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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 9 "The Mustering" (part 9)

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Nobiles Barbariæ

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Join date : 2011-12-25

PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 9 "The Mustering" (part 9)

DeLacey’s friend in Kinsealy was doing very well for himself, Titus thought, as they approached the house. It could well have been in deepest Hampshire – three storeys of brick and timber-cage frame, windows of bottle glass panes and expensive sash design, and with a thatched roof of contrasting shades typical of a dwelling enlarged and repaired on more than one occasion over many years. It stood in a large park surrounded by tall impenetrable hedgerow, another proof of age, on a small rise that afforded a view across the nearby water to Lambay Island, the first landfall of the Viking invaders seven hundred years before. Prior to their arrival, the land in this area had been cultivated to great profit for centuries by monasteries that had grown rich in the process; probably what had attracted the Nordic raiders in the first place, and the surrounding landscape bore eloquent testament to this millennium of husbandry that had shaped it. As they passed through the gate Titus could smell the new-mown lawn and the musty whiff of fungus and bark – the source of both being readily visible in the tended grass to either side of the avenue and the ancient elms that lined it.

DeLacey’s carriage awaited him outside the coach house to the side of the main building. An elderly lady, supporting herself on a blackthorn stick, stood at the head of a small flight of granite steps that led to the large oak front door. When she saw the three riders approach along the long pebbled avenue leading from the main gates she waved a handkerchief in salute with her free hand.
“This is my friend – Lady Catherine Imelda O’Carolan. I urge you to take no offence should she say anything untoward. And for God’s sake do not provoke her into anger.” DeLacey spoke to his riding companions quietly but faced his hostess and waved, smilingly, back to her.
“On account of her age?” Titus asked.
“No,” DeLacey continued to smile and wave. “On account of the fact that she could as easy shoot you as pardon you.”
“And I’ll be safe here?” Sarah asked between gritted teeth, but by now they had drawn up to the steps and begun to dismount.
“John! I got your message, is this the girl? Come here, dear. Let me look at you!”
Sarah handed the reins of her horse to Titus and ascended the steps, conscious of the fact that her dress, though bought only yesterday, was already showing signs of distress from the long day’s ride – not to mention the unintended cross country dash earlier. The old lady stopped her on the penultimate step with a raised hand and then studied Sarah through an eyeglass that she produced from a pocket in her apron. “Reilly, isn’t it?”
“Yes ma’am,” Sarah replied.
“Related to the O’Reaghailligh of Mayo?”
“Not to my knowledge, ma’am.”
“Good, he was a right bastard. Why have you no pockets?”
This line of interrogation was confusing. Sarah obviously thought it best just to answer each question on its merits. “There are none normally on this style of dress ma’am.”
“Bloody stupid – designed by a man no doubt. Who’s trying to kill you?”
“A man called Stafford, I believe.”
“Of course it’s a man dear! If a woman sets her mind to kill you the deed is done before you even know you’re in peril. Men are rarely as efficient as women in life’s essential duties. Stafford you say, an Englishman?”
“He was born in Dublin I believe.”
“Same bloody thing. Right, you better come in. Go up to Mairéad, she’s in the room at the top of the stairs. She’ll show you where to find some real clothes. Now, you men! Come with me!”
Sarah shot Titus a quick glance with one eyebrow raised, and went inside as directed. Titus and Sir John followed the old lady into her parlour.
“Lady O’Carolan …” Titus began. He heard Sir John make a deep sigh next to him.
The old lady fixed a steely eye on Titus and he felt a sensation he had not experienced since his late mother had found him out in a lie regarding the destruction of a valued flower vase that once had stood proudly in the Perry’s hallway until its fate was sealed by a five year old boy and a catapult. For a moment it took all his willpower and reason not to imagine himself back in his mother’s dressing room, tears rolling down his cheeks, pleading and promising in terror that he would never tell a lie again if she would only put away the hairbrush with which she threatened to extinguish his young life.
“You will address me as O’Carolan, you will address me as Imelda, you will address me as the old hag with the stick – but you will not address me by that epithet, young man. I was given that title for a service to the King of England, or should I say my late husband was knighted for turning a blind eye to a bump in his wife’s belly for nine months. Now John, tell me – who is this impertinent fellow? English I assume?”
“I fear so Imelda,” Sir John sounded nervous. Titus noticed, not without some amusement, that he had also acquired an embarrassed flush to his cheeks. “Though one of the better ones. He is assisting us in some delicate matters which require trustworthiness and tact.”
