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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 7 "The Hospital" (Part three)

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nordmann
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Join date : 2011-12-25

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PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 7 "The Hospital" (Part three)

From another man this might have sounded a mere sentimental plea. From Cormac it carried all the weight of a command. It was obvious to Titus that a refusal of this request carried with it a risk of something greater than simply disappointing his friend, especially after Cormac’s amazing admission in their converstaion. If, as he had said, the old man saw in Titus the man he himself might have been, had politics not robbed him first of his future and then of his past, then it was not just to the mapmaker’s conscience that Cormac was appealing. It was to the ghost of his own lost self that he had made his impassioned entreaty, and Titus knew full well how brutally honest one needed to be to make such a plea, and what exactly rode on the answer.
“I will talk to her,” he said quietly.
“Good.” Cormac rose and opened the door.

The dusk that had plunged Cormac’s little cell into gloom had all but robbed the corridor outside of light altogether, served as it was for that purpose by a series of three inadequate grills set high in the wall and far apart, through which daylight would have had trouble insinuating itself on the brightest of days. Even with Cormac’s oil lamp it meant that they had to walk with care. The slated floor was strewn with boxes and sacks containing bedding and other equipment intended for the dormitories when the hospital would begin later to fill up with veterans. Planks and girders, left over from the construction of the building, were still propped against walls here and there, treacherous to the misplaced step or the unheeding pedestrian. At last they approached a dark recess in the wall which Cormac indicated was the pantry where his ‘guest’ had been billetted. A heavy oak door filled the void, though workmen had as yet to affix a clasp or lock to it; such items were expensive and risked being purloined from a door to a room that was never used. But the oak timbers themselves provided security enough, as was evidenced by the effort it took Cormac – no weakling, even at his advanced age – to swing it slowly open. He stepped inside, held his lamp aloft, and cursed.

“Damn!”
“What is it?” Titus had stepped in after him.
“She’s gone!” The old man blew gently into the globe of his lamp to raise the flame, though the pantry was so small that no further illumination was required to confirm that Eoin Reilly’s daughter had obviously had second thoughts about her offer of a safe haven.
Titus could not deny that he was relieved to hear it but he chose to mask his sentiment. “Well, that is one mystery that will have to remain unsolved so. Maybe it’s as well. I have enough on my plate at the moment.”
“Aye, lad, maybe so,” though Cormac’s tone suggested otherwise. “The poor girl is beside herself with grief, and worse I fear. She was safe here, though she might have been too frightened to know it. May God protect the poor lassie,” he added, almost to himself.

Titus could see at once that Cormac’s concern for this stranger was heartfelt, and he immediately felt churlish for his own relief at her disappearance. He couldn’t know the person, and nor therefore hazard a guess to how she must be feeling, but it occurred to him that impatience might have played a part in her decision to quit herself of Cormac’s ‘haven’.“I’m sorry, Cormac,” he said as they stumbled their way back through the dark corridor to a door that would lead them into the open air. “You were right to offer her protection, of course, and if she had not fled I would indeed have had many questions to ask her, not least how she knew to follow me here and so get you embroiled in my prob....” With that he cracked his shin against a protruding girder and stifled a pained shriek. It was some moments before he could speak again and Cormac dutifully waited in silence, holding his lamp aloft to illuminate the offending projection – all too late for Titus’ benefit. When Titus next dared open his mouth there was an understandable tetchiness to his tone. “But tell me something. If it was your intention that we speak, why did you not bring me to her the moment that I arrived?”
Cormac indicated the door that he had sought and swung it open, waving Titus to limp his painful way out into the chill April air. Although it was almost completely dark outside he blew out his lamp and left it in a crook by the door. “Would you have spoken to her?” he asked.
“Of course,” Titus lied. He was not sure of that at all.
The old man thought for a moment or two. “Then maybe I should have,” was all that he said, before falling contemplatively quiet.

As they walked in slow silence along the gravel path that ran beneath the great windows of the hospital’s dining hall, the pain in Titus’ shin mercifully eased. With the relief came a sort of calm to his reason, and he found himself reflecting on his conversation with his friend. He realised that Cormac had done much more than simply provide a sympathetic ear to his troubles that afternoon. Gently, almost imperceptibly, he had helped Titus to arrive at some realisations about himself. It had been so long since another human being had expressed a real faith in him of any description that he had forgotten the feelings such an expression engendered. There was no doubt that it sponsored a sense of self-worth, or indeed even of happiness. But with that also came the sense of responsibility of honouring such trust. When Cormac, his childhood hero, had told him that he saw much of himself in the young mapmaker, Titus had at once been assaulted by a simultaneous barrage of overwhelming pride and no little trepidation that his old friend may not have been the judge of character that Titus had always assumed him to be. Yet such feelings were overshadowed by a great humility, indeed a shame, such as any man like Titus who holds a low opinion of himself is bound to experience when his assessment is flatly contradicted by praise from a better man. The humility arose from the pessimist’s fear that pride is ever the precursor to disaster, the shame from guilt at the certainty that one had misled the praiser, and would be equally certainly found out in the deception sooner or later. The cynic in Titus, a demon that always reared its unwelcome and unbidden head at such moments, inevitably sought to ameliorate that shame by questioning how earnestly the praise had been bestowed.

