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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 7 "The Hospital" (Part five)

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Nobiles Barbariæ

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Join date : 2011-12-25

PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 7 "The Hospital" (Part five)

He strode down the winding lane with fresh purpose, passing hovel and alehouse, knacker’s yard and tenter field, and finally the lamplit gateway to the Earl of Meath’s old townhouse that marked the beginning of the city proper, without giving further thought to any lurking menace in the shadows on the way. It is a peculiar and delusional quirk of human nature, but when a man is confident of a peril that definitely awaits him, he is less conscious or afraid of those that only might, however foolish or naive such assumption might be. His now furious pace was facilitated by the fact that it was at this point where the muddy lane gave way to the paved expanse of Thomas Street, and the tortured twists of the country road from Kilmainham, that had skirted farm, stream and copse, ended abruptly. From here to Christchurch ran the very ridge upon which the original city had been built, and its natural height afforded one a view, between the houses now perched on its crest, of the roofs sloping down to the river to one’s left, and to the castellated walls of the city ahead. Despite his haste and his mounting fury, he found himself pausing to appreciate the sight. Braziers had been lit in lines along the river’s edge. Dublin port was very much a slave to the tides, and the loading and unloading of ships – a constant activity – reached crescendo levels of effort often in the dead of night. For the same reason, braziers also outlined the streets leading up from the water’s edge, marking the routes to the many magazines and warehouses dotted around the area between the river and the castle. The walls of the city too were punctuated by beacons, so that the whole effect was as if a fantastic lacework of light had been strewn across the dark city, implying a beauty and magnificence that could only ever be an illusion of the night, he knew, dispelled at once by the first rays of daylight. But for the moment it was certainly a sight to behold. He leaned against a horse-trough by the Cornmarket’s entrance and let his vision soar into the heavens, savouring this golden lattice in his mind’s eye from the only vantage point that did it full justice, and which no one but the birds and mapmakers can truly envisage.

He found as he stood there that a change came over him. The fury within him abated, and in its stead rose something that felt good, he had to admit, if a little unfamiliar and uncomfortable to a man who had in recent years taken such pride in his ability to remain aloof from those things that seemingly obsessed so many others. Other men might be prepared to have their time and energy consumed by pursuits such as religious salvation, the power to decide over others’ welfare and lives, or simply an inexplicable need to attach themselves as adherents to political codes for no apparent gain whatsoever. But Titus had long ago decided that such behaviour merely proved something about men – something that he ardently strove should never apply to him. To him, such men, for all the strength of their convictions, were weak within. They knew it deep down, but devoted their lives to proving the opposite – hence the ferocity with which they pursued their ambitions, and their absolute refusal to contemplate that the path they had chosen was not simply wasteful of their resources, both intellectual and spiritual, but downright wrong. Now, whether he liked it or not, he would have to join their ranks – if only in the sense that he must abandon the aloofness that he fancied separated him from them, and share, at least for the foreseeable future, their ruthlessness in achieving their ends. It would not be enough to be propelled simply by the fury that had overtaken him at being forced to defend himself against threats that he could not yet understand, or could ever be deemed justifiable. Fury without direction is an arbitrary weapon, capable of doing great harm, but not always to the selected target. And it was no longer sufficient to argue that his contempt for their tactics should mean that he was above employing tactics of his own to counter them. There were times when one must fight like with like, whatever one privately thought of the method. He, like Sarah Reilly, needed to be the master of his own destiny from here on, and no longer the dupe of others.

But fighting like with like did not preclude one from employing the skills and aptitudes one had at one’s disposal. In fact it behoved one to do so. One cannot outmanoeuvre an opponent simply by trying to second guess that opponent’s tactics and intelligence. That could only ever mean that one was always behind in the game and was therefore doomed to failure from the start. As Titus had contemplated this need to steal a march on his as yet invisible enemies, and at the same time had let his mind’s eye wander over the fiery grid of Dublin’s network of walls, lanes and rooftops beneath him, the most valuable tool in his arsenal had suddenly presented itself, almost apologetically, to his consciousness. Maps, of course, the answer lay in maps. He cursed himself out loud for not thinking of it sooner and heard his own voice echo back from the walls around him. A window opened somewhere, most probably in response to his epithet, and he thought he heard whispered voices in the dark lane to his side. This was no place to stand at such an hour, he decided. It was best to head on, and now that he understood his task, set about it without delay.

