to help those who helped him, and Lady Wellington did not fuss. She interested him; besides, she had something he wanted.
‘What do you say? Should I lay out your thousands in these ways? The risk is with you.’
‘Perhaps I should take time to consider the proposition.’
‘My dear Lady Wellington, if we are to begin, then we must begin today.’
He threw out a hand towards the dispatch bag on his desk.
‘My courier arrived earlier this morning. We should have had the carrier pigeons also, though they struggle against this wind.’ He nodded towards the window. ‘But tomorrow, or the day following, Barings will have the news, Harman, too; Herr Schroder: yes, even Heinrich, my German friend.’ He laughed scornfully. ‘They will all sell also. So we must do it today.’
Kitty felt the air thin and her heart sound loud. What risk had women been bred to take? Only the risk of marriage and then the gamble of childbirth when nature rolled the dice. Women of her sort, married women of quality, were never thought to invest, though she was not quite alone. Lady Blessington held money in mining stocks, and had tried to interest her, over tea, in the virtues of Peruvian ores. Lady Lavington had a taste for speculation as well as young men and had hinted that one paid easily for the other. By law no married women could do it; they came to the City with secret accounts or with the connivance of husbands busy with other matters. The money she was giving to Nathan now, bits and pieces of savings, could not be called hers. Arthur granted it her to make the scales a little more even. She had her scraps of cash, he his other amusements.
Kitty looked up at Mr Rothschild. He drew in his solid bottom lip and looked at her steadily. Used to deference or pity in men’s eyes, Kitty was surprised to see eagerness in his manner. He was not, perhaps, even thinking about her at all.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, then, I will put my thousands in your hands.’
‘With a definite end in view the risk seems small,’ Kitty added, as if she needed to explain herself.
‘An end?’ Nathan was suddenly intent.
‘Do you not have an end also?’
‘My dear lady, this great game is itself the end. But there are certain things; perhaps I shall tell you one future day. As for you; do you play the game for your children?’
‘No, not for them.’
‘Boys, are they not?’
‘Arthur and Charles, yes; they are five and four years old. Then my sister-in-law’s child Gerald has lately come to me, and my husband’s godson Arthur Freese has been with me for five years. They are all my sons. But I invest for myself.’
‘I am pleased. Let us begin then.’
‘You have my confidence,’ Kitty said.
Nathan took her hand between his hands and patted it briskly as a boy might pat a sandcastle to keep it standing when the tide came in.
‘Not a word to anyone.’
At the door he stopped, and said, as if it were an afterthought, ‘You are acquainted with Mr Charles Herries?’
‘You mean Mr Herries at Great George Street? Only in a formal way. He has only lately taken up his appointment, I believe.’
Mr Rothschild came a step closer. A childish shriek followed a thump on the boards on the floor above.
‘My Charlotte, my Lotte.’
Nathan smiled with delight. Then with surprising swiftness he leaned forward and began to whisper in Kitty’s ear, his gutturals dry as autumn leaves. Under the light of the open doorway Kitty caught a kingfisher flash in his brown eyes.
‘You will do that for me, Lady Wellington?’
‘Mr Rothschild, I am delighted to be able to return a favour.’
Snow fell against a black sky on the way home. In Cavendish Square, before the coachmen turned into Harley Street, she watched her neighbour Sir William Beechey struggle head down through the cold flakes.
Alone in her parlour, Kitty took a card from her writing desk and wrote a few lines. On the cover sheet she added the recipient and address: Mr Charles Herries, commissary-in-chief, the Commissary Office, Great George Street. Then she rang for the footman, and went upstairs to change for dinner.
Arthur Wellesley, Lord Wellington, commander-in-chief of the British army in the Peninsula, had received two letters that morning that whipped up the choppy surface of his temper. Now he rode through the hills above Ciudad Rodrigo and not even the sight of the recently captured fortress down below him could smooth it down. Rigid and imposing, with the town clasped within the embrace of its walls, Ciudad Rodrigo commanded the northern routes from Portugal into Spain; taking it was useless without the complement of its southern neighbour, Badajoz; and Badajoz had resisted the British army twice already. A victory like that of Ciudad Rodrigo only led to the possibility of another defeat. He had little to show for nearly three years in charge of the British army. Most of the time his army had been holed up in Portugal. Now that he had begun to advance, he must go on. He needed, by the summer, to seal off Portugal from invasion and push the French out of central Spain. Then he might advance on Madrid, where Joseph Bonaparte sat in the Royal Palace with works of art about him; a bumbling incompetent promoted by a younger brother blinded by the ties of kinship. That, Wellington thought with a glance to his left, was a mistake with which he could never be reproached.