And then he realised - Cormac’s whole testimony that afternoon had been a test of sorts. All the talk of honour and loyalty, all the references to Titus’ worth as a man, and all those hushed admissions of admiration from Cormac had been designed to elicit something from the mapmaker, that much Titus was sure of. He knew in his heart that Cormac had meant every word he had said. He had not lied or exaggerated in order to achieve his aim. Nor was it in any case the content of the conversation that lay necessarily at the root of Titus’ unease, but simply the timing of it. On any other day, he was sure, the two would have sat as old friends after a long separation and bantered nostalgically of times past, the conversation rarely straying from their shared experiences as employees of his father. But Cormac had opted to mark their reunion with some extraordinary admissions, the almost rehearsed nature of which indicated that the old man had long stored them in his mind to be divulged when the opportunity and necessity allowed and demanded it. So why today? What had prompted the old man to choose this meeting, one that he only knew of some minutes in advance, to unburden himself of that long stowed cache of previously unexpressed thoughts? The answer lay of course in the two other extraordinary and connected developments that had preceded his visit – his conversation with the bearded castle man on Essex Bridge that he had relayed to his friend and the mysterious woman who had pursued him and then so captured the old man’s curiosity and sympathy just prior to his arrival. And therein lay the reason for the test. Cormac, he realised, had shrewdly sensed that whatever it was in which Titus had become involved carried some real risk and import, and had most definitely deduced also that the woman – no matter to what extent her troubles were connected with the rest of what had occurred – deserved their help. He had every intention of aiding this woman and wanted to see whether Titus was of like mind. But there was more to it than that. Cormac had not merely been testing Titus’ aptitude for sympathy. It was the mapmaker’s sense of duty also that had been tried that afternoon. Cormac, who had stated baldly that he had always admired the sense of justice that Titus had displayed even as a child, was probing to see if that quality had survived the younger man’s more recent years and all that had gone with them. That was why he had taken so long before bringing Titus to meet her. And from the fact that he now had done so, albeit with their bird flown and all Cormac’s cautions having proved irrelevant, Titus could only surmise that he had somehow passed his old mentor’s test. It pleased him, he had to admit, even as at the same time it brought many of his own assumptions about himself into question.

They had reached a point where the gravel path sloped sharply downwards towards the Camac river valley that marked the hospital’s eastern boundary. He paused in his step and the old man paused with him, his eyes fixed ahead as if scouring the darkness for a point on which to rest their gaze. He pointedly avoided meeting Titus’ look.
Titus addressed him neverthless. “There was more to your conversation with Miss Reilly than you have told me. Is that not so? ”
Cormac continued to scan the dark trees and bushes near the hospital gates for a few moments. “Aye,” he said, then turned to Titus. “But not much.”
“I’d like to know what it was.”
“Just a word. One you wouldn’t understand, but she used it to describe you.”
“Oh? Then perhaps you should explain it to me.”
“She said you were her father’s aithinn-athaithne. It’s a word from the old tongue. It’s the ember of a dying fire that is used to light a new one.”
“And you took her meaning?”
Cormac looked hard at Titus. “I think so, my boy. And I think you do too.”
Titus held the man’s stare, but not for long. He could feel the hairs on his neck rise and to mask his discomfort he turned abruptly and proceeded along the path to the gates, forcing his companion to keep up with him. A swirl of thoughts were racing through his mind, none of which would settle long enough to be realised, but the combined effect of which simply added to his unease. Eventually, in an attempt to marshal their chaos he applied the only technique that he had at his disposal in such situations, and which he had always relied on to avoid the misery of uncertainty. Like the roads and highways etched in fine lines on a map that revealed the logic of the placement of the towns and villages along their route, he had now to find the lines of logic connecting all that had transpired that day. There was no better way to start than to find out just what this mysterious woman had imparted to his friend.
“You found her hiding near the gates. What did she say when you apprehended her?”
“Very little. She came out meek as a lamb, in the end.”
“In the end?”
“Aye. I recognised her, as I said, and tried calling her by name but she still wouldn’t shift. Even the threat of being discovered by the Hospital sentries didn’t coax her out. It was only when I gave her my own name that she budged herself.”
“You gave her your own name?”
Cormac looked quizzically at Titus. “Sure isn’t it just manners?”
Titus felt reproached but ploughed on with his attempt to reconstruct his friend’s apprehension of Miss Reilly. “And when you say she was meek as a lamb, I assume that means that there was little by way of conversation?”
“Aye, at least up to when I got her into the shelter of the cellars beyond. Then she opened like a burst dam. Still not what you’d term a conversation. Then the problem was to sort out the story from the torrent of words.”
“And what did you learn from those words?”
“Not much that made sense, other than that I had someone beside herself with terror on my hands. But I did manage to work out that her father had been murdered, and that they are trying to pass it off as a suicide.”
“That last part is true, I fear. I was there when Captain Briar drew his conclusion.”

Suddenly it occurred to Titus that Reilly’s daughter must have been amongst the gallery of spectators at the warehouse door when he had told Briar just where he had intended to head that afternoon. If she was amongst that crowd, then that of course must have been how she knew to pursue him here. Then, almost as if he had stepped back from a mosaic so that the uniquely coloured tessera merged into a whole painting, other images vied in his memory to present themselves in support of this realisation. The mongrel that had trailed him along the Kilmainham Road, and the young hand that had deftly scooped the same dog back into the crowd assembled in Stanhope’s doorway. The beggar at DeLacey’s feet on Essex Bridge who had caused him to stumble as he left. All these pieces tumbled into place like the components of a lock simply waiting for the right key to be inserted. She had followed him to Essex Bridge from the warehouse, and then to here. It was the only explanation, of course, especially since Cormac said that she had only been coaxed out of her hiding place when she had learnt that it was he who was addressing her. She had known then that she was close to her quarry then, having learnt Cormac’s name from eavesdropping on the bridge, and had gambled on trusting the old man in the hope, most probably, that he would bring her straight to the man she really wanted to see. That hope must have dwindled and expired as she waited in the dark cellars of the hospital, until at last she had given in to her terror and fled. All the same, if the girl had been out of her wits, as Cormac claimed to have witnessed when he found her, then she had neverthless displayed some shrewd manoeuvres and a cool head up to that point. To have the concentration and stealth required to trail someone covertly with such ability, and so soon after being horrified witness to her own father’s corpse being cut down from its noose, meant that she had retained some portion of intelligence despite her ordeal, even if such coolness was not reflected in how Cormac reported her terror-stricken demeanour. But then, a person suffering from the first shock of bereavement or trauma can often behave with remarkable coolness and efficiency for quite a period before the full realisation of what has occurred overwhelms them. Perhaps this was true also of Miss Reilly, whose arrival at the hospital gates had possibly coincided with that inevitable collapse into grief.