She viewed Titus through her glass. “Uncommon attributes for an Englishman. Very well, you’ll pass for the moment. Now John, tell me what everyone is up to. And kindly leave tact in the care of this youngster. I will hear all.” She sat down with difficulty at a polished table by the window on which rested a large ledger, an inkwell and a pen. A more confident Sir John began to relate a litany of scandal from both Dublin and London high circles that astonished Titus in its lasciviousness and detail, and was all the more astonishing for its delivery in the erudite and cultured accent of DeLacey. Sir John’s relish for the contents of his own report seemed only to grow with his delivery of it, and though Lady O’Carolan dutifully scribbled in silence as her couth companion related his litany of such uncouth activities, she occasionally had to ask him to slow down or repeat something he had just said, particularly when his enthusiasm and eagerness to relate a particularly scandalous morsel of information caused his normally measured speech to accelerate almost to that of a prurient minded schoolboy. Her own expression when she did so however indicated that her interruptions had less to do with an inability to keep up with the pace of the dictation, and more to do with wanting to savour some of the ‘meatier’ contents herself. Eventually, to Lady O’Carolan’s evident disappointment and Titus’s embarrassed relief, DeLacey reached a conclusion. She took a moment to survey the pages she had filled, slapped the side of her writing desk and smiled broadly. “Good stuff today, Sir! Thank you! Now John, I have a small favour to ask you.”
“Oh no, Imelda. Who did you shoot this time?”
“Shoot? - No one important. Anyway, that’s not what I want. I wish to go to the Lord Lieutenant’s Ball next month.” She smiled beatifically and Titus could not be sure but that the ancient eyelids fluttered. “Can you arrange that?”
“I don’t think there will be one this year, Imelda. Some complications have arisen.”
“Complications? The last time we went without was when that bastard Cromwell paid us a visit.” The smile had been replaced by an almost evil grin. “But then again, I heard that the royal ‘cough’,” a sly wink was directed at Titus, “wasn’t getting any better. I trust you’re not admitting, John, that all your scheming with the pox-pot’s brother has come to naught across the water and you’re anticipating disaster when Charlie Stuart finally goes wandering the Elysian Fields?”
Sir John replied hastily, and Titus thought a little too tetchily, to the old woman’s ribald tease. Though its significance quite eluded him it was clear that this was a turn in the conversation that DeLacey didn’t wish to take, especially before an audience. “No, Imelda, nothing so drastic. It is just that the Lord Lieutenant will be preoccupied with matters of state for the forthcoming months. He has seen fit to suspend entertaining until these matters are settled.”
“Really? They must be matters grave indeed if he is suspending an opportunity of meeting with me.” Another sly smile. “Are you sure that is what he has decided?”
DeLacey’s reply was delivered in a flat tone, but conspicuously so, as if consciously advertising that he would not be goaded into saying anything other than he intended on the matter. “As sure as I can be, Imelda, though I of course will inform you if the situation changes.”
Lady O’Carolan was not one to be so easily discouraged it seemed. “As well you should, Sir! Very well, then I assume that my favourite butler did send a message for me since it looks like we cannot meet in person, and him so looking forward to it, or so he told me in his last letter?”
Sir John shifted uncomfortably in the manner of a man digging a deeper hole for himself having begun with a benign untruth. “Eh, no, sorry Imelda, none that he had opportunity to pass to me, but I am sure I am not being too presumptuous in relaying his apologies at this turn of events. He was, I know, looking forward to the ball immensely himself.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Now I know I’m being sold a hank of breech for braid! That’s nothing that Jamie Butler would have said as well I know, and you do too. He hates the damned things almost as much as I do – spending good exchequer money on lick-arses, precious fools, and as much shit dressed as finery as would empty every cesspit in London ten times over - and god knows even once would be shit enough!” Her voice suddenly softened. “Look, John, I’m old but I’m not so old as I can’t see a man lying to protect me from knowing something that could wound me as much as inform me. Is he at all unwell? I hope he’s not ‘losing his intellectuals’ in his old age – it’s the only thing the old fool fears. When is he back from Babylon? He has been there an inordinately long time. Tell me the truth, man.”
At last he had been asked a question that he could honestly answer and his relief was evident. “We are not quite sure, Imelda.” He sighed and fell silent, his look alone suggesting to the old woman that it would be better that she did not persist further.
She seemed to take the hint and simply shrugged. “He has always had too much regard for that place. Still, he had the misfortune to be born there. It is probably in his blood.”

