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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 12 "A Victory" (part 6)

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Nobiles Barbariæ

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Join date : 2011-12-25

PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 12 "A Victory" (part 6)

Sarah had dressed in Grace Quinn’s best riding clothes at Grace’s insistence. If the plan was to work, it was essential that Sarah look at her most enchanting, as well as every bit a lady of means. Titus, who judged people less by their apparel than most, had to agree with the ladies however that they had pulled off a remarkable transformation when the modified attire had been modelled for his approval the previous evening. Sarah had certainly looked the part of the landed gentlewoman, but now could she complete the disguise in the matters of speech and mannerism? He moved nearer to where she approached her prey to listen to this crucial exchange With his fingers crossed for good luck – a gesture he had not employed since his childhood but with which he was rapidly re-familiarising himself – and with his upper teeth grazing nervously on his lower lip, he turned one ear slightly towards where she and Moore stood. Let’s hope what is said about Moore is true after all, he prayed. Much of Sarah’s planned strategy relied on the Earl’s reputed susceptibility to flattery in order to maximise the effectiveness of her charm assault.

Sarah, as the opening volley in just that assault, was admiring Moore’s attire in glowing terms. With relief, Titus cold hear Moore respond in apparent good humour. He was telling Sarah which London tailor had worked this ‘miracle of costumary’ as he put it, and also proceeded to list off a litany of alternative get-ups that he had rejected that morning in favour of the one he wore, and the reasons why each would have fitted the bill just as admirably. Sarah was listening to all this as if each morsel of information was of such importance that it merited immediate committal to memory, her slight frown of concentration and frequent nod of the head hopefully transmitting the impression that she had never in her life heard such a wonderfully entertaining discourse on the choices that an extensive (and expensive) wardrobe can provide. Moore, meanwhile, was warming to his theme. He had already expanded his discourse to include suits he had worn to other functions over the years, not to mention their cost, cut and efficacy in prompting admiration, when Sarah dropped the crucial question. What would he be wearing that night at the grand dinner and ball scheduled that evening back at his Drogheda estate? For a moment Titus feared that Sarah had jumped the gun, Moore’s silence was ominous. It could possibly mean that he had realised that she was inveigling him to invite her to the dinner, and was now cogitating on the best manner in which to refuse her. But it appeared that his pause was due to sartorial indecision after all – he responded that he had the same quandary in that respect as he had faced in the morning over his preparation for the race meeting.

“Oh yes,” agreed Sarah. “What you say is so true. Sometimes too much choice is worse than having none at all. I find that too!”
Moore’s voice, high pitched and penetrating, was not an attractive one but it carried well in the open air. Even as it dropped in volume – a crass attempt at feigning genial familiarity on his part – Titus could hear every word. “Perhaps what I need is a woman’s eye to guide me in my choice. You will be attending of course, Miss …?”
“Lowe,” replied Sarah. “Mrs Gilbert Lowe, but I prefer to be known by my own name, Susanna. I am afraid that I am not invited, Your Lordship, nor would I expect to have been, being a mere visitor to these shores and not so lucky to have met your kind self before.”
“Nonsense, Susanna! I insist that you must attend. You are obviously a lady of refined, but well-informed tastes. The evening would be the poorer without you.”
Sarah blushed with embarrassment, or at least covered her face with her hands to disguise her failure to blush while conveying the same impression. “Lord Drogheda! You flatter me shamelessly, but thank you for the invitation, Your Lordship, sir. Oh look, there’s my husband now, he’s a magistrate you know.” She smiled and raised a hand to wave to Titus. Titus pretending that he had just spotted the gesture from the corner of his eye, assumed a look of friendly surprise as he strode over to join them.

Moore’s deflation at the arrival of a ‘husband’ was evident, but he disguised it well. This was the pivotal part of their ploy – if Moore denied or rescinded the invitation to the ball they were in trouble. Given that he had met neither person before in his life he could well do so. They were banking on the supposition that Moore had more acquaintances than friends attending his ball, and that his vanity alone would prevent him doing so, if not an instinct to avoid alienating agents of the crown as Titus’ assumed profession declared him to be. They were right. Moore recovered from his disappointment in a trice and shook Titus’ hand warmly, scrutinising his face as he did so. “Lowe, Lowe … have we met sir?”

