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 Xartis Psyxis, Chapter 2 - "Deliverance" (part 1)

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nordmann
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Join date : 2011-12-25

20120416
PostXartis Psyxis, Chapter 2 - "Deliverance" (part 1)

In which Titus receives his commission, sails to Ireland and we learn of the background to the Irish Survey.

“The Land of Ire” was how old Killigrew had jokingly paraphrased it in his comedy at the Theatre Royal playhouse, and Titus had laughed with the rest of the audience at this parody of a land well known for a populace quick to anger at the slightest provocation. But it was the pun “mire-land” that sprang more readily to Titus’ mind now, and not just with reference to the island’s equally infamous bogs. The mere mention of the country, as he had been gloomily and repeatedly advised by those who had served time there, was enough to turn the simplest of exercises into a quagmire of complexities so hideous in their convolution and unpredictability that one could only suspect they had been devised by Satan himself. And nor was it only returned soldiers and businessmen who advised him against travelling there. The old axiom that Ireland would always only mean misery for those unlucky enough to be born there, and could only mean worse for those whom a vindictive God had ordained should be sent there, was one that Titus had heard expressed with depressing regularity from friends and colleagues since they had learnt of his departure. He had laughed off such pessimism as a symptom of the ignorant and insular attitude on the part of many of his countrymen that he himself liked to think he was not kindred to but now, he reflected with some dismay, he could only agree with their dismal prognostications. He could not, for example, deny that a venture whose inception had seemed miraculous, and whose first few days had been blessed with an efficiency and common sense all too often lacking in commissions originating from military sources, had taken a turn for the worse shortly thereafter, and was still in a rapid decline. He had yet even to set foot on the land deemed cursed by so many, but if the misery he had thus far endured was a foretaste of what was to come, then perhaps he should acknowledge that his friends’ warnings had not been founded after all in any false or insular notions, but were rooted in those instinctive suspicions born of earthy wisdom that had sustained the race for millennia and which supposed learned men like himself had ignored to their peril before.

The ship on which he sat in such gloomy contemplation chose just at that moment to augment his growing sense of foreboding with an ominous gesture of her own. Her timbers screeched, the rigging howled and her sails clapped like thunder as she suddenly lurched forward, hovered briefly on the apex of a giant swell, and then dived into a trough so deep that he felt his stomach had been left far behind. The icy waters broke over her bow, cascading in shards over his crouched form, and it was all that he could do to keep a grip with both hands, numbed to their bones and chaffed from the exertion, on the slender rail that separated him from a watery oblivion. Another giant wave insinuated itself beneath her hull and lifted her up violently, so fast that the explosion of a splintering yardarm could be easily heard above the din of the storm. For what seemed an eternity she balanced on the wave’s crest and Titus braced himself for the plummet to come, but this time she managed to ride the monster with a little more grace. She twisted slowly on its summit and then descended its slope broadside first with a list so severe that Titus felt he was suspended from the heavens looking down into a watery Hades, a hell that hurtled up to meet him with accelerating avarice. When her hull finally crashed into the nadir of the shallow, she keeled alarmingly and then began to rock so wildly that Titus closed his eyes tight to fend off the vision of sea and sky changing place with so unnatural a frequency that they merged into one giant oscillating mass of seawater and rain cloud, each as black as the other, so close that one could reach out and touch them. Every sway and pitch of the boat attempted to catapult him into the depths, and he thanked his foresight at having tied himself earlier to the deck behind him, though he hoped with equal fervour that the knot he had used would hold. For what seemed an eternity he and the ship kissed heavens and brine until somehow the great vessel managed to straighten herself, and the next succession of waves, each in turn less than that which preceded it, were ridden with greater dignity and thankfully greater stability.