Titus listened as DeLacey and Lady O’Carolan bantered like this for a few minutes more. He had successfully inferred ‘Babylon’ to mean ‘London’, but other references she made completely eluded him. She mentioned a ‘City of Cats’ with obvious fondness, and on one occasion chided Sir John for ‘throwing money at the piss-pot’, to which he had replied that the ‘piss-pot’ was a crucial part of the city’s development, and we could only be grateful that the pot had not yet been used for its other purpose, to which she had laughed almost to the point of apoplexy. Titus felt much as an infant must feel at the point where it first starts to discern the meaning of speech. Some snatched words on their own made sense, but their conjoining into whole sentences defied all logic or reason. He chose it wise to remain prudently silent but Lady O’Carolan didn’t share his desire. “Young man, what are we to call you?”
“Titus …”
“Titus! A name you should consider changing now that it has been marked by Satan himself. Well, Titus, that is one attractive lady you have there.”
“She’s not …”
“So don’t you worry. She is welcome to stay here as long as she needs to and she will be quite safe. Even the ould hoor Corbet shat himself at the prospect of entering these grounds.” She noticed the look of puzzlement on Titus’s face. “Corbet! The rat-faced crony of that bastard Cromwell who saw fit to move into Malahide Castle after Drogheda fell and send the Talbots riding the highways of Ireland like beggars! The little runt ran squealing like a stuck pig down to a boat in Loughshinney the day word came that the king had been restored his crown! Wanted to get back to England and swear it was all a big joke on his part, no doubt. Still, it didn’t do him any good. Hung, drawn and quartered on Tyburn Hill, was the scum! Anyway, he wasn’t a wet day in his new home when he sent the weasel Smith to me with a ‘demand’ for rent. Wouldn’t come himself – daren’t come, I’d say! Sent the good reverend to say on his behalf that my house stands on ground owned by Malahide Castle, and that henceforth all such properties will pay a tithe to the new master of the castle. Maybe there was more that he wanted, but we’ll never know. Smith never got any further. I sent the not so reverend ferret back to his master with enough lead in his arse to add weight to any bloody sermon he delivered from then on! Didn’t I, John? Don’t you worry, my English friend. Your lady is safer here than anywhere.”
Titus had the impression that the entire tirade had been delivered in one breath, and found that he had almost been holding his own in empathy as he listened to the old woman’s summary of her experience with the Cromwellian usurper who had for some years been her rather unwelcome neighbour, and who had been left in little or no doubt regarding her opinion either. He himself had no doubt that she told the truth, and he was finding – as he was sure many before had also done – that it was more than her tirades of speech that might be described as formidable about her. He tried to stammer some appreciation at least for her assurances of Sarah’s safety. “Thank you ma’am. I’m sure …”
Lady O’Carolan ignored him completely and turned to the door. “Ah! Here she is. Now that’s one hell of an improvement lass!”

Sarah entered the room on the arm of an elderly matron. She was dressed in a jacket and breeches, the likes of which Titus had only seen in old engravings and portraits, and never on a woman. To his surprise, Sarah performed a small twirl to show off her outfit. “It’s lovely, Lady O’Carolan! Thank you!”
Titus awaited the outburst that had met with his own use of that address but none came.
“You see, Titus,” the old lady said, discerning his thoughts. “Like can address like! Ha! Anyway young Reilly, call me Imelda. What is your first name again?”
“Sarah, ma’am.”
“So what did you think of young Hamilton, Sarah? He seemed quite taken by you!”
Titus was astonished - the old lady knew of the secret meeting in Balgriffin! Lady O’Carolan spotted Titus’s expression and threw her eyes to heaven, then returned her gaze to Sarah. “Go on, tell me girl.”
“My grandmother was an O’Connor.” Sarah replied with a smile. “People of royal lineage such as we tend not too much to awe upon meeting mere emissaries! It was nice to see he doesn’t wear a wig to hide his bald patch though. I’ll grant him that in his favour.”
DeLacey and Lady O’Carolan both laughed at the retort. Titus could just gape in amazement at the coolness of the girl. Could this really be the same whimpering waif who had emerged from the bushes in Cormac’s steely grip only some few nights before?
“He called in to collect a few provisions on his way to the boat,” Lady O’Carolan was saying. “He told me that the prig James Stuart has a soft spot for Caroline, my daughter’s youngest. She’s quite a head turner in St James Palace. I told Hamilton, you just tell your lord and master to make sure his spot stays soft too! Crown prince or no crown prince, he won’t sit too easily on any throne with an arse full of lead!”
Lady O’Carolan led the laughter at her own anecdote. Sarah was the first to haul the ‘conversation’ back to less treasonable grounds. “Imelda, your house is lovely too. Who are all those men’s portraits on the stairs? Ancestors?”
“Good heavens, no, girl – husbands. There should be four but the first one wasn’t vain enough to have his fishóg painted. Brian O’Carolan was a good man.” The memory of her first husband seemed to mellow her somewhat, and her tone softened. “You look famished, lass. We will eat, you and I. Men, you had better be off designing countries or whatever it is you do to pass time.” Then, as Sir John and Titus retrieved their hats at the door, she followed them out and added quietly. “And, John, the next time Jamie goes missing have the courtesy not to dismiss it as a suspension of entertainment, though in many ways it is!”
Sir John’s face was impassive but Titus could tell he was astonished. “You know?”
“Of course I do, John! There’s little escapes us here, even out in the wilds as we are. Did you really think I would need your assistance in getting me to the ball? I just wanted to see your face as you weaselled your way out of it. It’s always so amusing! Now, on your way!”

