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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 7 "The Hospital"

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Nobiles Barbariæ

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Join date : 2011-12-25

PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 7 "The Hospital"

The stench of the city assailed his nostrils. In London much of the more noisome professions had been relocated outside of the city after the great fire. Here in Dublin no such cleansing had occurred. The stink from the fishmongers in Fishamble Street and the fleshmongers who faced them from their new location across the river still vied with that of the scavengers’ carts heaped with offal and dung who plied their way amongst all their stalls. The stinking black ooze of the Liffey at low tide and the open sewers that gouged a network of fetid canals through its banks of slob failed to mask the malodorous fumes of the breweries’ chimneys which lay like a pall along its entire run, or the stinking animal carcasses trapped in its sands, or the open low-walled privy pits dug at intervals along its quays sitting cheek by jowl with those overhanging from the hundreds of tenements and businesses that literally “showed their arse” to the river beneath. The knackers’ yards of the Coombe and Smithfield, and the soap makers who were by tradition their near neighbours, competed in fetor with all the others. And here on Wood Quay, as Titus began his enforced journey out to the Royal Hospital, one could not avoid being within sniffing distance of any of these foul sources of stench, the blend being therefore at its most abominable. But putrid as it was, this was also the true heart of Dublin – long before the castle had reared its ramparts above the town or Christchurch its spire, this was where the city’s founders had moored their longboats and staked out a village. This village was to grow into a seething mass of a city, and a city that was to take on an often unwelcome and ruinous role as a prize for the ambitions of those that would rule this land. Gaelic chieftains and high kings, Norse pirates and colonists, Norman knights, English adventurers, even Scottish claimants to royal rule – all had in turn destroyed and rebuilt this hybrid city over and over again. The cumulative effect was to produce a strange breed of citizen, neither Gaelic nor Saxon, whose allegiances seemed to shift wildly and constantly, maddeningly for those who would govern them. In essence of course their allegiance had in fact remained constant – it was to the city itself. Not fully part of the country it lay in or the one that proclaimed itself its ruler, the city with its obdurate citizens still remained the key component in any attempt at dominion over this troublesome land. To hold that key and turn it to good effect however was the trick that none before had really managed to accomplish, save one.

Titus had made a point of researching his future paymaster while he would be in Ireland, though in truth there was much he had already known. The Duke of Ormonde was as renowned in London as in Ireland, though maybe not for the same reasons. In London his contributions to the Stuart restoration, his conduct in the war against the Dutch and his role in some of the city’s most salacious political scandals had ensured his name be known. His reputation here in Dublin however rested primarily on the innate pragmatism and deft political cunning which, over years, had made him the great exception to the rule that no one could hope to master that most intricate of tasks – establish and administer the country successfully from its nominal capital. In early life, before his massive rise to prominence in Irish affairs and the royal court, James Butler had demonstrated his ability to produce stability where anarchy had always reigned. His marriage as a young man to the daughter of a sworn enemy had ended a feud with the Desmond family that had persisted through generations, and the union consolidated both families’ domination of southern Irish politics, a position even the English Civil War could only dent, but not end. His pragmatism extended to wider political issues too. He had, much to the alarm of the his royal masters and the fury of the English parliament, negotiated a peace with the Catholic Confederacy in the 1640s that had ended a decade of hostilities against the crown. He had successfully stifled and contained unrest amongst the king’s Ulster subjects, after a Catholic rebellion that had left thousands dead in its wake and had seen respect for the king’s rule plummet amongst Protestant and Presbyterian planters in that province.

In short, whether one liked his policies or not, it was true that Ormonde had brought to his country the one thing that had eluded his predecessors – a semblance of stability, at least for a few short years. In Ireland, this was as close to peace as one was ever likely to get. But the country never got the chance to benefit from that stability. The civil war that erupted in England saw Butler’s royalist camp extinguished from politics, and Ormonde, like many of his peers, avoided death only by suffering many years of bitter exile in Europe. When the restoration brought that particular chapter to an end Ormonde returned in triumph to resume his overlordship, which, despite assassination attempt and intrigue that led to him being temporarily replaced, saw the dismantling of much that the hated Cromwellians had put in place to subdue the Catholic majority. And yet again, despite many setbacks, Ormonde had forged an unlikely peace in the island. The evidence of that peace was to be seen all around, but especially in the markets, where Ireland’s amazing success in producing more than she herself required had led to punitive export bans imposed by London. In short, under Ormonde’s guidance and steersmanship, Ireland had recovered and prospered faster than her neighbour. The land of open rebellion and endemic poverty whose stewardship he had inherited as a younger man had blossomed, despite many upheavals, into a stable and fruitful jewel in the English crown, or at least that was how it’s steward saw it as he entered his fading years. And throughout all these years as Viceroy, Ormonde had always made sure to secure the support of the city at the heart of his administration. If Ireland was to be the jewel in the king’s crown, then it deserved a jewel of a capital city, and it was James Butler’s intention to reward its citizens for their loyalty and support with benevolent improvements to their home.

