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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 8 "The Commission" (part 2)

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nordmann
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PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 8 "The Commission" (part 2)

Titus had not given it much thought before, but he could acknowledge that DeLacey had a point in what he said. The impending end of a regime must inevitably bring with it a frenzy of activity on the part of politicians to attain power, or even simply to retain it perhaps, as the favourites and pets of the old king are discarded and vacancies open for those of the new incumbent. A long period in which the king ailed before he died would certainly prolong this activity, and make it all the more intense no doubt. But to class it as rebellion was surely a little far-fetched, however disrespectful it might be to a monarch not yet departed from his station. DeLacey however pursued his point further.

“I spoke of loyalty. You must understand that the presence of loyalty in itself means nothing either, especially today. Each man it seems now has his own definition of what it means to be loyal, and where each man is given the freedom to pursue his own way in this regard chaos will inevitably ensue - an abhorrent chaos, abhorrent to the principle of monarchy, abhorrent to the rule of law, abhorrent indeed to nature itself in that it contravenes a central law as irrefutable as any which Newton or Boyle might have deduced; the integrity of any system, just as with any matter, cannot long survive its particles suddenly choosing for themselves in which direction they will rotate around its core. Worse, when a king himself has made it a policy never to favour one brand of loyalty over another and to keep even his closest friends guessing whether or not they have retained his favour then that chaos is merely multiplied a thousand fold. To us men who value laws and logic it can even appear as madness, and we have seen in recent years where this madness has already led – suspicion piled upon suspicion, accusation upon accusation, with only ever a hint from the king and his court that one day a decision will be made as to who had the right of it. Now it appears that answer will never come, and so the chaos multiplies untrammelled. Do you concur?”

“I take your point.” Titus said it tactfully, but he meant it. The madness DeLacey spoke of had touched his own life too. Only last year he had lost a valuable army commission when the officer who had hired him was named by a desperate defendant in a court case in London as a conspirator in a plot to murder Sir Francis Bramston, Baron of the Exchequer. Titus had very nearly found himself under suspicion also, merely because he had been seen meeting with the captain in The Nag’s Head Tavern on the day that he had received his survet particulars from the man. In the end it turned out that Bramston, obviously unbeknownst to the accuser, had actually died peacefully of old age in his bed some days before. Not only that but Bramston’s grandson turned out to be a good friend of the captain concerned and could vouch for his character and status as a friend of the family. In the face of these facts the defendant and his case crumbled in court, and he admitted the entire accusation had been a ruse to deflect attention from his own crime. A few short years before such a ruse would almost certainly have worked too with the courts eager to pardon anyone who could provide ‘evidence’ of a Catholic conspiracy against the crown, be it substantial or not, such was the frenzy that followed Oates’ supposed revelations. But even now it was not without its effect – the belated vindication of his total innocence was not enough to get the captain his old position back. Just to have been associated with a plot, however unjustified, had been enough to frighten his patrons. The captain’s career was over, and with it, Titus’s assignment.

DeLacey could see that his statement had found understanding and even some agreement from the mapmaker. “Good,” he said, “because many are blind to what I speak of. They see only the cosmetic unity on the outside, as it were. In fact it is to the credit of our monarch that such a semblance of unity prevails, even if he himself has been responsible for many of the divisions that it masks. He has encouraged rivalry throughout his reign, but rivalry begets rivalry and now the biggest competition of the lot is about to begin, the rivalry for the kingship itself.” He paused. “It is essential that you understand this point, and that you understand it to be true, Mr Perry.”
“The king has many detractors, I admit, but no rivals that I know of.” Titus’s response brought a sigh from DeLacey.
“Would you really know if he had? But you are right of course. Our king may not, but his crown has most certainly engendered rivalry, especially in the matter of whose head it will sit on next. Now are you with me?”
“You are speaking of a succession battle.”
“Exactly, Mr Perry.”
“And you say that it has already commenced?”
“I am.”

