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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 9 "The Mustering" (part 10)

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Nobiles Barbariæ

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Join date : 2011-12-25

PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 9 "The Mustering" (part 10)

When he left the tavern, night had fully descended. The braziers were being lit and the scavengers were out in droves picking Winetavern Street clean. He climbed up its steep incline towards Christchurch and Skinners’ Row, his recent experience prompting him to keep extra vigilance towards what might lurk in the shadows, but with his mind nevertheless swimming with the implications of what he’d heard. He had no doubt that the younger James Butler was the ‘soldier’ he had seen with Briar that first morning in Collier’s, and also therefore the one in civilian attire outside the warehouse on the day he had cut Sarah’s poor father from his noose. DeLacey’s words came back into his mind to add to the kaleidoscope of implications – what exactly did Sir John mean by ‘advising the young earl to change his methods in the past’?

Suddenly he felt again how alone he was in this town. He had arrived in Dublin fully believing that he functioned best on his own. Now that he was alone, he realised the opposite was true. The former notion had been born of a lie - a lie that he had nurtured as helpful in getting him through the last few years with a semblance of self-dignity - the lie that he truly needed no one, as no one in truth needed him. A necessary lie perhaps, but a lie nevertheless.
It was, as he now knew, what had always prevented him from truly thanking Flitch for his assistance, a fact that weighed heavily on his conscience now that he harboured the suspicion that he may never see the man again. It was also indeed what had probably fooled him into taking this commission here so readily, without caring or even noticing what the haste in that offer had truly meant. And worst of all, it was most likely the same lie that would prove a fatal flaw in what he had to do next – disguise his true intentions and masquerade as the man he had, up to recently, assumed he in fact was - Titus Perry, mapmaker. How can one disguise what one can no longer even see, how can one pretend to be what one no longer understands? These questions taxed him as he walked up Winetavern Street under the imposing edifice of Christchurch’s ramparted bell tower, the gloom it cast over the entire area a fair match for that he felt within. However his questions would have to wait for an answer. At that moment he was propelled into the deep shadows between the ramparts and a sharp kick to the back of his knee felled him like a stone.