“No indeed, Your Lordship, I regret to say.” Titus adopted his most magisterial tones. “We are merely visitors to your country at the minute. I am a magistrate at the property court in London and am here as a guest of Lord Dunsany.”
Having already this week been ‘father’ to an apocryphal bastard grandchild of the good lord, Titus had elected to further employ the poor man’s good name in vain. Dunsany, by repute, was a rather parsimonious man who saw socialising as a frivolous and ungodly waste of money, and consequently rarely left his own estate. Titus had calculated that Moore would not therefore know the man well enough to dispute his assertion. Again he had guessed correctly. Moore raised an eyebrow in surprise, but that it was at Dunsany entertaining guests at all, not at Titus’ claim to be one.
“Poor you, Mr Lowe! From what I hear the old man is so mean he billets his guests in an outhouse and asks them to pay for their provender! And call me Sir Henry if you please – all that ‘Lordship’ stuff still has me looking over my shoulder when I hear it to see where my late father is hiding, God have mercy on him!”
“Very well, Sir Henry, though I must vouch for our accommodation as more than adequate. I am here mostly on business you see. A few colleagues and I are assisting the authorities in investigating some ‘irregularities’ over the recent sales of lands around Dublin. All very dry legal stuff, nothing too exciting, mostly rummaging through musty old deeds in Whitehall and the castle here. Thursday night’s little bonfire however has interrupted my task, I fear. I’m waiting for the records to be transferred to a new premises. But it does have the advantage of having given me and my good wife the chance to take a few days to enjoy this great Irish hospitality we have heard so much about, and may I say, of which you are an unsurpassed exemplar, Sir Henry! Mind you, having only the experience of lodging with Dunsany, this may be hollow praise indeed!” He laughed to emphasise the jest, and to his relief Moore politely laughed in acknowledgement of it.
In fact Moore seemed at once suspicious and flattered at the same time. He must have dearly wanted to know how they had entered his private sanctum, or which of his people had invited them, but now other questions were obviously popping into his mind that made these ones less important. Titus’ pretended interest in Dublin property dealings had been designed to one end. Enough rumour and gossip existed concerning the Earl’s own involvement in the city’s development as being often less than totally legal to have encouraged them to believe that such an asserted interest would put the man on his guard, and arouse his curiosity as to what, if anything, they knew in that respect. It seemed that their supposition was correct and Moore indeed looked distinctly uncomfortable at the turn the conversation had taken. His curiosity had been piqued, such was evident, but here was not the time or place to satisfy it. To their relief he arrived at the only compromise his vanity and suspicions would allow.
“Well Mr Lowe, as a token of that same hospitality I simply must insist that you both attend my function tonight. Perhaps we can talk more about these issues that bring you here. The law holds such fascination for me, you know. And I would hate to think of you departing these shores thinking Dunsany is the extent of our generosity towards our guests.”
“We would be honoured, wouldn’t we dear?” With horror, and no little self-disgust, he realised that he had effeminately stroked his wig’s curls back from his cheek as he had addressed her. The bloody glue must be soaking into my brains, he thought, and prayed that no one had noticed his flash of involuntary repugnance.
“I can’t wait,” enthused Sarah. “Now Sir Henry, you have presented me with the same dilemma as yourself, what will I wear?”
Moore coughed uneasily – obviously his sartorial conundrums had been intended for female ears only. “I am sure you will grace the room no matter what you choose, Mrs Lowe! Now forgive me, I must lay a wager before the off!”

When he was safely out of earshot Titus grabbed Sarah’s hand surreptitiously and squeezed it. “Well done,” he whispered.
“If only he knew how much of Grace will be ‘gracing’ his room – that’s another outfit of hers I’ve appropriated. If she wangles an invitation too we’re in real trouble. Aren’t we Gilbert?” Sarah squeezed back.
“Don’t look now but we could already be!” Titus whispered pointedly.
Briar had entered the garden and was standing a matter of mere yards away, leaning with his good arm on the wall between the garden and the sands beyond, still in the company of the man they had seen him with earlier.