It was mapmaking – or at least an understanding of it, he now realised – that held the key both to his dilemma and to his extrication from it. Those who were engineering his involvement in their machinations, and an unwilling involvement at that, were little more than poor cartographers, whether they would ever understand the analogy or not. The poor cartographer, in an effort to arrive at a final product, might invent or manipulate in order to present what appears to be a useful map for others to use, but which in reality can never be little more than an invention that secures their payment. Coastlines are redrawn, distances are shrunk or expanded, villages and towns exchange size and location – and all so that the slipshod mapmaker can secure his commission. Time might prove such a mapmaker wrong, but then time changes much that the mapmaker represents in any case, so a canny man can always find a thousand justifications for his errors, and even a new commission from the fiasco of his first. These men will regard a seemingly difficult landscape, and then think first of how easiest and fastest it can be described to achieve their goal of payment. But in the end of the day the poor cartographer is just that – a person who has erred, and to a trained eye the errors become easier to spot. No matter how cunning or clever the perpetrator of a poor plan is, or no matter how beautifully presented his product, his tricks become predictable, his deceptions glaringly obvious, and his lies apparent. He is, after all, merely pursuing a logic of his own, and once that logic is itself understood, then his efforts to conceal his guile merely advertise it all the more. It was a sad fact of life, but such shoddy work represented the bulk of what Titus’ trade produced, and the practitioners who produced it were the trade’s most wealthy representatives.

The honest cartographer, on the other hand, sees no landscape or terrain as difficult, only time consuming, and so will always be at a disadvantage in the cut-throat world of securing commissions, where the product of a man’s skills is most often required with an urgency that is impossible for him to gratify. Impossible limitations will compromise the skills employed in any craft, and anything executed in haste is prone to error. An error in a map, he will argue, makes the map irrelevant – or even dangerous to publish. Time might prove him right, but when that same time exceeds the patience of the commissioner of the map, and even of those who will use it, it leaves the mapmaker often with the simplest of choices – to simply serve the man who pays him and produce an inferior product, or to serve the terrain itself justice and risk losing the commission. Titus had always chosen the latter course, and though it had cost him money to do so, it had given him one great asset that the other man would never have – the ability to truly assess, or so he liked to think. Titus, in an effort to emulate the great cartographers who he regarded almost as his personal heroes – if not real mentors who he could sense standing at his shoulder as he worked – had disciplined himself always to look beyond the obvious physical difficulties that any commission might present. In fact he even went so far as to welcome the challenge in mastering such difficulty, an attitude that had doubtlessly led him from an easier and lucrative career, but had presented him with one great compensation – the knowledge that in his work he was not just testing his own boundaries, but those of his profession itself. Aside from his time as an apprentice with Bennett, the awkwardness and complexities of his commissions had incremented steadily, and his name had become almost synonymous with jobs that other cartographers shunned, or had declared impossible. At first he had been forced to take such commissions out of necessity, but as the years had unfolded he had grown to scorn the more eminent practitioners of his trade who grew fat on milking the two great sources of lucrative commissions – landed gentry wishing a pictorial representation of their properties, and city councils who required that no one should escape the taxes they levied, and therefore demanded ever more detailed maps of the streets and dwellings wherein their bounty lay. In practical terms this meant that the bulk of his commissions had emanated from the army, notoriously bad payers for notoriously ambitious projects, but whose insatiable appetite for maps of seemingly impossible exactitude and complexity had at least kept the wolf from Titus’ door and had honed his skills to a degree that the Bennetts of this world could only wonder at, if indeed they even remembered what it was to chart territory fashioned by a force more complex than estate managers and council street planners. One of those skills, he knew, made his services especially attractive to a cash-strapped employer such as the army – his ability to estimate with assuredness and accuracy the cost of a project in terms of money and man hours. Such was his unique accuracy in this respect that he had on more than one occasion encountered suspicions (only half meant in jest) of his use of witchcraft, voiced by satisfied but bemused army officers, and especially when his charts were delivered within weeks or months for jobs that others had said would take years. That he preferred to employ women, whenever possible, to supervise the feeding and laundry of his workmen only added fuel to this allegation, but in truth that merely pleased Titus all the more, who had been poisoned by enough army cooks and forced to wear enough garments that returned from the wash dirtier than before over the years to see the sense in his policy, and who in any case recognised the value of such ‘mystique’ in advertising his services.