Of course there was always the possibility that Titus’ assumptions regarding her method of identifying him were completely incorrect. He attempted to verify them. “Did she have a small dog with her when she arrived here, Cormac?”
“No, leastways not that I found one, surely.”
Titus thought again. “Tell me, what led you to deduce that it was I of whom she spoke? How did she describe me exactly?”
Cormac smiled. “First as a friend of mine. Then as a man who shared her suspicions, and who was no ally of Briar. But she also said that you were an Englishman who made maps for a living, and she gave a fair description of your appearance too.”
So she had been on the bridge, and listening intently, it appeared. “And of course you asked how she knew all this?”
“Oh, I tried, my boy. But have you ever tried to interrupt a linnet mid-song and ask for the meaning of a note? Or to to ask a hurricane why it’s howling, for that matter? Sometimes you’ve no option but to put up with simply listening, and with young Miss Reilly that was about all I could do.”
“And the aha..., the atha...?
“Aithinn-athaithne,” Cormac spoke the words with relish.
“Yes, when did that enter the linnet’s song?”
Cormac’s smile deepened. “When I agreed that you were a good friend of mine, and that ...” The smile disappeared as his voice trailed off.
“And that?”
“That I was sure you would see your way to helping her when you came here.” He spoke abashedly. “That was when she said ... well, that you had the look of that spark about you.”
“I see. And you said?”
“That she wasn’t wrong.”

Titus let the comment go without a response, partly because he found the phrase laughably inaccurate, but mostly because he feared to hear why his friend had so willingly volunteered his services to the woman. Cormac’s assessment of his character was divergent from his own to the point of discomfort, as their conversation earlier had revealed, but it was equally uncomfortably based on informed and acute observation. That the old man might have justifiable reason in presuming Titus to be a more charitable soul than he presumed himself to be was not something that he wished to investigate right now. It was best, he felt, not to go down such a dangerous sidetrack where he might be forced to question his own cynical character. He had use for that cyncicism yet. Instead he pressed on with eliciting as much of his encounter as Cormac could remember or surmise about.

“Yet you could see of course that she knew of me rather than knew me?”
“I deduced as much.”
“And that she must have gleaned this knowledge only today?”
“Aye, I figured she’d been on your tail a bit.”
“So we can be safe in the assumption that our young lady is quite the spy. Devious even?””
Cormac seemed relieved that the conversation had shifted, though he also seemed a little annoyed by Titus’ question. “Indeed, or just a desperate wee lassie clutching at straws. Desperation can make a devious genius of the simplest soul. Terror is a great concentrator of the mind but has little concern for ethics. Ask any soldier who’s ever been in a tight corner and lived to tell the tale!”

Titus accepted Cormac’s defence of the woman, but retained his own private reservations about her. Whatever his friend might have assumed about her character, it was his assumptions regarding her motives that most interested him. “Aside from all this talk of embers and flames, did she actually say why she followed me? What does she want of me?”
“To warn you.”
“Warn me? Whatever of?”
“That I don’t know. But she told me several times to make sure you knew you were in danger.”
“Tonight? At this meeting to which I’ve been summoned?”
Cormac shook his head and shrugged at the same time, indicating that he doubted as much but would not swear to his conclusion.
“Well, did her warning mean anything, do you think?”
Cormac looked hard at Titus. “What do you think?”
It was Titus’ turn to shrug. “Well, I’ve rubbed a castle constable up the wrong way and met a man who disliked that I spoke to suspect barristers. But other than that I don’t think I’ve incurred any enemies who might dispatch me, not from today’s events in any case” He had not told Cormac the full facts regarding MacCarthy’s letter, or indeed that it had been described as a sentence of death. He was still finding it hard to believe that DeLacey had not been exaggerating its significance, with the sole purpose of encouraging Titus to attend their meeting that night. “She mentioned no names in association with her ‘danger’? MacCarthy, for example?”
Cormac thought for a moment. “Divil a one,” he answered eventually. “But if you ask me, I would say it was just because you stood up to Briar. I’d say it’s Briar that she fears, and she means only that you should fear him too.”
Titus wondered if that was all it could be. Cormac’s hesitation had caused him to suspect that his friend was not admitting all that he might have deduced from his interview with the young lady. “But what of these ‘pursuers’ that you said she spoke of? Did she not intimate what they might be, even if she would not say who?”
“Oh, I asked her alright. But that was when the words stopped and the howling began. I’m afraid that there wasn’t much after that which made much sense.”
“Nothing at all?”
“Well, not quite. There was the evidence of my eyes too, of course. I could see just by looking at the poor wretch’s appearance that there was more ill happened to her today than finding her father swinging from the rafters.”
“Oh? What do you mean?”
“Her clothes were scorched and ragged. And her poor hands were black and scraped almost to the bone. I pressed her on the reason and she spoke of a house razed to the ground last night. I assume it was hers, the poor divil. She uttered oaths I have rarely heard outside a barracks to the effect that she would skin the bastards who’d done it. When I tried to press further it was just like I was running brine into a wound, so I stopped.”
“And was there nothing more that you could tell from her?”
“Well, one thing is certain. Her threat to dispatch those who set fire to the house is no idle one, I can assure you! She’ll swing for them, and that’s a fact!” He realised the clumsiness of his last expression and reddened slightly. “You know what I mean, Titus. The girl might have a thinking head on her shoulders, but it’s a raging one, not a cool one at the minute. Just now I wouldn’t like to take my chances agin her if she were to hold cold steel betwixt us!”
“She gave no clue as to their identity, these arsonists?”
“None. As I said, by the time we got round to that little nugget of information it was embedded in total gibberish. Besides, even if the poor girl had the composure of a cardinal I doubt if I’d have learnt much more. Remember, it wasn’t me that she had come here to talk to. It was you, mo aithinn-athaithne. I’ve a feeling that she was only telling me a quarter of what she had in store for you. Remember, she has you down as a man living under the same threat as herself!” He sighed. “It’s a shame she flew before she had the chance to learn that she had guessed right in her choice of helpers. Poor dote!”

Titus, despite his reservations about Cormac’s last comment, could see that his friend’s remorse over letting his charge slip away was genuine, and Titus knew Cormac well enough to know that his old friend’s faith was never placed idly in others, or his affections won without merit. If Cormac, as seemed obvious, had nothing but sympathy for the girl’s plight and had suspected no ulterior motives for her actions, then Titus knew it would be foolish to question the man’s assessment of her character. He found himself privately wishing also that the young woman did indeed make good her escape from whatever threat it was that had driven her to such foolhardy acts of risk, and that the intelligence she had thus far shown not fail her. The thought brought another to mind. “Tell me one last thing Cormac, and I know I am asking you to guess. But you’re a man whose guesses I value more than many others’ erudite opinions. Do you think that Reilly’s daughter and I share a real threat?”
“Well if it’s Briar that’s the threat, then ye and half of Dublin share it. But if you ask me the girl is a bigger threat to herself at the minute than anything. She’s in trouble, that’s for certain, but without help she’ll only land in more.” He paused, choosing his next words with some care and stating them with purpose. “She’s not thinking clearly Titus, and she’s a rat in a corner. If you run into her, though I dare say it will be the other way round, I’d still keep my guard up. Do you know what I mean?”
“Of course”.
“Good, I’d hate to see harm come to either of you.”