The men, thus excused, headed for their conveyance, Sir John laughing quietly to himself and shaking his head as he did so. A castle soldier would return the two horses to stable that Titus and Sarah had used that morning to ride to Balgriffin. Sir John wished to speak to Titus alone on the way back into town and insisted that they share the carriage. They stepped up into the soot-black coach and in a few minutes had left the grounds of Lady O’Carolan’s house behind them. DeLacey, seemingly recovered from his astonishment and amusement at Lady O’Carolan’s knowledge of the crux of their dilemma, produced a list of names from his pocket, which he gave to Titus.
“They are our known allies in Ulster. As you can see they are few and far between. I have underlined the ones who will be of most use in our task and to whom we no longer have uncomplicated access. An “x” next to the name also indicates terrain in their ownership that is considered by William Robinson as excellent survey material so should excite no suspicion. On the reverse are more names. These are not our allies – but suspicion would be aroused also should you only call on our friends as it were. Their lands are also good survey material. I suggest you pay them a visit too. In the matter of locating our Viceroy these people may yield as much valuable information as our friends can - to a man who knows how to listen, that is.”
Titus perused the list for a few minutes and then pocketed it. “Is William Robinson as good a surveyor as he is an architect? I must confess I was rather … confused … by his approach to his work when I met him.”
“Believe me, he is talented in many fields. You can trust his assessments. He may cost us a small fortune in Scotch whiskey but he is an astute man.”
Titus turned to look Sir John in the eye. “And he is not a member of the Dublin Philosophical Society either. He has that to his credit too.” He needed to know Sir John’s assessment of that organisation.
“Ah, you have been doing your research.” DeLacey gripped the carriage side as the wheel dropped sharply into a rut and then rectified itself. “You will keep your reservations to yourself of course. Let’s just say that this is an organisation we may have a use for.”
Titus could only guess at what DeLacey meant. As a source of information? As a disseminator of false information? Probably some of both, he thought. Who knew the way these men thought? Bluff and counter bluff - intelligence and counter intelligence. Eventually the whole web of deceit became so tangled that it was impenetrable. He was - not for the first time - beginning to think that the job he had been set was beyond him.

They reached the small village of Ballybough and the bridge over the river Tolka, where the road switched abruptly from country lane to thoroughfare, and the land adopted the structured layout of that set aside for development. DeLacey indicated to the common ahead, still being grazed but with the tell-tale sign-posted delineators arrayed like dead trees at regular intervals indicating the imminent arrival of future streets, squares, homes and businesses. He leaned towards Titus.
“You see these fields we approach? They the Earl of Drogheda’s land, Henry Moore. You will see him on your list as a name alone – neither ally nor foe, as yet. We would value your opinion on how his mind works in that respect. But I advise caution. There is reason enough to suspect his motives. It is essential that he must not know of our association. That is one reason why we have been circumspect in our contact with you. And to maintain the circumspection I regret that it is why I must take leave of you here also. I have made an alternative arrangement for returning to the castle. Oh and by the way, my own secretary is at your disposal, should you require communicating with me urgently. Cecil Bambrick is trustworthy, and dependable, if, as you may already have learned, not a great wrestler – but he takes all instruction from me to the letter, even if it is relayed in jest by a third party. Let me know by the way if you are still displeased with the length of your cot.” DeLacey smiled and tapped the carriage roof. The driver pulled up beside a small cottage.
Titus reckoned he had better ask what had been troubling him ever since Lord Arran’s speech that afternoon and mention of Ossory. “Before you go Sir John, can you tell me why you were so perturbed when I recounted the conversation between Lord Arran and his nephew James?”
DeLacey sighed, sat back in his seat, and chose his next words carefully. “Lord Ossory, as he wishes to be known, has ideas of his own as to how we should proceed. His late father Thomas, Arran’s brother, earned renown for his daring and military skills. Young James seeks to emulate him but unfortunately lacks both his father’s wit and his acumen. He is privy to much that we plan, and has been for a long time. But we have been careful lately to make sure he knows only what he needs to. He has had to be … advised … let me say, to change his methods in the past.”
“Do you think he has been aiding your opponents?”
“Maybe unbeknownst to himself, but yes this could well be so. If, as I have gleaned from what you relate, he has been so bold as to demand his brother should follow a policy of his own devising then God knows what ill-informed notions have been put in his head, and by whom. Still, alea jacta est as the saying goes. We can only wait and see.”

