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 Xartis Psyxis, Chapter 4 - "The Letter"

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Nobiles Barbariæ

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Join date : 2011-12-25

PostXartis Psyxis, Chapter 4 - "The Letter"

It was nothing more clamorous than the benign bleating of sheep that finally woke Titus. For a few surreal seconds his sleep-addled mind tried to fathom how he had transposed himself in the night from a castle dormitory to a farmyard barn, but it slowly dawned on him that he was still recumbent in his cot and that the sheep’s cries were drifting in through the open window. Peering out through the grill to the street below he discerned several dozens of the beasts, and then noticed with delight a most welcome ornamentation to the surroundings – a small inn bedecked with a sign advertising the sale of vittles and beer – breakfast! And one moreover that did not have to be shared in a soldier’s mess with wearers of the king’s uniform, a singularly unedifying prospect which was the best the castle had to offer to guests of Titus’ social stature, and an experience that he had endured sufficient times in the past not to voluntarily subject himself to again if he could help it. A groan, rasping snort, and a smacking of lips from the cot in the corner revealed the existence of a sleeping Flitch. Titus thought it better to let the sleeping dog lie, at least for the moment. Entrusting his kit to the quartermaster’s locker, and with instruction to the man to ensure his secretary was roused, washed, and at the gate by nine bells, he made the circuitous route through the castle complex back out onto the street and proffered his custom gratefully to the proprietor of the small tavern appropriately called The Sheep’s Head, as it stood at a corner of two streets bearing that creature’s name, or so Titus learnt from its proprietor when he asked. If Titus had hoped that breakfast in the inn would save him from the inanities that passed for conversation in a military mess hall, he was not only mistaken, he realised, but also regretful of having opened his mouth almost as soon as he had enquired.