The silhouette of the gates had appeared before them and Cormac again expressed some concern about Titus making his way back to town in the darkness.
“Don’t worry, Cormac friend, I’ll be alright. Despite this Miss Reilly’s fears for my safety, I reckon I’m able for whatever comes my way, even her! Falling foul of Briar may have been unpleasant, but I’m sure that’s the extent of it. And as for these mystery men tonight, well, I have more about me than my wits if it comes to a defence.” He patted his pocket where Cormac’s letter now lay and the old man smiled approvingly.

The gesture might have been designed to thank Cormac and assure him at the same time, even if Titus did not share his old mentor’s belief in the letter’s protective powers. But Titus’ confidence was not sham. He genuinely felt better, as he had known he would, for having spoken to a friendly face, even if their conversation had taken turns he could never have anticipated. The day’s events, he now rationalised, had been unfortunate, but there was no point in succumbing to fear on the basis of a rude constable’s remarks or on the wild claims of a terror stricken girl, however she had known about his movements. And as for the man on the bridge, well, the truth of it was that Titus had sought possession of neither of the documents that had so interested the stranger. Both had been thrust upon him, as it were, and if that was still to be taken to infer that he was in any way incriminated in some nefarious activity, then he would simply have to disabuse them of the notion that he was either complicit in, or even interested in, whatever intrigues such people are obsessed with. He would meet them as arranged, but only to let them know that despite whatever interpretations they might care to put on his character or activities, he was simply a mapmaker going about his commission, and if they did not accept that then they need only leave him be to let time show them the error of their judgement. If they still chose to disbelieve him, then they could go to hell. And if they tried to threaten him, then they would learn that they were dealing with a man who met such menace head-on.

A gust of wind caught one of the great iron gates in the darkness and shifted it slightly on its hinge. The squeal of metal on metal cut through the evening sounds of birdsong and the rustle of leaves. It immediately set both men’s thoughts on the same path. “Of course, those that might do you harm on the highway might not appreciate the subtlety of my gift to you,” Cormac said.
Titus reassured him. “I have thought of them too, old friend. I have something a little more powerful than pen and ink to throw at them, don’t worry.”
Cormac smiled. “Good to hear you don’t rely solely on your wits in a predicament, boy. If there’s one thing army life taught me, it’s that wit’s worth shit in the face of a barrel!”

Titus laughed, but Cormac hurriedly grew serious and shushed him by raising his hand sharply. For a moment the two stood in absolute silence, save for the slight rustling of the leaves in the night breeze, and the occasional flutter of wings in the branches above. Then there was the unmistakeable sound of a twig snapping in the undergrowth nearby. Cormac nodded silently to Titus and edged towards from where the sound had come, all the while slowly reaching into the deep pocket of his long frock coat. Titus expected a knife or cudgel to be produced, but was surprised to see the old man extract from his pocket a small piece of tattered white cloth, wrapped around something small and hard. With a theatrically slow movement he gently unwrapped the cloth to reveal a small cache of boiled sweetmeats, which he then equally slowly lowered in his hand to the ground. Another twig snapped, closely followed by two equally distinct sounds – that of a small animal scurrying to extricate itself from the foliage, and then a mumbled oath as someone in the scrub vainly fought to restrain it. With a bound, the very dog that had featured already twice in Titus’ day, appeared for its third performance and dived at Cormac’s hand with an excited yelp. The old man let it greedily lap up its treat, and gently rubbed its muzzle and neck with his free hand.

“Aren’t you the clever little thing?” he said soothingly, patting the small dog as it swallowed its sweet and sat panting for more. “But what a tongue you have! Did I not hear you utter a crude profanity just now before you emerged? Now, where did you learn such unholy language I wonder?” The dog cocked its head, as if contemplating how best to reply and Cormac laughed. “And isn’t it that you are the hungry one my little foul mouthed mhaidrín, and no mistake? Or is it that you have a friend with you in there who’s just as hungry, eh? If he’s shy then that’s too bad,” and then his voice rose sharply, “as I’m fierce curious now and I might just have to use this pike here to flush him out!”

Titus noticed the leaves rustle slightly at the old man’s words. So, his mysterious pursuer had not flown after all, merely found a hiding place for herself more to her satisfaction. She might not be able to see them in the darkness, but she could hear every word, it was plain, and in the darkness Cormac’s assertion that he held a pike in his hand must have seemed plausible indeed, so assuredly was it said. Just to add to his assertion, as he had been speaking, Cormac had gently lifted a small dead branch at his feet, and then with a mighty swing brought it crashing down on top of the bush. There was a loud cry of terror from within the depths of foliage and a body came darting out from its cover, tripped over Cormac’s extended foot, and ended up spread eagled on the ground. In a trice, Cormac caught her by the scruff of the neck and hoisted his quarry into a standing position, though ‘dangling’ might have been a better description of her stance as he lifted his victim clear off the ground with one hand. The dog, as surprised as Titus by the flurry of activity, set about leaping madly at his heels, agitatedly protesting the arrest of his companion.

The mongrel’s companion, as it turned out, was indeed a young lady, though that it was a lady at all was hard to discern in the almost nonexistent light and through the layers of grime on her clothes, hands and face. Her eyes flashed pure terror as she vainly attempted to wrestle herself from Cormac’s steely grip. His friend had been quite serious, it appeared, when he had warned Titus to be on his guard. Sympathetic and all as he might have been with her plight, he was taking no chances, and held her aloft at arm’s length as she grunted and kicked, with all the apparent ease of someone lifting a child’s doll. At last, realising that her efforts were futile, she calmed down and hung limply from his grip. The old giant promptly set her back on her feet, though he retained his hold on her scruff so that she could neither run nor collapse. Oddly, Titus noticed, although it was the giant who she had wrestled with, her gaze had never left his own throughout her apprehension and struggle.