Exhausted from his effort, and in a valiant attempt to avoid contemplation of the storm raging around him, he forced his mind to go over the circumstances again that had brought him here to this dreadful place where every moment could be one’s last and where life hinged on the strength of a ship’s nails, the direction of the next gust of wind or the height of the next wave. So ominously close to his doom as the portents might suggest, Titus was not however by nature a man disposed to bewail his lot or curse his fate, even in these dire circumstances. Ill fortune befalls everyone in life and simple coincidence explains much that the ignorant ascribe to divinity. But sometimes, his rational mind advised him, ill fortune is contrived and unhappy coincidence can itself betray a hidden purpose that renders the gloom that it engenders justified. The reasonable man must review the facts however unreasonable they might appear and hope that in their perusal a pattern to one’s misfortunes can be revealed, for in that pattern often lies a clue to the path that led one into them, if not always the route by which one can escape them. So, even in the midst of this ordeal he forced himself to breathe deeply and keep his gaze purposefully fixed on the comforting solidity of the rail in front of him, before marshalling his thoughts and directing them to that point when this strange odyssey had begun.

The proposal to initiate an island-wide survey of Ireland had been one long mooted by the army and Titus had made no secret of his interest in it when he had heard of it first, but in typical military fashion the idea had remained no more than that. Army requisitions for new charts normally occurred in response to circumstances, and dire circumstances at that. By the time its commissioners were inclined to acknowledge their need, the time had already passed for it to be met with any great thoroughness. Such was the army way – controlled panic and always too late. In fact it was only in recent years that the benefits of systematic cartography had even begun to be accepted by the army’s commanders, and though such commissions constituted the bulk of Titus’ livelihood, they were as yet sporadic, and nowhere near on the scale required for what was needed in Ireland. Unsurprisingly, talk of such an enterprise had dwindled and then disappeared, so he had assumed that the ledger men in the Board of Ordnance had done their usual sums and decided to err on the side of miserliness, as was their wont. Six months later however, the job had been surprisingly resurrected and advertised again by the Surveyor General’s office in Whitehall, only for it to be offered to his rival, John Bennett of The Strand, and again Titus had quite logically assumed that he would hear no more of it. Soon in any case other events conspired to make the issue recede in his conscience. In fact the onset of a cold winter that had then gripped London, and a mapmaker’s income that dropped in proportion to the temperatures, very much obliterated all thoughts of the Irish commission in Titus’ mind. A short autumn degenerated into a cruel winter many weeks before its time and Londoners had suddenly found themselves in a city under siege from blizzard, ice, and winds so cold that to breath the air too quickly was akin to swallowing frozen shards of glass. The city’s denizens were hardy creatures and well used to their city freezing during a period of several weeks around Christmas, but no one could remember a winter so bitter, so eager to claim its grip and loath to relinquish it or indeed one which had relentlessly claimed so many casualties since the dreaded plague years of twenty years before. As the weeks dragged into months with no apparent thaw in sight, and supplies of all life’s essentials began to peter out after London’s great river artery froze solid for some miles and forced ships to dock elsewhere, more urgent considerations than one’s career pushed themselves to the fore. Titus, through some old army contacts, was fortunate enough to scrounge a little work supervising hasty quay conversions when it became evident that many of the city’s docks, frozen to a depth of some feet, would need to be adapted to accommodate sleds instead of ships for the foreseeable future. So, with the meagre scraps of income such piecemeal labour provided and with only their wits to help keep a little distance between them and death’s door, Titus and his secretary Flitch had just about managed to scrape enough together to set food on the table and some coal in the grate. By the time a little spring warmth could at last be found in the sunshine that struggled through London’s blanket of smoke Titus had almost forgotten that he had ever been a mapmaker at all, and Flitch had all but embarked on a new career himself, running regular sleds from the open waters in Greenwich up the frozen Thames to the city’s heart carrying anything that paid – be it people, livestock or goods. When the long awaited thaw eventually came to a city so long frozen that every blade of grass which revealed itself from beneath the ice seemed a little miracle in itself, it rescued Titus’ career in more ways than one, and probably even saved the life of his enterprising aide. Indeed only a few days longer, he reckoned, and a former mapmaker could well have found himself a mere secretary to his own secretary, or more likely without a secretary at all if what he had heard of the murderous sentiments towards opportunists like Flitch on the part of the Thames’ watermen was true. As it was, the melting of the ice on the river and the liquidation of Flitch’s new business (in every sense) coincided with the astonishing arrival of the last thing he had ever expected – a renewal of the tender for a general Irish Survey.