Thomas Hobbes, as Titus’s father was apt to paraphrase, had said that man does not, nor cannot, learn from experience alone. Until that experience is digested by man’s senses it is meaningless. It must first be rendered sensible to be useful.
As he clattered to the ground for the second time that day at the hands of an assailant it was not lost on Titus that here was proof indeed of how dangerously true this was, and he cursed himself for his own gross stupidity. To be waylaid once could be classed misfortune, but to allow oneself to be so misused twice within the hour was unpardonable for a man who deemed himself sensible. The thought was fleeting but the anger it evoked in him was real and lent him sudden strength. Even before he hit the ground his hand had fastened on the gully knife within his jacket. He attempted to roll as he landed, swinging his right arm wildly to assist the manoeuvre, the knife in his hand therefore cutting a wide arc through the air. It met no resistance until the very end of its long sweep, and that resistance was only when a foot was placed on his wrist, almost casually, and his knife-hand pinned to the earth. He squirmed to release it but the foot simply exerted more pressure in response so that the pain multiplied tenfold. The owner of the foot then spoke. “Drop it, before you do yourself harm.”
The knife slipped from his grasp and in an instant he was grabbed by several pairs of hands, hauled back to his feet, and a coarse palm placed over his mouth from behind. The cold blade of his own knife was pressed against his throat. Then, from some yards away in the shadow, he heard a quiet voice address him. It was heavily accented and none too subtle. “You come with me now. No more struggle and don’t think of crying out or you die right here.”
Titus’s first thought had been that the two footpads who had assaulted him earlier on the bridge had now returned to finish the job they started. But even as he’d sank to the wet ground he realised that this could not be so. Besides the fact that one of them had been sorely wounded in the earlier exchange, Titus knew that neither of them, if they’d had the tenacity to pursue him for his purse and now the good fortune to acquire his own blade to achieve their goal, would have hesitated to draw it across his throat rather than hold the steel against it. But such was the extent of his deliberations. The ominous threat, spoken quietly from the shadows as the sharp metal was pressed harder against his throat, put paid to all rational deduction, the terror it invoked rendered more acute through its utter dispassion. Without waiting for a response from Titus the quiet assailant wordlessly marshalled his colleagues with a gesture and they quickly marched the mapmaker, his arm twisted in a vice-like grip behind his back, the knife still held to his throat, down a succession of ever darker and sloping lanes to the nest of hovels that huddled beneath the ancient spire of St Audoen. As they passed one such house its front door was suddenly thrown open from within and Titus was literally flung through the gap, landing in a heap on the earthen floor, a surface which stank so much of urine that he could not avoid retching as he lay.
The quiet voice spoke again. “Hugh, would you ever get a chair for the man. Have ye no manners? And perhaps a nosegay too to protect his poor innocent Saxon nostrils from the stench of honest toil.”
Titus looked up as he stumbled to his feet to see the speaker gently ease himself into a wooden armchair at the ingle of a large grate, raising his feet so that they rested on the iron cauldron-hook above a small open fire in which some damp turf burned fitfully. His placid gaze settled on the spluttering flames as he patiently waited for his colleagues to do as they had been bid. He wore a long black-curled wig, but not in the English style. It was braided and tied in the back with a bow much as the Spanish and French gentry were wont to do. His bejewelled hands he rested on his stomach, thumbs in motion around each other, and his red-bearded face inclined slightly so that he could regard Titus without having to disturb his obviously comfortable position of repose. The face bore traces of an old scar on one side - one, which Titus noticed, had obviously come close to taking out the man’s left eye – a disfigurement that the man did not hide by cosmetics, perhaps because he wore the injury with pride. The difference between the colours of his beard and wig was striking. One served to accentuate the other, but yet the overall effect was to enhance the face and lend it a rakish handsomeness that it might not otherwise possess. As to his age, it could have been anything between his thirtieth and fiftieth year – the sallow skin and weathered complexion made it difficult to gauge.
Bed sheets, shirts, frocks and other linens were draped on ropes strung around the room’s perimeter, which explained the stench. The building in which they had congregated was a laundry.
A chair was thrust into the back of Titus’s legs with such force that he sat into it with a thud and he found himself seated almost alongside his ‘host’ in this noisome parody of a cosy domestic scene. Titus turned to look and see who had seated him, but his head was immediately struck from behind and he almost found himself back on the stinking floor.