Perhaps the most benevolent of Ormonde’s additions to the landscape so far, or at least the most aesthetic, was where Titus now found himself headed. The Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, completed only a few weeks before Titus’s arrival, was now the home of the Perry family’s old retainer Cormac. What Titus had told the stranger on Essex Bridge was essentially correct, though the ‘family friend’ he had alluded to was in fact someone who meant much more than that. Titus’s father had requested that he seek out their old retainer when in Dublin and it was a task he had been looking forward to - now doubly so as he found that his experiences thus far today made him all the more eager to meet with a friendly face, as well as provide him with good reason to escape the teeming streets of the city in which aggravation and dismay seemed to await him round every corner. Back at his quarters after his ominous encounter with the stranger on Essex Bridge, he had indeed admitted to himself his pleasure at being forced to fulfil this commitment sooner than he had anticipated and found himself looking forward to it immensely. He would forego borrowing a horse from the castle stables, a task which could take quite a while in itself since it would necessitate clearance from several officers whose acquaintance he had yet made and now did not relish doing so. Instead he resolved to make the journey of three miles or so on foot, despite the rain. Besides, he needed to think.

The Hospital was situated on a small hill overlooking the Phoenix Park hunting grounds across the river, well outside the claustrophobic confines of the town’s narrow lanes. His walk through the downpour, soft but incessant, brought him up High Street, through the shelter of the Cornmarket of St Thomas’ Street and on through St James Street – the three thoroughfares constituting the ancient ridge of high ground on which the Vikings had first located their city above the river’s tides. If he had not been so preoccupied with his own thoughts, and had the rain not masked so many lesser noises, he may have detected the footfalls of a person in close pursuit, who stopped when he stopped and accelerated with him as he hurried through this district of closely packed buildings and narrow lanes. Once through this gauntlet of squalor however the city gave way quite suddenly to the countryside and to the leafy hedgerows of the ancient highway westwards from Dublin, the Bealach Laigheann or ‘Leinster Road’. The roadside fields hummed with the muted sound of birds taking refuge from the rain in thicket and hedge, and with the rustling of leaves in the great canopies of elm and oak, rising like giant sentinels from the boundary ditches along the way, the occasional squall of wind sending deafening cascades of water from their heights that made the soft rain sound for moments like a deluge. Titus was familiar with the stark differences between city and country, where pattern and tone, indeed the very quality of sounds and colours were alien one to the other, but never before had he experienced the transition so rapidly. It felt almost as if his senses had been suspended for that period of change when one should ease into the other, much like a daydreamer finds himself further along his route than he feels he ought to be when he at last emerges from his reverie. In a way it was unnerving, but in another way it did much to ease his worries, the illusion of time having passed being almost as effective in distancing him from their source as an actual remoteness could ever be. He found his pace slowing, and despite the wet weather, his mood lifting. He even paused for a moment just to breath the moist air, laden with that aroma of spring that if bottled, Titus often thought, could be sold as an elixir for many of life’s darkest humours. As he breathed deep the pungent mixture of flowering shrub and tilled earth his eyes scanned the landscape before him and there, far ahead, with its chimneystacks silhouetted against the cloud-laden sky, the Royal Hospital could be easily spotted astride its hilltop perch. Even from a mile or more in distance it was plain to see why many people, not least its own architect, saw this as William Robinson’s architectural masterpiece. Though he had blatantly drawn his inspiration from the more famous and grandiose Les Invalides in Paris, he had also tailored its design shamelessly to suit the taste and sensibilities of its patron, Lord Ormonde, almost as much as he had also tailored its shape intelligently to the logic of its position. Therefore, although James Butler had dictated that it should dominate the city’s western approach, even from this distance it still looked no more out of place in the landscape than any of the city’s ancient elms with which it was surrounded in a swathe of greenery. The effect was thus less one of obtrusive domination than that of a gorgeous keystone adorning a particularly ornate, but utilitarian, bridge, and to Titus the structure lent almost the air of a Greek Idyll to the panorama it indisputably ruled. Its splendour befitted its function; a retirement home for loyal servants of the crown’s forces who would otherwise have lived out their lives in penury.