Cormac spoke sternly. “Well, well, so we meet again, mo chailín deas! Excuse the manhandling, but given the manner in which you planned to introduce yourself, you must forgive me for checking that you were armed with nothing more lethal than this mongrel.”

She said nothing, but eyed Titus sullenly and then turned to pick up her dog. Cormac, whose words had been harsh, but whose voice had betrayed his concern, hoisted it for her into her arms and placed a consoling hand on her shoulder. “Now girl, I’ll tell you again. You have nothing to fear from myself or my companion here, but you should never have left the refuge I found for you, believe me. Scurrying around in bushes, and especially these bushes, is a sure way of getting yourself killed! Christ knows, by the look of you, you’re half way there already.”

She ignored Cormac and continued to stare intently at the mapmaker, with an expression that brooked no further flippancy from either man. “You found my father today,” she stated evenly, and then, as if her whole being and mind had been focused entirely on making that simple statement, she seemed to suddenly find herself at a loss for what to do or say next. For a few moments she merely froze, still gazing intently at the man for whom she had taken such pains to meet, but to whom she had now apparently nothing further to say. Her look, though a long one, was not hostile or indeed fearful, but nor was it vacant either. There was a great concern expressed in it, as if the next words uttered by her would matter almost beyond reason, and that therefore they should be selected with great care. Behind it, Titus could see that there was a struggle taking place in her mind, almost as if one part of it was visibly arguing with the other, though as to the nature of that struggle he could not even try to guess. He thought it wisest to let the struggle resolve itself, and neither to risk provocation or attempt consolation until he had heard from her own lips and in her own time what it was that she meant to tell him.

But instead the victor in the battle, when it was won, was simply her grief. First her shoulders began to shake slightly, then her eyes welled with tears, and finally the strength seemed to flood from her body in an instant and she fell in a heap at their feet, sobbing loudly. Her dog, startled into action, leapt from her embrace as she fell and landed none too gracefully on the gravel just before she herself hit the ground. The mongrel, recovering his bearings and finding his mistress lying beside him, softly nuzzled the hands that she clasped over her head, and all the while darted low distrustful looks at the two men who he obviously held responsible for her distress.

Between her increasing sobs and the dog’s low growls which threatened to erupt into a bark, both men feared that the little drama might elicit some unwelcome attention from the Hospital sentries, whose patrols were infrequent but who nevertheless would regard the poor wretch as a trespasser if they found her. Men, in a newly appointed position such as theirs and eager to impress their employers, would be little likely, Titus reckoned, to allow any latitude in the matter of arresting her, and whatever information he might glean from her would be lost to him completely should she be detained and sent to the cells at Newgate. The two men exchanged a quiet glance to indicate that each understood this growing risk. Then both dropped to their hunkers to address the woman and hopefully console her, or at least quieten her. It was as they did so that they both noticed with surprise, and a small oath from Cormac, a small knife lying on the ground, its dull sheen plainly visible against the grey gravel, and still very much within reach of the young lady. It seemed they each had the same thought in an instant – that her collapse was a dupe in order to surreptitiously find and retrieve her weapon, and both men grabbed to seize it. It had obviously fallen during her struggle with the giant, the noise of it hitting the ground covered at the time by that of her protests. Cormac’s earlier caution, it seemed, had been well justified.. But if she had feigned collapse merely as a ploy to collect her knife, then such was not borne out by her present demeanour. She still lay where she had fallen, weeping uncontrollably, and did not even seem aware anymore of the men’s presence, or indeed of the knife’s, let alone compete with them to reach the weapon first.

It was Cormac who picked it up smartly, ran his finger over the blade and then handed it apologetically to Titus. “My ould eyes aren’t what they used to be, I’m afraid, master Titus. You could do someone fair damage with this, right enough.”

Titus took it and let out a low whistle when he felt its weight in his hand. “Nor are my ears, Cormac, it seems. We make poor constables, the pair of us.” His wry quip disguised what he truly felt. Only moments before he had been congratulating himself on his readiness to counter all assailants. Now a mere slip of a girl had come within inches of murdering him, or so it seemed. Studying the weapon for a moment longer, he saw that it was a knife such as one would use to fillet fish - sharp indeed but unwieldy in a knife fight, more suited indeed to a kitchen than one’s personal arsenal. Nevertheless it would be potentially lethal if used on someone unprepared for its blow, and if it had not been for Cormac’s alacrity, Titus’ own lack of preparedness could have cost him his life in an instant. They had not seen it in her hand, or where she might have had it secreted in her garments, nor even indeed had they heard it fall.

Titus felt a shudder course through him, one prompted not so much by fear as concern, and indeed shame, for his own naivety. Anger at his own stupidity engulfed him as he grabbed her shoulder harshly and swung her around where she sat on the gravel, holding the weapon inches before her eyes. When she saw his rage her sobs subsided quickly, and her eyes focused on the blade before her. “For our ‘meeting’?” he asked quietly after a pause in which he had collected himself. This was no time for one’s mind to be clouded with anger, he knew. He needed answers from this woman, and fast. “Maybe this was not to be such a pleasurable encounter, at least not for me?”

She looked aghast at the knife, and alternately at the mapmaker, as if she half expected for it to now be used against her. As the seconds passed however, and she realised that it was only his question that she should fear, her look of terror abated completely to be replaced by one of acute embarrassment. “It was important that you tell me what I need to know.” She answered meekly.
“Obviously. And what was that, pray?” He spoke softly as he pocketed the knife, still scanning the gloom for the sight or sound of approaching guards, and awaited her reply.
She fell completely silent, then swallowed hard and audibly inhaled a long breath, much as one might do to concentrate the mind and prepare the body immediately prior to executing a task set to tax both to their limit. The voice that eventually emerged was surprisingly even in tone, though spoken with great effort it seemed. She pulled herself into a seated position on the wet earth, clasped the dog tightly to her waist, and spoke almost as if repeating words that had been learnt by rote. “Eoin Reilly, my father, you found him. He was murdered, and you know it. I need to speak with you.”
“So I have surmised. But why hide in the bushes, and why the weapon? Is this how you normally go about making enquiries from a stranger?”
“No sir.” She mumbled the last comment but added nothing else by way of answer or explanation, lapsing instead into a sullen silence, and avoiding the two men’s eyes. Her grip on the dog tightened and she shuddered violently, at which Cormac put his arm around her and hoisted her effortlessly to her feet, still clutching her dog. She stood unsteadily, so Cormac continued to support her, and though she furrowed her brow as if struggling to prepare another comment, the only sound that now came from her was the chattering of her teeth in the cold, and a small sigh as she stumbled to maintain her balance. The mad energy that had driven the poor creature all day was obviously all but spent, and the chill night air was making itself felt. Her ragged clothes, even if intact, would have been barely adequate cover on a warm summer day. In the chill damp of an Irish Spring night they were hardly cover at all. The old man slipped his frock coat from his shoulders and draped it over hers. Then he looked across at his companion. “Not your usual class of an assassin, is she?” he asked, and his comment was stated, Titus noticed, without the slightest hint of levity.