Titus hadn’t seen him come in - obviously it had been when they had been talking to Moore - or if indeed Briar had spotted them either. He certainly didn’t appear to have done so. He and his companion still seemed engrossed in conversation, and when they did look away from each other it was to the strand beyond, upon which the registration process was nearing completion and the crowd’s banter was raising in volume in anticipation of the second race. Titus hadn’t taken a close look at either man – for obvious reasons – on the way in, but his eye was drawn to them now. He realised he had indeed seen the other man before – that low swarthy appearance was not one you might easily forget. He had been with Petty that night in the Courting Curtain, when Petty had pointed Titus out as they left. Then the same man had glared sneeringly at Titus in a way designed to invoke apprehension and fear. It had had the desired effect then, and Titus felt a resurgence of the same apprehension now. Whoever this companion of Briar’s and Petty’s was, his look alone suggested that he was not one by whom one wished to be readily recognised, any more than one did by his companion. They edged their way out of sight into the centre of the expectant crowd massed near the foot of the garden, people who had assumedly already placed their wagers and were waiting for the next race to start. Once safely removed from view of Briar and his colleague, Titus broached the subject of their escape.

“I think we had better abandon ship quite soon. There are two pairs of eyes I fear that might recognise us in here. Did you notice the way out?” Having come in by an unorthodox route they had not stopped to check the more usual methods of ingress and egress that others had used.
“Well how did he get in?” Sarah asked. She nodded to Briar and his broken arm. “He hardly climbed over the wall in his condition!”
“You’re right, there must be a gate leading to the sands, though I can’t see one! Come on. Let’s find out.”
He had spotted the elderly lady and her young companion who they had accosted and affronted when making their entry earlier, and who had unwittingly validated their presence there to potentially suspicious minds at the outset. She had moved her perch to a spot that afforded her a good view over the heads of the spectators and out to the race beyond, and which was thankfully out of sight of Briar and his companion. Even if she could not direct them to a gate, the position offered them a good vantage point to spot one. The young man was standing behind her; with as abject a look of boredom on his grotesquely painted face as could be discerned beneath the sludge he had applied to it. Titus pulled Sarah after him and approached them with a look that he hoped advertised bonhomie and not the desperation that he felt.

“Lady Fenton! Hello again! May I apologise for our brashness earlier. Have you a good view of proceedings?”
She eyed them for a moment, though it was obvious that it was his voice rather than his appearance that she recognised. “Quite good thank you, young man.” Her voice oozed pure disdain. “Hubert, are these friends of yours?”
“No, Nanna Henrietta,” the young man eyed Sarah as he had done when they first met. “Though I would be delighted to make their acquaintance.”
Sarah laughed delightfully, which she hoped concealed the involuntary shudder she had felt under Hubert’s lecherous gaze. “Very witty sir!”
Hubert seemed unsure as to what he had said that might be construed as being so funny, but accepted the compliment nonetheless. “Hubert Fenton,” he introduced himself, “And my grandmamma, Lady Henrietta Fenton. Are you enjoying the show?”
“First class!” agreed Titus, plum reinserted into mouth. “Mr and Mrs Gilbert Lowe at your service. But perhaps you can be of service to us Mr Fenton?”
“Indeed, of course, in what way?”
“I must confess I missed a lot of the last race owing to my damned myopia,” Titus pointed to his eyes just in case Hubert, who he deemed a little dim, might not fully understand. Hubert seemed still a little perplexed as to how to respond, so Titus elaborated. “Short sightedness sir, I am cursed with it alas, and I have forgotten to bring my spectacles!”
“Oh indeed!” Hubert almost whinnied in delight at having understood something without having to ask first what it meant. “Grandmamma has the same affliction, don’t you Henrietta?” A grunt from Henrietta indicated it was not a topic that she was prepared to discuss with impertinent strangers.
“I would dearly love to watch this race from a standpoint where I could actually see it this time. Do you know where there might be a gate that leads to the beach directly?”
“Oh indeed!” Another whinny from Hubert. “Just over there behind those veronica bushes there is a stile.” He pointed to a spot beyond Briar and his friend. “You go and enjoy the race, I’ll keep your wife company until you return, don’t worry!”
Sarah gasped in astonishment at the young man’s forwardness but recovered quickly. “Oh but I am afraid I have the same affliction you see, don’t I darling? We will both go and view from the sands.” She made to move, dragging Titus’ arm with her.
To their horror Hubert came along with them. “I say, watching from the sands, what a daring jape! Allow me to escort you. Both of you short sighted? You poor dears, at your ages too.”
“Yes, it’s a family affliction,” muttered Titus, and Sarah giggled. Hubert was perplexed again, but was obviously sufficiently accustomed to the sensation for him not to consider it a barrier to conversation.
“Well don’t fret. I’ll lead the way. It might be fun to watch a race from closer quarters for once! Some new faces, what? One does grow tired of the same old ones at all these affairs.”