By now Titus had become convinced that DeLacey was deliberately employing exaggeration to his own ends, and he was no longer sure that he wished to hear what those ends might be. “The king has named his successor and parliament has long ago sanctioned it, or so I – and the rest of England – have been led to understand. Are you about to tell me that we have all been duped?”
DeLacey laughed. “King James died in the belief that his successor was approved by God and parliament. He would have done well to check that a certain farmer from Huntingdon approved of his successor in equal measure!”

An uncomfortable silence descended, and it was Arran – apparently recovered from his earlier pique – who broke it with a sudden, and unexpectedly jocular, interjection. “As Bradshaw said to our good king’s own father; ‘The crown may be immortal, sir, but as you will learn, the head that sits beneath it is not!’”
Titus, who had heard the joke before and had never found it very amusing now found it simply ugly, not to mention irrelevant to the conversation. He could hear Flitch however, despite his earlier bad humour, stifle a snigger beside him, and even DeLacey smiled at Richard Butler’s crude intervention. But Sir John’s apparent appreciation of the jest was short lived. The man was a consummate diplomat, Titus could see. “Quite, Sir Richard,” DeLacey interjected, his smile dissipating at a rate measured not to offend, “but it’s the mortality of the head now beneath the crown that concerns us, Mr Perry, as I said. More to the point, it’s the head that will replace our monarch’s which is ultimately responsible for our own little parley here tonight.”
Titus had had enough of DeLacey’s double-speak. “This is no parley, sir, as well you know. A conversation gives both parties opportunity to impart. This ‘parley’ of yours gives me none. I am not at liberty to terminate it, or I would, so I would request therefore that you simply get to the end of whatever it is that you want to say and so can we all go home. I have no interest in the king’s poor health, or in whoever wants to take advantage of it. I merely want to go about my own business in peace.”
DeLacey shot Titus a steely look, but quickly recovered his demeanour. “Your attitude is understandable, but it is uninformed. You would be wise to hear me out.”
“My own wisdom tells me I have heard enough.”
“That is not wisdom. It is your instinct to avoid danger, and it is right. But we both know that to act on instinct alone is a childish thing and can simply lead a man from the danger he avoids to another greater one.”
“I felt in no danger until I met you, Sir John.”
DeLacey frowned. “But you were that. The letter you received today would have led you right into it.”
“So you say, but you have not told me why. In fact I understood from what you said earlier that this indeed was the point of our meeting tonight, not to chat about kings and thrones and the vain ambitions of politicians. If you will have me trust you and your assertions of danger, sir, you could do well to inform me further of that issue. And by that I mean now.”

The two men across the table exchanged the briefest of glances, as if DeLacey was seeking confirmation from his partner that he could speak of the matter. He then continued haltingly, choosing his words with care. This was not a topic he had prepared himself to discuss, at least yet, and it was obvious that Titus was about to receive only as much information as would be needed to satisfy his demand. “The magistrate Wilson is not a man you would wish to cosy up to, Mr Perry, as his business rivals have discovered to their cost in the past. Better put, his business rivals’ families have discovered to their cost. The rivals, should we say, have simply disappeared. But he does not restrict his activities to business matters, and lately he has applied himself with equal endeavour to another little project. It is political, as you have guessed I am sure, and you deserve, indeed require, to know more of it eventually, but not right now.”
Titus was not to be so easily fobbed off. “And MacCarthy is involved in this project also?”
“Wilson has a hold over MacCarthy. That we know, and I will return to that affair later. I apologise, but I must insist that you hear me out on the other matter first. It may seem irrelevant to you now, Mr Perry, but I guarantee that by the time you leave here tonight you will understand that it is anything but.” Titus said nothing, which DeLacey took as a tacit assent to his request. “Thank you, Mr Perry. Now, I have alluded to a contention amongst those with a vested interest in the close of this regime and the beginning of the next. You might think it an academic point, but it is as salient to your welfare as the Wilson business, and very much related. Tell me, Mr Perry, who is next in line to wear the crown?”
“His brother, James.” said Titus.
“Yes indeed, and why is the crown being handed from one to another within the same generation?”