He could forgive the superstitious however for wondering at his methods, even though such methods were merely the product of years of experience, intelligently applied. For all his modesty, he knew that his ability must often indeed appear remarkable to others. How many men for example, he mused, could stand by a stream in the foothills of an alien mountain range and tell just from the flora that they found there what awaited them further by way of contour and cultivability - whether the land beyond supported great forests or lay barren, or even how many people dwelt there, and what type of lives they led? To the untrained eyes of the simplest observer (and that included those of almost every army corporal assigned to assist him) for whom a river was simply a river, such divination bordered on sorcery but yet it was in truth elementary stuff and predicated by nothing more than the same principles by which Eratosthenes had deduced the world’s size from two shadows, or by which Gerhardus Mercator had predicted the nature of its continents’ interiors. A steep-sided river bordered by conifers, as Titus well knew, spoke of land beyond gouged by glaciers in time immemorial, where the river had been added almost as an afterthought by the forces that created it. Beyond its banks the mapmaker will find that his time will be taken up with unexpected precipices, lush verdant valleys, shale covered slopes, and roadways that either tortuously adhered to their surroundings by virtue of vicious twists and turns, or stood in bold evidence of the invention of man by traversing the voids with great feats of bridge and viaduct engineering. Land here would more often than not have been parcelled out in mean allotments, or indeed often deemed unfeasible to own as lots at all. Here resided sparse populations of subsistence farmers, foresters, hunters, often the tenants of vast, impoverished estates, and all of whose lives hovered precariously above destitution always, their livelihoods apt be wiped out by such whims as an unseasonably long winter or a profligate landlord’s debts.

Deciduous trees, on the other hand, securely rooted in deep earth by a flowing stream, spoke instead of a much more ancient landscape beyond, where the mapmaker might expect to find vast moors and pastureland strung between round-topped, anciently weathered mountains. Its denizens would include gentlemen farmers and whole towns filled of people who lived from market trading. Here the roads would most likely mirror property boundaries than the constraints of the terrain, and the most difficult challenge facing the mapmaker would often be simply to find sufficient landmarks of recognisable meaning to a stranger, so that a map’s user could work out at what point in the landscape he stood.

Such skill in anticipation was much more than just a clever trick, however. It could spell the difference between success and failure to a conscientious mapmaker working with limited resources and pressing time constraints. Knowing what equipment to utilise, how many men to hire, what season might best suit a project – all these things, if correctly assessed in advance, could turn what might appear a hopelessly formidable task into an efficient operation. Knowing beforehand what manner of men one would encounter in the terrain was also of tremendous benefit – probably even more so – to a tradesman whose job it was to trespass for a living, and whose task was often a precursor to some change that would impact on the lives of those whose lands he charted. The poor man often saw the mapmaker as a threat to his meagre livelihood, and the rich man as a threat to his property. Either way, skills such as Titus’ in anticipating who and what lay in wait over the next mountain, subtle and all as they were, were also therefore extremely vital.

However they were wholly irrelevant to the man who was prepared to invent a landscape rather than go the time and trouble to chart it honestly, and Titus had met enough of his fellow practitioners to know that there were few in his profession who had avoided the temptation now and then to guess rather than measure, or to tailor a chart that suited more the prejudices of the man who requested it instead of the truth of what it purported to convey. The worst offenders, in Titus’ eyes, had one trait in common by which their characters were always tainted – an unforgivable arrogance. These men, over time, invariably developed an ability – perhaps through necessity for fear of ever being found out – of presenting their fictions as superior to the work of more honest cartographers. They exerted far more effort in ensuring that their falsehoods prevailed than they ever did in producing their charts, to the extent that they would slander or ridicule any of their profession who would challenge them, and commit all their resources to silencing such opposition at source. As time went by these individuals often grew incredibly rich, and even respected, which of course made the task of eliminating gainsayers all the easier. Eventually, in the absence of voiced opposition, their warped versions of reality were accepted by the public as genuine. In time, they themselves even grew to believe their own lies.