Ned Pakenham, by the Commander’s side, felt his ill humour like a magnetic field. It repelled approaching objects. General Pakenham kept a discreet distance between his horse and Arthur’s; they might be brothers-in-law, but their relation made no difference to the cutting remarks Lord Wellington lobbed his way if he attempted to speak too soon.
Pakenham rode bare-headed; the heat of his hatband made his head ache; once out of sight of headquarters he liked to tuck his hat under a saddle flap. A stray crumb from his hasty lunch stuck to his upper lip. Lord Wellington glanced at his brother-in-law with dismay. He disdained to eat when there was work to be done, and contented himself with a boiled egg from his pocket. Worse than that, the glint of silver in Ned’s fair curls reminded him of Kitty and her brown hair turned to grey, and then of the letter she had sent; a ramble about household arrangements and investments. Investments! Women presumed to know too much and then talked too much about it. What did he care what Kitty did with her pin money or the savings on the housekeeping she mentioned, when he struggled to find the cash to feed his army? Forty thousand men, doctors and unctuous chaplains, women who attached themselves to the baggage train despite his best efforts, horses and mules, servants, hundreds of cattle for slaughter: all to be fed, every man and beast turned towards him, mouths agape.
It would be better not to hear from Kitty at all. Or, to put it another way, when he did receive letters, he was glad of the profession he had chosen, grateful for war. Here in the Peninsula he could at least forget the mistake of his marriage and soothe himself with the women who came for him after a victory. Who knew what Ned imagined: his officers and staff knew better than to refer to Kitty in his presence.
Then, Kitty was almost forty, and that was another reason not to think of her. It showed him up to be near forty-three. Lord Wellington disliked the thought of his own age; it stood as a kind of defeat. He demanded a bachelor feel to headquarters, insisted on the timbre of youth. His officers, unlike his wife, were always eager to comply; boys as young as twenty aped his manner and copied his dress.
Now, this morning, there had been a second letter that annoyed him even more than Kitty’s, a request from a gentleman volunteer to be placed ‘where danger and valour most demanded it’, or something of the sort. What nonsense these perfumed creatures wrote. This one, the Honourable Robert Heaton, was fresh out from Piccadilly it looked like, with servants, horses, the latest kit and no doubt a volume of Walter Scott in his valise. Or Moore’s Irish Melodies, a book that he, as an Irishman who knew that wet green wasteland, had special cause to dislike. ‘Go where glory waits thee’; that was its first line, its absurd sentiment. They plagued his life, these volunteers. Heaton’s letter mentioned ‘previous postings in the service of the crown’. The man had most likely been a member of the militia and done a turn round his park on a Sunday afternoon.
Lord Wellington tapped his horse into greater speed.
‘I shall march south on Badajoz and establish headquarters at Elvas without delay, Ned, take advantage of the victory here.’
He said nothing about whether he would be taking him south or leaving him with the garrison at Ciudad Rodrigo, Edward Pakenham thought with alarm, and he knew better than to ask. General orders would go out soon and his would be included. Ned had never felt at ease with his brother-in-law. He often found himself addressing him in the formal way, when, out of earshot of other officers, ‘Arthur’ should have been acceptable.
‘Yes, sir. I hear Elvas is a filthy town.’
‘Filthy and fortified, Ned. This time I intend to take Badajoz by April and push on across the country.’
Wellington paused. Ned needed something to do. It was irksome to have him so loyally in attendance; besides, he reeked of Ireland and the wastes of County Meath.
‘Oh, and Ned; I have a request here from another foolhardy volunteer. Can you place him somewhere where the officers are not at full strength; the 44th or the 9th, say; any regiment off to Elvas soon?’
‘Yes, my Lord. I will send out a note to the regimental colonels.’
Edward Pakenham rode back to the battered fortress in silence. The sun fell down the valley behind him, dusty red in the smoke from thousands of camp fires. He felt the General’s impatience like a grey shadow. Sometimes he regretted the moment he had handed his sister to Sir Arthur Wellesley in Dublin six years ago, standing in for his father Lord Longford under the ribbons and bows of the stuccoed ceiling. Looking back, he had been apprehensive even then for the happiness Kitty promised herself after the years of Arthur’s absence and in the joy of his return.
Copyright © 2011 Stella Tillyard