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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 14 "Awakening" (part 2)

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Nobiles Barbariæ

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Join date : 2011-12-25

PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 14 "Awakening" (part 2)

One’s hope with a nightmare is that with one’s awakening, so ends the terror. With a living nightmare such solace cannot be wished for, and then one’s only hope is that it finds its own end in its own time, and that the time is not too far away. One begins not to care whether the ordained end is even bad or good, so great is the wish just for its conclusion. For Titus too, such a wish for it all to end exceeded his fear of how it might, which was gloomy enough. In his fears, Mary would communicate with him, admitting that they had been in error and that her father had been right all along. Their infatuation would be ascribed to youthful folly on her part, and virile lusts on his, no more, no less. They had paddled in a forbidden pool, she would say, and though the sensation had been blissful, the truth that they had trespassed must override the rest - it was over. And in his pain he merely wished to hear these words from her, to know at least that his nightmare had ended, and that the grey emptiness of his life ahead could be faced. His fears however were false, but his wish for the nightmare’s end indeed was granted, and with a finality he could never have imagined.

Arriving back in London he had done the obvious things – he contacted the Bennetts through a third party and learnt that their daughter was still away. He had spent every free moment haunting the places they had known – Wright’s Coffee House on Fleet Street where they often had met by assignation. At the Ram Inn at Smithfield where many long distance coaches from north of the city chose to offload their passengers, he sipped a beer and replayed in his mind’s eye how they had sat there and laughed at the antics of the hawkers and mount-the-banks who descended like locusts on the unfortunate travellers before they even had chance to set foot on turf. He found himself traipsing through the Moore Fields where they had walked hand in hand on Harvest Night and heard the ancient bells of St Steven’s chime seven sonorous tolls for each of the martyrs who lay in its vaults. He walked the lanes and meadows of Soho and Mayfair, less in hope and more in remembrance of that night when they had escaped the drudgery of the Frobisher’s ball. And then, when the weather grew cold, he spent his evenings by the fire in The Rusty Nail, with one eye on the window and the house in Billeter Lane beyond, poorly lit but in full view across the road through the bottle glass panes. As the icy winter gripped the city and turned each incline into a slide and each street into ankle-breaking frozen ruts, he kept his lonely vigil for what he increasingly knew would never come to pass.

The daylight hours he spent executing those meagre commissions from the army that came his way, mostly drawing maps from other peoples’ measurements and calculations. On expensive folios of parchment he transcribed coastlines and mountains, rivers and roads as faithfully as he could, according to the dubious numbers and sketches that he was provided with, interpreting landscapes like an automaton whose dimensions probably owed as much to the imaginations of lazy surveyors as they did to the discipline of accurate measurement. Great estates and greater fortresses bearing the names of eminents and royals, demesnes with titles that echoed foreign conquests and distant battlefields, and hamlets named after the conquerors themselves. All these he delineated, annotated, and committed to paper over and over again until the strokes, legends, scales and numerals themselves became not just pictorial representations of the world outside of his garret, but as much of that world as his mind could now care to contemplate, if at all. And if such labour was meaningless, then even more so was the pantographing of inferior maps, drawing line for line that which he knew to be incorrect, shoddy examples of his trade, and for no reason other than that these were the only records to hand of the places they depicted. Pilfered Dutch maps seized in battle that had been hastily drawn by an apprentice in Amsterdam, expensively purchased ‘Persian’ maps of the Levant that yet were drawn on French parchment in Italian hand, maps by men who would not know a contour from a coastline or a line of latitude from a fold in the parchment – all he transcribed as faithfully as if he were an apprentice again, and these the works of Mercator, Holler or Speed. But it paid the rent, and as the winter drew in, paid for the drink.

The nights of vigil at The Rusty Nail became nights of self-pity and remorse. His gaze gradually shifted from his old front door across the road outside, to the roaring fireplace within the tavern, and then, to nothing at all, so lost in his own thoughts did he become. Soon he could not even remember why he kept returning here night after night, but yet he did, and each night saw him hope less and less, and think more and more of the worthlessness of his life, his hopes, and himself. The more he wallowed in despair, the more the whiskey fuelled it, and soon there was little else, and barely nothing to remember after each night, so that the long dark evenings in the tavern became as one in his memory, and redolent only of his dark despondency. Though he knew that he was slowly losing his mind, what was left of that mind was increasingly willing to part company with the rest of him.