Titus disliked this sudden line of questioning which smacked again of condescension but he decided it best to respond all the same. “The king has no legitimate heirs of his own progeny,” he answered like a dutiful schoolboy reciting his lessons, “So James is the logical and rightful choice?”
“Wrong on both counts, Mr Perry. As you rightly infer, our good king has littered his land with many bastard claimants to his money, if not his throne, and the latter proposition is not as strange as it may sound. After all, to many in parliament and elsewhere James is neither a logical nor is he a rightful heir to the English throne. There is a slight question regarding his religion for one thing. You are aware he is Catholic?”
“Yes, but surely that’s a matter which only offends the Whigs, and since Charles disbanded his parliament their voices are, I’d say, more than muted.”
“A whispered word can carry more clout than a shout,” DeLacey replied. “And it is more than Whigs who are repulsed by the Duke of York’s religion.”
“Does it really matter all that much? Once James himself dies, the throne will be his daughter’s and so be Protestant again. Is it so important where the king kneels to pray in the meantime?” Titus, like the bulk of the citizens of his adoptive city, had always seen the issue of religion as very much a secondary one to the real purpose of life. The rest of England could bring itself to ruination, if it so wished, squabbling about how best to worship a God who seemed infinitely less concerned about His followers’ welfare than they were about His preferred mode of reverence. Titus belonged however to a class of people, typified by the level of London society he inhabited, who held the issue as settled and in any case inferior to that of subsistence. If men expended as much energy on the creation of wealth for themselves and the commonwealth as they did on religion, the merchant class argued, then many of the ills that drove men to the church for solace in the first case could be solved through more earth-bound means. It was a pragmatism that Titus had always believed in, and he had found to his great pleasure when he moved there that London was populated with men of like mind. The city might be a hotbed of hatred towards all things Catholic amongst the bulk of its indigents, its labourers and those politicians out to establish a name for themselves in the shortest available time, but while matters of religion were guaranteed to tax the brain and raise the passions over a beer in the evening, in the cold light of dawn Londoners would always return to the priority of making a living.
“To the man who grasps his ledger as tightly as his prayer book, perhaps it means nothing,” DeLacey replied, “but the rest of us would be well advised to mark the location of the king’s knees when he communes with his creator. And here in Ireland all the more so, where even a balanced ledger is poor defence against ruin for a great many people, and yet more are forced to live lives where unless a ledger is edible it serves no purpose whatsoever. I trust you can deduce what I mean for yourself.”
“I understand that the country holds many poor Catholics, of course.”
“Yes, quite. Their poverty is exceeded only by their disgruntlement, and both are multiplied to an alarming extent by the sheer weight of their numbers. William Petty has estimated that number to be almost ten times those of their Protestant neighbours. And that does not include those breeding on the margins of our land where English rule prevails in name alone and the Lord alone can count his flock. But you can be sure of one thing, Mr Perry. The choice of chapel an English king attends is something they are all very interested in, very interested indeed!” He paused, as if to let the significance of his remark sink in. “Yet the observer could be forgiven for thinking that these people do not exist at all. Petty reckons that only an eighth part of our people here can speak a sentence of English, but in the short time you’ve had to wander the streets of this fair city, can you tell me how many words of Gaelic you have heard?”
Titus thought of his meeting with Cormac but said nothing. DeLacey did not wait for an answer in any case.
“None I’ll warrant,” he continued, “and these days none worth noticing this side of the Shannon River either. We have Cromwell to thank for that – he put them to the sword, deported them to the Indies, and threw what was left into the western wilds to be damned with them. A neat solution don’t you think? Out of sight is out of mind, or so the puritan mind thought.”
“I have heard that, yes.”

