Tides of War: A Novel of the Peninsular War

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9780099526421: Tides of War: A Novel of the Peninsular War

An epic romantic novel of the Peninsular War from the acclaimed historian, author of Aristocrats.

A brilliant debut by a wonderful historian, Tides of War is a sweeping, romantic, panoramic historical novel, set in Regency London and in Spain during the Peninsular War, which shows again the narrative talent of Aristocrats, as well as Tillyards's genius for period, atmosphere, character and description.

At its centre stands Harriet, the young, outspoken heroine, on the threshold of adult life. She is newly married, but her soldier husband, James, is about to set off to join Wellington's troops in Spain, accompanied by his friend, a pioneering young doctor, who also falls for Harriet's charms. Left in London, Harriet is taken under the wing of Kitty, Lady Wellington. And while the women plunge into new worlds of politics, finance and science, the men face the bloody reality of the battlefield and the siege of Badajos, testing their endurance to the hilt. James falls fatally for a glamorous Spanish spy, but there are betrayals on both sides and at times it seems their love cannot endure. Their interwoven stories carry us through the tumult of the Regency at home and abroad, and the drama stars a vast cast from the Duke of Wellington and the brilliant money-man, Nathan Rothschild, to a compelling young entrepreneur who brings gas lighting to London, and a down-to-earth sergeant and his exuberant wife.

Tides of War is drenched in an unforgettable atmosphere, from the palms, mantillas and tiles of Seville to the glow of gas lights in foggy London, shining through the spikes of winter trees. As Harriet and James pursue their destinies, facing hope and heartache in equal measure, this stunning novel returns us all to the vivid, lost world of the past.

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About the Author:

STELLA TILLYARD has been described by Simon Schama as 'dazzling... a phenomenally gifted writer'. Her books include Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox,1740-1832; Citizen Lord: Edward Fitzgerald, 1763-1798  and most recently A Royal Affair: George III and his Troublesome Siblings. She has lived in the USA and Italy and now lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Part One

1

Suffolk, London and Spain

February 1812

‘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?’

‘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.

‘Harriet!’

The door swung open. Harriet stood by the hearth, the long wooden rod in her hands, about to pour.

‘James!’

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.’

‘Nonsense, Harry.’

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 ...

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