And then she came back. He was working at home, an ever less frequent occurrence of late, and had just completed a tedious representation of the Solent’s mouth, when there was a sharp knock on the door. This in itself was unusual – he was billeted in an attic far from the street below and his only visitor was his landlord on days when rent was due, and who deigned never to climb the rickety steps to the loft but announce instead his presence by use of a broomstick rapped on the ceiling below. He opened the door, and the sight that met his eyes made his heart lurch. The woman before him was Mary, but this was a Mary he did not know. Her sunken eyes and sallow skin spoke of illness recently endured, and her hand shook as she extended it to take his own, a formal greeting that merely completed the surrealism of both her appearance and manner. He realised that he himself must cut as sorry a picture as she, if not more so, but he attempted to smile, an act so alien to him through misuse that he was aware that the grimace which resulted must surely make him even more hideous in appearance than before. Her voice when she said how thankful she was to have found him was not the voice he had loved, and had heard in resonance in his mind over the many bitter months since last she had spoken to him. It was dry and stretched, brittle and tired. She asked could they speak and he answered yes, but both her request and his accession to it seemed as if performed by strangers offstage, and not by the actors in the play. And so was how he felt, detached, an observer of a character remarkably like him playing a role, and not even a good actor at that. For months he had dreamed of seeing her again, and now she was here, but something was wrong. Something had died in him, he knew that, or at least had suspected for a while, which prevented him from saying what he knew he must. But something too had died in her. It was as if he addressed her ghost, a messenger on behalf of the Mary who he had loved but who had long since passed away.

He cleared his throat and tried again to speak, inviting her to sit on his only chair while he rested against the table and studied her. He had nothing by way of refreshment to offer her save whiskey, which she refused with a frown, and having already poured her a glass as he asked, he then commenced to drink. She told him in a hollow voice that she was no longer welcome at home, and that even her presence in London was not known to her father and would be opposed if it was. He asked her did she wish to stay in his loft, but even as the words were spoken he realised how utterly stupid the proposition sounded, and was. She merely shook her head slowly and asked him if he had money that he could lend her. Again he astonished himself at his own obtuseness and replied that he might, before he realised that it would take him some time to acquire any, so low in his fortunes had he become. When she announced how much she needed his heart sank further. He did not have it, nor could he have it for months on the strength of his labour. He thought of his equipment, the sale of which might raise the most of it, but without that he was nothing. He asked her why she needed it, but again she just shook her head with lowered eyes. Then she smiled, and it was hideous. Her teeth were broken and gapped and her lips were chapped and raw. “I have not been well Titus,” she said. “It was necessary for me to … seek medical help. It did not come cheap.”

“I am sorry to hear it,” he assured her, and as he did so it sounded callous to his ears. “If I had known, I would have helped you, believe me. What ailed you?”

“You might have,” she replied, after a long pause, and looked up. “If you had known. But it is neither here nor there. It is now that I need your help.”

He knew at this point that he should reach out and hold her broken form, kiss her poor damaged lips and solace her, beg her to come back into his life and vow that whatever had happened, they were together again if so she willed and everything could only be better. But he did not. There were too many questions in his mind that he could not ask but which first he needed answers to. How had she found him? Why had she not written, especially after her family had disowned her? Why would she not speak of her ailment? What had happened to her over the last few tortuous months, which seemed like an eternity but had wrought so much change in her in so little a time? Why did she need so large a sum of money?

She sighed, and he fancied he saw a tear begin to well in her eye. He looked away, overcome by a sudden feeling of shame that she should find him in such straits, and unable to give her the one thing she asked for. When he looked again no tear had fallen. Her look had hardened and she rose. “I am sorry for troubling you Titus, “ she said and moved towards the door.

At this he panicked and held her slender arm to halt her. He meant to ask her to please stay, to tell him all that had transpired to bring her to such a low, to confide in him her nightmare, as he alone could truly understand what it must have been like having lived one of his own. But instead a garble of questions and impassioned pleas blurted from his mouth, so disjointed and incoherent that he knew that they wore his desperation as a disguise even as he said them, and that to her ears they must sound like the ranting of a fool – pleading for her to stay, promising to make things better, apologising for his dishevelled state, his appearance, his garret, his absence from her life. She stood impassively as he ranted and waited until his tirade subsided before firmly extricating her forearm from his grip. “Goodbye Titus,” she said and then closed the door gently after herself.

He should have pursued her, but he was numb and his legs would not move. He slumped into the chair from which she had just arisen and cried, though whether he cried for her piteous state, or his own, or for something greater and more terrible he could not know. That night, after waiting for hours in vain hope of her return, he had drunk himself into a stupor and slept without dreaming. The next day he woke with a plan in his mind. Whatever it took he would get the money she needed and seek her out. It didn’t matter what it was for, she was obviously desperate enough to ask and that was sufficient to know. She had sought him out too, something that could not have been too easy given how different his life was now to then, and that must mean that she still held a place for him in her thoughts, if not her heart. Her body had been abused by illness but that was no matter, her beauty had been as present as ever. He had been a fool not to force her to stay. Nothing, no illness however serious, no abandonment by her kin, nothing should stand in the way of their love. Why had he not said that? Simple words, and yet his tongue had faltered at the vital time and said everything but what his mind had directed it to. What must she have thought of him? To come all this way, through a nightmare that he could only imagine, and then find a babbling fool at the end of it, instead of what she sought – a lover who would do just that, love her enough to aid her without question, something that it was her right to expect, and was not his to deny. He grabbed the few meagre possessions he had, a transit and scope, some folios of maps and a book of Ptolemy, threw them into a satchel and set off for Thames Street where there was a trader of cartographical instruments who would give him a fair price, and maybe more if he bargained well