“Little Sheep Street they call it, on account of the little sheep you see!” The innkeeper laughed loudly and inexplicably as he left a plate piled high with fried vittles on the table before Titus. A tankard of ale quickly followed. “Sheep Street indeed!” He again laughed uproariously at his own comment and went back to the bar.
“Indeed,” agreed Titus though he failed to see any humour in the remark whatsoever, or for that matter any remark the innkeeper had thus far regaled him with, though the man himself seemed diverted by his own wit to the point of hysterics.
“Over from London is it you are sir?” the innkeeper asked, still chuckling, from behind the bar, as he packed empty wine jars into a wooden crate.
“I am”
The man allowed himself a huge self-satisfied grin. “Ah ha! I was right! Not trying to be impertinent sir, but I could see, you see. We get them from all parts here and it’s fun trying to surmise their origins as it were.”
“Eh?” Titus ‘spoke’ through a mouthful of the delicious meal.
“My brother Willie, god rest him, started it – guessing the Scots from the Angles, then the Yorks from the Welsh, then the Southies from the lot of them, then – well it’s grown into a great game as you can see sir. That’s me up a point now already!”
Titus briefly considered telling the innkeeper the bad news that in fact he’d been born in Shropshire, but the man seemed so pleased with his deductive prowess that he deemed it churlish to do so, and indeed in explaining the ‘rules’ of his pastime he had at least calmed down a portion from his earlier high point of jocularity. In fact there was something quite innocent about the man, Titus owned, and infectious about his good humour, so much so that, despite himself, he felt his spirits lift a notch for the first time in what seemed like ages. He smiled and turned to address the man, who had now started vigorously scrubbing some tankards. “I must congratulate you then,” he said. “I have never to my knowledge played the role of a game piece before – however I am honoured to have advanced your score in some small way!” He nodded exaggeratedly in mock courtesy.
“Ah sure isn’t it always great to start the day winning?” laughed the innkeeper, ignoring the sarcasm “Are you winning yourself? Not judging by your fishogue you’re not!”
“My what?”
“You had the face of a man with piles on his piles on your arrival – if you don’t mind me saying – still, what Willie used to say is that there’s nothing so bad as hasn’t felled you, and sure if it does you won’t know it anyhow!”
Despite himself, Titus laughed aloud. The innkeeper retreated chuckling to the depths of the tavern from where the ensuing clanking and crashing, and copious swearing, indicated that fresh jars and bottles were being relocated from the cellar to the counter. After a few minutes the cacophony subsided and the innkeeper’s head reappeared from behind the counter.
“Shit!” he said by way of re-introduction.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Shit Street sir! That’s the real name of the place – because of the market you see. No one wanted to open an inn here so me and the brother, god rest him, got the place cheap many a year ago. Then Cromwell’s runt was put in charge of the town and he set about changing all the names of places, well at least the ones that reminded him of himself!” The innkeeper let out a large guffaw to accompany his witticism. “Except for Poxy Row – that reminded him of the ould fellow so he kept it!” More guffaws. “Anyway, thanks to young Cromwell I’m now the proprietor of a thriving hostelry on the Little Street of Sheep. The great sheep have their own street around the corner.”
“It’s a pity he and his father did not restrict themselves to the naming of thoroughfares by all accounts.” Titus said. “I take it from your comment that young Cromwell’s brief period of rule here didn’t sit too well with the locals?”
“Or himself sir by all accounts, with the blessing of God may he rot in hell! The little bastard spent half his time conniving to get here and the other half conniving to get out again. I hear he died a few year ago screaming in terror and not because of any mortification on his part either on account of what he and his ould fella done to folks! No indeed, it was due to him thinking in his delirium that he was back in his billet in Dublin Castle! Have you been here long yourself? It’s a great town you’re in but it doesn’t seem to agree with a lot of your countrymen. They arrive bristling with industry and purpose and go home with the look of a pauper who’s dropped his penny down the gutter!”
“Just arrived on last evening’s tide”
“Well let us celebrate your surviving thus far - have another beer sir!”
When he returned a few moments later Titus noted that he carried two pitchers of the brew, then without asking leave sat on the pew across the table and took a deep draught from one. “Mind if I join you? It’s been a long morning and I won’t get a chance later! Did you like that meal? You made short shrift of it!”
“Today is not a market day but it will be busy enough – the people next door seem to be entertaining quite a number of guests lately. I assume you are enjoying their hospitality too?”
“Why do you ask?” Titus asked suspiciously.
“Oh sorry sir – not trying to be nosy, just trying to work out if I am speaking to a potential regular customer as it were!”
“Believe me Mr …”
“Oh Collier sir.”
“… Mr Collier, you cook a fine breakfast and your beer is tasty, if a little copious for the hour. Alas however I will not be a regular client. Believe me, I was a guest of the crown last night through expediency and not desire.”
“Ah! You’re not a military man then?”
“Most definitely not, Mr Collier. As my father might say – an organisation that promotes its members by virtue of their ineptitude is obliged to reward them for the simple things, like walking in step. And likewise, smart uniforms and straight shooting might impress simple people. But to those of us with higher aspirations in life I am afraid they represent somewhat of an obstacle. I hope I am not being unduly offensive to your customers Mr Collier.”
Collier laughed raucously and long. “Oh no, no indeed sir! Oh that was good! Close neighbours of mine they may be, but thank god they’re sparing enough with their patronage. Regular, but not too often thank god. Bad for business that would be. They tend to have a detrimental effect on good conversation, if you know what I mean.”
Titus smiled “I can imagine. Unfortunately I have been compelled to ‘enjoy’ their company enough in the past.”
“You have worked with them before – so you were in service once?”
“No, I am a map maker, and they are avaricious acquirers of maps. That is why I know them and that is why I am here, I have undertaken to document this country for the admiralty, or at least as much as I can before dying of a cold - or worse.” Titus vainly hoped that the innkeeper might be nonplussed by his answer.
“Map maker!”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Sorry sir, I mean, a map maker? There’s a living in that? Still, I would have thought the navy would only be concerned with coasts and reefs and suchlike.”
Titus ignored the aspersion cast on his trade. “It seems their curiosity surpasses what they need to know – a failing they obviously share with others!” He eyed the innkeeper directly as he spoke with a stare that he hoped would hint at suspicion on his part, but with a hint of a smile and arched brow to indicate that he spoke more in jest than to draw an end to the conversation.
“Sounds like a lot of walking in the fresh air to me sir – in most countries such would be regarded as beneficial to one’s health. Though I appreciate that may not apply in these parts! I pray you be careful about your business.”
“The risks have been explained to me. Frankly I see no difference between dying in an Irish ditch or a London gutter. It’s as one to me, we walk with Death as our companion every day.”
“Indeed we do sir, and some more than others.” The innkeeper’s mood seemed to have grown more reflective. He sighed, and then lapsed into a morose silence.
As Titus prepared to apologise for the breach of local etiquette that he assumed he’d committed, and introduce a lighter comment to deflate the ominous mood, the innkeeper leaned forward and placed one elbow on the table.
“So you’ll be working with William Robinson then?”