“Oh I wouldn’t do that, Saxon.” The bearded man spoke softly, staring unblinkingly at Titus. “Hugh’s not renowned for his light touch, so he isn’t.”
“Who …?” Titus began to ask, only for Hugh, from behind, to slap him again this time hard on his cheek.
“Nor that,” the bearded man continued in his soft voice. The accent was a mixture of Irish, Scot and French, and not an altogether unpleasant one either. It’s modulation and variation focused attention on the words spoken, Titus thought, though the presence of Hugh’s vice-like grip on his shoulder which pinned him to his chair also contributed greatly to that focus he had to admit.
“You’re here so I can see you, and now I have, so I have. What I want now from ye is a few wee answers,” he leaned forward slightly to better scrutinise Titus’s face in the poor light cast by the glowing turf, “just a few wee answers, that’s all. And I’ll be grateful if you just nod or shake that wee Saxon nut of yours – keep your tongue still. The air in here is foul enough without spoiling it more with the breath of a Sassanach.” This raised a grunt of a laugh from Hugh, and Titus heard others snigger too in the darkness, several more people than the small group of three or four who had delivered him here. “You’re up in the castle, are you not?”
Titus eyed the man as he nodded.
“On talking terms with the Butlers I hear. Do you know the wee one James who calls himself Ossory?”
Titus shook his head, but kept his gaze.
“But you know the one that calls himself Arran.”
He nodded.
A voice from behind addressed the bearded man in Gaelic, and as he listened he held up his hand slightly, palm outwards, and nodded with eyes half closed as if in deep thought. “In good time. All in good time.” He eyed Titus again. “Would I be right in thinking you’ve been on a wee trip out of town this afternoon?”
Titus nodded again.
“With Dick Butler and his pals – old and new - I heard. Answer me now.”
Titus nodded yet again, his wariness evident in his gaze now, and noted by the one with the beard.
“Ah now, don’t be worried – yet. I’ll tell ye when ye can start with the fretting.” More laughter came from the others behind. “Would ye be surprised if I told you that I know what ye spoke about too with all these noble bradáinne? One of these eminent salmon has gone missing, has he not? Some poacher’s netted him, I hear!” He paused and stared at Titus for a few moments. “And I take it you’ve been appointed gamekeeper?”
Titus nodded.
“Good man. Though you’ll be a lucky man to locate the fish without losing your rod! I hear tell you travel to Ulster soon on your fishing trip, do you not? It’s a sad day when we must ask an Englishman to run such an errand in our own land, but still, it is said that the greatest events are presaged often by the sun sinking in the east and fools doing the work of the wise!” He leaned back in repose and his voice adopted a more authoritative tone. Gone were the soft vowels and melodious lilt, replaced by the harshness one expected from a man used to command, and used to that command being executed without question. “Listen to me closely now. Go to Ard Mhaca and find first a man. Cathal Ó Chaoileann. He will help you find the salmon you seek. When you see him tell him that the flower on the branch sent you. Will ye remember that now?”
Titus nodded.
“Now, I have a message for ye to deliver to the salmon’s smelt, the one called Arran. Tell him the old fish has spent many long years swimming upriver, and does so still, so he need not fear. He hasn’t lepped his last stream just yet. But tell Arran this too. To break his word now would be a very big mistake on his part. Father alive or father dead makes no difference. What is promised must come to pass. Tell him the Ard Rí himself says so! Go now.”
The man’s attention returned to the spluttering fire in the grate and with a flick of his left hand he dismissed Titus. Hugh walked him roughly to the door and then, incongruously and without a hint of sarcastic intent, held it politely open for him. Titus saw his face as he passed – piercing angry eyes, a full black beard and the leathery skin of one who has rarely known shelter. A large red blemish, some kind of birthmark that did nothing to improve his vagabond appearance, stained his left cheek. But this was no beggar man or half-wit. The stance was erect and tall. The gaze had the searching quality of one who can see straight through you and recognise exactly what it sees. His eyes followed Titus as he passed and his hand rested again on Titus’s shoulder, arresting him in his progress. It was then that he did something extraordinary. As Titus flinched, expecting another blow, Hugh leaned forward until his mouth was but an inch or less from Titus’s left ear. In a voice so low as to be almost inaudible he whispered “All things end, and those things most shaped by man’s designs end most calamitously and wondrously. It is God’s way. Tell that to old Butler when you find him.” He drew himself back to his full height and nodded towards the street outside. Titus wasted no time in reaching it and proceeding apace back to the castle.