Even before he saw the crowd by the pier he sensed its presence. The Thames is the queen of London’s trade but a cruel mistress of her subjects. She dispenses benevolence with one hand but can smite most savagely with the other. Her power over her people is absolute. She is the benefactress of life and the means to survive it, but also the one who doles out death in equal measure. There is not a day goes by when the dreaded shout of “Cops-a-hoop!” cannot be heard at some time from its banks, as her most vigilant stewards, her boatmen, ferrymen, lightermen and bargemen come across another who she has claimed for her own. And for those on the shore, each person’s heart skips an involuntary beat at the call. Is it someone they know? Someone they love? A neighbour, a friend, a husband, a child? And so the crowd gathers and the corpsemen row out to bring the victim ashore before the old Thames sweeps them off to sea and lost from our world and knowledge forever. Titus turned down Swan Lane, where the crowd had assembled at its end and where the corpsemen were climbing down from the wharf into their dinghy. Already, the rumour of what the lighterman had called ashore when he had made his grim discovery was in full transmission. It was a young lady, and dressed in fine clothes too. She must have fallen from the bridge upstream and snagged in something, else she’d be out to sea by now.

Titus knew. He could not know how he knew, but he knew. Without thinking, he dropped his satchel and ran to where the corpsemen were boarding their boat. His look as he clambered aboard seemed enough to convince them not to stop him. After all, an extra pair of hands was always useful at this job, and having the body identified there and then a huge relief to their masters, the River Watch, who were funded by the riverside merchants and welcomed any economy. As the corpsemen rowed out to where the body had been sighted, their backs to the prow, Titus stood and gazed ahead. The lighterman had anchored at the spot, and indicated to them to row a little downstream, where, he shouted to them, he had seen the lifeless form just below the water’s surface. They reached the point and lowered their hooks and slowly dredged the woman to the surface. The river did not give up her guest without a struggle. Something in the depths had well and truly gripped her, but then with a jolt that sent both men reeling backwards and almost capsized their boat, she broke free and began to float into view through the murky waters. Even when he could but see her form he recognised her, and Titus instructed the others to step back for balance as he leant forward and reached with his hands into the icy waters. She rose slowly into his grip and her her face appeared as through a mist on a foggy day. First the shape, then the hair was visible, dancing crazily about her as if in some phantom breeze. Then the lips, and then the eyes, still open, and gazing as if into his. He almost lost her as the boat lurched on a wave but then suddenly she was thrust into his arms by another, and her floating form became heavy as it fought with this cruel disturber of its rest, who wished to prize it from the bosom of the river and back into the heartless world that had served it so ill in life. With one of the men’s help he hauled her aboard, and with the boat now low in the water, they carefully, and slowly, turned back to the wharf. He cradled her head on his lap and stroked her sodden hair, pulling it back from her face, as pale and as glazed as porcelain. He closed her eyes gently with thumb and forefinger and stroked her cheek tenderly with the back of his hand, and sang to her a song he had last sung in a Windsor inn a lifetime ago, and by which she had blissfully gone asleep, like now, in his arms.

It can be strange, the workings of one’s mind when consumed by stress, almost as if it belongs to another sometimes, and is no longer one’s own. As Titus sat on his bed in the Armagh inn, reliving that last sad journey he had made with his beloved across the icy waters to the wharf on Swan Lane, he remembered that even in the throes of his grief he had eyed the crowd assembled by the pier wondering which of them might have stolen his satchel. He had cast it to one side in his haste to reach the boat before it embarked, and though he rebuked himself for thinking of such base and selfish notions at this moment above all, he could not evict the knowledge from his mind that the bag contained all that was left of his worldly goods, bar the clothes he stood up in. Then, to his surprise, when he carried poor Mary up the green-slimed steps, a man had muscled his way to the fore of the throng to assist him, with Titus’ satchel draped over one shoulder. As Titus lowered her sodden corpse to the freezing cobbles on the quayside, the stranger placed Titus’ satchel beneath her head as a pillow and patted him gently on the shoulder. Then, in an instant, he was gone. Yet Titus could still see him as if it were only a minute ago – the sad sympathetic brown eyes, the gaunt unshaven face, the cropped hair and hoary coarse hands of a labourer and the way that they had firmly but gently conveyed his unspoken grief on Titus’ behalf through a solitary pat on his shoulder. And that made him think of satchels.