Cormac, as an old soldier himself who had once held the rank of captain in an army loyal to Charles I, had written to Titus’s father a few months before to say that he had availed of an offer to become one of the building’s first occupants. What had struck both father and son as odd was not that Cormac would avail of such lodgings – his desire to get home to Ireland had been his overriding obsession in latter years – but that he had been admitted at all. The new Hospital, in the spirit of the times in which it was built and the organisation which it served, was intended to exclude all but the most loyal Protestant servicemen from its select company of inhabitants. Cormac, while his loyalty to the crown could never be questioned against his military record, held faith in his god however most definitely according to the canons of a church ruled by a bishop in Rome. His stated intention of residing in the Hospital therefore suggested either mere wishful thinking on the old man’s part or else that he had somehow pulled the wool over the eyes of those who regulated admittance to its halls. Perry senior had asked as much in a letter to Cormac, but had received no reply, indicating possibly that the old man did not wish to discuss how he had come by such an unlikely, and much sought after, berth. Or, as was more likely the case, it merely meant that either the letter or its reply had simply fallen foul of the haphazard system whereby correspondence was conveyed between the two kingdoms. If posted mail made it through the gauntlet of raparees and highwaymen on each island, it still ran the risk of being the first item to be jettisoned should the vessel carrying it start taking on water in the Irish Sea, a not altogether rare occurrence. This lack of confirmation was Titus’s only concern – there was always the probability that this journey he was making would end in disappointment. But right now, whether Cormac had attained his billet or not, he was still glad that he had been forced to escape the claustrophobic confines of the city. Sodden and all as he may be, there was no denying his gratitude for a reason to breath clean air and to stride in open countryside again.

Then suddenly, as if it had all been just a cruel joke on the part of the weather gods, the rain, which had fallen for so long with a consistency suggesting that it would do so until doomsday, stopped abruptly and a strong sunlight penetrated the clouds above. A whole new dazzling countryside was revealed in a moment, and Titus sheathed his eyes with his hand against the glare. It was almost as if a window made from ancient cracked panes aged with grime and grease had made the landscape beyond appear constructed of drab and threadbare linens, but had now been violently flung open to reveal the true world outside, composed of the most luxurious silks and crystal. The hedges, trees and wheat fields, moist from their recent soaking, exploded into a riot of colour and sound as the sunlight danced upon their myriad surfaces, and every insect and bird, joyous at their liberation, took to the wing as one. Suddenly everything seemed crisper and clearer. The distant treetops of the Phoenix Park could be discerned down to their tiniest leaf, and the lofty bittern that had catapulted itself into the air once the last raindrop had fallen could be easily seen as it darted west towards the hinterlands of Lucan and Chapelizod, its cry one of exultation and celebration – so different to the mood of the man who plied the country lane beneath its flight.

Titus’s pace quickened as he approached the townland of Kilmainham in the valley of the Camac stream winding its way down through the low hills to join the Liffey beyond, and it was only as he did so that for the first time he became conscious that he was being followed. There was no mistaking that his own footsteps had acquired an unlikely echo that stopped when he stopped and hastened with his own, but with an absence of syncopation that disturbed the ear and alerted the senses, first as an unnamed feeling of slight unease and eventually as a dawning realisation that this echo owed little to nature and everything to the intent of someone or something striving badly to emulate it. Turning around quickly he saw no one, but held his stare unblinking as he scanned for the slightest furtive movement in the landscape which might betray a pursuer. When he at last saw it, he was at first perplexed and then bemused. It was a dog’s tail, wagging ever so slightly in the distant undergrowth, the tail’s owner lying with outstretched paws by the ditch and eyeing him cautiously, its head cocked to one side and its tongue lolling. Its dripping coat was matted with wet twigs and leaves, and it cut a sorry picture indeed. Titus smiled. Given his own damp and doubtlessly gloomy appearance, for all he knew that was exactly what the dog was thinking of him too. He went to move again and the dog matched his pace as before, stopping abruptly when Titus turned to shoo his pursuer away. It was only then that Titus recognised the creature. Unless he was very much mistaken, it was the dog that had met with Captain Briar’s boot in the warehouse earlier. Just why or how long it had tracked him he could not fathom. He tried several times to order it away but the dog merely responded by looking at him with renewed curiosity, so he eventually gave up and resumed his walk, resigned to his canine pursuer remaining a measured distance behind him, a position it seemed happy to maintain.