In fact Titus’s father’s labourers had at one stage included in their number a fair proportion of Irish men who had fled to England after ruination in the wake of Cromwell’s Irish campaigns. Some remained with the business, but the majority of them seemed simply to disappear over time, neither missed nor lamented by their fellow countrymen, or even noticed at all by the English labourers. The young Titus had noticed them though, and he could still vividly recall the stories he had heard from some of them – probably after much badgering and pleading on his part - of atrocities and hardships that had sounded to a boy hungry for sensation like episodes originating in the infernal depths of Hell itself. The Civil War had spawned tales of horrific barbarism throughout the kingdom, but those from Ireland had always rung cruellest in their telling to the young Titus, if only because they were most often narrated by melancholy and broken-spirited men doomed to a life of wandering despair, who spoke of so thorough a destruction at Cromwell’s hand of their land that ‘even the nesting swans returning that Autumn flew right over the country, not recognising it as the one they had left in Spring’. The Protector’s scourge, they told him, had left in its wake the rotting corpses of countless thousands, whole cities in smouldering ruins, and a shattered landscape stripped almost completely bare of its people. Indeed, the images of desolation evoked by those who had escaped it had fed a young Shropshire boy’s sense of horror and fascination so much that even now, all these years later, it was hard to dispel the dismay that they induced.

DeLacey must have spotted the fleeting shadow that had passed over Titus’s countenance, but misinterpreted it. “You note my irony, I trust?” he asked.
Titus wrenched himself back from Shropshire and his youth with a will. He had been too young to understand it then, but now he knew only too well that the haunted look and melancholy tones of these men, which had so fascinated and reviled him in equal measure as a child, were those of men who ate and breathed only for the sake of it, and had become simply passengers on this earth as they waited for the shell of their bodies to die. All else that made life worth living had already died around them and within them. Broken souls of their kind can be found of course on every street in London, but never before or since had Titus encountered so many such tormented souls manufactured in one go, or so innocent of the cause of their great misfortune. Titus did not believe in ghosts, but he reckoned these men were the nearest thing to spectres one would ever find, and that no supernatural vestige of the human spirit could ever invoke the horror that these gaunt shadows of men had in the young mapmaker. He forced himself to answer DeLacey’s question. “Whatever Cromwell’s solution might have been, it was never ‘neat’”.
“No, that it was not. The man was short-sighted, and vain.”
“I beg your pardon?” Titus could not understand DeLacey’s rejoinder. He could think of several things to call Oliver Cromwell, but short-sighted and vain did not spring immediately to mind.
“Perhaps you have read Andrew Marvell, Mr Perry? The man wrote an ode to Cromwell on the general’s return from Ireland that contained a pithy warning in its tail;
Besides the force it has to fright the spirits of the shady night,
the same arts that did gain a power, must it sustain
.’
Our Lord Protector would have done well to heed these words! The most brilliant general reveals himself a simpleton if he thinks that his job is done at the close of battle however victorious, or if he thinks that a peace won at the point of a sword does not require that same sword to prolong it. Cromwell and his followers rashly believed they had secured something, when all they had done was interrupt something else. The blood they spilled in the process of this conceit will ensure their damnation in Hell.”
Titus could only stare blankly at DeLacey. For a few brief moments the mask of civility and diplomacy had dropped from DeLacey’s features. His reasoned tones, no doubt developed with a lifetime of practise, had evaporated upon his mention of Cromwell and what lay revealed was an undisguised bitterness at the memory of the man, and a proof, if proof be needed, that DeLacey was a man one would not want as one’s enemy, despite his erudite, cultured manners and his affable way. He was of an age that meant he would have been just a young man at the height of Cromwell’s power, and that he held high office now meant inevitably that he would have been at the receiving end of Cromwell’s ‘justice’ then. Titus wondered what exactly that must have meant for a young John DeLacey, but could see that whatever experiences lay in the man’s youthful past they were not ones now open for discussion, and in all likelihood not even open for private contemplation any more. Cromwell had had such an effect on many of that generation, Titus had noticed often before.
DeLacey was about to speak again when he was interrupted by – of all people – Flitch.