Back at the castle, although the hour was late, several lighted windows betrayed the presence of functionaries still at work. Titus noticed that one such window was that of DeLacey’s office and, after a surprisingly longer search than he would have expected, eventually found a sentry to give him access. It was DeLacey’s secretary Cecil who was burning the midnight oil. He looked up when Titus entered and the man’s noticeable recoil made the mapmaker aware of how he must appear. One of Hugh’s blows had left a large bruise on his cheek, and his clothes still smelt of the rank laundry floor on which he had been thrown.
“What tavern did you fall out of?” Cecil asked.
Titus sat on the couch reserved for DeLacey’s waiting clients and shook his head. “It’s a long story Mr Bambrick. Is DeLacey here, or Lord Arran?”
Cecil made a face as he saw Sir John’s fine couch being sullied by Titus’s filthy attire but chose not to remark further on it. He could obviously see that the mapmaker had been through a bit more than a bawdy evening in a hostelry. “Good God, no. Sir John and all the top men are at chapel tonight, up in St Patrick’s. Easter service.” Titus had quite forgotten the day. “The castle will be all but closed tomorrow, it being Holy Thursday. That’s why I’m here so late myself - getting these documents out of the way before I’m locked out of my own office!”
“Can I get a message to Lord Arran then? It’s of the utmost importance?”
“I dare say I will see His Lordship too when he returns. I’m holding his front door key here while he’s in chapel. We’re a bit short of sentries at the moment - Lord Arran has allowed all those with families home to celebrate in their own churches. Even Lord Ormonde has never been so generous – nice gesture, don’t you think?”
“Very magnanimous, yes. Can I borrow some paper, pen and ink?”
Cecil provided the materials and Titus transcribed as faithfully as he could the words he had been instructed to relate to Lord Arran. He folded the letter, sealed it with DeLacey’s own stamp and addressed the document to Lord Arran. “No one else must read this, Cecil, before His Lordship does, not even Sir John.”
“Of course,” Cecil frowned, seemingly stung that his professional discretion should be doubted.
Titus realised he had caused slight offence and attempted to make amends by thanking Cecil for replacing the cots in his room, as Sir John had related.
“Oh, I didn’t get you new beds, Mr Perry. That was not my instruction. I got you a new room – next to the Long Gallery. It’s a house we normally reserve for visiting dignitaries. The last to sleep in your bed was the Earl of Godolphin!”
Titus knew the name and was markedly less impressed than he was sure Bambrick’s remark had been intended to leave him. The Treasury Lord Sidney Godolphin was a notorious gambler, and his love of horse racing had prompted him to start breeding thoroughbreds in his West Country estate, so there was no difficulty guessing what ‘business’ had brought him to Ireland. Titus’s father had landscaped the estate’s extensive private gardens so Titus had, for a while, been regaled with snippets of local gossip about the man. As one of the self-styled ‘Young Turks’, Godolphin’s estate had played host to several incidents of revelry and debauchery while Titus’s father was there, which, according to Perry Senior, ‘had taxed to extremes the professional expertise of the local wine merchants, magistrates, and most especially its laundry maids’. Titus privately hoped that the esteemed Lord had not had cause too much to celebrate while occupying the chamber that he was about to inherit.
“Oh, Mr Perry?” Cecil asked, as if reading his mind. “We have an excellent laundry here – you might wish to avail of it.” He nodded to Titus’s dishevelled and niffy garments. “Mr Crowley will look after you, even at this hour. Tell him I sent you.”