There was nothing for it but to follow the insufferable Hubert’s lead across the gardens to the stile, and hope that his incessant yammering didn’t draw the attention of either Briar or his companion. The two still stood at the wall, with their backs to the ensemble. It struck Titus that Briar himself might not want his presence here advertised either, however that thought offered little comfort in the few seconds it took to cross the open ground to the relative cover of the veronica bushes. At last they reached the stile and clambered over, having to help Hubert down the last step when he saw that the drop was a good six inches steeper than he had thought. Once back on the sands however it was now their turn to steer Hubert, not wanting to enter the field of vision of Briar or his associate. Any hopes of losing him in the crowd faded quickly however as Hubert, having fallen for this manoeuvre once already, stuck to them like a limpet. It was obvious that young Fenton, for all his stated enthusiasm concerning this excursion onto the sands, was less than comfortable mixing with his more lowly neighbours. By the time they had reached the flagpole, a station Jonathan had obviously abandoned for the relative comfort of the marquees having done his job earlier, the man’s nerves seemed in shreds. He was saluting and ‘Hi-ing' all and sundry with an almost manic nervousness, while simultaneously trying to look in several directions at once as if fearful of not knowing what manner of assault to expect or where it might come from. “Let’s put our saviour out of his misery,” Sarah said to Titus in a hushed voice, “and see if we can find Jonathan.” Then more loudly, “Come, Mr Fenton, we can watch from the marquee.”

This proved not to be the case – the gambling marquee, it turned out, was very much a male preserve to which Sarah was denied access through her gender and Fenton through his fear of the unknown, so Titus entered alone leaving the worried fop with an extremely disgruntled Sarah just outside. Crossing the threshold, Titus experienced an immediate nostalgia for the outside world, where the throng of humanity on the sands suddenly seemed the height of decorum and order. Inside the tent was apparent bedlam, but once accustomed to the heat, noise and bustle, one could see that at least it was an organised bedlam. The seemingly patternless confusion, when examined, was actually centred about certain spots in the crowd, in which stood men whose actions defied the eye to fully comprehend. Each appeared to be doing a macabre dance in which the feet stayed rooted to the spot but every other joint in the body twisted and gyrated at an alarming rate. These were the bookmakers, citing odds, collecting wagers, and barking instructions to their acolytes to issue receipts, all at the same time. There was about a dozen or so of these men present, and several hundred punters availing of their services – hence the commotion. Titus climbed onto a bench, as much to draw a breath of fresh air as for the view, and surveyed the crowd. A young man immediately climbed up next to him.

“Mr Lowe!” he shouted above the noise. At first Titus thought young Hubert had suddenly discovered his nerve and followed him in, but he turned to find Jonathan beside him. “How did it go up there? Did your fish nibble?” the young man bellowed.
“Swallowed the bait with relish lad! We have an invite for the ball.”
“Well done Mr Lowe! But don’t forget the tale of Cinderella!” Jonathan had visited the neighbouring ‘refreshments’ tent it seemed, and Titus detected a whiff of cheap brandy accompanying the last remark.
“I’m afraid I never heard it Jonathan.”
“Ah, you are not familiar then with the pamphlets of Monsieur Parrault? They sell very well in translation on the streets of London. I have copies sent to me by my cousin regularly.”
“The children’s folk tales? Are they essential reading in your philosophy studies?”
“I dare say not, Mr Lowe, though they should be. This one at least contains a moral that is apt for the occasion. I must tell you it some time. The important bit was that she escaped from the ball at midnight before her true identity was revealed! Let us hope you can emulate her – eh?”
“I see!” shouted Titus, though he clearly couldn’t. “Even more aptly, what about our horses? Without them there will be no ball for us at all!”
“Safe as houses, Mr Lowe! There’s a paddock up yonder for horses to rest between races. I bribed the lad minding the gate – they’re happy as pigs in clover up there.”
“Good God, Jonathan. What’s to stop someone borrowing them?”
“For what?”
“To race dammit! They’re healthier specimens I dare say than many of the nags up there!”
“Oh I thought of that sir. I told the lad that they’re the property of a very austere magistrate called Lowe. Any harm comes to them comes to him too. When I checked ten minutes ago he was standing guard over them like a beefeater over the crown jewels.”
Titus smiled. “There are advantages to my new profession it seems. Well let’s hope we don’t have a Captain Blood in our midst. Speaking of corrupt ne’er-do-wells, where’s Wilson?”