Titus regarded their ‘prisoner’ and then realised that to her it must be just that - an arrest. It struck him that he must now decide, as the apprehender, how next to proceed. A plethora of thoughts ran through his mind. A part of him still very much wanted simply to let his prisoner on her way, hopefully chastened by her experience, and for him to go on as planned to whatever awaited him that evening in town. But another part of his mind, that part which was slowly awakening to the real dangers of the situation he was now in, advised otherwise. This after all was Reilly’s daughter, and if he had interpreted rightly the words of DeLacey on the bridge, then he himself had come close to being arrested for complicity in the man’s death by an over zealous constable – someone who had been restrained from exercising his zeal only by this mysterious stranger’s influence. When he had heard this, Titus had not given DeLacey’s claim much credence, thinking it was, like his interpretation of MacCarthy’s letter, simply a ploy to convince him of the urgency and necessity of tonight’s meeting. After all, no time at all had elapsed between him leaving the warehouse and then meeting this stranger and his colleagues on Essex Bridge, let alone time enough for them to instruct Briar one way or the other. In fact, it was doubtful that DeLacey could even have properly known of the discovery of Reilly’s corpse when they met, except perhaps in the sketchiest of detail, such as filters by word of mouth through the crowds on the street in the immediate wake of some public sensation such as this one.

Besides, there was another aspect to the scenario that proved DeLacey’s comment a lie, at least in Titus’ mind. If Briar had really intended to arrest him later in connection with Reilly’s demise, as DeLacey had implied, then why had the captain stated for all to hear at the warehouse that he regarded the man’s death as a suicide? Of course the truth was probably that neither Briar nor DeLacey could be trusted to tell the truth, nor even probably trusted to behave with any logic bar that which served their own nefarious purposes. All Titus knew for certain was that whatever had transpired, he himself was now part of it in their eyes, whether he wished it or not. It baffled him that this was true, and how quickly things had come so to pass, but it was a riddle that instinct warned him he would walk away from at his own peril. It was time to make some enquiries of his own, and before him was the one person who might provide him with an answer.

She had told Cormac that she feared for Titus’ safety. Of course her claim could have been motivated by the simple desire to enrol the protection of a potential companion by encouraging him to feel as threatened as she was. But if that was so, then why had she settled on him – a complete stranger who could as easily scoff at her attempts to enrol him to her cause as to take her warnings seriously? On the other hand, she had placed herself at considerable risk to impart this message, and this suggested that she was something more than a young girl simply reaching out for aid in blind panic, but rather someone who deserved at least a hearing, and required all the more to be interrogated in an effort to deduce her true purpose.

He could see that Cormac was silently imploring him to end his questions and let the girl rest, and a part of him wished that he could do so, but another part forced him to continue. This was no time to let compassion relax one’s vigilance, or sympathy lead one to lose the chance of learning what one needed to know. Another mistake could be one’s last. There was more at stake here than the discomfort of this poor wretch. Besides, the thought that she had armed herself for this encounter was still playing on his mind. No, her relief could be stalled another few minutes. There were still questions to be answered. He softly suggested that they step out from the grounds of the hospital and out on to the open road, away from the threat of sentries.

She complied meekly, disconsolately accepting the support of his hand on her elbow, and as their small group walked slowly between the great granite gateposts he attempted to inject a note of conciliation in his voice as he stated from the outset his stance with regard to helping her. “I found your father today, yes, and believe me, I am sorry for you. But I swear that I know nothing beyond this. You have wasted your day in pursuit of me, I fear, if you think I can add to what you might know or suspect already.” He saw her head sink further and pressed his enquiry before she might be lost again in tears. “But why pursue me? And in the manner you have? I would have told you the same had you asked me in the street.” She looked up at him. Now that he could see her well he could, despite himself, feel little other than pity for her. Even as she struggled to portray equanimity, a task made all the more difficult by the bizarre circumstances in which they all had met, her eyes could not fail to convey a real terror and confusion at her predicament. This was a young woman, Titus reckoned, who would normally pride herself on her demeanour and was now embarrassed by her own grief and pitiable circumstances. Likewise, her unkempt appearance – skin and clothes blackened by soot and grime, her hair matted with rain and mud – could not disguise that this was also a person of some intelligence, a supposition confirmed immediately by her manner of speaking and the way in which she held his gaze as she did so.

“I fear for my life sir. If you had no hand in my father’s death, and I believe you didn’t sir, then I fear for yours too.”
“You’re not the first person to be concerned for my safety today. But I assure you I merely found your father by chance. Rueful chance. But you have not answered my question. Why the cloak and dagger?” He glanced at Cormac’s great frock coat that dwarfed its occupant within. “Or at least the dagger?”
Amazingly, she smiled in acknowledgement of his poor jest. But then her features hardened again. “He was murdered. They will say now that he killed himself but I know he was murdered. And so do you.” She swallowed hard to conceal a sob and her voice immediately dropped again to a more measured and purposeful tone. “I need to know the truth. I saw the way you spoke to that bastard Briar – you did not agree with him when he said that my father …” Her voice trailed off and she swallowed hard again to avoid more tears. Titus was not getting as direct an answer to his question as he might wish but he thought it best to let her continue at her own pace. She looked up again. “But I also saw the way that he spoke to you, sir. There was menace in the voice, hatred even. I could hear it.”
“Maybe so, but with a man like Briar that may be motivated simply by a dislike for being contradicted, and I’m afraid that is exactly what I did, and before an audience too.”
“No, sir. A man like Briar would normally use force there and then to indicate his displeasure if that was the case. With you he devoutly wished to, but was restrained by something.”
“My station in life perhaps? He knows I am employed by his own employers. Such quarrels are best avoided in public, and even thick heads like Briar know it.”
“No, it was something else. I know Captain Briar, sir. And I know there is only one thing that would inhibit his nature so. It was fear that stayed his hand, not respect.”
“Fear? Is that not a little ...?”
She interrupted him. “I knew not why. But I am gambling that it is something that makes you my ally, and not a foe. When I saw you speak to Ormonde’s man, I felt safer in that gamble, believe me.”
“Ormonde’s man?”
“On the bridge. If you have the ear of DeLacey then get me to see Ormonde, I implore you!”