It took no time to transfer his and Flitch’s few belongings to their new billet. Cecil had done well. The new quarters – abutting the rear castle wall between the Clock and Gunners Towers had windows that looked out upon the smaller courtyard which served as an inner sanctum for the Lord Lieutenant and his circle of family and guests. On the opposite side stood Arran’s own house, next to the covered coal yard and the huge Powder Tower. An attempt had been made to enhance the ambience of the small square by placing hanging baskets of shrubs and flowers from the ramparted curtain wall and the relief they offered from the monotony of cold grey stone must be welcome indeed by daylight. The Gothic-styled Long Gallery completed the western side of the square, and its arched supports lent the air of a monastic cloister to the entire quadrangle. Its absolute separation from the hustle and noisy bustle of the Great Courtyard completed this effect of monastic tranquility. Only the Powder Tower’s ominous presence, an inescapable reminder that the cloister sat not twenty yards from enough gunpowder to blow up the whole castle and half the city with it, ruined the otherwise idyllic scene.

By the time he had washed and donned clean attire he realised how utterly exhausted he was. After a light supper that compensated him somewhat for the absence of a proper meal that day, he collapsed onto the sheets (which he gratefully noted bore no trace of excess on their previous occupant’s part) and allowed his mind, despite his worries, to drift seamlessly into sleep - one so deep that no dreams, midnight courtyard arguments or fears of Treasury Lords’ past incontinences could, or would disturb.
The next morning started melodically with a multitude of church bells in full voice. Both of the cathedrals, along with dozens of smaller churches within earshot, were heralding the arrival of Holy Thursday. As Titus’s consciousness hovered still within that senseless world between sleep and wakefulness his mind searched unbidden for patterns in the jumbled melody. Little by little, note by note, the cacophony resolved itself to a theme. He heard a voice. It was that of a woman, its cadence dictated by the haphazard rhythm of the peals, a soft murmur embedded in the space just behind each note, her words repeated and quite discernible. “I love thee. Let me be. I set thee free, I love thee. Let me be …”
As the phrase grew in resonance he realised that he knew to whom the voice belonged – and for one blissful moment he imagined that she lay beside him in the comfortable bed. The warmth of her breath caressed the nape of his neck and sent a tingling sensation down his spine. Her hand rested ever so lightly on his hip and her knee nestled into the crook of his own as she murmured the words softly in his ear again. “I love thee …” He smiled. His arm reached across to embrace her, and met with empty space.
He woke with a start. The bells continued their carillon, but no longer accompanied now by her voice they sounded colder, harsher and all the more irritating for it. Titus, eyes now wide open, became aware of a drape swinging in the fresh breeze that was blowing in through his open window, so he swung his bare feet out from under the counterpane and plodded across the cold floorboards to close it. Reaching it however, his eye was attracted to the view he encountered and he involuntarily paused to appreciate it. Situated as he was on the top storey of his new billet, he was at a higher elevation than the roof of the Lord Lieutenant’s house on the northern side of the castle compound, and he therefore had an unobstructed view of the hinterlands in which they had ridden yesterday beyond the river’s far shore. The low morning mist that shrouded the countryside lent it a benign, almost spiritual quality; an effect enhanced no doubt by the music of the bells which seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere as their cascades and clangour emerged from the fog and echoed from the walls and rooftops of the city. Just beyond that which he could see, Titus knew, could well lie his own fate, and a fate just as effectively hidden from view by a fog of uncertainty as was the land in which it lay by the swirling April mists. He dressed slowly, then washed and shaved from a basin that a valet had left on a stand outside his door during the night. As he returned it to its stand he noticed a message pinned to his door that he must have missed earlier.

“Meet in my quarters. Come direct through the Long Gallery – Arran”

No doubt Richard Butler had received Titus’s note from the previous evening. The summons said “direct” but not “directly” so he decided not to hurry. In many ways he’d had enough of political bidding for the moment, probably for a lifetime he imagined. The politicians could do without him for a few minutes more. Not a conventionally religious man, and certainly one who hadn’t troubled any god directly with selfish demands since childhood, he found himself nevertheless meditating on the safety of those around him and offering a silent hope to heaven that they were all right. Flitch’s fate loomed largest in his mind of course, but he found himself also worrying about Sarah Reilly and Jack Quinn – two innocents, it seemed to him, who had been forcibly dragged into potentially fateful events beyond their control, and in Jack’s case probably beyond his understanding too, for all his brave talk. At least Titus, and Flitch too, had been offered a measure of choice in affairs – even if the choice had amounted to little more than that offered by Hobson in Cambridge, who, through his policy of allocating his carriages in strict rotation, had lent his name to choice that was really no choice at all. Jack, and more particularly Sarah, had not even had that much.

Then, as if all had been pulled by the one rope, the myriad bells ceased tolling together, and the sudden silence they left in their wake interrupted Titus’s flow of thought. He looked at the note in his hand again, sighed, and left his room.

At the bottom of the stairs were two great oak doors. One led outside to the smaller courtyard, the other to a short vestibule that in turn led into the Long Gallery. Over the years this old building had been put to many different uses. It presently served as a ballroom and at times as a hall for guilds to meet while refurbishing or moving accommodation, but in the past had been pressed into use as a library, a temporary cathedral when part of Christchurch had collapsed, a court of law, and at one point even a stables when the amount of horses Cromwell had brought with his army had exceeded the facilities then available in the city. Evidence of all these past manifestations could still be discerned. The long walls, some still shelved to accommodate books, were punctuated by tall gothic arched windows, faded religious and heraldic tapestries, and niches in which religious statuary had once stood. Even the iron rings to which horses had once been tethered in Cromwell’s day could still be seen in places. The floor of Wicklow granite stone was polished and blackened through use, almost to a point at which it resembled jade in appearance, and it made every sound resonate loudly. Titus grew acutely aware of his own footsteps as he walked the length of the chamber. Each echoed from the ancient stones as if from a blacksmith’s anvil, the clamour seeming to rise and increase in volume through the musty air until it too, like the desultory light that struggled to penetrate the old windows with their grimy cracked panes, was swallowed in the darkness of the oak-beamed rafters high above.