But mapmakers were not alone in such displays of arrogance or deceit, and Titus pondered on these as yet invisible opponents who now apparently wished him harm, and had done such injury to the Reillys. That they were politically motivated in their actions he had no doubt, though as yet he could not figure how his execution could advance any political cause. Nor did he know from which strata of society they emanated. They could be low ragged ruffians inhabiting shadowed lanes and dark alleys, or even indeed from what Titus considered the ‘peacock’ class – those men who paraded in strutted finery but who neverthless failed to disguise their sordid minds, or the equally sordid means by which they maintained their lifestyle. Either way they were politicians and what were politicians after all, but mapmakers themselves, men who would plot a chart for our lives and have us live it. Moreover they were poor mapmakers, akin to those arrogant members of Titus’ profession who might produce beautifully gilded charts on finest vellum, but could yet never understand the vital distinction between a fir tree or a willow in their path, or understand indeed that scale is a constant and not a fiction that can be manipulated to the customer’s tastes and fancies. To men like these, such distinctions mattered little, and they in fact regarded their wanton ignorance of such trivialities as one of their strengths. Politicians were also men who held great faith in their ability to represent with bias the terrain they surveyed, and who believed just as strongly that others should have ideally no option but to accept such misrepresentation as fact. And just like the most arrogant of mapmakers, it was inevitable that politicians came also to believe in their own invented landscapes. Their lies, they believed, became the new truth just with the telling.

But no lie against nature itself can last for ever, as Titus knew. For all these men’s conceits, their biggest was that their arrogance exceeded in force and effect the inexorable constant of nature. Time, however, was all it took for the inherent rationale of natural law, be it of the human or universal variety, to find them out in their falsehoods. And if a man understood the laws by which nature itself is governed, then he could expose their arrogance for what it was all the sooner. To Titus therefore the arrogance that these men displayed, far from being a strength, was in fact their greatest weakness.

But to exploit that weakness, or even just to expose their lies, it was necessary to enter their falsely charted terrain and to map it oneself. This realisation both daunted and dismayed him, though he knew also that he had little option but to do so. He was, after all, asking himself to map a landscape that he had never truly contemplated or experienced before – or ever wished to indeed. It was the world of politics, a world of sly intentions, evil ambitions, machinations and subterfuges that marked these men’s obsession with the pursuit of power over others, and which was polluted with all the sordid manifestations of mankind’s innate baseness that were revealed in the execution of this goal.

How does one go about charting such terrain, a world of shades and half-truths, where all that exists is never fully revealed, and all that is apparently revealed can never be trusted to exist at all? Titus did not even have to ponder the answer to his own question. The answer was obvious – just as with any other terrain. A map, after all, is a tool devised ultimately to dispel those very ambiguities - a legible proof of place, a testament to the nature of that place, and, in the hands of a perceptive man, as much an indication of a place’s true history as any amount of words could convey. Each map serves its own logic in its style of representation, but if it is a reliable map then it also is bound to serve a logic imposed on it from that which it represents. It is, at once, an interpretation of reality and as near as one can find to a faithful document of that reality. But better again, a good map transcends the mere function of representation. It reveals not only the blatant logic of that which it portrays, but often a hidden logic too. A map produced by a skilled mapmaker, and in the hands of a skilled map reader, will reveal not only a visual analysis of what is, but also an implied analysis of what is to come. As Titus himself knew, this can often come as a revelation even to the mapmaker himself, who after all, is merely compiling in one place a series of facts and figures that he has painstakingly accumulated over time. During that process the significance of each piece of data to the mapmaker has related only to its usefulness and relevance to the chart being produced. However, it is at that point where the collected information is transcribed to the grid that its true value is often revealed, and just as often surprisingly so. A river or road that apparently wandered at random through the undulations of a sloping valley is suddenly afforded a logic to its meanderings. The real reason why two neighbouring towns will ever be fated to enjoy varying levels of success and failure will jump from the page with a clarity that would astound even the towns’ own denizens. That one section of coast should fall beneath the waves while another slowly extend sandy tentacles of growth into the sea will appear as obvious as if, at that moment, the mapmaker and God shared the same vantage point over His creation. At that moment indeed, the mapmaker knows that he is as close as mortal man can ever be to understanding the wisdom behind divine folly, or at least what up to then had always been assumed to be folly. The magic of the map is that it reveals, in other words, much more than the sum of its constituent parts.