Even as Dublin Castle had exploded all around him that Holy Thursday night, he had taken assiduous, if irrational, care to bring not only his own belongings to safety but those of his secretary Flitch as well. Since then, Flitch’s meagre satchel had accompanied him on his travels, lying well covered at the bottom of a large boxwood case in which he stored his most valuable tools and documents. Since placing it there upon moving to stay with Quinn in Balbriggan he had thought nothing of it, a remarkable oversight on his part he now realised. The man might well be dead, and Titus should at least have checked to see if Flitch, a secretive man about his family circumstances, had something on his person that might indicate if there was someone to whom the sad news should be dispatched. The case sat in the corner of his room, securely chained to the bedpost, and he reached across to unlock the chain and haul it up on to the bed beside him. Rummaging through its contents, he located the grimy leather pouch that served his secretary as a kit bag on his travels and pulled it out. It was tied at the top with a piece of dirty twine looped through punched holes in the cracked hide around its rim, and a series of knots that would defy all but the most determined of sneak thieves. Titus lost patience trying to undo them, pulled his knife from his pocket and snipped the twine. The stench that assailed his nostrils as he widened the bag’s mouth with both hands was overpowering, a heady mixture of old leather and almost equally old nether-garments long overdue a laundering. He pulled the offensive items from the bag and tossed them to the floor, and then continued his examination of the contents. He was surprised to find a small bound bible, of the type popular amongst god fearing ladies who liked to have the word of their creator to hand at all times but who did not want the inconvenience of lugging around the full King James edition. By its condition, well leafed through and dog-eared, it had obviously been consulted many times over by eager but clumsy fingers, and it bore many small notes in the margins written by its reader. In a fairer and more feminine script, inscribed inside the front cover were the words “To my great galleon abroad on the seas, from thy little harbour who awaits you, with a heartfelt wish that His love guides you back to me in safety, your darling Elizabeth”. The inscription was dated ten years ago, as was the printer’s mark on the bible itself.

There was also an even more curious item in the bag – a small doll such as a young girl might play with, crudely fashioned from wood by an inexpert whittler, but with the clothes and face scratched out in a detail that spoke eloquently of a care and affection on the part of its creator for its intended owner, if not a mastery of the craft used to make it. The lavish detail and painstaking work on the part completed contrasted with the crude form of the rest, suggesting that the carving had been interrupted and not resumed – and judging by the grime on the surface of the wood, a long time ago. He placed it beside the bible on the bed and peered into the sack. Other than a few woollen items – gloves, a neckerchief and unused socks - there was nothing else in it. Then, lifting it over, he emptied these contents on to the blanket beside him and gave the sack a small shake. Something rattled inside it, but when he looked again it was indeed empty. Puzzled by this, he squeezed the leather and could distinctly feel the presence of a book or some such item near its base, yet when he placed his hand inside the sack it met only leather. On closer examination he saw why. One seam of the bag’s interior had no match on its outside, and when he probed it he found that it was actually a flap, under which he could just about insert his smallest finger.  By flattening the bag on the bed and laboriously reaching two fingers into the secret compartment he managed slowly to extricate a small booklet that eventually revealed itself to be of the type a scholar might use in which to take notes at class. He opened it and began to read. It was a ledger, and in it were entered in minutiae an account of the sale and purchase of items belonging to its owner. The items were listed under headings displaying their type, so that the first few pages included only items of clothing, the next bore the title ‘books, maps etc’, and then, most interestingly, ‘equipment’.

So, Titus thought, Flitch had kept the company accounts after all, though he had chosen a strange and very secretive way to describe and categorise them, and in a detail far exceeding necessity. He recognised many items that he had received ‘mysteriously’ from his secretary next to their price and the date purchased. Curiously, some, but by no means all, had a note in their margin - ‘For the Perry job’. Even more curiously, given that this was a list of Flitch’s own acquisitions, many items had a small note next to them saying ‘still owed by P.’, or ‘account pending settling from R.’ or ‘moneys not yet received’. He leafed through the pages and saw that the ‘Perry job’ was not the only enterprise thus described. There were also items purchased for the ‘Hill job’ and the ‘Feltingham job’ and several others. The items described were sometimes fantastic – ‘one coffin, one gravestone’ for the ‘Broughton job’, ‘one Spanish style knife’ for the ‘Lester job’, ‘two young girls’ for the ‘Cranmer job’, and so on. Then some items especially caught his eye – ‘inconveniencing of witnesses’ for the ‘Shaftesbury job’, ‘hire of carriages’ also for the ‘Shaftesbury job’, and in fact an entire page full of items relating to that one ‘job’ alone and all dated between July and November of 1681. Titus found himself engrossed in the details that Flitch had recorded in the dry manner of a clerk, and which were all the more intriguing for that.