The door at the far end was guarded, as it led directly to Arran’s private quarters. The man on duty obviously expected him and stood smartly aside when Titus reached him, indicating with a wordless swing of his arm for him to pass straight through.
On the other side of the door the transformation in architectural style was marked. Some effort had been made by Arran to modernise the Lord Lieutenant’s official residence and bring it up to a standard befitting the holders of the highest office in the land. A lush woollen carpet, laid on planed and polished floorboards, led the eye towards the inner sanctum – the main office – wherein the plastered walls were decorated with tapestries depicting battle scenes and personages from Ireland’s turbulent past. A giant portrait of Lord Ormonde, completely oversized for the room in which it hung, adorned the chimneybreast, his austere features gazing down with obvious disapproval on his son’s taste in furnishings. A large chandelier was suspended from an ornately plastered ceiling, though Titus noticed wryly that even though this work must all be relatively new, the ceiling was already stained and cracked, and the air, even when compared to the musty Long Gallery, was a few degrees cooler and noticeably damper. Not even the great Lords Ormonde or Arran it seemed could escape the malaise of chill and damp that afflicted the rest of their castle’s unfortunate inhabitants.

Arran himself was standing by the marble fireplace in which, although it was as yet morning, a large fire of turf and log blazed handsomely. He was not alone. Beside him stood a figure Titus recognised from the meeting in Balgriffin, Sir Richard Talbot of Terenure. Talbot, obviously in anticipation of the damp and cold to which a castle appointment made one subject, had swapped his military uniform for more apt clothes and his great black coat swirled voluminously as he turned sharply to face the mapmaker. Titus had sensed that all was not as amicable between these two men as their political alliance suggested, and though their reaction to Hamilton’s pointed questions about Ossory’s behaviour had both been tetchy, the displeasure had been founded on two very different perspectives indeed. While Arran’s annoyance was with the Earl of Ossory alone and had been expressed as impatience, Talbot’s seemed to be with both the Butlers and his look alone when he had questioned Arran’s conduct regarding contact with the Gaelic exiles in France had expressed something bordering on contempt. Despite their ultimate display of deference and mutual alliance in Balgriffin Titus had been reminded of Sarah’s earlier comment regarding the odium in which his cousin, Lord Malahide, held the august Ormonde himself for failing to secure the release of Peter Talbot, the archbishop, from custody, and it had made him wonder if all his kin therefore shared Malahide’s view regarding not just James Butler, but all belonging to him also. If such was the case, it well explained the atmosphere that Titus immediately encountered in the room where the two men now stood. Talbot’s scowl alone spoke volumes and Arran’s stance, with both hands clasping the mantelpiece and his face towards the blazing turf, suggested that he wished not even to look upon his supposed ally, and that the exchange which Titus had interrupted had been rather less than a cordial chat between two friends.
He nodded in greeting to both men, but received neither word nor gesture in acknowledgement. An ominous silence hung therefore in the chill air that transformed seconds into minutes and amplified the tension already to be felt. Eventually it was Talbot who spoke first. “Mr Perry. We got your note.”
Titus ignored the implication of the “we” in Talbot’s statement. “In this matter I am afraid I am a mere messenger.” He replied. “I hope you do not wish me to expand further on what I wrote as I am afraid I would have little or nothing to add.”
Arran spoke without moving from his stance, still staring at the fire below him. “Are you sure? He said nothing of men?”
Titus remembered the small band of unsavoury characters he had discerned in the dark laundry and doubted very much if they were the ones to whom Arran referred. “No sir, unless you mean a half dozen or so ruffians who accompanied him last night.”
Talbot was about to say something to Titus but Arran, frowning, raised his hand to halt him, and there ensued a hushed but animated conversation between the two men. After several minutes without being consulted further, Titus reckoned his presence had been all but forgotten. He coughed to indicate that he was still there and when he received no reaction, made to leave. Talbot barked an order that he stay where he was for a moment longer and then returned to his parley, this time in louder tones. “Like hounds unleashed …” Titus heard him say, and “… to hell with your bloody battle Arran, we have the means to win the war itself!” Arran’s pained look indicated that Talbot’s argument distressed him, and several times he raised his hand as if to stay the other’s rhetoric, though whether it was because he disliked to hear it or because he wished it not be spoken before a third party, Titus could not know. Eventually Talbot’s broadside subsided and Arran turned to Titus again, beckoning him closer. There was a hesitancy and tremor to his voice that Titus had not heard before. “Mr Perry, was there anything said further to what you wrote that you may remember? Does he really think my father still lives? Did he say more about that?”
“Only that there is a man in Armagh who may help me locate your father, alive or dead he did not quite say. But the man spoke in riddles and I am not inclined to trust the ravings of a cutthroat, to be honest.”
Talbot bristled at this remark but Arran placed his hand firmly on the other’s arm in a gesture to stay silent. “For many in this land Mr Perry,” he said, “your cutthroat is their king, and the ruffians you describe are his generals. His claim may be ridiculous, but his role in the events to come may be of great importance. Do you know where he can be contacted?”
“He said nothing to indicate he wished a reply, and the premises in which he ‘interviewed’ me was a laundry in Cook Street, no doubt commandeered for the occasion so I am afraid not. Who is this man?”
“He is an O’Neill, once the High Kings, the ‘ard rees’ of this land. Judge him not by his present bearing or entourage – he is a man to be reckoned with, believe me. There are few places in this country that he can walk free like you or me, but there are fewer places where his name alone does not rouse the strongest feelings – mostly of terror and awe. His name alone can be a weapon, and he knows it too. He is Niall O’Neill of Clandeboy, a great-nephew to Phelim O’Neill, whose leadership of the Gael in the Great Rebellion has long been forbidden to be mentioned for fear it would rouse the Gael again, or terrorise the planter. He is also a man we are forced to do business with, and if he is half the general that his great-uncle was, he could well be a key to our success,” and then turning to Talbot, he added pointedly “however that key is turned!”