In Titus’ present predicament, this was exactly the kind of revelation that he sought. But such revelation comes only with a chart that has been researched thoroughly. The time had come to examine again the events of the last few days, but this time – just as with any map – to view them again not in the light of their own individual significance, however apparent that might seem, but as components of a whole. They were far from enough to form a complete picture as yet, he knew that well, but they were a start. They were, as a mapmaker would say, merely the obvious landmarks in any terrain. They revealed little by way of scale or connection on their own, but they were the point of departure for any mapmaker in understanding how best to set about charting the rest of the terrain. They may be insufficient, but they served as a reminder simply that the time had come for him to start unearthing his own.

As he walked into the brazier-lit confines of the Cornmarket, with the bright torches perched high upon the city gate blazing before him and God knew what fate lying in wait beyond them, he had therefore already resolved one thing. Whatever else happened that night he would navigate his way through this morass in the only way he knew how – by systematically establishing the relationship between these apparently random landmarks, discovering what lay between them, and ultimately arriving at a picture that betrayed their true logic. In fact he now understood that he had in fact already commenced this process instinctively. Agreeing to assist Sarah Reilly had been a first step in charting that invisible land between those elements of this strange and deadly terrain that had so rudely, and so uninvitedly, presented themselves. But that, he knew, was insufficient in itself. As yet he had neglected to do what all mapmakers worth their salt must – establish a scale against which all else is computed and by which the true relevance of things is revealed.

The navy draughtsman Charles Hiddis sprang to Titus’ mind. When his masters had acquired control of the North African port of Tunis they had realised with horror that no reliable maps existed of the desert hinterland surrounding the southern extents of their new property. Fearful of attack from this vulnerable aspect to their new maritime bastion, they charged Hiddis with the unenviable task of charting the terrain – a vast, mountainous expanse in which the entire Ottoman army could hide if it wished. It had not taken Hiddis and his men long to discover that the mountains, some as tall as any in England, were not what they seemed. Not a rock or a precipice existed on their surface, only sand in which one struggled to find a foothold and which sapped the energy within minutes of beginning and ascent. Worse, within a few short weeks of his survey beginning, he recognised with dismay that these leviathans were not as steadfast and solid as they appeared and that they perceptibly moved, making all his hard-earned findings useless. If this was not dispiriting enough, he soon found himself heading an increasingly mutinous workforce. The daylight hours in which he and his men laboured were insufferably hot, and the freezing nights brought no relief, only sleeplessness. The only worthwhile features of the landscape – those few oases where water managed to insinuate itself into the arid terrain – were transient. Some appeared sposmadically, others visibly shifted position as great sand dunes overwhelmed their sources and caused them to re-emerge elsewhere, and others simply did not exist, despite being seen. One would sight and record an oasis some miles away, replete with foliage and the promise of shade, but arrive to find only a dry depression in the sand with not a hint of water or flora to be found. As if this was not bad enough, the desert visibility rendered estimation of distance impossible, and the lack of permanently visible landmarks rendered triangulation ineffective as a method of calculation. Everything had to be measured by hand – and on foot – using knotted rope to find surface length and rudimentary sextants to measure slope. From this method only could Hiddis even begin to painstakingly calculate the inter-relation of that which he recorded. When these recordings were all but rendered useless by the discovery that the terrain itself was changing shape before them, his men understandably refused to navigate another inch of this hell. That was when Hiddis had realised his error. He had been attempting to chart land – but what he was charting, he now realised, was an ocean. Not of water, but of sand. Being a navy man he immediately altered not just his method, but his whole perspective. Instead of looking at the ground for landmarks he turned to the sky. Just like any ship’s captain on a long voyage he used the stars in the heavens as his permanent fixtures in an otherwise metamorphic landscape. They moved, but according to a plan, and once their consistency had been calculated, then all that lay beneath them revealed their pattern too. Hiddis continued his survey, working mostly by night, and in three months could deliver back to his navy superiors the map that had been requested. Titus had met Hiddis, and he had seen Hiddis’ map, so he could well understand why the admiralty had at first refused him payment, though in the end they had grudgingly agreed to honour their contract with him. To all intents and purposes the map was a blank page. Some landmarks – arab trading points and the odd ruin from prehistory – had made it to the printed page, but the bulk of the document was virgin parchment with a grid imposed on it denoting scale and distance. Hiddis had been effectively demoted as a result of his venture, which was probably how and why he had ended up an embittered and melancholy man too fond of his flask, sharing the mundane task of mapping navy defences on the Severn estuary with the young Perry. Titus remembered that Hiddis himself spoke of the map in derisory tones – though he had obviously cherished it enough to keep it well preserved and always in his possession. But the younger mapmaker had also always remembered that great expanse of blank parchment as one of the most honest proofs of his craft that he had ever seen.