With no wish on his part to return to the castle just yet, the carriage dropped Titus off where he requested, on the quays near the warehouse where, an eternity ago or so it seemed, he had found Sarah’s father. The slated eaves of the warehouses punctured the skyline before him, jet black in contrast to the late evening sky behind them. He found himself walking towards them along the river’s side, mulling over in his mind all that had transpired since he and Stanhope had approached the same quayside in all innocence a few mornings ago. Then he had still held the foolish notion that he could go quietly about his surveying tasks in this strange country without impediment or interference from his fellow man. Now he was embroiled in huge events that could spell doom not only for him, but countless others too should he fail to fulfil his role in them, or so it seemed.
Along the way he examined that role, or what he understood of it. Of its immense importance there was no doubt. But what these men were discussing, nay planning, was of such greater import that it almost pained him to attempt to understand his part in it. It is not every day that a mere mapmaker is made privy to counsels and schemes that decide the fate of countries, and he felt almost churlish at the dismissive conclusions that he had drawn earlier from observing them at close quarters. He had no doubt that the policy these powerful men had adopted was probably the only one that stood a chance of preserving some peace and fostering prosperity for the people they led. At least it ensured some level of compromise between traditionally opposing forces, and those that it alienated could be, if the policy were to persist, most probably contained. He could see also why they were intent on divorcing English politics from their own as much as they could – ‘a cough in London is plague in Dublin’ was a phrase that Collier had used and it covered the situation rather aptly. This time England was heading into a major ague of its own. God knew what disaster it foretold for the Irish if they did not take steps to protect themselves, or at least be in a position to influence what transpired. Yet he also could not avoid the conclusion that bloodshed was going to be unavoidable no matter how things panned out.
But, his rational mind interjected, the battle was neither immediately imminent nor was it his, and he had no intention whatsoever of being around when the inevitable came to pass. It would be enough for him to assist Sarah Reilly and these men in so far as the two tasks overlapped, and then if his original commission could not be fulfilled, slink back to London to pick up his career there as best he could. Not the stuff of heroics, he knew, but by far the wisest course. However, no sooner had he settled on it, and congratulated himself on his common sense, than the prospect immediately, and surprisingly, filled him with dismay. Having already apparently lost his secretary, he realised he was also losing his desire to return to that world, and even began to doubt that he could. The enormity of Flitch’s absence, both as a friend and assistant, was beginning to strike him.

To ease his troubled mind he crossed to the stone parapet by the water’s edge, as if exchanging the view of the city’s warehouses for the rushing Liffey river might help also change the dark mood into which he knew he was slipping. As soon as he reached the water he was glad that he had done so. The sky had remained unsullied by cloud all day, and now as the sun sank to kiss the horizon upriver and cast its farewell shroud of gold and scarlet hues into the heavens, its reflection turned the Liffey’s surface for a few glorious minutes into a carpet of ruby and amethyst. The black shadows cast upon it by the balustraded expanse of Essex Bridge, where he now stood, and from the ships moored close by, merely provided a contrast that enhanced this magical effect. The river stretching before him had been converted by the evening light to a giant red ribbon that wound its way through this enigma of a city and on into the dark wooded land beyond, a thousand small fires floating on its turbulent surface as it meandered into the approaching night.

Was it the beauty of the river that made him think of Sarah at this moment? Maybe so – and he found he was not embarrassed in the slightest at this correlation that his mind had manufactured. He could not believe that she was the same footpad who had emerged from the bushes a bedraggled chit of a girl only last Monday evening, so much had his estimation of her changed in such short a time. He smiled as he pictured her twirling in Lady O’Carolan’s riding breeches that afternoon, and the delightful sparkle in her eyes when she had learnt that the poor unfortunate men arrayed in portraits along the stairs had all been husbands of the good Lady. He recalled the fiery spark in her eyes when DeLacey had addressed her harshly on the road to Kinsealy, when she had given him as good as she got in return, her triumphant smile when she had jokingly appointed herself Chief Justice at the end of that encounter leaving no one in any doubt of who its winner had been.
His inner gaze settled on Sarah, his outer gaze was content to feast on the river in full spate before him, each rolling ruby wave greedily snatching at the last few rays of the evening sun, both subjects of contemplation a balm to his worries. But then as the sun inched lower, and the rubies turned swiftly to dark emerald, then to the black of coal, another memory came to mind unbidden. Another river, another city, and another woman whose beauty had so enraptured him once. The laughing eyes, the full lips, the slender arm, the graceful hand – held in his own as they traipsed across the Moor Fields in the summer twilight. The same hand, soft in the morning sunlight, that he had gently kissed as they lay together, so gently that he not disturb her slumber. The hand that he had seized where it lay floating on the water, and then with his own inept grip had pulled slowly towards his chest as he leaned from the boat to reclaim her. The beautiful face that loomed out of the dark waters, eyes closed as if in slumber still, her black hair dancing in a thousand directions at once in the dark brine, and the hint of a serene smile playing on those crimson, slightly parted, oft kissed … but dead … lips.

