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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 8 "The Commission" (part 5)

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Nobiles Barbariæ

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Join date : 2011-12-25

PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 8 "The Commission" (part 5)

Titus’s father had once imparted a curious if memorable piece of advice to his then adolescent son, and time and practice had proved its value over the years. A man who entreats you for agreement, but insists that you provide it with a simple and immediate ‘yes’, deserves only ‘no’ for an answer. There were, he said, only two reasons why a man would try to restrict your response so. One was that he was not interested in your reasoning – a sure sign that he suspected reason might work against him – and the other was that he was vain enough to presume that he had, in his argument, done all the reasoning that was required. If you valued your own intelligence and independence of mind, then both attitudes merited only instant rebuttal. Titus had had reason often to be grateful for this piece of counsel, but experience had taught him one important amendment to it, and one that applied now. Where logic or circumstances dictated that a rebuttal might not be the most intelligent of responses, then the best procedure was to ignore the questioner’s stipulation altogether and respond on one’s own terms. The man who craves your agreement, however impatient he might be to receive it, will wait if he is forced to. Moreover, while he waits, it does no harm whatsoever to remind him of one’s intelligence or reasoning by forcing him to consider some stipulations of one’s own. The man who sets ultimatums will understand when they are made in reply, however much he might hate it.

Titus therefore allowed DeLacey and Arran to wait a few moments longer than it had taken him to formulate his answer. This tactic produced signs of a growing nervousness in Arran as he waited that was almost gratifying to witness. The man’s companion, however, sat impassively – almost too impassively, as if he was willing his features to stone so they would not betray his thoughts. It was not hard to see which of the two men one would want as a partner in cards. Eventually Titus spoke, and tried to keep his tone as business-like as possible. “If I will do as you request, I must have three assurances from you.”

He paused and waited for a response. If either man raised even half an objection to his demand at this point, he had decided, then he was prepared to leave without another word. But neither did. DeLacey nodded his assent, almost as if he had anticipated this response, and Arran merely urged Titus to continue. “Name them,” he enjoined urgently.
“Firstly, I will be privy to any intelligence you receive that will assist me in my task, or indeed that concerns it in any way. That includes especially anything that might suggest a danger to me, or to my men, that I have not already been apprised of. If I even suspect that anything has been withheld, I’ll be on the first ship back to England.”
Arran nodded to DeLacey, who in turn nodded to Titus. “You have my word on that.”
“Good. Secondly, I insist that you make a promise of safety to my friend and associate Mr Flitch. He must be released from obligation, and his safe passage back to London assured.”
Flitch started. “Hold on a moment – who said I want out?” His outburst startled everyone and he immediately softened his tone from indignation to one of desperate entreaty. “Very well, I was on my way out the door earlier but that was different.” He looked to Titus for support, but Titus, who had thought he was doing his friend a favour with his demand, failed to see what had changed Flitch’s attitude so readily.
“I haven’t said I am taking their job yet, Flitch. But if I do, I am under no illusion with regard to its dangers. I could not ask, or expect, any man to share those dangers.”
For a moment Flitch seemed at a loss for words. His mouth opened and closed several times as if he had suddenly thought of something to say but just as quickly thought better of it. The others, having assumed that the man had seen the logic in Titus’s words, were about to resume their conversation, when Flitch suddenly found his voice.
“Think on it,” he argued. “If Mr Perry accepts your request then it’s vital that he appears simply and solely as a mapmaker going about his appointed business. Isn’t that so? And why would a mapmaker bring his esteemed secretary at great expense all the way to this end of the earth only to send him home again? That could be construed as ‘suspicious’ itself don’t you think?”
DeLacey smiled. “Probably, if others held the secretary in such ‘esteem’ as he does himself. No, Mr Flitch, your devotion to your master is one that deserves much admiration in these mercenary times. But I agree with Mr Perry. It serves no useful purpose to endanger your life.”