Jonathan nodded towards one frenzied group of punters. A rather red faced man wearing a buckled hat was waving banknotes frantically at a bookmaker. His look of desperation was not enhanced by the presence of a hairy wart on his nose, so large that it seemed to obstruct his line of vision and caused him to adopt a rather haughty incline to his head, so as to better see around it. As the barkers announced that the race’s start was growing imminent, so too did Wilson’s agitation increase, the whites of his eyes flashing a look of abject terror lest the race commence without him having placed his bets. The intelligence that Wilson was an avid gambler had been well founded in truth.
“And Quinn?”
“He left about fifteen minutes ago, he and his wife have stationed themselves nearer the entrance to ‘ensure no actor leaves the stage prematurely’ as he put it. He said ‘If you see Mr Lowe, tell him that Pudsy smelt a rabbit, not a rat, and disappeared down his hole.’ Is that bad news then?”

Titus laughed. “No that’s very good news Jonathan! Pudsy was a terrier that Quinn owned some years ago. He only had to see a blade of grass shake in the breeze outside a rabbit hole to imagine he was on to a scent. Poor mutt spent most of his life wedged in holes in the ground chasing invisible prey and having to be rescued! It means Wilson took the bait too. What about the other part of our strategy? Do you reckon we can separate the man from the rest of his money?”
“And his grandmother too Mr Lowe, if he had her to hand! Did you not see Sam’s little display?”
“He ran LaMancha past a few times in a practise run before he went down to register. I swear, one could almost see the shillings register in Wilson’s eyes. Not only did he swallow that particular bait, but he’s currently digesting the hook, line and sinker also! As is half the tent also.”
“Good old Sam! The lad has more guile than I gave him credit for.”
“Whisht Mr Lowe – we Duffers have a reputation to defend. Keep it to yourself!”
“What about Jack? Has he arrived yet?”
“Speak of the devil!” Jonathan surreptitiously indicated the entrance to the tent where a red faced and angry Jack had just entered, frantically searching the faces of those present, and with a murderous intent that was terrific to behold.

A bark from an official announced that there were now ten minutes before the off. At this, the surface of the sea of heads erupted into an explosion of waving fists clutching pieces of paper and the bookmakers’ strange dances grew even more frantic in their effort to satisfy their customers’ demands. Even in the cacophony it was discernible that a lot of the money wagered was riding on LaMancha. Titus noticed a buckled hat weave its way between its counterparts through the crowd and Wilson at last emerged on the outside, clutching a wad of receipts. Titus grinned, he had made his bets, and judging by the wad he held, he had made quite a few. Hopefully, all going well, the good magistrate would be well down in his fortunes in a matter of minutes. With a sharp whistle to attract Jack’s attention he indicated Wilson with a nod and then quickly jumped down out of view with Jonathan. He grabbed the young man’s arm. “Jonathan, I’ve a new sentry task for you. There’s a fat lawyer with a dog sitting outside. If he and Wilson get together I would like to know. If you can overhear their conversation, then all the better. Whatever you do, don’t let him interfere with Jack’s play when he makes it.” He handed Jonathan a few coins. “Here, have yourself another drink, not too much now!”
Jonathan accepted the money gladly and blushed slightly. “You should be careful Mr Lowe. That’s very non-magisterial behaviour.”
“Believe me, when it comes to non-magisterial behaviour these two turds take top prize. For god’s sake don’t let them know you’re spying on them!”
“Very well – where will you be?”
“Myself and Sarah will be down with Quinn at the gate.”
“Ah! The retired actors all together. I will join you when my own performance is ended.”
“Do that. And let us hope our play was a success!”

Sarah was standing outside the marquee where he had left her, still in the vicinity of Hubert Fenton, but no longer apparently in his company. The relief on her face betrayed as much. Instead, young Fenton was laughing and joking with two others. It appeared he had come to the conclusion that the crowds near the tent weren’t such a bad sort after all – obviously Sarah had convinced him that the area of the beach in which they stood had restricted entry, just as the gardens had, the only difference being that the people here were more fun. If so, he had taken her at her word, and was discovering that the fun aspect to the experience could be enhanced by alcohol. His two new ‘friends’ – two men who wouldn’t look amiss swinging from any gallows – were plying him with copious amounts from a flask of whiskey that they passed between them. If ever a trainee thief needed an object lesson in how to set up a drunk for a robbery, thought Titus, he could do worse than observe what was happening here. He looked anxiously at Sarah – should they rescue the fool and risk staying stuck with him, or leave him to his fate? Sarah understood the query in his expression and peeled away quietly. “It’s time Mr Fenton learnt what a rich experience life holds when you leave your garden for the first time,” she said, once they had put a fair distance between themselves and the unsuspecting quarry behind them. “They don’t look too dangerous, he should pay for his lesson with just his wallet. I dare say he can afford it!”