Titus’s colleague had apparently waited for a lull in the conversation and now jumped in with a single word that confused everyone. “Maintain,” he said flatly.
“Excuse me Mr Flitch, what was that?” DeLacey seemed at once angry at the interruption and grateful that someone had broken his chain of thoughts.
Flitch could not help but smile smugly. “The word is ‘maintain’, not ‘sustain’ in Marvell’s poem, Mr DeLacey. ‘The same arts that did gain a power must it maintain.’”
“Does it matter?”
“It did to Andrew Marvell.” Flitch was obviously enjoying having corrected the man, and Titus had to admit that so was he. Even Arran unsuccessfully hid a smirk.
DeLacey simply shrugged and continued with what he had been trying to say, but Flitch’s interruption had robbed his words of their earlier invective. “Our old Protector was a fool, a fool who thought that he could mould a society to his liking and set it in amber. He hadn’t the wit to see that people adapt to circumstances, however severe. In fact the more severe the circumstance, the more radically and readily will a person adapt given the opportunity. He foolishly thought by robbing the Catholics here of their livelihoods, their lands, their voices and even a great many of their lives, that the Protestant regime he left on this island could never be threatened again, either by the Gael or the Old English. Yet it has not taken much to start unravelling all his works. And do you know what great weapon the Catholic Irish are employing to this end Mr Perry?”
“I dare say you will tell me.”
“Our late Protector’s own language, Mr Perry. The Catholic Irish might not be changing their allegiances, but they are changing their names, changing their tongue and, in doing so, changing their circumstances. And they’re frightening the wits out of those that profited from subduing them in the past, especially since the impersonation is so close to the real thing as to be indistinguishable – even better than the actual thing in some cases. Unless you follow a man to his confessional these days it is hard to know from the cut of his jib what collar his pastor wears. So, you can imagine how those who thought they might profit from the others’ eradication must be feeling. There is nothing that inspires more dread, after all, than an invisible enemy in one’s midst, and an enemy at that who aims to prosper at the other’s expense!”
“Hardly invisible; noticeable by their relative impoverishment, I would have thought.”
“Not any more, at least with some of them. Those that have managed through fortune or stealth to salvage their capital are all too ready to put it to work in this great commonwealth of ours. So you can also imagine what the beleaguered Irish Protestant brotherhood is doing to protect its interests.” He corrected himself. “Or maybe you can’t. Do you know for example that there is an English ban on exporting our livestock to your land that is, incredibly, supported by a good proportion of our own Protestant merchants and guilds, though it is crippling the very economy on which their fortunes depend?”
“I had heard that.”
“Ludicrous you’ll admit, but logical in light of the fact that our land will soon pass into the hands of a Catholic monarch. He will need his Catholic friends in Ireland as much as they need him, but impoverished friends, as you say, are of less use than wealthy ones. Our good Protestant merchants – or at least enough of them - have decided to swallow a knock to their fortunes now rather than risk losing everything in the near future. It is cynicism and possibly financial suicide, as well they know, but it is a cynicism born of desperation. Indeed you have seen proof of such desperation, have you not? You found a man swinging from the rafters today before we met. His crime was to risk his money in an enterprise registered in his Protestant partner’s name. Of course his real crime was to have a name that identified him too readily as the papist that he was. The city, indeed the country, is already at the point of anarchy.”
DeLacey’s voice had risen in tenor again as he spoke but now he fell silent, allowing his last words to linger and resonate in Titus’s mind. Arran took the opportunity to interject. “There is only one man who has kept the situation here from open rebellion. You know to whom I refer?”
That it was Richard Butler who had asked meant there was only one answer. “Your father, the Duke of Ormonde.”
“Yes, Mr Perry,” Arran spoke proudly. “The same man whose influence with the king has even kept your own country from sliding back into civil war on more than one occasion, whether you knew it or not!”
Arran let his pronouncement hang, as if inviting contradiction, but none came. Titus instinctively felt that the man had entered into hyperbole but cared too little about the subject to object. If Arran took that to mean concurrence with his statement, then let him. Titus’s indifference was total. After a few seconds DeLacey coughed slightly, exchanged the briefest of glances with his colleague, leaned forward across the table, and in a voice so quiet that one must strain to hear it, added. “And so at last we have come to the point of why you are here.”
“Which is?”

DeLacey sighed audibly, almost with sadness. “We have lost him, alas.”
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