His thoughts turned again to Cormac, and a smile crossed his face as he reminisced about this enigmatic Irishman who had been a fixture in Titus’s life from its beginning. When he was a mere child, this giant of a man with his shock of red hair and a beard that hung to his chest had been an absolute wonder to him, not least for the manner in which he had ended up in Perry senior’s employment. He had arrived in England as a soldier of the ill fated army raised in Ireland by Ormonde to fight under the royalist colours in the civil war, and which was routed so ignominiously at Nantwich. He had escaped capture after the battle only to find himself in dire straits still, with hardly a word of the English language at that time and with no ready means to get home, adrift in a country that was now at war with itself. Titus’s father had discovered his plight when by chance he had come across Cormac being set upon by thieves on the highway. The sight of this exotic colossus, weakened by hunger and injury, and now being brought even lower by ruffians, had at once dismayed the elder Perry and aroused his curiosity, and he, with some of his workmen in support, waded in to the melee to effect the man’s rescue. The result of all this was that Perry had ‘adopted’ a grateful Cormac as an employee there and then, and, over the next few years, Cormac had repaid this kindness with a loyalty and diligence that saw him in time become Perry’s chief gardener and most trusted right hand man. He quickly mastered the tongue of his liberators, though still lapsed into his native brogue whenever temper got the better of him, or if he ever felt the need to advertise his opinion aloud but without necessarily having to inform those within earshot of it, those occasions being often enough for him to appear ever the exotic foreigner to his employer’s young son. Nor would he ever reveal his surname - which to the young Titus made him even more mysterious. But he always had time for the boy when young Titus ‘assisted’ his father at work, and was always willing to patiently explain the craft of landscaping, as he was also willing to regale his apprentice with stories of old Ireland, imbuing the ancient myths with the factuality of a historical narrative, and elevating the characters from history to the level of mythical gods and goddesses. Often the young Titus would lie at night awaiting sleep, his imagination exploding with the exploits and adventures of the cattle-rustling Queen Maeve who risked her entire army and kingdom for the sake of procuring one bull, or the pirate queen Gráinne Mhaol who saw the Atlantic as her rightful hunting grounds and dared chastise England’s virgin queen Elizabeth to her face for interfering in her business, or the superhuman feats of the great giant Fionn MacCumhail who scooped a mound of earth in his gigantic hand to hurl at an enemy and thereby created both Lough Neagh and the Isle of Man in doing so, or the equally superhuman feats of the mighty Uí Néilligh chieftains who forged a kingdom that included the province of Ulster, much of Scotland, and islands that lay so far north that they were never free of ice. It was a heady draught for a young mind to fathom, and often there were nights when Titus could never quite be sure whether he had even slept at all or if he had simply lain awake reliving in his mind’s eye the tale last told, so fanciful were the stories and so like dreams that they were. In any case with Cormac’s stories, even the ones purporting to be historical accounts, it was always hard to tell where fact ended and romance began.

As age and rheumatics finally caught up with Cormac he had asked to be released from his obligations, and with a handsome sum proffered by Perry senior for his many excellent services over the years, had returned to his native land. He had written soon after to say that he was lodging with a relative in Cork, but then had written again only a few months later to say that life there had not suited him and that he had applied to be admitted to the new Royal Hospital once it opened, to be back amongst the only people he truly understood, military veterans of his own generation. This had alarmed Titus’s father, who feared that Cormac would be humiliated by the inevitable refusal of this request, and he had replied by letter to advise him that, as a Catholic, Cormac was unfortunately exempt from this facility, but that he would gladly send the governor of the new institution a written testimony to Cormac’s good character if that would help. This was the letter that had gone unanswered, so when Titus had accepted his commission in Ireland, he had used his new contacts in the admiralty to verify if indeed Cormac’s ambition had been realised. Not knowing Cormac’s surname might have proved an impediment to this task, but fortunately a colleague of the admiralty clerk with whom he had made his tentative enquiry was himself recently returned from Dublin, and had lodged in the Hospital during his stay. While the man had been justifiably dubious that a man of Cormac’s history could be lodged there he could vouch for having spotted someone of Cormac’s rather unique description working on the grounds. This had been enough confirmation as Titus required, at least to venture to meet him when he arrived.