Titus found it difficult to equate Arran’s description of a great general with the sinister brigand he had encountered in the smelly hovel, but then how many times had he already been forced to remind himself of DeLacey’s advice that nothing is ever as it seems in Ireland? “As I said, all I saw were probably half a dozen or so souls in the room at the very most, and believe me none of them were what I would class as soldiery.”
Talbot’s scowl had not dissipated in the slightest but his voice was measured, much like a captain in battle who is obliged through necessity to impart some of his plan to a foot soldier of the lowest rank in order to effect a strategy - a regrettable breach of normal etiquette but made necessary by exigency, so done in even temper. “What armies he commands are presently in the service of the French king. The men with him are others with commands abroad who may aid us,” he explained. “Did you learn the names of any of them who were there?”
“Only one, a man they called Hugh – a big man with a rough hand. I am sporting his handiwork yet.” Titus indicated the bruise on his cheek. “He obviously thinks we all should emulate his own blemish. The man sports a vivid birthmark on his own cheek.”
“Ball-Dearg!” Talbot exclaimed. He turned to Arran. “I told you! Oh ye and your bloody waiting games, it has come already! They have arrived already, and in their own eyes over late, I dare say. This is not good. What hope is there now to …”
Arran frowned and raised a hand to stop Talbot in mid-sentence. “We cannot be sure, what we know is only by repute, and could be as false as any intelligence delivered third-hand from the French court.” He spoke loudly. This was intelligence as much for Titus’s ear as Talbot’s. “They are here, I’d say, only to judge for themselves the lie of the land, and not to commit to any course as yet. Still, they risk a lot coming here so soon before a way could be prepared for them, our way. These are impatient men but they are earnest, and we must take their earnestness in good faith. They sense victory in our plans.”
Talbot almost shouted. “Or in theirs!”
Arran paused at this, his gaze returning to flames at his feet. When he spoke it was quietly and addressed to the flames themselves, almost with resignation in his tone. “No matter. Whatever victory any of us anticipate, to gain it with his help I must do as he bids.”