Titus was impressed. Given the woman’s ordeal, she was showing remarkable perception, even if her conclusions were growing a little far fetched. However, if she saw him as a ticket to gain an audience with Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant, then it was time to gently disabuse her of the notion there and then. He attempted to bring the conversation back round to a more realistic footing. “I am afraid that you overrate my connections, Miss Reilly. It is simply as I said, I fear. I think it most likely Briar was riled chiefly over my, eh, rather public insistence that your father did not take his own life.”
If she was disappointed, then she did not immediately show it, or else had simply willed herself not to hear what he had said. “And believe me sir, I am grateful to you for stating it so openly to Briar. It saved me from screaming those very words to the bastard. If I had, I would now be dead, I am sure of it.” She pulled the coat tight around her, as if the very thought had chilled her, or the full implication of what he had told her sank in. “So you can’t get me to Ormonde?”
“No.”
“A letter, even?” spoken with an undisguised desperation.
“Not even that, I am sorry. I would be a knave to say that I could even try. About the best I could offer would be that I deliver the letter to his staff.” He could see at once from her expression that the suggestion met with her disapproval. “I am truly sorry, but I am not the help that you thought me to be.”

A carriage chose that moment to pass, its bright oil lamps and an entourage of four riders indicating that it contained someone of importance. They stepped into the deeper gloom against the wall and kept their silence as it trundled by, giving Titus time to regret having been so definite in his refusal to honour her request. What he had said was the truth, but he knew that he had cut her to the quick with his statement. She would be thinking now that all her efforts that day, and the great perils that she had faced, had been in vain. Her devastation at this would likely mean an end to their interview, and that he had lost his chance to discover that which he wished to know. He silently cursed the interruption of the carriage as the procession of horsemen finally passed into the darkness of the road beyond and wondered how on earth he might coax her to answer more of his questions, but to his amazement it was she who broke their silence. “Perhaps you might still help me. You were very sure of yourself when you spoke to Briar, I saw that. You were more than certain it was no suicide. What think you then, sir, of my father’s death?”

Cormac, prompted by the fact that they had been all surprised by the arrival of the carriage, suggested at that moment that he should walk a small bit up the lane to give warning of more travellers on their way. Titus agreed, and contemplated her question before replying. In fact, he realised, she was asking him almost the very question that he wished to put to her, but he decided her query merited an honest reply nonetheless. “I am afraid that I have no idea why...”

“That is not what I am asking you,” she interrupted him. “I mean only that you tell me your impressions of what you found today, that is all. You are a man who fashions understanding from seeing things that others merely look at. That much I know. ” He was surprised at her candour, and even more surprised at her hunger for his analysis of the scene of her father’s death. She detected this and added, “I implore you, sir. Your opinion is important to me. Spare me no detail you think I might find unpleasant. If you truly would be of help to me, then say what you thought. What you think.”
“That it had all the hallmarks of a recent murder, indeed, as I said, and one with some measure of predetermination too.” He paused, checking her features for distress or discomfort caused by his remark. Her expectant look however confirmed that she had indeed been serious in what she had said, and now waited for him to continue, so he pressed on. If an analysis was what she wanted, then he would give it, and on his long walk out from Dublin that afternoon he had had time to compile quite a thorough one in his mind. “Your father’s corpse was cold, but as yet had not stiffened in death, so I reckon that myself and Stanhope found him a matter of only a few hours or so after his life expired. He had bruises to his face and arms in a manner that indicated a struggle. But he also had scratches and cuts on his face in which the blood had long congealed. If they had happened in the struggle then the fight had occurred some hours before his death again, possible even a whole day before.”

Her eyes showed that his deductions were being mentally noted, each conclusion receiving a slight and involuntary nod from his audience. “Some suicide,” she muttered.
“I agree. The wounds alone should have indicated to Briar that this was never a simple suicide. And there were other obvious indications too. The crates used in the hanging had been moved afterwards to the wall, though I admit I had disturbed this evidence by the time Briar appeared. What he pointedly failed to wonder at though was why a man taking his own life would necessarily go to such trouble to hang himself in the centre of the room, when the rafters reach from wall to wall and could be accessed more readily where the crates were already stacked. But even that wasn’t all, and an army man such as Briar should have noticed it too. The knot used was a slip knot that I know well from stowing equipment on army wagons - secure, but not the makings of a good noose. Nevertheless, only a man skilled in knots could tie it, and a man skilled in tying knots would not choose to use it when hanging himself.”

There was no denying that it felt extremely satisfying to be allowed to express his deductions to an interested party, but he suddenly realised where his enthusiasm was leading him. Despite her request not to spare her feelings, he therefore stopped his summation abruptly and chose not to elaborate further on what he had surmised as he had struggled to loosen the cord around Reilly’s neck. It was the knot that had confirmeded his suspicion at the time that this was no ordinary murder. A jerk, such as that produced when the weight of a man jumping from a height pulled the rope tight, would have without doubt caused the knot to tighten immediately but without closing the noose. The intended suicide, in other words, would have simply slipped through the loop and crashed to the ground, his only injury being possibly some rope burns to his jaw and cheeks. Yet it had indeed closed, and that meant only one thing – someone else had applied the tension in a controlled manner. Of that he had no doubt. This man’s death had been intended to be a slow one – not one that an intelligent man determined to kill himself would normally opt for by choice. The rope was of a type favoured by cargo handlers, and one that Titus was very familiar with from transporting equipment – with an elasticity that made it universally useful in securing bundled goods of any given shape. It was strong enough to suspend a man by the neck, surely, but not rigid enough to break the neck necessarily, nor indeed even to strangle one quickly. Instead, the tightened noose would have slowly restricted first the blood flow to the head, long before that of the air to the lungs. That blood which got into the head would be prevented from leaving again, and the veins would have literally exploded, one by one, with the pressure from within. The blackened and blotchy face scarred by a thousand burst blood vessels under the skin, and the bulbous bloodshot eyes protruding grotesquely from their sockets in a look of almost comic surprise bore witness to his ordeal – and it beggared the imagination to know what horrors the poor man must have undergone on such a protracted, and painful, journey to his end.