Robinson, Titus knew, held the office of Surveyor General in Ireland. He had sent a letter to Robinson advising of his arrival and expressing desire for the man’s assistance, more for courtesy’s sake than anything else. Despite his title, Robinson was an architect and had as much interest in mapping apparently as he had in aiding fellow surveyors and making them feel welcome - little or none. A reply had been returned from Robinson’s office telling Titus that he could have a letter of authorisation if he ‘damned wished’ but that his project was his own affair. Furthermore he should restrict himself to mapping and not imagine his commission a stepping-stone into the field of Dublin civic architecture. Robinson was a jealous guardian of his role in life it seemed.
“I will meet with Robinson out of professional courtesy before I leave Dublin but I dare say it will be a short meeting. No, if I answer to anyone here in pursuit of my commission it will be the Duke of Ormonde alone.” Titus hoped the introduction of this name would appease the innkeeper’s apparent disquiet. It seemed to do just that.
“God bless him, sir. Have you any news of his progress in London?”
Titus was accustomed to this notion common to provincials that London was a small town, and that therefore any enquiry regarding someone they knew there – be they distant relative or royalty – could be gratified by any other inhabitant of the place, who would of course know immediately of whom they enquired and what they had for breakfast. He smiled at the thought. “No indeed, though rumour was in London before I left that the king heeds or requires counsel less and less on account of his dimming mind. His brother James, Duke of York is involved more in the affairs of state now than Charles is.”
“So our good Duke might be coming home then?” Collier’s face lit up.
“If he does, I imagine it will be to retire. So it was intimated to me at the admiralty when I took this commission. I asked as I wished to know the validity and endurance of my authorisation here.”
Collier seemed to revert to gloom once more. His tone grew even quieter. “You work for Ormonde, no one else?”
“I work for myself, though I will be grateful to be paid by Ormonde. I have no truck with politics or politicians but I value them as paymasters.”
“And the making of maps is your sole profession?”
“Besides the occasional one of dispatching over inquisitive innkeepers to their maker.”
There ensued another silence as Collier seemed to wrestle with the next question on his mind before he dare ask it. Titus steeled himself for another pert inquiry but was surprised by its relative innocuousness when at last it was proffered. “You appear an intelligent young man – lettered like.” this spoken in almost conspiratorial tones. “Could I impose on you for help with a slight quandary I’m in? You’d be going a great way to lifting a load off my mind if you could.”
“I …”
“Oh nothing too onerous I assure you – just … embarrassing … you might say.” Then, without waiting for another truncated response, he reached into his vest pocket and produced a parchment neatly folded and still bearing the broken seal of a recently opened document. Titus noticed that he looked furtively around him as if he feared he might be overheard. His voice dropped in volume. “This arrived by courier last night from a good friend of mine and I can see it’s written in fair hand, but alas my letters aren’t up to the script as it were. Some of my customers would gladly decipher it for me but I may as well post it up on the great cross in High Street for all of Dublin to read if I was to ask them. You’re a man with no axe to grind, and a kind one too I can tell, or so I hope. Could you have a go at it for me?”
It occurred to Titus that there was a definite nervousness about the innkeeper’s request that was prompted by more than a regret over his lack of literacy – as if he feared the contents of the letter, but feared not knowing them even more. It was also odd that this ‘good friend’ of Collier should send a letter to someone he knew to be illiterate. It obviously must contain urgent personal information and Titus, not for the first time, reflected on the sad dilemma of the illiterate at times. In matters of correspondence they often had to trust to the benefaction of a third party, and trust also that the translator could be bound to confidentiality if needs be. The innkeeper, through a kind of desperation perhaps, had obviously judged Titus to be just such a neutral stranger – an assessment that carried with it some degree of honour and no less responsibility to be discreet. Titus had to admit that his own curiosity, and compassion for the man’s plight, had also been aroused and he found himself tacitly agreeing. He accepted the letter, carefully unfolded it, and held it up to the weak daylight that begrudgingly filtered through the small window behind his right shoulder.