Even more surprisingly it was neither the army nor the Surveyor General of the King’s Works who extended the invitation to accept the commission, but the Navy in York House who contacted him by letter. The letter, delivered by a fully liveried courier (much to the astonishment and ribald humour of Titus’ neighbours), stated that it was the Clerk of Acts at that naval board who would now be responsible for organising the Irish survey and that his services, if he was still willing, were required with immediate effect. He was to present himself for interview with the board that very afternoon. Given that this was a job that he had for so long given up on but had once desired with a passion it was a remarkably subdued Titus who therefore dutifully waded through the cold slush down to York House by the Thames in Westminster. He could not deny his delight at being given so unexpected an opportunity to make such a huge advance in his career, but his joy was so tempered with suspicions about the seemingly arbitrary circumstances of the appointment and the brusque manner in which his attendance had been demanded, that it was all but spoiled. Besides, it boded ill for future relations with his prospective employers, he felt, should they feel his services could be so peremptorily demanded and with so little grace. Such an attitude normally meant that one’s services could also be dispensed with just as readily, as Bennett must already have found. Therefore, even long before he arrived at the turn into Buckingham Street from The Strand, he had already resolved to confront his new employers with a warning that any arrogance or presumption on their part would result in a need for them to find someone else to do their bidding. Fantastic and all as the prospect of the commission was, they who offered it must know that they would be dealing with a man who had waited too long for this chance to accept it now on anything but his own terms.

His resolve all but crumbled however when he turned the corner and saw the imposing York Buildings before him. Their tall symmetrical edifices lined the street on both sides and drew the eye to the beautifully ornate arched Watergate of Inigo Jones that marked the stairs down to the river beyond. After the slushy mayhem of his long walk through a shabby city rendered even less presentable by the ravages of a long winter this tidy cobbled street, swept bare of all snow and detritus as if the chaos of nature itself was denied permission to enter its confines, merely emphasised the elevated status of his new employers, and his own lowly status by comparison. He entered the street slowly as if acknowledging his transfer into an alien world and as he nervously searched the nameplates by the doors that advertised the offices of their exalted occupants he grew increasingly uneasy and conspicuous in his scruffiness. When at last he found the building that housed the chambers of the Navy Board he therefore entered the tiled vestibule with his mind clouded by trepidation and a growing conviction that this had all been something of a big mistake, both on his part and the Navy’s.
The interview, to which he was directed via several functionaries whose politeness he noticed increased with their rank, set him somewhat at ease however. Thomas Hayter, the board’s Clerk of Acts and an affable man as it turned out, at once apologised for the indecent urgency of the summons and set about clarifying why the commission had seemingly miraculously reappeared in the way that it had. Quite simply, he explained, both Bennett and Sir Christopher Wren the Surveyor General had, with the whole winter to evaluate the project, decided after reflection to renege on the option on grounds of expense. The Navy however were keen to have the first fruits of the survey available by the summer of the next year and so had decided that it would not serve their end to wait for others to organise it again. The defence of England, a country still recovering from the shock of a Dutch naval sortie up the Thames that had rocked its complacency to the core a mere decade or so earlier, fell more and more to her naval forces to execute and it was unforgivable, if not laughable, that the same navy knew little in detail about the layout of her great Achilles Heel, the island next door that harboured within its population a large number of people who would conceivably aid whatever enemy might want to attack through that quarter. Hayter launched into a convoluted account of military threats from abroad that mentioned much detail of Dutch, French and Spanish ambitions and not a little about pirates, but when delivered all together left one none the wiser as to which of them the Irish might favour as allies; perhaps indeed he had meant all of them, which marked the Irish out as a very indiscriminate race indeed, at least in the Navy’s suspicions.