Getting to Quinn and Grace proved more arduous than they had imagined. The numbers on the beach had grown exponentially as the main event of the day loomed, and a surge of people had crowded the area where this second race was now getting underway. With relief, they could see that Sam was indeed amongst the riders finally selected to compete – about twenty in all. Sam looked confident and focused on his task, though by all accounts this was the way he approached all the races in which he took part, regardless of what might be at stake. His horse had thankfully passed Purcell’s inspection, and was a flyer, as Cuffe had rightly affirmed – now hopefully the captain’s opinion of the beast’s other talents was equally well founded.

Quinn greeted them warmly as they arrived. Titus began to ask him for details of the exchange with Wilson but Quinn raised his hand and pointed to the beach. The horses were off. A loud whoop of cheers floated down from the start line - about five hundred yards away from where they stood - and enveloped them like a wave. Then the field of horses disappeared away up the strand, leaving a large cloud of sand in their wake. By the time the dust had cleared in their wake, the riders were already mere dots on the horizon, heading at full gallop to the point where they mounted the bank and passed into the fields. For an insufferably long hiatus there was silence and nothing to see, but then a surge of noise from the farmhouse enclosure indicated that they were coming back into the view of the general audience. It was still a few more moments before they did so, then they flew past the farmhouse and on down the long field towards where Titus and his companions stood. With relief he noticed that Cuffe’s assessment of the steed had been dead right. Sam Wilkins was a full ten lengths ahead of the rest of the field, and his mount traversed the ground as if its hooves barely touched the surface. She was a top-notch racer, that much was obvious, but now, how well could she act? The mare’s theatrical debut would be as vital in its successful execution as their own had been for their plan to come to fruition.

Sam pulled up slightly as he neared the end of the field and positioned the flying mare to vault the low ditch that separated it from the sands. Her leap was impressive. Without breaking stride she left the ditch in her wake, sailing well clear of the low hawthorn hedge and rutted ground that conspired to trip less agile jumpers. As she landed however, eliciting astonished gasps from the crowd as she did so, the mare stumbled perceptibly, tottered forward a few paces and fell, ending up on her knees in the sand beyond, with her hind legs splayed behind her and struggling to regain her standing. The resultant lurch had unseated Sam and he fell from her saddle, landing on his feet but still holding the reins. With effort she finally stood up. In a trice he was back up on the mare and she set off again, but by now the rest of the field had caught up. One by one the other horses vaulted the ditch – the ground shook as they landed – and swung around to try and overhaul the mare on the sands, whose impressive lead had now been cut to barely a few yards. Sam dug his heels in and spurred her forward, and for a few strides she seemed indeed to have recovered her gait and speed, but then she broke down badly and favoured her left foreleg as she ran. A hundred yards from the line found her limping even more perceptibly and flanked now by the two members of the pursuing pack. Fifty yards from the line they had passed her, with two more of the pack bearing down on her from behind, and by the time she crossed the line she had sunk down to a disappointing sixth position. The deafening roar that greeted the end of the race flew towards them across the sands. Sam’s stumble had added to the excitement of the finish in no small measure.