Now, like Hiddis before him, he was faced with an almost identical task. And, like Hiddis also, he must solve the problem of mapping that which refused to be mapped by finding his own principal reference point, that essential element from which all surveys must commence. None might as yet be forthcoming of its own accord, but however he might achieve it, one would emerge from his rendezvous tonight, of that he was determined.

The evening chill was fast becoming a bitterly cold and damp night. As he slipped through the gate and into the winding alleys that nestled beneath the huddled tenements off High Street his stride became a lope, and then a sprint, in his hurry to escape the darkness and icy breeze that had seemed to materialise from nowhere as he stood by the Cornmarket building. The austere and gloomy turrets of the castle almost seemed welcoming when he saw them appear over the rooftops of Skinners’ Row, and as he raced up the rickety wooden steps to his billet set high within its walls, he realised just how glad he was to get back into the confines of his small quarters, damp and drafty and all as they were. Flitch was already there, crouched over the fire that struggled to light in the mean corner grate.

“You had a good day I can see,” he said to Titus, looking up with a smile. “You look like someone who’s swallowed a whole jar of Mrs Pickles’ Prunes!”
“I’ll tell you later Flitch. You’ll be pleased to hear that we have an appointment tonight at which your presence is as earnestly requested as mine it seems. Though I assume this does not unduly surprise you, seeing that you are now an associate of mine and no longer a mere secretary.” He ignored Flitch’s dark look “You saw Quinn? Everything is set?”
“Couldn’t be better. He has rooms for our use and I dare say a pig on the spit for us already. He’s looking good too – that wife of his must agree with him!”
“Did he say anything about men – has he recruited any?”
“He says not to worry – he’s as much as you need to start with. Actually, it seems like he has more than he needs himself – he spared one to come back to the city with me. He says you might have use of him here.”
“Where is he? Who is he?”
“His son Jack – he’s round the corner in the White Hart, wouldn’t come in here. He says he saw enough of the castle last year when they picked him up after a run-in with the butcher boys!”
“That’s what I said – believe me, you don’t want to know. Apparently he’s a Trinity Boy – goes to the college down the road.”
“Anyway, what about the other part of your errand? Any joy?”
“Quite a lot Mr Perry, quite a lot. Quinn says you can keep it.”
“Good, because I think we may need it tonight.”
Flitch arched an eyebrow and then leant to reach beneath the cot. From under it he produced a small bundle of sackcloth, which he unravelled. The pistol almost fell to the floor but he caught it deftly with his free hand. “So, we’re socialising in dangerous company tonight?”
“Hopefully not, but the indications are ambiguous at best, and I wouldn’t blame you at all should you politely refuse the invitation. You’ve had a long day’s riding.”
“Seems like you’ve had a long day yourself. Still, it’s not over until it’s over Mr Perry, I dare say I can keep awake for a few hours yet!”
“This Jack, has he the wits of his father?”
“He has, but he’s been in the White Hart for a while already so don’t ask me what’s left of them.”
“Very well, all going well this will be just a conversation in any case.”
“We’re exceedingly well armed for a parley Mr Perry”
“Let’s just say, eloquence may not be the only weapon one might require in one’s arsenal tonight. I seem to have acquired some strange companions this day whose politeness is couched in the most threatening manner, should you get my drift. You coming? We meet in the inn on Sheep Street. I’ll fill you in on the way.”
“An inn? Now you’re talking!”