Whatever their justification, Titus was left with the impression however that the Navy had tired of the fact that Ireland’s coastal features had never been systematically charted, and that there was every likelihood the country’s enemies knew much more about England’s sister kingdom than England itself. The truth was that an armada even greater than that which the Spanish had launched a century before could, if it wished, find safe haven in several locations around England’s neighbouring island of which the Navy knew next to nothing. Worse, an enemy fleet could lure English ships into a battle in the amphitheatre of their choosing, without those who ostensibly owned that very theatre knowing if it was a trap or not. The topography of Ireland’s coast must therefore not remain a mystery any longer and if the price to be paid to achieve such a survey was to undertake an exploration of the land’s inland features at the same time then so be it. As sole patent holders to the charts Titus would produce, the Navy in any case could recoup some of its expenses through publication revenues. It was therefore vital that the standard of the work produced be sufficiently high to maximise the potential of such royalty payments, and that was why a man of Titus’ calibre had been offered the job.

Later Flitch, through his own nefarious network of informed ‘sources’, would provide Titus with a slightly more prosaic version of what had transpired, but one that rang a little truer. It was in fact Christopher Wren who had originally approached the Naval Board with a view to helping fund the project, which indeed would be a costly one. Wren’s office was prestigious but it was notoriously badly funded by the crown and the Surveyor General of the King’s Works had hoped that the Navy, who would after all be the survey’s biggest ‘customer’, might thus pay some royalties in advance. The board however, when faced with the prospect of partially funding a project that would see them debarred from exacting royalty payments from its use, had done some elementary mathematics. It was the coastal work that would be by far the most lucrative feature in respect of royalties, as both the Navy and Wren knew well. Charts derived from that portion of the survey would be in great demand by all seafarers who plied Atlantic waters, and therefore the Navy had decided that if it was their money that was to be used then it was they and they alone who should run the enterprise. With parliament prorogued and therefore no bill required to be debated it was the work of a moment to get the Navy’s nominal chief, the king’s brother James, to approve their decision and forcibly wrest control of the survey from a cash-strapped Surveyor General (who was understandably reluctant to relinquish it, given its potential earning capacity). The country’s security was used however to justify the commandeering of the enterprise and Wren had had little option but to accept the coup-de-grace, though Flitch had learnt that John Bennett had immediately camped on the steps of every politician and courtier who might listen to his case that the survey remain at least under his guidance. But without Wren’s patronage Bennett had little influence, and when the Navy took possession of the mountain of papers that had already been amassed, including the projected expenses of the survey’s principal cartographer, they could immediately see why Bennett was so loath to let the job slip from his grasp. Hayter and his friends had taken one look at the eminent cartographer’s fee, dismissed him immediately, and had invited Titus’ participation instead. Flitch had found this amusing, given the history between the two mapmakers, but Titus himself had reckoned it was something he could have done without – there was enough bad blood between Bennett and himself already.

Hayter however chose not to discuss any of the sordid politicking that might have been behind the offer. Instead he concentrated only on stressing the urgency of it, and on assuring Titus that he would be well compensated for its undertaking. The mapmaker was impressed that the man seemed at least a reasonable one to deal with, and as eager to conclude their deal as he was himself, almost impetuously so. The allusion to a good salary was not to be sniffed at and Hayter’s apparent willingness to see the survey conducted under Titus’ own terms, indeed any terms that might expedite it, delighted him. Terrified that in his excitement he might say something stupid and jeopardise his appointment he was equally delighted therefore when the interview was concluded in a mere half hour, hands were shaken, and he was escorted by Hayter himself to the door of York House. He declined the man’s kind offer of a carriage and set off up Buckingham Street in as confused a state as he had walked down it a short time earlier, but his bewilderment now stemmed from the whirlwind he had just experienced and which had seen him transformed from redundant mapmaker to the surveyor of an entire country in the blinking of an eye.