Flitch looked pleadingly at Titus and was about to say something more when the mapmaker intervened. In truth, Flitch’s offer of support was welcome, even if the man was probably making it without full consideration of its consequences. Even more true was that Titus reckoned Flitch, if it ever came to it, stood a far better chance of surviving whatever threat this country had to offer than he did – the man was a born survivor. Such an ally would not only be a welcome one, if even only for friendship’s sake, but in all likelihood a useful ally also. He decided he would back his friend’s insistence, at least for the moment. His answer wiped the smile from DeLacey’s lips in an instant. “What he says though is true. If I am to at least pretend to go about my business as normal, then his services are required, if he so wishes it.”
Arran and DeLacey exchanged the briefest of glances. It was Richard Butler who spoke. “To be honest, Mr Perry, it was not my intention to have your secretary at this parley, though Sir John insisted on it. I will leave the decision to you, but I would strongly recommend you invent a reason to have your secretary dispatched back to England forthwith.”
Flitch, quite unlike himself, had grown quickly subdued. He was staring at DeLacey, who, in turn, was impassively gazing back at Titus’s secretary with a look that betrayed no discernible emotion whatsoever. Assumedly, he had insisted on Flitch’s presence to better judge the man’s character, but whether his conclusion had been favourable or not was impossible to tell. It occurred to Titus that, despite these men’s assurances, Flitch could never be safe should he be released from service, not after hearing what had been spoken at this clandestine tryst. Perhaps Flitch suspected as much also. But Titus did not need to deliberate further in any case. He had made up his mind. “My secretary’s wish to remain with me should be granted. When or if he later decides to return to London, his safe passage should be facilitated.” He could not help but shoot a curious glance at his companion as he said it. In fact the truth of it, though the men across the table did not need to know it, had been that Flitch had only agreed to come to Ireland on the understanding that he could return to his native city at the earliest opportunity. Flitch’s impassioned plea now to remain might have confused the two men across the table, but it had flummoxed Titus completely.

Arran let out an impatient sigh. “Very well, Mr Flitch may leave or stay as he so wishes.” He raised his voice slightly and spoke his next sentence in the manner of a judge delivering a verdict. It was obvious that he wished his statement to be considered a conclusion to their negotiations. “Mr Perry, you have my personal assurance regarding any further intelligence we may receive. You will not be our only eyes and ears in the venture, but certainly our keenest. Sir John will meet with you again before you leave Dublin and apprise you of all that you need to know in so far as we know ourselves. Is this agreeable? Is our word assurance enough?” His final question had all the air of an exasperated demand about it, and was spoken with a disdainful superiority that galled the mapmaker, as Titus was sure it was meant to do. There was only one answer that Arran wished to hear.
Titus did not oblige him. “If it is true,” he answered, and was gratified to see that the condescending Richard Butler was provoked by this remark, and even more so when he added, “But I have not given my assent as yet, Lord Arran.”
Arran glared, and seemed about to draw the sword that hung from his belt, but it was his companion who answered. “You said you had three conditions, of course” DeLacey exuded all the reason and calm that his friend so lacked. “What is the third?”