The Shaftesbury incident had been the talk of London three years before. The Earl and his associates had tried the patience of the king by insisting that the parliament of which the Earl was a leader, and which the king had prorogued, should still have a say not only in running the country but in deciding who should succeed the monarch himself to the throne. Shaftesbury had lately become the figurehead for those parliamentarians who opposed the impending accession of James, and towards the end had even gone so far as to express support for Monmouth, the bastard claimant to Charles’ crown. By the time he was arrested he had gone even further, and pamphlets from his party encouraging open insurrection were abroad throughout the kingdom. Effigies of the pope were being publicly burned at large rallies organised by the rebel parliamentarians, and sizeable petitions were being compiled stating their signatories’ outright opposition to the Stuarts. Against a background of the Popish Plot, with sectarian passions running as high as they had since the Civil War, the supporters of James’ accession had responded in kind and had attempted to sabotage such meetings, even raising petitions of their own, and eventually arresting those they considered the ringleaders of their opposition. Titus could remember armed gangs terrorising the streets of London, often drunk, demanding of passers by that they swear allegiance to the crown or face the punishment. A refusal from whoever was so accosted, or even a slight delay in response could merit a beating, or an arrest, or even a ‘houghing’ when the poor victim’s tendons at the back of their knees were hewn by a sword on the spot, rendering them crippled, often for life. Shaftesbury and his followers derisively labelled these crown supporters ‘the Tories’, after the notorious highwaymen and thieves who had terrorised English settlers in Ireland for many years. Likewise, given Shaftesbury’s followers’ own extreme tactics, the supporters of the crown labelled their enemies ‘the Whigs’, after the Scottish cattle rustlers who had modelled their activities, and their faith, on the Presbyterian Scottish rebel Whiggamore. Eventually, with what was happening on the streets indistinguishable from insurrection, if not anarchy, and the country edging closer to another civil war, the king had decided to nip the rebellion in the stalk by lopping off its bud and had arrested Shaftesbury, charging him with high treason. Flitch’s entries coincided with the Earl’s trial, a protracted affair that saw quite a few false starts due to the failure of the prosecution to secure reliable witnesses for their case, the resignation of two judges from the proceedings necessitating a re-hearing of whatever evidence there was, and a vain hope on Charles’ part that the delay itself would actually work to his favour in the long run, with more of his own followers in positions of power by Christmas in the London law courts to guarantee a prosecution. In the end it all rather fizzled out. The trial restarted in November and was over within a day, when the grand jury, all of them Whigs despite Charles’ many attempts to arrange it otherwise, threw the charges out. Shaftesbury fled to the Netherlands and was dead within weeks, his health having failed. In London, Titus remembered, it was as if a breeze had blown through the city for a year or so, stirring feelings and passions but leaving little in its wake. Once Shaftesbury’s case had been concluded, the breeze had died down completely, and the populace had returned to its less dramatic, but vital, business of generating wealth, diverting itself with sports, and gossiping in coffee houses with as little interference from the Court or its Parliament as possible.

One entry in particular stood out from the rest, and was recorded in Flitch’s ledger some pages after the last mention of the disgraced Earl. It was dated January 2nd 1682 and said simply; ‘Dispatch of Shaftesbury - sixteen shillings hire and passage, tenpence ha’penny poison, moneys yet owed’. If the words meant what it appeared they did, then Shaftesbury’s convenient death in the lowlands had been due to something other than a bad cold, and Flitch had been party to the scheme. His secretary was an assassin!

But by now Titus was almost beyond being shocked or hurt by what life chose to reveal. Sarah had told him once that Cormac had likened him to an oyster, using his experiences to construct a pearl of wisdom but slowly, layer by layer. Now he felt that the action was being reversed, and that the same layers were being stripped from his mistaken notion of wisdom just as meticulously, and completely, as they had been built. What he might find at the core may well be merely that there was no wisdom to be gleaned from life after all, that in the end all was betrayal, right up to the moment when one’s body commits the ultimate betrayal and abandons one’s soul to the ravages of eternal judgement and oblivion. But then, even if that was the only truth to be learnt on life’s journey, then this was wisdom in itself – probably the only one worth knowing.

The revelation of the existence of Sarah’s catalogue, which she stated had long since been destroyed, had been upsetting enough, but the offence it caused had been purely personal and the disappointment it engendered the one with which we all grow ever more familiar as we grow older – that every character is flawed but such is the aspiration to be right in our inflated impressions of the ones we love, that the discovery of each flaw gives rise to affront, and then a weary acceptance. But what he was now reading went much deeper than a feeling of mere personal betrayal, or indeed any sense of betrayal with which Titus was familiar. It was almost unbelievable, and he knew that the ramifications of what it imported might forever elude him, such were their fury and scope. The man, who for five years had appeared to have been his secretary, and though infuriatingly undependable had never given the impression of being committed to any cause other than his own corporal lusts and the perseverance of their small company, was revealed to be something that Titus could barely even fathom. He thought he understood what constituted a spy, but this went so far beyond such understanding that it begged a new definition of the term, or even a new term entirely. What does one call a man whose talents and roles are not averse to combining pimping with political intrigue, duplicity with execution?  If he operates as an agent, for what cause, which might hope to maintain its own integrity, could he ever be usefully employed? Who could trust someone so untrustworthy to do their bidding, or who would care so little for the value of trust itself that the nature of their agent was therefore immaterial? If Flitch had been instrumental in murdering the disgraced and banished Earl of Shaftesbury, what had motivated his masters and, more importantly, what had motivated him?

And even as he pondered this, he found it nigh on impossible to reconcile the subject of his dilemma with the man who had disappeared a few short weeks ago. That man had been a scurrilous vagabond, an inveterate liar, but a friend, and an eminently trustworthy friend at that, in the sense that it mattered. The man who revealed himself in the book in Titus’ hand was a hideous parody of the man that he thought he had known. The two just could not be reconciled, and the effort involved in doing so, like his need to recognise that Sarah Reilly had been just as duplicitous to him, was already causing Titus more pain than he could bear. He drew a sharp breath and checked his tears before they could even rise in his eyes. Like his self-pity and remorse, his full understanding of how he had been sorely used would have to wait.