This uncharacteristic impetuosity on the part of the Navy had not ended there. Within hours of Titus accepting the contract a string of messengers had already come and gone between York House and his lodgings bearing correspondence relating to the project’s planning. Now that the machinery of the Navy had been stirred into activity different functionaries with varying responsibilities each demanded details from Titus of what was needed for the job. Titus, who had still not quite come to terms with his rapid elevation, tackled the enquiries as best he could. Instinctively he knew not to rely on the bureaucracy of York House when it came to procurement of equipment or labour though he acknowledged that matters of transport were best left to them, at least for now. Budget was another matter he cared little to contemplate. He knew roughly the value of the equipment he required, and how much a labourer in his teams should expect to be paid, but when it came to quantities of either he could not even hazard a guess. In the end it was agreed that these details would be organised while in Ireland, and that an auditor would be appointed to approve or query the payments incurred afterwards. Titus was given the name of a businessman in Dublin who could provide the survey with equipment, hopefully even at prices favourable to the survey’s economy compared to those which prevailed in London. Hayter also agreed that such was the sporadic nature of the labour requirement, and how local knowledge on the work force’s part might facilitate the survey considerably, that Titus’ suggestion of using an old army contact who now resided near Dublin to help with the hiring made sense. In the meantime priority would be given to the first essential tasks – transporting him, his secretary and whatever equipment he personally wished to bring over to Dublin, and setting about drawing up the necessary authorisation documents he required.

In truth Titus was finding it difficult to think logically at all, so great was his bewilderment at his good fortune, and he was relieved to be able to defer much of the organisation to a later date. To his relief also he received nothing by way of a negative reply to those estimations and requests that he did submit, and to his even greater relief the absence of haggling meant that things had therefore moved very swiftly indeed. A mere week after the offer had been made he had already received boarding instructions for a vessel in Bristol, the crucial letters of authorisation required to cross England, and a sum of sixty pounds to cover his costs until he arrived in Dublin. Seven days of frenetic activity unprecedented in its efficiency to a mapmaker more accustomed to the lethargy of the army’s Board of Ordnance had left him with a sense of marvel at the cool competence of his new employer. If such was typical of the Navy’s organisational capacity, he had reckoned, it was a wonder then indeed that they had not long ago claimed dominion over all this globe’s oceans.

But as any sailor knows, the fairest wind that blows is often the one that leads into a storm, and the best prepared vessel when in port is as vulnerable as the worst when both are at the mercy of the open sea in bad weather. Now, a mere two weeks since he had first received those instructions, promptly closed up his business and set out from York House with Flitch at the head of three wagons packed with their essential worldly goods, he found himself with ample opportunity to reflect on the truth of these axioms, both literally and metaphorically. In London, for example, he had been told by a Navy clerk who had made the sea trip several times to expect at worst a ten to twelve hour crossing of the Irish Sea. But instead, two whole days had now passed since he had boarded The Corinthian at Bristol, they were not yet in sight of any port, let alone Dublin, and having been forced with sickening regularity to contemplate that his imminent demise lay in the murky depths of the wild sea that threatened to tear their ship plank from plank, he marvelled now not at the Navy’s efficiency but in how they could get so simple a calculation wrong.

And it was not as if this had been the only stage of their expedition whose longevity had been grossly underestimated. Their voyage already followed a journey from London that had been a living nightmare. Rain had followed them every step of the way, torrential rain that had turned highway into swamp, engorged rivers and reduced bridges to rubble, slowing their rate of progress to a crawl. Land, which had been solidly locked under a blanket of ice and snow throughout the interminable winter, had now thawed with a suddenness that flooded the countryside, and the rain had merely served to turn the resulting lakes into oceans, forcing them to pick a circuitous route across the country that favoured high ground, swapping the hazard of drowning for that of the occasional landslide in the Cotswalds. But these occasional hazards aside, most of their journey had been a cold, wet and miserable trek at a snail’s pace through cloying mud on the open road, with little by way of cover from the denuded late winter hedgerow against the constant rain and wind. Then, as they had at last gained the road to Bath (a town that had never been so appropriately named, thought Titus), that same wind had whipped up with an icy fury to a strength that alarmed their already dejected horses, toppled steeples and gravestones from their moorings and peeled lead roofs from over the heads of church congregations even as they impeached God for release from His wrath. Few ventured out onto the road, but those who they did meet warned them of wolves, spectres and the devil himself running loose on the road between Bath and Saltford, and a half naked woman accosted them outside Keynsham to inform them, amidst shrieks and ululations, that the majestic city of Bristol itself had been swept away by a mighty wave which had sailed up the Avon that very night eating all before it.