“Hey, Mister! Watch out behind!”
Titus swung around, jarred from his morbid thoughts, in time to see the two young men pounce but too late to do anything about it. The smaller man dived and tackled his knees, bringing him crashing to the cold stone pavement. The other, armed with a stout stick, loomed over him and, in a voice so distorted by aggression that it was almost unintelligible, demanded his purse. Before Titus could even respond, the stick was brought down smartly against his shoulder, missing his head by a bare inch, and sending a shard of pain through his whole body. He could feel the hands of the other man roughly searching the pockets of his breeches, but when he tried to raise himself and tackle them, another blow from the stick, this time to the base of his neck, caused his body to involuntarily arch in agony. Each blow had been aimed at the head, he knew, and the next would surely find its target. But the last had sapped all strength from his sinews in its ferocity. Even as he succumbed to the pain, and knowing that even if he had the strength to move he would still be defeated, he could not help his mind from focusing on the abject pointlessness of it all.
Then there was another blow, and a scream, and it was a moment before Titus realised that neither involved him. The large man who had wielded the stick was suddenly lying on the ground beside him, clutching his bloodstained side and writhing in convulsions, with oaths and profanities, and sheer animal howls, emanating from his lips. Scampering footsteps escaping into the distance were all that could be discerned of the smaller assailant, and by the time Titus had lifted his head to confirm this fact and then turned back, the man with the stick had also gone, his cramped body lurching into the darkness of the quays beyond, a distinctive red trail on the ground in his wake. Then he was hoisted by the armpits into a standing position and placed against the parapet.

“Hey, you, Mister! Are you all right?”
The voice belonged to a young man, his build stocky and muscular, his face stubbled and scarred, but wearing a look of genuine concern. His patched clothes and heavy cap indicated that he was a stevedore. As Titus gingerly felt his neck and shoulder, nodding to indicate that nothing had been broken, he noticed the man’s knife being returned to its pocket. He thanked his rescuer.
“Jeez, if Josie hadn’t let out a roar I don’t think I’d have been in time. Hey, Josie! Here’s one who owes ya without ya even havin’ to show an ankle!” He laughed uproariously at his own wit.
It was then that Titus noticed the two ladies behind the dock hand. They appeared equally as concerned as their companion, at least from what could be established from beneath the many layers of paint and rouge that obscured, rather than enhanced, their features.
“Christ, Jem, you’ve an awful mouth on ya! Are you all right, sir? Did the little bastards take anytin’?” The one who spoke did so from beneath an inexpertly placed wig that like its owner had seen better times.
Titus assured her that he was indeed fine, and that nothing had been removed from his person.
“Still, I’d say a drink’ll probably perk ya up.”
“Or more, if ya wan’ it,” smiled her friend.
“Oh shut up, Mary! Can’t ya see he’s not in da frame of mind for da’!”
Titus again tried to reassure them that he was quite all right. Then his rescuer, satisfied that his work was done apparently, patted him on the back. “It’s not every day a lady like Josephine here offers to put her hand in her own purse. Go for it, man! I’ll be off over in Adam and Eve’s if you’ve a mind to buy a whole round Josie.” He laughed again and strode off across the bridge before Titus had a chance to thank him again.
“That Jem is a bloody comic!” snorted Mary.
“And free with offering other people’s money, even dem dat don’t have it,” agreed the other. “Listen mister, if you’re willin’ to pay we’ll gladly join ya for a jar or two. I don’t reckon business is da’ good tonigh’ anyway and ya could do with a bracer after da’ knock ya took.”
“Speak for yourself, Josephine! I’m stickin’ here.”
He again assured Josephine that he wasn’t much in the humour for a drink.
“Please yourself, still – the offer’s dere if ya change your mind.” She and her friend turned as if to move away, and then Josephine seemed to think better of it. She returned to Titus and her voice had more of a convivial nature about it. “Ah, go on outa tha’! Are ya sure ya won’t have one? Ya have to admit da’ ya owe Jem a pint at least. Sure I’ll go in wit ya if yer too embarrassed to go alone!” She nodded towards a tavern on the quay just up the river. It’s back might have been turned to the river but the light from its rear windows and the faint noise of revelry from within signalled that it was indeed a place of merriment. Mary in the meantime had spotted a potential customer, and peeled away hurriedly in pursuit.
Josephine dropped her voice further and elbowed Titus in a conspiratorial fashion. “Jeezus, she’d put years on ya, da’ one. Here, come on with ya now, I won’t bite ya, I swear!” She laughed as if to reinforce this last point, and despite her haggard appearance and forward manner, Titus thought he heard in her laughter the echo of a younger, more innocent version of the woman, and one who genuinely desired merely a moment’s companionship. He realised that this described his own immediate needs also, and his earlier reticence to share an ale began to crumble. The shock of the attack was just beginning to set in. His body ached where the blows had fallen and a tremor had started in the arm below the shoulder that had been struck. Worse, that black mood which had overtaken his senses to the point where he had failed so totally to detect his attackers approach was beginning to loom afresh in his mind. He suddenly felt very vulnerable and alone and the more the sound of lilting music and the convivial chatter wafted from Adam and Eve’s tavern, the more it seemed to offer at least some respite. He found himself therefore acquiescing to the persistent Josephine and being led by the arm from bridge to quayside and up to the door of the tavern.