This was the moment, as Titus’s father would have said, when one could feel the Rubicon’s mud between one’s toes. What he said now before these men could never be unsaid, and while it might be expressed as a precondition for his commitment to their cause, he knew also that the words, once stated, would represent a commitment of another sort entirely, and one of probably even greater importance – a pledge to himself, which, once undertaken, would alter his life irrevocably. This was the moment when, before witnesses, Titus Perry would divorce himself from the man who for too long he had been, and become publicly someone who even he had trouble recognising as yet – one who was determined to take the reins of his own fate, and who had only belatedly realised that this sometimes involved acting on little more than intuition and hope. Despite his conviction that he was right in doing so, he had to admit amazement at himself for having so decided, and no little trepidation – probably the same fear shared by a small child taking its first tentative steps unaided. It was indeed a step into the unknown.
But he was sure that his request would come as an even greater surprise to the two men before him. Up to now all that he had said could have been predicted by his adversaries in this negotiation, or at least understood by them. They had brought arguments to counter his opposition to their scheme, so that was obviously something that they had anticipated. The two conditions he had already stated must have been foreseen by them also, at least if they had any respect for his intelligence. Even his anger they must have been waiting for, judging by their patience in enduring it, even if such patience in Arran’s case had needed to be forcibly encouraged by his colleague. But what he was about to say next, he knew, would be something they could never have expected, and a lot hinged on their immediate reaction.
“I will require your aid in another matter.” He suddenly froze. Now that he had come to say the words, he found himself at a loss for them. He had rehearsed this moment in his mind several times as they had sat there, but not he now realised, so thoroughly that he had formulated how best to phrase what was, after all, an extraordinary demand – even by his own reckoning. He dared not consider what DeLacey and Arran would think of him for even introducing it, or what dubious motives they would feel he might have for his actions, but try as he might he could find no way of expressing his demand that precluded such suspicions. While realising this, he realised also with alarm that he had allowed a dramatic pause to develop, which in turn was only serving to heighten the two men’s curiosity, and which no doubt appeared to them a deliberate ploy to add import to his next utterance. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and he understood with growing dismay that this heightening anticipation would only serve to highlight the apparent ludicrousness of his request, if anything. He steeled himself, and with the thought foremost in his mind that there was nothing to be gained now by delaying things further, he took a deep breath and launched himself into his demand before his doubts could take further hold.
“I have made a commitment to another already today. If I am to honour that commitment fully I could only be greatly facilitated by your help in achieving my aims. In short, I will help you in what you want if you will help me in what I require.”
Arran, who had made no secret of his exasperation already, now exploded in fury. “No, sir! This you cannot do! We have met your other demands, Mr Perry, because we can see that they were designed to help you best achieve what we have requested of you. But we are not here to trade favours, or to deal with a person who sees our problems as a means to his own advantage! Such a person we had not presumed you to be, and to be straight with you, sir, such a person is not one who we regard as trustworthy enough to be charged with the task that we have set out before you. If, after all that we have explained and agreed, you see fit to hinge your cooperation on us abetting you in some private ambition of your own, then we may as well say goodnight and good riddance! You have our word that your silence will vouchsafe you against fear of reprisals on our part, but by God, sir, you have my word that you will have earned yourself one more detractor to your character, and that is something that you, above all people, do not need!”
Titus looked to DeLacey, but for once Arran’s colleague chose not to play the role of mediator between the irate and the obdurate, and simply sat impassively, his arms folded on his chest and his eyes fixed on a point just above the mapmaker. It could only mean, Titus sensed, that Ormonde’s secretary was in agreement with his colleague’s sentiments. It seemed therefore that these men, despite their stated desperation for aid, were not after all willing to accede to any condition that they themselves had not anticipated. They had not even waited for him to outline his request in detail before they had slammed the door shut on the whole exchange. In a way Titus was almost relieved. “Very well then,” he said, “we have concluded our business here so.” Without waiting for a response he indicated to Flitch that they should go.