He had vowed to find Flitch if he could, and now his resolve to do so merely strengthened, not lessened. He had been used by this man, and he would find out why. Likewise he had been lied to by a woman in whom he had placed his total trust, but failing her now in her great need would not remedy the discomfort of that realisation. As it was with Flitch, so too was it with Sarah. Only in directly confronting each of them might he even begin to understand their motivation, and to do that he must first perform another task – securing liberty for both of them, by whatever means it took.

So, he resolved, these matters must wait, and in the meantime nothing else had really changed. His appointment in The Gullion would be honoured and he would meet with the man who might assist him in what he had resolved to do. It could well be a trap, though not one sprung by the man he had met dressed as a beggar that day in the market, of that he was sure. No, it could well be a trap sprung by he alone as indeed, if he were honest with himself, the others into which he had already fallen had also actually been. In pursuit of his own concerns and pursuing his own path, he had been blind to the reality of the world he lived in, and therefore prey to whatever vicissitudes that world chose to inflict on him. Some day, he knew, this would spell his doom. But he hoped not tonight, as there were still so many questions to be answered, not least why he felt such a compulsion to ask them at all.

The Gullion was quiet, only Stephen the owner stood behind its bar as Titus entered. There was no greeting from the man, only a nod in the direction of the kitchen. Titus passed through to the dark scullery and saw a stairs leading up to the next floor. In the absence of further instruction from the inn’s owner, he climbed it. A mean little window set in the deep stone wall where the stairs turned in its ascent threw light on the stairwell, but could not dispel the gloom of the narrow passage to the next floor. Stephen’s wife had attempted to alleviate the gloom somewhat by placing a vase of freshly cut flowers on the sill, but instead this merely added to it, blocking as it did the meagre light from the window further. Titus therefore did not see the stranger until he had almost walked straight into him. He was standing with arms folded on the topmost step, looking down at the mapmaker, an impassive expression on his face and with no obvious intention of moving aside. Titus paused and looked him in the eye. The man stared back, and then grudgingly moved just enough inches to his left to leave Titus room to pass. No words were exchanged but the tone of intimidation had been as effectively set as if a threat had been issued. Titus shrugged indifference, he was beyond caring any more about the games these people played, and merely wished to meet with the exiled Gaelic chief as arranged.

Two doorways opened off the landing. One, wide open, revealed a large bed and locker, and a crucifix hanging prominently on the opposite wall – Stephen and Máire’s bedroom, he surmised. The other door was closed. He turned the handle and pushed it open firmly. The room was dark inside as the curtain had been drawn across its window, though there was still just enough light to see that some chairs from the bar room below had been brought up and arranged in a small circle around a table. Niall O’Neill, dressed as he had been when they met in the market in the garb of a beggar, sat at the table and regarded the mapmaker intently as he entered. Another man sat in the dark corner on the floor, just about discernible in the poor light, and as Titus crossed to the chair that O’Neill indicated for him to sit on, the figure in the corner groaned and coughed, as if in a pained effort to speak, but after a sharp look from O’Neill, grew silent again.

“You met Gearóid outside,” O’Neill said, his voice so low that it was barely above a whisper. “He opposes this meeting, but has agreed to stand sentry. We must conclude it before Stiofán receives his customers tonight.”

Titus merely sat and looked at O’Neill. There was a wariness about the Irishman tonight, or indeed a nervousness. It was hard to know in such a taciturn face, but he certainly appeared to be less than comfortable with his surroundings, or perhaps with the company he was keeping.

“Ó Chaoileann cannot stand trial, do you agree?” O’Neill asked Titus softly, but with an edge to his voice.

Titus had not given much thought to Holly’s plight since Sarah’s arrest, except to assume that the tailor had known the risk he ran and would somehow be prepared for the eventuality of his capture. Of course, for O’Neill, Holly’s arrest was a disaster. An important link in the chain of Catholic resistance to the new rulers in Ulster had been removed, and one that could bring a lot of others down with it in the process of being eliminated. “Nor can Sarah Reilly,” Titus replied, and left it to O’Neill to figure for himself out the reason why he said.  If he surmised that Titus was motivated purely by affection for the woman, then he was not as astute as his reputation suggested.

“I agree.” The Irishman said, and left it at that. “Ye know that your precious Ormonde is abroad?”

“I do.”

“And you know who held him?”


“Then I have two things to trade with ye so.”

“For what?”

O’Neill smiled for the first time. “You English, eh? Always ready to do business!” His smile quickly faded when he saw that the mapmaker merely gazed impassively at him in return. This Englishman, he was hopefully deducing, had grown weary of the intrigues and political scheming that had brought him to this table and in these circumstances. He had passed the point where such facile taunts could goad him. O’Neill raised his hand slightly, palm outwards, as if to acknowledge that he had offended his guest, but that it had not been meant. His smile returned. “Ye must be sick of the lot of us, Mr Perry! And I can’t say I blame ye. It’s been a sickening business.”