“I’d give anything to be beside Wilson now.” Quinn remarked, once the cheering had subsided sufficiently to be heard. “Or maybe not,” he laughingly added, “he might be armed!”
“It went well then?” Titus asked.
“Very well, he took the document in any case. Whether he read it of course is another matter. Let’s hope we didn’t give him that much time.”
“If all goes well tonight, it won’t matter a fig whether he did or not.”
“True enough. In any case, he was quite prepared to believe I was willing to bet it, and even more prepared to convince me to sell it instead.”
“I would have given anything to be beside the pair of you Quinn! How did you manage to persuade him that you were desperate enough to sell so cheap?”
“Simple – I merely had to imagine how desperate I could very well be soon enough if things keep going the way they are around here. Anyway, the man himself was convinced, that’s the main thing. He made a very heart rendering argument to sell rather than wager the property. For a moment I almost felt as if I was talking to a Christian, such was his selflessness and charity in relieving me of my property for a tenth of its value!”
Titus laughed. “Did he receipt you?”
“Oh he did indeed - a draught on the Bank of Drogheda to the value of fifty pounds, signed by the man himself and witnessed by no less a worthy than a lawyer named MacCarthy who happened to be there too - they seemed to know each other. I’ve given it to Jack.”
“Did MacCarthy see the deed?” Titus asked worriedly. The less people who could deduce their deception the better, and there was always a possibility that MacCarthy might be a guest at Mellifont later.
“You must be joking. Together they may be, but I don’t think Mr Wilson trusts his lawyer friend to that extent! Can’t imagine why not?” He laughed. “Once it changed hands it was straight into his pocket and securely buttoned down!”
“Excellent. Now let’s hope he was sold on Sam’s chances. Young Jonathan seemed to think he was in any case.”
“That part of the exercise was even easier than convincing him that I was willing to sell. Sam was putting on quite a display on the mare as we were speaking. If Wilson had any doubts that I was serious in betting the farm on the young fellow, Sam and Cuffe’s horse dispelled it fairly sharpish! Of course, the more he advertised the mare, the more Sam’s odds were slipping. I never saw a man more eager to break short a business meeting to lay a wager I can tell you!”
“Good man, Quinn. Now it’s Jack’s turn.”
Quinn looked uneasy. “The boy’s been through a lot this week. I wonder will he hold his nerve?”
Grace Quinn patted her husband’s arm. “Our Jack reminds me of a certain man when he was younger you know. His nerve was never at issue. Whatever happens, Jack will be all right, I’m sure.” Her words were reassuring but her tone was grim, as if she was trying to reassure herself as much as Quinn.
“Judging by the look on his face as he entered the marquee I would say that lack of nerve was not an issue! But there is another worry Grace,” said Titus. “The man responsible for Jack’s imprisonment the other night is also hereabouts. I don’t think he is in a position to foul Jack’s part of the strategy down at the marquee, last I saw he was well rooted up in Drogheda’s private grandstand. But where that man goes, trouble is never far off, I’m afraid to say.”
“Let us hope to avoid it,” Grace said. “Standing to lose our farm is enough trouble to be risking for one day.” She shot a pointed look at Titus.
In the distance they saw Sam leading the grey mare, the beast obviously hobbling painfully, back to the paddock. Purcell, the adjudicator, was waiting for them at the gate. He lifted the mare’s foreleg and she recoiled with a shudder. Purcell shook his head and Sam wearily led her to the rear of the paddock where the youth who Jonathan had employed still guarded the rest of their horses vigilantly. She nestled in with her companions and Sam proceeded on up the bank to where Titus and the rest of them were standing. He was beaming from ear to ear. Quinn frowned at him when he reached them. “Take that smile off your face lad! You’d swear you were glad to lose the blasted race!”
Sam’s expression switched to one of hurt. “But …” he began to say.
Quinn then slapped him hard on the back and laughed aloud. “Well done lad! If you fail to make it on the stage in Drury Lane, at least we know there’s a horse who can take your place!”
Sam, with relief, laughed too. “I swear you’re right Mr Quinn – that shimmy she performed for Purcell when he felt her calf down at the paddock even surprised me, and I thought I’d seen her full repertoire of tricks!”
“Well you and she played your parts brilliantly Sam.” Titus shook his hand. “It might be as well that you’re not seen with us though. Maybe you might do one more thing?” He put his arm around Sam’s shoulders and drew closer to the lad so as to speak more confidentially. “We’re worried about Jack. There’s a man here, a Captain Briar, who could ruin everything if he sticks his nose into what’s going on. He’s the one who had Jack arrested last Thursday. And Jonathan has his hands full looking out for a fat lawyer friend of Wilson’s. Whatever’s panning out between Wilson and Jack, we need to be sure that Briar doesn’t ruin everything with an unwelcome intrusion. He’s bad news.”
“Leave him to me Mr Perr… Lowe!” Sam’s confidence was at full strength, if not his memory. “How will I know him?”
“Tall, dark hair in a cropped cut. He has his arm in a sling. Last seen in the garden compound with a low man, dark features, but they’re moving around so keep your eyes peeled.”
“All right. I’ll look out for him for you!” Sam turned to go.
“Sam!” Titus called. “Be careful, this man is dangerous. He has recently lost his position in the Castle Guard in Dublin, and that alone may make him even more of a liability to our aims. He’s a wanted man himself, and God knows how desperate. Whatever you do, do not advertise that you and Jack know each other! Or even Jonathan. Do you understand?”
“Jack and Jonathan who?” laughed Sam, and he set off.