But that had merely verified Cormac’s whereabouts. And even if he had somehow weaselled himself a place there, there was still the knotty problem of how to locate him on the premises. The stranger on the bridge had sardonically alluded to the dilemma too, though Titus had not needed informing of the predicament he faced, even if it had been offered as good advice. He was well aware of it and as yet had not resolved it. If, as indeed most likely, Cormac had enlisted as a tenant under a pseudonym, how does one ask after him by a first name which would only serve to betray him, and possibly evict him? Titus tried to concentrate on a strategy and slowed his pace as the lane on which he walked climbed sharply to the right and the hedgerow grew tall enough to cast a permanent shade on the path beneath it. Then, partly because he knew the conundrum required time to crack, and partly also because the suddenly glorious Spring sunshine had seduced him into prolonging his walk in any case, he decided to climb over a stile at the roadside and to cover the last mile or so of his journey across the lush open terrain and away from the shade of the road. It would be easier to think without the distraction of passing travellers and stray dogs.

Titus was aware that the Hospital had been established only for those veterans whose ‘Englishness’ could not be doubted – Irish names being an impediment to such criteria. That Cormac had employed a false name was therefore almost certain. Also it would be pointless to explain the truth of their association should he be asked, and as there was no way he could pre-guess whatever life Cormac had invented for himself, so indeed was he precluded from even inventing a false claim to have figured in it. He had no desire to get his old companion into trouble, and even less desire to further his own woes, given the way this day had turned already. His riddle was no nearer resolution even when he found that the road had swung round to the right to meet him and that the hedgerow at the field’s end obliged him to climb back into its shade – his canine pursuer now thankfully absent, he noticed. The lane descended downhill as suddenly as it had risen before, and a last turn found him facing the great iron gates of the Hospital grounds.

He had just about decided that his safest course might be to feign deafness and to mime his request when the solution to his dilemma presented itself of its own accord. For there, in the ornate park to the north of the main building, and clearly visible once Titus had emerged from the long tree-lined avenue leading from the gates, was the unmistakeable form of the giant himself. Age had robbed him of the russet in his hair, his long red beard now shone silver in the sunlight, and his back was slightly stooped now where once it had been as straight as a die, but the man still retained that imposing stature which had always raised him head and shoulders, quite literally, above his fellows. And, as Titus observed him from afar, he could see even from this distance that the old man was putting the authority that this great stature lent him to a use that was all too familiar. In fact the scene immediately transported the mapmaker back to certain English summers of his youth when the young Titus had been a mere labourer on his father’s workforce and Cormac had been an exotic, but exacting, taskmaster. The old man was standing over some workers as they planted a tree, pointing at one of the unfortunate labourers with a long, gnarled finger that trembled with barely contained temper, and the expression on his face hovered between a withering look and a baleful stare. This look was one that Titus remembered only too well from his own time spent under the man’s supervision. Conveying as it did a peculiar mixture of anger, scorn, contempt and pity on the part of its owner, it had often dismayed and terrified the younger Perry, especially when he had done something silly, such as mistake gravel for shale in an ornamental pond, or a shovel for a spade when a hole had needed to be dug. Titus could not help but feel a pang of comradeship and empathy, not to mention a genuine compassion, for whoever the poor soul was that had aroused the old man’s ire.

The ire turned in an instant to a look of surprise however and then a wide smile of delight when Cormac noticed Titus approach. “My God boy, so it was you! Come here you young divil!” and Titus soon found himself engulfed in an embrace that threatened to squeeze every last drop of breath from his lungs. He was deposited back on his feet before any permanent damage could be done however and the two made for a nearby seat situated under a small laburnum tree, Cormac first having barked severe and oath-laden instructions to the labourers concerning the wetting of alder roots before even daring to let them even kiss the earth of the hole in which they were being planted. Only the sight of one of the workers frantically struggling to hold aloft a wooden pale filled with water in one hand while attempting to point to it apologetically with the other seemed to placate the old man somewhat. He nodded to the bucket rather than the man in approval and gestured with a wave of his giant hand for the work to continue, before then steering Titus towards the laburnum and its shade.

“Sorry for springing myself on you without any notice, old friend. We couldn’t contact you once you took up residence here. I have a message from my father, and I stress that these are his words, not mine! He said to tell the old leviathan that he didn’t invest all that time and energy in teaching him the King’s English and how to steer a pen across paper, only for the ungrateful sod to snub his old tutor through neglecting to attend to the basic civilities that the art of writing was designed primarily to convey! I think he meant that a letter or two wouldn’t have gone amiss, you know!” Titus laughed as he spoke, not because he had found his father’s message particularly witty, but for the sheer joy of regarding his old mentor once again in the flesh. The fact that the giant’s features had crumpled into a sheepish grin of apology only added to the pleasure of the moment.