Adam and Eve’s interior was a throwback to an earlier era of hostelry; though even Titus, who had travelled extensively throughout England and who recognised this architecture as ancient as it was rare, could never remember ever having seen one quite so large. Large oak beams supported its low ceiling, the beams themselves supported by so many stout timber uprights that the vast expanse of the room before him resembled a forest. Its whitewashed perimeter wall visibly bulged from the weight of the structure above, seemingly being stayed from total collapse only by the backs of the hundred or so people who sat on the long benches along its base. The room was absolutely crammed with people, the men’s attire suggesting the bulk of them worked as dockhands on the nearby quays, and as many women who, by their appearance, suggested that Josephine’s profession was equally well populated locally. Two fiddle players seated on a makeshift stage supported by barrels in the corner were engaged in producing enough noise to warrant everyone’s attempt at conversation be notched up a pitch or two in order to compete with the melody they produced.
As they squeezed through the milieu and made their way to the bar Josephine was met with many “Hallos” and various ribald comments that might indeed have made her blush - it was impossible to know beneath the paint - but which certainly embarrassed Titus. When they finally reached the bar the man behind it asked Josephine did she want her ‘usual office’.
“Shame on ya, Peter! Dis gentleman and I would like some of your choicest beer!”
Peter shrugged, poured two tankards and held out his hand for payment. This was obviously not a place where customers were trusted to hold tab on their purchases. Titus handed over a few pennies and raised his glass in salute to Josephine.
“Do ya know what it is?” she said. “I think we all need a good kick in de arse every now and den. No offence, sir. I don’t mean like da one you just got! I mean a change of scenery just.” Josephine laughed, returned his salute, and lowered the beer in a swallow that would have made a Billingsgate porter proud. “Get dat down ya. Dere’s no benefit in it when it’s still in da jug! Take Mary now – she tinks I’m soft in da head she does. Guilders – dat’s all she tinks of. Me, I see no reason not to take a wee break when I feel like it. Breaks de day!”
“It’s always good to vary your day,” Titus agreed, thinking his own days had grown varied to the point of being lethal.
“Ah, so ya do have a tongue in ya! Here, order us anudder one.”
As Titus did so, Josephine expounded on her philosophy of life, which seemed to revolve around two central tenets - that it was too short, and that it needed spicing with variety. Before she could elaborate further, they were joined suddenly by Jem and a companion, another docker. Jem had obviously just filled him in on the events outside and the young docker, rather inebriatedly, raised his glass to Titus as a salute to his survival, and then winked pointedly at him. “Hey Josie! Are ya workin’ or on a break?” he asked.
“On a break, Jem!”
“How are ya?” Jem asked Titus, as if they were simply two old acquaintances met by chance. “Great place here, heh?”
Titus agreed that Adam and Eve’s was an excellent hostelry, and set about thanking Jem again for delivering him from his assailants. His rescuer merely shrugged and pointed to the bar. If thanks were to be offered, he would prefer his payments of gratitude, it seemed, in the form of beer. When he saw that Titus had set about catching the barman’s eye he immediately returned to his theme – that of the qualities of the hostelry in which they stood.
“One of the best hostelries in da city man! An’ ya know why? We don’t get any of dem soldiers in here. It’s an unwritten law but woe betide de one o’dem da’ breaks it.” His companion laughed loudly at the remark and grunted in agreement. But then, as if the realisation had just occurred to him, given the accent and stature of the man he had saved, Jem whished his companion to be quiet and suddenly added. “Hey! You’re not one of dem, are ya?” His tone grew suddenly suspicious and had more than a hint of menace in it, and his friend, recognising his cue, squared up beside him.
“If what you say is true and they never patronise this place then you can consider me a regular customer from now on.” Titus answered evenly, and handed Jem and his companion two tankards of ale with a smile. “I like my inns to be as my ale; devoid of impurities. Finding oneself drinking in a bar with the military is like finding a turd at the bottom of one’s drink.” He raised his own tankard in salute, and was relieved when Josephine issued a shriek of laughter at his clumsy jest. Her raucous appreciation of his remark seemed to do the trick.
Jem and his companion smiled and returned his salute. “Yay! I’ll drink to da’!” Jem declared loudly. He took a long swig from his ale and then clapped Titus on the shoulder. “Bloody right! Turds the lot o’dem!”