Since he had inadvertently shown Collier’s letter to the stranger on the bridge he had felt a sinking sensation every time the innkeeper came into his thoughts. What fate had he caused to befall the poor man? To make matters worse, visions of Reilly’s corpse swinging from the warehouse rafters accompanied the question each time it arose. It was not without a little trepidation therefore that he opened the door to Collier’s inn and looked inside. Compared to that morning the place had transformed itself in character. There must now be about a hundred people crowded into its bar - mostly men but several women too, something rarely seen in similar establishments in London. There was also a heavy pall of smoke shrouding the proceedings and an acrid stench that betrayed the vice of tobacco, a fad that had become so popular in the cities that fortunes were being made in its importation from the New World. The dim lamps and thick smoke forced Titus to halt momentarily at the doorway and screw his eyes almost closed in an attempt to descry who might await him inside. Flitch showed no such hesitation and walked straight inside and up to the bar, calling for an ale. To Titus’ amazement – and incredible relief – it was Collier himself who answered his secretary’s request. The man seemed as jovial as in the morning, if not even more so. He waved a cheerful farewell to the small group whose company he quit and sauntered over to Flitch, wiping a tankard in readiness on his way. If he was living under sentence of death he was either blissfully ignorant of the knowledge or he was one very good actor. Flitch’s ale was poured with a smile and some banter before he looked up and spotted Titus at the door. “Good Master! Hello again! Enter! Please! Have an ale!”

Titus approached the bar through the crowd, some of whom had started a rendition of a bawdy song in raucous and tuneless tones, while others seemed only able to stand through mutual support, so deep in their cups had they descended. A game of cards was on the point of erupting into fisticuffs, while in the corner two young men had already crossed that threshold - one busy pulverising the other’s nose with his fist, while holding his opponent’s head in the crook of his arm for good measure. All in all, a typical tavern scene, being repeated in thousands of places just like it across the kingdom at the same moment. Oddly, it made Titus feel a little at home, and even a little more at ease. “Mr Collier, am I so pleased to see you. How was your day?”
“My day? Why fine sir, just dandy as you say! And yours too I hope!”
“Well, it was interesting, I’ll grant you that. I am to meet some people here, has anyone been asking for me?”
“Can’t say as they have sir, though since I don’t know your name perhaps they have and all!”
Titus realised that full introductions had not been completed that morning due to the constable’s brusque interruption. “Perry, sir, Titus Perry. Anyone looking for a Mister Perry? And by the way, this is yours.” He handed over the letter.
Collier, his smile never once wavering, snatched the letter with alacrity and it had disappeared from view before Titus had even withdrawn his hand. Then, to his surprise, Collier ignored his question completely and instead made a motion as if he were dropping coins into the till behind him. “Thank you sir, thank you!” He spoke loudly, as if he wanted the whole bar to hear his gratitude for a payment that Titus had not yet even offered. He then poured a tankard of ale from a pitcher and placed it on the counter before the mapmaker. “Good health, sir!” and he disappeared off up to the end of the bar.
Flitch had watched the exchange with interest. “And you said that you met stranger folk today already? God help us!”
Titus glanced around again. “Speaking of whom, where are they I wonder? I don’t see them here at all.”
“Well at least if we’re going to be stood up it could happen in worse surroundings. Nice place here!” Flitch was eyeing a young ‘lady’ who had just launched into a rousing rendition of “The Flowers Of The Lea” in a well honed, and well lubricated, voice.
“Still, I don’t think we should stay too long. I’ve a feeling that is reminding me of the time when I was a child and my father sent me to his foreman to ask for the loan of a greased spitchcock.”
“I take it you don’t use those much when landscaping then?”
“Not unless you can dig with a jellied eel, no.”
Flitch let out a wry laugh that turned into a giggle. “Greased spitchcock! That’s rich! I always liked the sound of your dad!”
“Yes, a real wit he is. Anyway, I suggest we down our ales and depart.”
“I don’t know Mr Perry,” Flitch nodded to the end of the bar. “Perhaps it might be more prudent to hang around a small while later.”
A young woman, who was, for all the world, a feminine and younger version of the innkeeper himself, had taken Collier’s place behind the bar. She was plump and attractive, and Titus was just about to chide his secretary for his lascivious mind when he spotted what Flitch was actually referring to. Just to be seen behind Collier’s daughter, through the smoke and the throng, was the innkeeper with two tall men, all with their backs turned, in earnest conversation in the corner. Collier twice turned around and cast his eyes up towards their end of the bar as he spoke. At last the taller of the two men turned to look up as well, and Titus saw the man who’s words had chilled him to the bone earlier.
“Hmm - the curtain rises on our play Flitch.”
“Let’s hope it’s not a tragedy Mr Perry.”
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Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 7 "The Hospital" (Part five) :: Comments

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Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 7 "The Hospital" (Part five)

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