As the two men’s conversation dropped to a whisper again, Titus was left to wonder what O’Neill’s hold over Arran could be. The man had said that Arran must not break his word and Arran had obviously divined a specific instruction from that remark. If these two men were indeed including the displaced Gael in their plots then their plans, or those of the Gaels themselves, far exceeded those discussed in Balgriffin. There Hamilton had vaguely ascribed to them a role in events, but as servants to the cause, not dictators of policy, and definitely not so soon in proceedings. For them to be so involved, and at this stage of events, must mean that Arran, or someone, had promised them a return far in excess of anything named at the meeting.
But surely not title or power? Even Titus knew enough to recognise that too many changes had been wrought in this land to allow a return to the authority that they had once enjoyed, be it for the O’Neills or any Gaelic overlord, and no matter who pretended to promise it. He wondered if Arran seriously entertained such a notion or if it was simply yet another ploy, one more half promised mendacious incentive to keep others on his side. If that made Arran stupid, then it made the Gaels doubly so. Alternatively, if it was treachery on Arran’s part then the treachery of the Gael could know no limit if such was their ultimate ambition. Whatever game Arran was engaged in he was playing with fire. Talbot seemed to be in agreement, and Titus wondered what exactly had been said in hushed tones as they discussed O’Neill’s demand.

But Titus was not going to be invited to contribute or be party to these men’s deliberations any longer in any case. A curt flick of Arran’s wrist – one that instantly brought O’Neill’s gesture to mind from the night before - was his signal to quit their company. He hurried from the oppressive chambers with welcome relief, only to face the rather unwelcome realisation once outside that he was now at a point where a decision by him was required, and not one that he had been looking forward to.
He knew there was nothing now really holding him in Dublin. The search for Flitch was in the hands of people better qualified for the task and would result in success or failure wherever Titus himself might be. Sarah was as safely ensconced as she could expect to be and was being protected by the biggest men in the land (and the most formidable woman too Titus reckoned). He had earlier promised his old friend Quinn that he would likely arrive in Balbriggan this very day, Holy Thursday, and nothing was preventing him indeed from organising that gear which he had thus far accumulated together with a company of guards and setting off immediately to that end.
Yet he found himself reluctant to leave just yet and set about rationalising his unwillingness. He would, he reasoned with some justification, rather hear whatever news Jack might unearth regarding Flitch directly from the lad himself. He did not trust DeLacey’s ability to allow any information pass through his office without censorship of some description. And in any case he thought that he should like to talk to William Robinson again, he reasoned with rather less justification, though hopefully with the architect more sober than at their last meeting. DeLacey had described him as intelligent and trustworthy, and Titus reckoned, even on the strength of his limited meeting with the man, that this was probably true. He felt now that he could do with some more information regarding Stafford and the Philosophical Society, with both of which Robinson should be familiar, not to mention the estates in Ulster that DeLacey had listed and that Robinson had helped devise. He resolved therefore to call on the Surveyor General again this very morning and made a mental note to bring the man a gift this time of a bottle of his avowed favourite poison, though not of course to present it at the outset of their parley. He should also, he resolved, visit Sarah in her new billet and see how she was getting on, to reassure himself of her safety before he left the district.
When he found himself rationalising his motives thus he chided himself immediately. The requirement to talk to Jack and Robinson were genuine, if a little forced. But that which he had invented to visit Sarah Reilly was pure counterfeit, and he knew it. He missed her company, damn it, and would enjoy it one more time before his departure. Did a man need any better reason than that in any case? His decision was made - his trip north could wait one day more.

If choices, as Pythagoras claimed, are the hinges of destiny, then that small decision was to seal Titus’s own.
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Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 9 "The Mustering" (part 10) :: Comments

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Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 9 "The Mustering" (part 10)

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