Out of respect to the sane people of Bristol Titus and Flitch had constantly reminded themselves that these gloom merchants and lunatics could not be held typical of their neighbours, but were simply the only people mad enough to be out on the open road in such foul weather. But then they had realised that the description applied to themselves with equal truthfulness, and not daring to think overmuch of the implications of this unwelcome insight they ceased discussing them and simply redoubled their efforts in arriving at the port with as much haste as they could muster. Titus found that he was even beginning to suspect some truth in the mad woman’s assertions when, as they passed over the crest of yet another hill between them and their goal, he noticed with immeasurable relief that the spires of Bristol, still standing proud above the Avon, could be descried in the distance through the driving rain. It was a Tuesday evening, and a full six days after having set out from York House in Westminster, but tired and depressed as they were he and his sodden wagon train fairly sped through the city’s outskirts and further down to the small cobbled quayside square where Bristol’s crumbling old Custom House stood. Here the wagons’ contents were annotated and carted off to The Corinthian, and their drivers paid off.

It was here also that Titus had agreed to leave a message for the ship’s captain announcing their arrival but in fact it was they who found that they had received a small note from McGregor, and the news was dispiriting. It would be best, McGregor wrote, that the mapmaker and his secretary should seek lodgings in the town if they could, The Corinthian would be sailing nowhere fast. Further news would be left with the owner of The Cradle Inn, near the quays, should the situation improve and Titus was therefore advised to check there at least twice daily. Flitch, typical of the man, was visibly delighted at the prospect of the enforced layover, and even Titus admitted that a wash and the chance to dry his clothes would be welcome, but their optimism was short lived. In Bristol they found a city already full to overflowing with seamen whose ships could not sail and where even the meanest accommodation, if it could be secured at all, was to be obtained only at an exorbitant price. They used every emblem of authority they had at their disposal to eventually cajole a reluctant innkeeper by St Mary-le-Port to let them a leaky loft room. Their requests for washing facilities were met however with derisory snorts from the locals who had themselves seen enough water in the last few weeks to turn them off washing for life. It was, in short, a town of sodden dispirited men and Titus and Flitch merged seamlessly into their ranks. Nothing was moving on the Channel, and like the other captive guests of the city they were forced to contemplate a stay far longer than the one night that they had originally provisioned for. The native Bristolians seemed to be the only Englishmen who were regarding the deluge as a favour from their maker rather than a punishment, and in their uniquely unintelligible way they managed to communicate each ‘enhancement’ in their prices with a gusto and undisguised avarice that seemed at odds with the dainty “my love” that they added to the end of each sentence, be it addressed to man or woman. After just a day in which Titus saw the price of a beer rise almost on the hour every hour, he began to realise with some despair that his first great project overseas was poised to founder in bankruptcy before he had even set foot upon a ship’s gangplank.