But his all too obvious abandonment of his forensic assessment had only seemed to confirm these very facts in her mind. “My father was executed, and slowly, wasn’t he?”
“Yes.” There was little else he could say to soften the blow.
“Do you think it was to make him reveal something? Was he being tortured to elicit information?”
The girl was cool, Titus allowed her that, and she was obviously ready to hear the worst, or so wanted him to believe, but this was a question that he could not answer delicately, even if he had wanted to. “I couldn’t say. The beating he received could indicate it, and even the method of hanging might have been...” he faltered.
“Drawn out over a long time,” she finished his sentence for him. “I said to spare me nothing, sir, and I meant it. Might the knot have been one that was released again and again to give him a hope of life and an opportunity to answer?”
He nodded. “But I stress that this is merely conjecture on my part, ma’am.” It was the first time that he had addressed her with the proper civilities, he realised, and at the same moment he also realised that the intended roles of questioner and questioned had been reversed. It was time to resume control of their discourse. Time was pressing, and there were things that he still needed to know from her. “But you were there at the door, Miss Reilly. You saw that I was given no opportunity to relay these deductions to the good captain. Which brings me to another question. Why did you not make yourself known? He was hardly going to arrest you for the murder, no matter how dim or malevolent the fool might be, especially having so publicly declared a suicide. And forgive me if I am wrong, but it would seem to me that so public a scene as had developed outside Stanhope’s warehouse would have afforded you the best guarantee of safety if, as you say, Briar intended you harm.”
She shuddered, but did not answer.
“This fear for your life. It does not involve just Briar, does it?”
She nodded.
“And the menace from these … people that you fear, you say it applies to me too?”
She nodded again.
“Well then, if it is a threat that we both share, you must inform me of it more fully. Come, start by telling me what happened today. Take your time.”
Her brow furrowed, and then, despite his instruction, her reply came out in an eruption of words. “I got a message to meet him there. A stranger approached me at the ruins of my house and told me that my father wished to see me immediately at his place of business. I didn’t stop to think, I just ran like the wind down to Capel Street. They told me there that he had not been to the office but to try the warehouse on the quay. So I ran there, and then I saw the crowd and my heart froze, I…” Her voice trailed off but she quickly mastered her mounting depair. “But I could say nothing.”
“Because of this threat that you feel from your pursuers? You show great presence of mind, if I might be so bold to suggest. One that almost defies belief.” It seemed strange to Titus that anyone could ever maintain a silence in such a gruesome and shocking circumstance as Miss Reilly had found herself in, no matter what threat she imagined might be hanging over her.

She held his gaze for a moment before answering, obviously weighing her words with great care beforehand, assessing just how accusatory his statement had been before imparting them. Eventually, in a voice so quiet that it was hardly audible she answered his allegation.. “No. I’ll tell you what defies belief. My father used to laugh at the man who said that all the world’s a stage, and we all just actors on it. It may be a stage, he said, but the clever ones amongst us are those who choose to be the playwrights – like the man who coined the phrase himself! I thought I knew what he meant, until now. You see, I’ve been nothing but an actor in someone else’s play long enough – or worse, merely a bloody spectator to it! But that has changed for me now. I have no script left to follow but my own. My spectating days are over, whether I ever wished them to be or not. The role that my character played has been expunged from the plot, and the playwright would end my life with it! Believe me sir, my fears are well justified. Those who killed my father will kill me too if they find me. But that is in their play, and not mine any longer if I can help it. In mine I have a new role, and one that I am determined my character lives to fulfil!”

Eloquently put, thought Titus, but not quite an answer to his question. Nevertheless, he must take her at her word, and that her fear of these men was genuine. But there was something else to be ascertained. Whether her pursuers were imagined or not, she had said more than once that he should fear them too. It was time that he found out of whom she spoke. “And do you know who these men are? Were any of them there? Is Briar himself one of these that you suspect?”
She nodded her head, answering all three queries at once, but answering nothing at the same time.
“Must I threaten you myself before you tell me who they are?” His frustration revealed itself in his harsh tone, and she winced at the words. Her cool evaporated and she slumped against the wall, dropping down to her hunkers, and holding her dog tight against her chest. “I do not know their names.”
Her comment was spoken in the meek tones of a child guiltily admitting a misdemeanour. He suddenly felt a pang of sympathy for the poor woman, and anger with himself for being so harsh. However cool headed she had succeeded in being, there was no escaping the fact that the person before Titus was a shattered remnant of someone who once was. She had been through an experience, the full effect of which must yet hit her, and despite her bravado and talk of seizing the reins of her destiny, at heart she was a wounded child, suffering from one of the cruellest blows that life could ever offer, and in all honesty, was probably attempting to put on a brave face because there was simply nothing else she could do. What must the poor woman have felt as she saw her father’s lifeless body suspended from the rafters, and then, constrained by terror, find herself unable to do much but stare on in muted horror? Her ability to hold her tongue at that moment defied understanding, but that might merely be because she herself could not understand it either. He hunched down beside her against the cold granite stones of the hospital wall, aping her own posture, and for a while they both sat in silence – she obviously on the point of total collapse, and he wondering if it might not be best to leave the woman be. But he could not, and he knew it. Her warnings for his safety were too vague to be useful, but they were as real as one was ever likely to hear, and he would be a fool not to deduce their full meaning, or as full as he could ascertain from her. He attempted again to steer his interrogation back to a less disturbing, and more informative, track. “I’m sorry. Look, I believe you, Miss Reilly. But it’s important that you tell me what you do know. Let’s get back to what happened today. Shall we?”
She nodded.
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Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 7 "The Hospital" (Part three)

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