My Dear Charles

“That’s me,” said the innkeeper “Charlie Collier”

Forgive my indiscretion in using this method of communication, I realise I am forcing you to employ the service of a trustworthy friend to glean its contents but I find myself momentarily bereft of such company myself and cannot entrust anyone to convey this news by mouth. I hope against hope that no ill comes of my rashness but time is against me and tonight I leave by means I cannot say to meet with G in Calais.

Titus looked up to see that Mr Collier perspired slightly and that his eyes were riveted on the document as if it was the paper itself that spoke. He was aware also that what he was reading was more than just a friendly greeting from friend to friend. He waited for Collier’s eyes to meet his before he spoke. “Are you sure you wish me to continue? I may be just arrived in this town, but I know enough of the world to realise there are things you might prefer me not to know at all.”
The shadow of several emotions passed through Collier’s expression and he stared fixedly at Titus’ eyes intensely, almost as much as he had the document earlier. With a sigh he nodded slightly. “I would be grateful if you could sir.”

F and T have fallen. They were betrayed by Giles Courtney who has revealed himself to be in league with the parson and vile serpent McVeigh. I place the ‘pest’ in the ‘past’ you will note. The only good to come from what has transpired in the last few days was that McVeigh himself has now been dispatched to his creator also. He was executed on Thursday last as he rode through the townland of Ballymon and was discovered to be carrying papers bearing the names of more poor souls who Courtney knew and has betrayed so villainously. Each one on the list still enjoying his life and liberty is being duly informed of this tragic turn of events. I myself learnt last night, hence ‘this missal’ and my own ‘dismissal’. (The author was obviously a man who enjoyed his own puns.). I am pleased to say that your good name was not included, and that you must not therefore be readily concerned for your own safety. I urge you however to be circumspect and alert in your dealings with strangers and especially those who may avert to being our friends. What friends we have know better than to so advertise such affiliation.

Titus glanced up again, prepared for Collier to maybe now request that he cut short his reading of the letter. If the man had any doubts as to Titus’ trustworthiness they were overtaken by his obvious concern at this news. His shoulders had slumped and his head had bowed almost to the tabletop. For lack of instruction to stop, but feeling every bit a trespasser, Titus resumed his reading, and he noticed that his own voice had lowered almost to the point of inaudibility, even though the two men were still the only people in the dark inn.

Be prepared for bad tidings however and do not betray your despair should you hear of some in the near future, as I fear much mischief will result from this turn of events. Your association with me from happier times will doubtlessly occasion you a visit from your “neighbours” with enquiries as to my whereabouts so I urge you to iterate the “truth” of my departure, or at least as I have chosen the world in general to understand. To all inquirers; I have been called abroad of a sudden owing to the news of an old business colleague’s demise in Gent in the Low Lands and do not know the duration of my journey abroad. I departed on a packet sailing from Howth on the Sabbath and did not have time or need to enter the city. I left no details of my journey and you were informed only as a creditor of mine should be assured that all my debts shall be honoured in my absence.
NB I address now the friend to whom you have entrusted the recitation of my script. I know not who you are, but pray that the faith my beloved friend Charles has placed in you was well put. I thank you for relaying these tidings to him and place my own trust in God that He has guided this letter to your hand as He now guides your intellect and compassion. If you are a friend of Charles you may count yourself a friend of mine also, and if we have not already wined and dined together in Mr Collier’s fine hostelry in past times, be rest assured that one day with His Grace and Indulgence we will. You have my gratitude now and will benefit from it then Please God. I remain your indebted companion, O.
Postscript. I will leave you now with a piece of advice that I received once from an old priest while I was still too young to understand it and am now too old to benefit from it. Be wary always most of the man you find rides closest by your side. No two horses e’er had identical pace, so if yours is proceeding at its own you can be sure that the other man’s is not