As it turned out it was just this opportunistic extortion that ultimately proved his salvation. It wasn’t just Titus who was facing ruin. The Corinthian’s captain McGregor had exhausted his own funds in procuring a berth for several days longer than his tiny naval budget strictly allowed. Though his men were paid from naval coffers and his ship was maintained by the Navy for their use when needed, McGregor financed its survival largely from his own commercial activities. He plied a regular passage between Bristol and Dublin, a route that was no longer as competitive for ships of his class as it had once been since the blossoming ‘Triangle Trade’ had enticed most others of his size to join the lucrative cross-Atlantic transfer of West Indian molasses for English rum for West African slaves. But this lack of interest in the Dublin trade also reflected how tight the margin had become between success and disaster on a route badly hit by the trade sanctions that the crown had imposed on its Irish dominion. So fragile had Irish commerce become, and so notoriously bad payers had her importers become by the same token, that a cargo delivered outside the agreed time might be used as grounds for time consuming and expensive litigation by the Irish buyer, or worse, might not even find a buyer at all so great was the rate with which Irish importers now landed themselves in debtors’ prisons. By Thursday McGregor’s ship had already been loaded an entire two days, an unspeakably expensive risk to take for a man in McGregor’s position. Worse again, the weight of the cargo was also pressing on his ship’s timbers to a degree that alarmed him – in Bristol at low tide ships sat on the muddy bottom of the Avon and Frome rivers, and McGregor’s wouldn’t be the first ship in Bristol to literally explode under its own weight when moored too long. On top of that he was facing something of a mutiny from his crew, thirty very disgruntled men whose wages had not lasted them through even their first day, and who had since been virtual prisoners on board McGregor’s ship with little or nothing to eat and only rainwater to drink. With no end to the foul weather in sight he had therefore faced the inevitable and decided on the Friday morning to quit the city on the next tide. A message to that effect was left at The Cradle, the two passengers being instructed also to make themselves available and useful on the quay by noon. Titus, annoyed at being summoned at such short notice, did so however with a mixture of relief to be at last escaping Bristol and some real apprehension about the weather, which if anything was growing worse.

His mixed feelings were apparently shared by the crew, who muttered oaths and prayers in equal measure at each rain-sodden gust of icy wind that swept up from the open land downriver where the Avon emptied into the Channel beyond. The men’s relief at escaping enforced inactivity and starvation in Bristol was evident, but so too was the disconcerting fact that even to these hardened sailors the present weather was not one in which to embark on a sea crossing. As both he and Flitch helped to tidy and secure the decks prior to casting off, they each wondered if in fact the expenses of Bristol were perhaps quite as unreasonable as they had imagined. The ship swayed manically as they laboured, the incoming tide and a flooded Avon combining to hoist her well above a safe elevation on her moorings, and she jerked violently every time her halters snapped taut and strained to pull her back in. McGregor, ever mindful of the weight of his cargo, insisted that this was a good sign however as high waters meant all the earlier a departure. By two o’clock he had decided that the tide had risen sufficiently for the manoeuvre and he ordered the ship at last to be freed from her restraints. A reluctant pilot had been hired with a king’s ransom to escort them down the Avon and out to the great King Road, the line in the Bristol Channel favoured by vessels on their way out to the Irish Sea beyond, and so at a snail’s pace both vessels set off against the tidal currents and eased with great exactness through the melee of sleeping hulls tied three or four abreast along Bristol’s many quays. Sailors from other ships used poles to nudge The Corinthian when she threatened to bump their timbers and McGregor’s sailors raced from side to side to man the long oars that helped her with her more delicate manoeuvring. It seemed to take an eternity but finally they rounded the Clifton headland that marked the entrance to the Avon proper and at last the sails could be allowed to assist their motion. Normally the river on this stretch would be a seething forest of mast, rigging and canvas, more congested even than the approach into London and ever more dangerous as unscrupulous captains threw caution to the wind and vied in their haste to escape the Avon’s narrow channel and reach open water or to dock their ships at the city’s quays before the tide sank. That day however The Corinthian and her pilot were the only vessels to ply the waters and even the vicious wind served them well, pushing them at a brisk pace past the hamlet of Shirehampton, hard to larboard under the baleful stare of the cannon at Battery Point and then to starboard again, so that they joined the King Road just beyond Portishead at a rate of knots rarely achieved under half sail. It was a very grateful pilot at this point who was signalled by McGregor to return to port, and the shout was given for the remainder of the sails to be let down. With a lurch that sent all men to the rails for support, and with a screech of relief from the ship’s timbers to be at last unfettered by the restrictions they had too long endured, The Corinthian raced to join the wash waters of the mighty Severn – in this light a giant stain that ran like a river of black ink through the grey choppy waters of the Bristol Channel.