But that was as much of an act of contrition as Cormac was apparently willing to offer. His next comment confused Titus, who had been half expecting an excuse involving missing post or hectic work schedules.. “Ah well,” he said mysteriously, the sheepish smile now transforming itself into a sly one. “Maybe you weren’t as much of a surprise as you thought, my boy.”
“Your arrival here today was heralded, though as heralds go this one wasn’t the most reliable, so I couldn’t be sure.”
Titus immediately thought of the two men who knew of his intention to travel to Kilmainham, but could not understand why Captain Briar, or the stranger on the bridge for that matter, should have taken the trouble to alert his friend of his arrival. “What herald?”
Before Cormac could answer, three uniformed inmates rounded the corner near where they sat and proceeded to a small sun-lit lawn a little distance away, their voices raised in good spirits as they ambled in the sunshine. One man was distributing tobacco to his comrades, which they stuffed into long clay pipes as they spoke. Upon reaching the patch of grass they sat down and basked in the warmth of the sun, their animated voices clearly audible and the smell of their tobacco smoke faintly discernible in the gentle breeze. They were far enough away to be well out of earshot, and in any case seemingly oblivious to Cormac and Titus’s presence in the grounds, but Cormac nevertheless shot Titus a look that could only mean that such things were best not discussed openly. “Let’s just say that a little bird told me.”
“And a frightened little bird she was too. But later, Titus. We’ll talk of it later. Now, indulge an old man and tell me how you are first.”

His failure to answer galled Titus, but he felt it prudent to heed his old friend’s warning and keep the conversation to friendly banter, at least for the moment. “Healthy, at any rate. The body is in fine fettle. Though I cannot say as much for my peace of mind at the minute.” He saw Cormac’s face flash a look of undisguised concern and decided that this subject too could wait a while. In any case, he chided himself, where were his manners? Two old friends meeting after such a long parting may indeed have much to catch up on, but simple intelligence and civility would dictate that one should at least initiate the encounter with sentiments and news that better reflected one’s joy in being reunited, no matter how tempting it might be to launch into sharing one’s woes with another who will listen. Besides, Titus realised with a mixture of sudden horror and elation that this would be the first friendly chat he had had in so long a time that he dared not try to recall its predecessor. The very least that he could do was to enjoy the moment, and not sully it with reference to his recent experiences - not for the minute, in any event. Intead he smiled and surveyed the gardens with a sweep of his hand. The evidence of recent planting was everywhere. “You’ve been busy I see Cormac, still foreman of works I take it?”
The old man laughed. “Not me – sure just look at it!” and he pointed to the geometrically aligned paths intersecting the walled garden, defining several little lawns all identical in shape and size to the one where the three inmates were still sitting and enjoying their smoke. “Obair Bhéarlaigh!” Titus knew this expression of old – the worst thing Cormac could say about anything – “the work of the English”. In his father’s firm the term “Ubberbarley” was still used to denote something too ornate for its own good, even by men who had never met its originator and who would be mortified should they ever learn the true translation. “Your ould father would …” and Cormac imitated the motion of someone ripping a plan to shreds.
Titus could not but laugh at Cormac’s exaggerated little mime. “He would indeed, my father shares your opinions about over-decoration, Cormac! So, this is how you managed to wheedle an invite to such an exclusive club. Your gardening expertise outweighed the governors’ religious qualms, eh?”
Cormac smiled and tapped his nose with his index finger, and then surreptitiously checked that none of his pipe-smoking colleagues, or indeed the labourers now patting the earth smooth around the planted alder tree could hear him. On seeing that the workers had finally erected the sapling with something approaching verticality, Cormac clapped his hands twice loudly and then gave them a thumbs-up signal, which they obviously took to mean both that they had performed their duties to his satisfaction and were now free to go. This latter interpretation was evidenced by the speed at which they scurried out of sight of their aged supervisor towards the sanctuary of the herb garden at the foot of the Hospital’s grounds. He laughed at the sight of them, and even louder when Titus muttered “I know how they feel!”
“I dare say you do, my boy! You were never slow to show me the arse of your pants in retreat at the end of a working day yourself, if I recall! But no, I can’t say as myself and the governor have ever discussed much, least of all our religious inclinations.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the cellar behind them. “First rule any soldier learns when seeking an easy posting in a soft camp – ‘befriend the cook, he commands the attention and respect of everyone’! Master Watkins who stirs the gruel here is the son of an old comrade of mine. He got me in through the backdoor, or the kitchen door would be a fairer statement. Ould Leaworth, the governor, turns a blind eye to me for the moment as long as I’m helping out here in his garden and at mealtimes. Though we’ll see how tolerant the ould sot is when the place starts filling up. As it is they’ve billeted me down in the dungeons next to Master Watkins’ kitchen! So my boy! Tell this old man what you’ve been up to. How do you find this fair land of ours so far?”
“Vexatious – if you must know Cormac my friend.”
“Now that is a word your countrymen have often used to describe her in the past! Why so you?”
But Titus did not get a chance to respond. The men out on the grass had extinguished their pipes and now turned to pace their way back to the main building, from which could be heard the clatter of pots and plates, and the barking of orders to scullery hands from Master Watkins’ kitchen. A meal was obviously in the making, and the tempting aroma of stew that now wafted from the same source was evidence of the fact. As they neared the corner one man paused, smiled and waved to Cormac, who waved back friendlily and then, through a fixed smile, muttered to the mapmaker, “Johnnie Grizbean. The nearest he came to soldiery was wearing a uniform borrowed from his uncle to his wedding.” As the three men disappeared from view he added for good measure, “Nor is he even officially old enough to warrant a place here – says he’s a young looking sixty. I’d hazard to wager on a haggard looking forty myself! How the scoundrel wormed his way in here is anyone’s guess. Speaking of scoundrels, tell me of your father. Still digging up England I hope?”
Titus laughed. Cormac could obviously see no parallel between Mr Grizbean’s ‘worming’ of a place in the Hospital and his own. He decided against commenting on the fact and answered the question put to him. “Moving lumps of it from one place to another, yes, Cormac. And still making a handsome profit from it too!”
“Ha! It’s only in England I dare say that a man can make his fortune from muck! So tell me, how is he? Did he get that contract from the Earl of Devonshire’s moxy that he so yearned for when last I heard from him?”