“What has?” Titus did not want the parley to descend to the level of riddles and innuendo that the likes of O’Neill employed to disguise their true meanings and intentions, but he needed to know as much from this man as he could glean and would have to play along to some extent with the Irishman’s manner.

“Where do I start? I’m tempted to give ye a history lesson, so I am, but we don’t have time. I’ll tell ye what I want from you, and I’ll be honest - what we ‘need’ from ye might be better to say.” He paused, as if collecting his thoughts.

“Go on.”

“Ye came here to find the Lord Lieutenant, only to discover that he had flown his coop afore ye even arrived. Why did ye not go home then?”

“Because I had other business. I foolishly thought that Miss Reilly would be safer here away from Dublin, and besides, there’s another person I sought.”

The figure in the corner groaned again but the sound was drowned out by another, footsteps echoing loudly on the bare wooden stairs outside. Titus started, convinced that this must be a militia patrol, but O’Neill sat impassively and waited until the door opened before rising. Three men entered the room and Titus recognised one immediately. The red birth mark on the cheek and the imposing height of the stranger could leave no doubt as to who he was, though he had taken some pains to disguise himself since last they met through the addition of a long coat and a tri-cornered hat, which he held beneath his elbow as he ducked under the lintel of the doorway and spied the mapmaker. He stopped in his tracks, and looked at O’Neill enquiringly.

“Come in my friends, have a seat and rest ye. Ye remember our wee messenger here? Mr Perry has just been promoted, though he doesn’t know it yet.” O’Neill beckoned them all to sit, and when everyone had done so, indicated the mapmaker once more. “Now Mr Perry, ye were wondering what it is that we might want of ye?”

O’Donnell eyed Titus warily, then turned to his associate. “Aye, Niall. What do we want of him? You never said anything about this earlier.” Then oddly he added. “No offence intended, good sir.” He nodded to Titus, without a hint of sarcasm in his expression or voice.

“We were wrong about the man Hugh,” O’Neill said. “And I want ye to see it for yourself. Now Mr Perry, here’s what we want. Ye’ll be talking to Pringle when he arrives? Could I ask you what you hope to achieve?”

Titus nodded. “I have evidence that my assistant Miss Reilly has been arrested in the wrong.”

“Ye can’t have and she wasn’t. But I’ll get back to that. Do ye know this man Pringle?”

“No, just his name.”

“Right then, it will pay you to listen.” Pringle, O’Neill informed him, was an associate and student of George Lockhart, a Scottish judge who, as well as having started his career an advocate of Cromwell, had lowered himself further in the eyes of Catholics everywhere by his tenacious refusal in recent years to bow to political pressure from his peers, and had often bypassed the crown authorities completely by appealing directly to the Scottish parliament itself, most notably in his controversial defence of Archibald Campbell, the Earl of Argyll, when he was being tried for treason. The events triggered by that case led ultimately to the downfall of Maitland, the crown’s Secretary in Scotland, and severely impaired the crown’s control over the region. Campbell himself was currently on the run in the Netherlands, one of the many exiles scurrying under the banner of Monmouth, and as far as could be seen, the likes of Lockhart and Pringle would be less than disappointed should Charles’ bastard son ever make good his claim on the throne. In the meantime they were doing everything in their powers, which were considerable, to ensure that Stuart control would be tried and tested at every opportunity, and Ulster was a province in which their policies could only work to the Catholics’ disadvantage and the Presbyterians’ benefit. Pringle was, putting it simply, no more an impartial judge in the case of Charles Holly than a wolf could be in the trial of a lamb. But his appointment lent a spurious authority to proceedings, and the situation in Scotland meant that the crown would not warrant intervention. “But, “ said O’Neill. “Wee Pringle has a surprise in store for him when he comes. And we want you to deliver it to him.”

Hugh O’Donnell coughed. He nodded to Titus and turned to O’Neill. “Is this the way to do it, Niall?”

“Oh, aye, surely. I can’t think of a better one. Pringle knows our friend here as a castle man. As far as he will know it’s the Butlers sending the message, and it will be all the sweeter for that.”

“What message?” Titus asked.

“We found a friend of his, tell him. A Jebediah Stanley. Ye remember the name?”

Titus nodded that he did. “But the last I heard, from Holly, was that Stanley and Elizabeth Croft had sailed back to England once Ormonde escaped.”

“Aye, they did, or nearly did. It seems the two wee lovers had a tiff on the way. Mr Stanley left her in Liverpool and made the mistake of coming back. We picked him up.”

“They were lovers?”

“Oh aye, or at least she may have loved him. It was access to her brother that Stanley loved, and the promise of the big reward it might bring. James Butler has been busy it seems since he broke free from their cellar. When they landed in Liverpool word was out already that they carried documents incriminating them in a plot against their king. When they were arrested it seems that Miss Croft pleaded both of their innocence, whereas Stanley saw no reason why she shouldn’t take the blame herself, what with being family and all. He asked for a pardon for delivering her to the authorities.”