As Friday’s daylight had diminished and the crew settled into the arduous routine of wresting their hurtling vessel from the lure of the sandbanks and rocks along the Somerset coast, Titus had surrendered to his own uselessness and retreated to his bunk. The cabin however offered no solace, occupied as it was by a wretchedly sick Flitch whose fumes rendered the room’s air nauseating to breath, and in any case the mad rocking of the vessel made it a feat of strength just to stay in one’s cot without being hurled across to the opposite cabin wall. Resigned to a sleepless night no matter what he tried, he crawled back up to the deck where the weather was foul but at least the air was breathable, tied a lanyard round his midriff, threw an oilcloth over his head and shoulders and slumped down against the wall under the forecastle in as comfortable a position as one could achieve in such hellish circumstances and as out of the way as he could manage.

For the rest of the voyage he planned not to shift from that spot, save to relieve himself. The ship’s regulations required her guests to piss over the rails like the rest of her crew, but Titus had already commandeered a bucket for the purpose. In this weather a man’s piss could be his undoing and facing the wrath of a ship’s captain was an infinitely better prospect than facing one’s maker he reckoned. Nevertheless the presence of the slop bucket by his side, hanging on a nail and clanging like a demented clapper with every swoop and dive of the ship, served merely to accentuate the wretchedness Titus felt. In an effort to forget the misery of his circumstances therefore, and to help convince himself that this voyage despite all the auguries would end in Dublin and not at the bottom of the Irish Sea, he forced himself into contemplation of the tasks lying ahead, though even this was not without its miseries too. The mood of pessimism regarding his Irish venture that had descended on him in Bristol had not lifted in the slightest. If anything he was beginning to succumb to a series of doubts about the scope of the project and his suitability to the role. According to William Petty the island of Ireland was comprised of thirty five thousand square miles, with only a third of those redeemed from the wilderness and only a third of that third having in any way been mapped comprehensively in the past. Titus’ own studies of those charts that existed, including some rare excerpts from Petty’s own Down Survey of forty years earlier, had merely served to make Petty’s estimation seem overly optimistic. Outside of the lands long administered by the crown lay a hinterland shrouded in a mist of ambiguity, contradictory records, and in some cases absolutely no record of the terrain that lay beyond. The greatest omissions lay in those most mountainous regions that lay around the island’s perimeter and which gave Ireland the characteristics of a saucer in form Unfortunately this also meant that Titus’ brief of concentrating his efforts on the coastal terrain would involve charting those very areas around the island’s rim that had been shunned by others - and of that there had been good reason to shun them Titus had no doubt. These areas were also those where resided the vestiges of the country’s opposition to its English overlords, fierce and lawless types by all accounts, who had not only survived the great scourge that Cromwell had visited on the island but whose enmity to all things English had only been fuelled by the dictator to even greater heights. That he would need the army for assistance was certain, but even then he feared that he had volunteered for something from which he might well not return. Added to this fear was another, far greater. Was he competent for the job in any case? Even if he received nothing but courteous cooperation from all and sundry in his travels would he in fact be able to deliver the Navy a system of charts suited to their purpose? The job he had undertaken was on a scale that few mapmakers encounter in their careers. It would crave skills that in Titus had never been tested, the need to administer a large work force, the need to husband resources and transport them great distances, the need to trespass on countless men’s properties and the diplomacy or brute strength that such a demand entailed, the need to keep within a budget which already had consumed more in a few weeks than would normally last an entire summer in Titus’ usual surveillance work. It had been all very well to see the project simply as a mapping assignment and to be duly delighted when it had been offered to him on the basis of his expertise in that field, but what of all these other characteristics that the role demanded? Did he have them? Those questions were ones that Titus was beginning to fear that he knew the answers to, and as the wind whipped higher and freezing rain stung his cheeks, his own mood sank into a slough as sombre as the elements around him.
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Xartis Psyxis, Chapter 2 - "Deliverance" (part 1) :: Comments

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Xartis Psyxis, Chapter 2 - "Deliverance" (part 1)

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