Titus realised to his shame that he hadn’t a clue what Cormac was referring to, and that it was lamentably probable that the old man, even with having been out of contact since arriving in Dublin’s Royal Hospital, was much more informed and interested about Titus’s father’s affairs than he himself had ever bothered to be in the last few years. This was despite the fact that he had rarely been more than a day’s ride from his father’s offices throughout that period, but yet to his embarrassment could still count on one hand the number of times that they had met. And even then he had to admit that all but one of those meetings was by pure chance.

Fortunately from a news-gathering point of view the one time that they had met by appointment had been only a few months ago, when Perry senior had sought Titus’s advice about how best to respond to Cormac’s letter regarding moving into the Royal Hospital. At the time Titus was not aware that he himself was bound for Dublin and could offer little aid or advice to his father, save only to agree with the man’s doubts. But he did manage to glean some news of how the landscaping business was faring, and of the men that he might remember from his own time there who since retired or died. Later, when his trip to Ireland had been made official, a brief correspondence with his father in which they arranged that he should meet their old retainer and check on his welfare also elicited some further small snippets of tidings from Perry Senior’s camp. What he knew of his father’s business he now passed on to Cormac, though he half suspected that the man had already been apprised of most of it. If so, he did not betray the fact, and listened politely to Titus’s all too brief synopsis, merely tutting or frowning occasionally on being told of which rich patrons had joined the long list of those owing Titus’s father money for services rendered, or at times discreetly blessing himself on hearing of some old colleague’s demise.

Talk of his father had led to talk of how he had surprisingly received the navy’s commission to survey in Ireland and then, almost without realising it, Titus found that he had moved on to recounting the events of the day so far. It had been a surprisingly eventful one, he realised even as he told the tale, and if it sounded incredulous it was only because he was finding it hard to believe such a litany of disasters could befall one man in so short a time himself. Cormac however listened intently. At the mention of Eoin Reilly’s murder the old man discreetly blessed himself once again and mumbled a silent prayer, but other than that he did not interrupt Titus’s story, and his old eyes seemed intent merely on tracking the declining sun as it slipped low behind the treeline of the Phoenix Park across the Liffey valley from where they sat. When Titus reached the part of his tale that involved meeting the stranger on the bridge, Cormac asked several times for details about the man, especially when Titus admitted that he had given the man Cormac’s name, and that he also felt the stranger had knowledge of the old man’s residency in the Hospital already.