Titus carefully folded the paper and was about to hand it back to Collier when the door was thrown open with a clatter. “Charles Collier!” The shout came from whoever had entered. Collier almost jumped from his seat in fright, but regained his composure quickly. His expression switched from the look of despair that the letter had induced to one of apparent joviality with incredible suddenness.
“Charles Collier! We will speak with you now!” the gruff voice barked again and with an authority that indicated that this was no impatient customer of the innkeeper’s. There was no mistaking a military command when one heard it, whatever the location, nor indeed the county of birth of this particular soldier either.
“A Yorkshireman, would you say?” Titus asked playfully, misreading the innkeeper’s expression.
Collier hushed him quickly. “And a bastard of a one at that, so hold your whisht!” He whispered from the side of his mouth, managing to impart stern instruction in his tone while still wearing the mask of jocularity that he had suddenly assumed. “Coming sirs!” he shouted and strode towards the source of the voice. Titus realised that he still held the innkeeper’s letter in his hand and hurriedly slipped it into his coat pocket, just as two soldiers came into view around the taproom corner, almost colliding with the innkeeper on his way out to meet them. They ignored Collier and eyed the mapmaker for a few seconds. Then the senior of the two, a captain it seemed and the owner of the gruff Yorkshire accent, approached him. “You are?”
“Titus Perry, newly arrived from London.”
“And your business here?”
“They serve food, I eat food.”
The captain merely held his gaze. “Very droll but I advise you not to rile me or give me cause to lose my temper. Your business in this city sir?”
“Is known to your superiors and need not be known to you, sir. Suffice to say we share the same paymaster for the minute, His Grace the Duke.”
Titus knew that what he had said was tantamount to replying in London that one worked for the King, a description of employment that included half the country’s population – but he was damned if he was going to be challenged by an impertinent soldier in this manner. The captain visibly bristled, but maintained his tone and stare. “Of course you have papers to prove what you say? Answer this with a jape and I swear you will rue ending your day so early!”
“Lieutenant Hogg, the Quartermaster, is in receipt of my papers. I do however have a key to the Quartermaster’s lock-up that might satisfy your inquiries as to my residence.” Titus placed the large metal key Hogg had given him onto the table, its handle stamped with the city’s coat of arms. “Now, perhaps you will tell me to whom I owe the honour of this diverting conversation, which, I might add is of no aid to the digestion of Mr Collier’s excellent breakfast?”
The Captain seemed about to remonstrate with Titus for daring to ask him his identity – his expression certainly grew even blacker and he drew breath sharply. His younger companion however emitted the subtlest of coughs, which Titus immediately knew to be a signal. Lower in rank the cougher may have been, but the captain’s demeanour instantly changed in response to his colleague’s prompt and his line of enquiry abruptly ended. “I am Captain George Briar of the Constable Guard. These are dangerous times in a dangerous place sir. I would advise you to take care. You are not in London now - remember that! Now, if you will excuse us we will speak with the innkeeper alone. Goodbye.”
Titus rose to leave, but was mindful on the way to subtly cast an inquiring glance at Collier, who’s expression of jocularity was still in place, an expression which seemed to indicate that he was nothing less than delighted with the arrival of these visitors, though in truth Titus found himself fearing for the man’s safety. His features must have betrayed his concern as the innkeeper sought immediately to assuage it. “Good day to you sir” he called after Titus. “Be sure to drop by again should you wish! Now sirs, how can I help you?” The door closed on any reply there may have been.

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