Titus smiled. “A gentleman at heart.”

“Oh, aye, an Englishman to the core!” O’Neill’s smile was broader. “Of course there were no documents. Butler was just sending them a wee signal to watch their backs. Miss Croft has taken herself off to meet her brother in the lowlands, and sent young Stanley off with a flea in his ear the size of a cranefly!”

“Why did he come back here?”

“Sure where else could he go? He’s a traitor in England, a ‘persona non grata’ in the lowlands and as welcome in France or Spain as the plague. Without a patron he’s nothing. Here in Ulster at least he has a few Presbyterian friends to live amongst, men like Cummins.”

“Cummins is a Presbyterian?” This genuinely surprised Titus, who had equated the man’s wealth with an Anglican background. For a Presbyterian, the man had really come up in the world. “Are you saying he was involved in capturing Ormonde?”

“I would doubt it, no. They’re a canny breed the Presbyterians, and not stupid. Christ, we should know!”

“Lord Arran believes that his nephew was involved too.”

“Oh aye, he was. But not as you might think. He was working for his grandfather, at least some of the time.”

Now Titus was dumbstruck. If the young Earl of Ossory was working secretly for Ormonde, then what was his association with Briar and the Castle Guard? And why had he apparently fled to Monmouth’s camp, as Arran had reported? O’Neill could see that Titus was perplexed and patted the mapmaker’s wrist.

“There’s been a bit of a wee crisis in the Butler family. It seems that their benefactor’s brother James Stuart is not as enamoured by their prestige and wiles as wee Charlie was. They’re on the way out. Ormonde knows it, but he’s prepared to fight his corner. Arran knows it, and is trying to take as much as he can before he goes. Young Ossory knows it and is putting all his eggs in another basket entirely. Have ye heard of Monmouth’s wee pal, the Dutch Prince William?”

“Yes. But what has this to do with Pringle?” Titus had had enough politics. If O’Neill had a plan to intimidate the magistrate why couldn’t he just stick to the point?

“Well young Butler you see is a pal of his too, though at the moment he’s over with Monmouth, telling him how great he is, and how much he can deliver Ireland to his cause, should he choose to move, and appoint him Lord Lieutenant. A foot in two camps, is what ye English say, and if Ossory could grow a third leg he’d have a foot in three!”

“So, who is he working for?”

“Dutch Billy, my friend. Or so I’d guess. Monmouth is a bombastic fool and has as much chance of carrying the English parliament as an ant has of running off with a cow. But Billy is a different proposition entirely. He’s married to James’ wee daughter for one thing, so there’s an air of legitimacy about him. The present English and Dutch alliance cemented by the monarchy itself has an appealing ring to it too for a lot of men in London, especially those who lost money every time the two fell out in the past. Since James has more or less promised to wave farewell to the Butlers, they’ve had to look elsewhere to guarantee their survival. The Butler ship might be sinking, but these rats think they can save it and haven’t jumped into the water just yet!”

“And Pringle?”

“Well ye see, when we entertained Mr Stanley we learnt a little about his erstwhile friends in the Monmouth supporters’ ranks. It seems there’s a lot of them like young Butler, keeping their options open. Praise-God Pringle is one of them.”


“Aye, his mother had a burst of Protestant piety when he was born, the poor bastard. He prefers to be known as Mr Pringle. Well Mr Pringle has been a naughty wee Monmouther, as has his friend Mr Stanley. They’ve been busy little bees here in Ireland, raising militia for Dutch Billy should he ever choose to stake his claim on the place.”

“Arran knew nothing of this.”

“Ye can be sure he did, though he mightn’t have known who was doing the organising. Ye see, Arran would think that it might be in his own interests to let it continue. When push comes to shove there’s no loyalty amongst the Butlers except to the Butlers. If James Stuart is going to abandon them to their fate, then Dutch Billy might yet be it. But it’s not ours. And so I will tell Ormonde to his face.”

A murmur of censure came from O’Neill’s companions at this last remark, as if Titus should not have heard it, but O’Neill dispelled their protest with a wave. “Sure our friend will be witness to me saying it. He’s invited to the party too!” This drew a few disbelieving gasps from the assembly and O’Donnell shook his head, gazing at Titus disappointedly as he did so.

But Titus cared little for what further intrigue had been mentioned and which had provoked such a response amongst the men. Whatever O’Neill said, he would be damned if he would play any more part in their plots and strategies than that which suited his own aims. “Your politics dismay me sir.” He had reached the limit of his patience and wished only to conclude this parley as soon as he could. “But I have a friend to release from captivity, and another to find. Tell me what you want me to do.”

O’Neill nodded towards the corner, where the man sitting there had grown quiet and was slumped against the wall as if asleep. “If he’s not just passed away over there, then I can tell ye that we’ve helped ye already in one respect. Would that be the wee man ye’re looking for?”

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