“At a guess I would say that was John DeLacey you spoke with, Titus. A loyal servant of James Butler, but working for Arran now.”
“A dangerous man?”
“Only as your enemy, but he’s not one to be trifled with and you’d do well to attend his meeting tonight, and that’s a fact. In any case from what I gather it’s Briar who has chosen to make himself such, and DeLacey has done you a great favour advising against crossing his path again.”
“Who is this Briar? Why is he kept at the castle if his own superiors find it necessary to warn people of his ways?”
Cormac’s features darkened. “From what I hear that bastard is a law unto himself, or so he would think, and even Lord Arran has no grip on his reins. Christ only knows who’s behind him but someone’s looking out for him, that’s for sure! No, Titus, you meet with DeLacey and his friends tonight. If they say they have business to put your way you’d as best listen to it. If nothing else it’d do you no harm to have friends such as them with Briar on your back.” He thought momentarily and added, almost wistfully. “And if you can get word from them of the old Duke, I’d be grateful if you could tell me.”
Titus promised that we would enquire. “But you’ve no notion what the hell they might want to see me for that couldn’t be as easily discussed in an office in the castle?” Titus valued the old man’s guesses more than he valued most men’s professed knowledge.
Cormac shook his head. “The ould Labyrinth of King Minos has nothing on the twists and turns in that lot’s minds my boy. Still, there’s one authority they all answer to yet, and I think I can help you in that respect.” He stood up abruptly, rubbed his back and said, “Come!”

Titus followed him as they walked a rather circuitous route around the perimeter of the building, avoiding entering through any of the main doors that opened through into the inner courtyard. Sounds of many men talking as they ate their meals came from the open windows of the dining hall above them, and Titus was about to ask if he was keeping Cormac from his dinner when the realisation struck him. Cormac hadn’t been joking about his access through the kitchen door, it seemed. Saluted he might be by the inmates, and thanked he might be for the sterling work he was doing in helping to beautify their park, but offered to share their repasts he most definitely was not. He could lodge in their Hospital if he wished, and for as long as it suited them, but only if he recognised his place – amongst the servants and subject to the same restrictions placed on them. This was indeed how he managed to keep a low profile, and his berth, at this opulent guesthouse, and the mapmaker could not help but feel a pang of pity for a man who probably had as much right, if not more, to avail of its facilities as an inmate proper, but who was reduced to skulking around its perimeters and underground passages, while obliged to regard men of far less worth and service to their king as his betters. Cormac noticed Titus’s look of concern but misinterpreted it.

“You’re still wondering who the herald might have been that foretold your arrival, my boy?”
“Actually no, but since you bring it up …”
“Well, rest easy. You’ll see for yourself in a few moments. I just wanted to hear your side of today’s events first. I hope you don’t think ill of me for my concealment?”
Since Titus hadn’t a clue what the old man was referring to, he could but assure him that he was not thinking ill of him at all.
Suddenly the old man paused and leaned against the grey stone wall for a moment, the first sign of fatigue that betrayed how advanced his years actually were. He seemed short of breath and Titus instinctively reached out to hold him. Cormac patted his hand away impatiently however, then he slowly drew himself up to his full and considerable height using the wall as a crutch. “Christ!” He exclaimed aloud. “Is it mocking me you are? I’ll trade you my years for...” He left the sentence hanging, as if suddenly realising that he had spoken aloud.
“Are you alright, Cormac?” Titus asked anxiously.
Cormac simply stood as his breath slowly resumed its natural pattern. Then he looked hard at his young companion. “I knew Eoin Reilly. Not well, mind you, but enough to know that he was a good man.”
This astounded Titus. “You knew him?”
Cormac resumed his pace a little less stridently than before and Titus stepped beside him. “Oh, aye. And I must confess that I knew of his murder too before you told me.”
“But it only happened … Oh, I see. The mysterious herald again? Your little bird?”
Cormac nodded. “Aye, and but a wee fledgling at that. None other than the poor man’s daughter, she is.”
Titus paused for thought, and Cormac seemed grateful to pause also. “Listen Cormac, until you said it just now, I didn’t even know that such a person existed. Yet you say that it was she who told you I was coming to visit you?”
“Aye, that she did. Well, someone who could only have been you. But whisht, we’ll talk no more of this until we reach my room. Come.” They had reached the aperture which served as the workers’ entrance to the Hospital’s vaults. Cormac steered Titus down the steps leading to the kitchens.
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