“Hey, speakin’ o’turds, do ya know what I seen the other day?” Jem’s friend’s memory had been jogged. “Ya’ll never believe it. Young Butler dressed as a soldier!”
The others met his comment with hilarious derision and Jem could not refrain from ragging his friend. “Sure isn’t he in charge of a whole bloody cavalry load of the bastards, Mikey? Why wouldn’t he?”
“No, I mean as a common rat, I swear! An infantryman no less, and wi’ da hat of de castle guard on his noggin!”
“Ah now, Mikey, how many of dem beers had ya in ya?”
Mikey was growing indignant. “I’m serious! Sure don’t I know the man – haven’t I had to carry da young eejit on and off ship drunk as a fool more times dan I’ve hoisted a sack?”
Titus was suddenly intrigued. “Is that James Butler, the Earl of Ossory you’re talking about?”
Mikey eyed Titus warily. “The same. Why, is he a mate of yours?”
Titus smiled. “Not so much a friend that I’d carry him around in his cups. That’s a job for a real mate!” Titus replied.
This got another big laugh, but Mikey, unperturbed by Titus’s playful slight on his character, was going to finish his story if it killed him. “No really, I couldn’t believe me eyes. He was comin’ outta da back of da castle with Captain Pox-prick!”
Mention of the captain elicited a response of more oaths from Josephine and Jem, and Titus suddenly realised the import of what he was hearing. There was only one man, he was sure, who would merit being universally recognised by such a soubriquet. Briar and his mysterious young colleague immediately leapt to mind, and he waited intently for Mikey to continue. Once the communal approbation of the castle’s least popular employee had abated, he did so.
“I couldn’t believe me ould eyes I tell ye - dressed up he was like a raw recruit, an’ walkin’ behind Pox-prick as if he was learnin’ his rounds like da youngest of dem!”
This time he seemed to impress on the others the truth of his assertion and there ensued a discussion about the eccentricity of the nobility, with occasional comments to Titus that no offence was meant of course. Titus agreed that there were traits in the nobility that would have many lesser mortals consigned to Bedlam. He asked Mikey why he thought the Earl of Ossory might be impersonating a lowly foot soldier and purchased one more drink for each of them to deflect any lingering suspicion that his question might be prompted by something more than their shared belief in the aristocracy’s irrationality. They took his ale and even appeared to dedicate some thought to the matter but despite their effort Mikey or his friends could proffer no shrewder theory than one centred on womanising or sexual deviance.
This had been their third ale together in a very short time, and Titus suddenly grew mindful of the documents in his pocket, not to mention his purse. Adam and Eve’s was definitely not a place where one should lose track of oneself, which seemed a real possibility as the two fiddle players nearby suddenly sprang into action again and the crowd en masse launched into a rendition of an anti-parliamentarian ditty which, if sung in a London tavern, would as likely get you killed by your neighbour as flung in chains, even now. Titus hadn’t heard it in years and found himself singing along as the words came back to him.

When these fellows go to drink,
In city or in town,
They vilify the bishops
And they cry the Stuarts down:
Still they cry they love the King,
But their baseness I'll discover;
Charles the First they murdered,
And so they would the other…

Titus noticed that Jem’s arm had arrived arrive on his shoulder as he sang, in an act of camaraderie that merely reinforced Titus’s unease about staying much longer. When he finished his drink he made a polite excuse and extricated himself – literally - from the company.
“See ya again!” Josephine called after him, “Maybe next time we’ll have more dan an ould gargle!” Her companions laughed loudly and lewdly, and raised their mugs in salute to the sentiment.
“Well thanks Josephine, it was indeed a pleasant drink.” Titus thought this was one offer he’d be glad to pass up. He again tried to state his gratitude to Jem for his aid on the bridge but the docker simply laughed and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together while nodding in the direction of the barman. Titus understood the gesture, left a shilling on the counter to pay for his new ‘companions’ next few drinks, and hastily left the crowded room.
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Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 9 "The Mustering" (part 9) :: Comments

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Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 9 "The Mustering" (part 9)

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