The final race of the day was also the main event. There was no limit to the size of the field, or no barrier to age or sex on the part of horse or jockey. It covered the same course as the other two, but with one major extension added to it. Instead of cutting inland at the point where the previous runners had done so, the runners in this race continued on up the strand – fording a small river estuary en route – and mounted the bank a good two miles or so further down. This left them in relatively open country and they then took whatever route back they deemed fit, be it by road or cross country to return to the main course. The river was the key element in deciding each rider’s mind. The road, though longer, bridged the river, whereas the shorter country route necessitated a leap over its racing waters, which, if successfully negotiated, gave the brave souls who took that course a distinct lead over the rest. At a designated field the road and country routes merged again and from there the course was as before, past the dignitaries’ enclosure, down to Gormanston and back onto the sands to turn for home. The winner could count not only on a handsome purse, but also on a local prestige being bestowed on him that would last him his lifetime; such was the honour in arriving home first.

As the massive field assembled Titus scanned the horizon for a sign of the next part of their plan being put into operation. At last he saw it – Cuffe and his three men in full uniform, mounted on horseback and each assuming a position near the four principal exits from the strand to the road. Such was the amount of money backed on the runners, and it being the last race, that the stakeholders and bookies, once the race got underway, grouped together for protection and repositioned themselves nearer to the exit, from where all payouts would be made to the successful punters at the race’s conclusion. This afforded them the chance of a quick getaway – a not unwise manoeuvre, especially should a sufficient number of people down on their luck realise who were the real gainers of the day! The shift in location was made with the utmost speed and stealth, and they were aided in this by soldiers hired at the expense of the Earl himself. Local suspicions had it that the bookies in any case also worked for the Earl so that they were all really one team, and that the prize money that Moore so generously awarded the day’s winners came back to him tenfold through his cut from the bookies’ earnings. Quinn had told Titus that this was definitely true in the case of one of them - a man named Brennan from Drogheda, who was married to a cousin of Moore and who plied his trade as a wool exporter for the rest of the year. It was well known too that Brennan, despite the strict regulations governing public gaming – which was taxed by the crown – was as liberal in his interpretation of what constituted a stake as he was in what constituted the king’s share from his earnings. Having the protection of the Earl meant that he could do so without fear of ever being held accountable by the Exchequer inspectors who, with armed support, regularly attended such well publicised events but were not going to needlessly antagonise a man of Drogheda’s importance as long as their revenue could be extracted from others. The punters knew that Brennan enjoyed such protection, and though they knew he would never give as good odds as his competitors, they knew also that he would gladly accept a bet of any nature from any man. It was no wonder then that he found himself the busiest bookie by the end of the day, when men were infused with the gambling spirit but were running short of hard cash with which to fund it.

With a gunshot, a device deemed more dramatic than a flag and therefore more suited to this most prestigious event, the race commenced. What ensued was a spectacle the only equal of which, Titus thought, must surely be a cavalry charge in a major battle. The field of horses, several score it seemed in number, were bunched so tightly together that they appeared as one giant steaming mass speeding away up the sands. As their hooves thundered into the distance the crowd began milling nearer the finish line, even occupying the track that the horses had just vacated, and Titus saw, amidst the confusion and excitement, the bookies begin to make their tentative way to the field adjoining the dignitaries’ enclosure and their escape route out. One lagged behind the others, his two helpers slowing his progress, laden down as they were with a large wooden chest. This had to be Brennan. As Titus followed Brennan’s trek through the sand and up the grassy bank, he noticed also a lone figure coming towards them, struggling upstream against the flow of the crowd who were all intent on gaining a vantage point to view the denouement of the race. Like a drowning man, all that could be seen of him as he swam against the tide of humanity assembled on the sands was the occasional bob of his head or a waved arm as he struggled to signal to the small group on the grass bank. It was Jack, and he was making for where they stood. At last, breathless, he stood panting before Titus and his father.

“Done!” was all he could say as he gasped for breath.
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Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 12 "A Victory" (part 6) :: Comments

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Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 12 "A Victory" (part 6)

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