DeLacey audibly sighed and began to rise wearily. Arran fairly leapt to his feet, still furious. Titus himself stood purposefully and calmly, intent on showing everyone that he had not been in any way cowed by Richard Butler’s petulant outburst. He would walk down the stairs with these men as equals, perhaps even leave ahead of them, but one thing was sure; he would not give them the satisfaction of storming off and dismissing him like a recalcitrant pup. Then, to his dismay, he saw that his secretary remained seated and showed no sign of moving in the slightest. In fact Flitch seemed deep in thought, and Titus hoped that it was not in rueful contemplation after all of the promised reward that they would not now receive from Richard Butler. That, he was sure, would simply confirm Arran’s arrogant assumptions all the more, and worse, allow him the theatrical, dismissive and scorn-laden exit he was itching to perform. Then, to his surprise, Flitch actually smiled, looked up at DeLacey and gestured him to sit back on his bench, which, to Arran’s obvious disgust, the tall man duly did without demur. Flitch leaned across the table and spoke matter-of-factly to Lord Ormonde’s personal secretary, almost as if that common element in their respective titles inferred absolute equality of status between them, and DeLacey for his part betrayed no apparent indignation at Flitch’s familiarity. “I had a horse once, Sir John” he said, to everyone’s astonishment except, it seemed, DeLacey’s. “An Irish Cob she was; bought her from gypsies when she was a yearling and had her until she was nigh on three. Thought she’d be handy to get around on, but the poor nag was prone to a bit of sand crack, and London’s cobbles didn’t help her none. She spent most of her time in a stall I rented from John Sweetapple in Borough Street, poor lass, but at least she got a bit of exercise behind the George with the carriage horses now and then.”
“Is there a point to this?” Arran was still livid after his outburst.
“Yes, there might be just that, sir,” Flitch answered the Irish Lord Lieutenant’s Deputy with the candour of an equal and then, to Titus’s amazement, he gestured also to Arran to be seated just as a man might indicate to a stranger in a tavern that a seat by one’s table was free. DeLacey nodded his concurrence with this invitation and Arran, eyes wild with indignant rage but so baffled by such effrontery that he could think of no suitable riposte, duly obliged. Titus, finding himself the only man left standing, slid back onto his bench, though no one else seemed to notice. All eyes were on Flitch.
“One day Sweetapple told me there was a farming squire out Dalston way had expressed an interest in buying her,” he continued, seemingly heedless to whatever ire or confusion he might be engendering around him. “You know the sort, sits on a few acres of tillage and thinks himself a part of the landed gentry, but hasn’t two pennies to rub together, least ways when it comes to paying for things. I met the man at the George. It was a March morning I remember, all bluster and blow it was outside, and so was he when he breezed in, mad rushed as he was to conclude the deal before I might think twice about the price he was offering. Anyway, he offered me only half what the horse was worth and said he wasn’t a haggling man. I reckoned she deserved a better life than she had with me so I agreed on the spot to let her go. I made a condition though that I’d only let him have her if he let me visit her now and then – the odd Sunday that I’d be out Dalston way and had an hour to kill.”
Arran still looked like he was about to hurl the table at this infuriating little man, but DeLacey seemed absorbed by the tale, even enjoying it. “And what happened, Mr Flitch?”
“Oh he refused my condition, Sir John. He didn’t fancy trespassers trudging across his land on a whim, he said, be they maudlin’ sentimental old horse owners or not. Just to show he was serious he added that he had a few ferocious dogs that would see me out if I tried it! Well, we went ahead with the sale anyway – I needed the sum and the horse needed the pasture, and the old skinflint walked away with the cob and a smile as broad as a privateer’s cunny. Six months later I ran into him again in East Cheap, and I can tell you he wasn’t smiling any more, at least when he recognised me! Turned out the horse had died only three weeks after the sale. Strangles it was, he said, it had taken the cob and infected his three other horses too. They’d survived but it had cost him a packet to hire replacements. You’d swear by the way he said it that he held me responsible for the affliction! Of course it didn’t help his humour none either when I told him I’d guessed as much. You see, I said, I’d had a look at the cob the day before the sale and I’d noticed a little swelling on her throatlatch. Of course it might have been nothing, spring is a bad time for colds with horses as much as humans. That was why I wanted to see her after the sale, I told him. I had some pills just in case that I’d collected from an apothecary up in Smithfield that would nip strangles in the bud. Problem is they’re powerful medicine - you can’t give them to a horse until you’re sure it’s not just a cold after all. That was why I wanted to keep an eye on her, and if he’d only given me the chance to say it at the time instead of threatening to set his dogs on me he’d be one horse and a whole pile of money better off now!” With that remark Flitch grew quiet. He leaned one elbow on the table and began nonchalantly flicking invisible dust gently from his sleeves, his manner that of a man who was satisfied that he had made his point, one that the others in the company could take or leave as they pleased.
Flitch’s impudence and gall tonight in the presence of men of such august status had already amazed Titus, and this was by far the most extreme example yet of his cheek. It had most definitely enraged Arran, who throughout Flitch’s tale had sat purple-faced and rigid like a badly carved heathen statue in the very seat to which this impudent functionary had directed him, apparently having gone beyond a point where his wrath could even be expressed. But again, Titus could see that an understanding of sorts existed between his secretary and DeLacey. It was DeLacey, after all, who had stopped to hear Flitch’s tale and thereby halted everyone’s exit. With DeLacey’s blessing, even his cooperation, Flitch, the mapmaker’s clerk, had just delivered a parable spoken to no one in particular but which had been unmistakeably directed at Richard Butler, the second highest man in the land. Not only that but, if Titus had understood it correctly, it was one that rebuked Arran and drew a parallel between him and an arrogant, ignorant London squireling. Now, with some trepidation, Titus turned to see how Arran had received it. There was only ever so far and no further that men in his position could be goaded or pushed before they snapped, he knew, and Arran’s leash was shorter than most men’s, he reckoned. He expected to see a countenance black with fury, and to hear Flitch’s death sentence delivered where he sat. Instead, to his astonishment he saw that Arran had all but collapsed like a spent bellows on his bench. DeLacey regarded Richard Butler with one eyebrow raised, indicating that it was his colleague who should speak next, and Arran seemed resignedly to have accepted this. A few moments of stillness passed in which all eyes rested on him. At last he raised his head and coughed lightly, as if to break the spell of silence. “Mr Perry, I will hear more of this requirement of yours.” Then, as if to save face, he added with some volume, “But I promise nothing!”

Titus, still in a state of some astonishment at his partner’s performance, took some seconds before gathering his wits and responding. Arran might have been rendered amenable to hearing his terms, but the case for them had yet to be made, and even Titus knew that it must be made with some skill lest it sound indeed ‘maudlin’ and sentimental’ as Flitch’s squire would have said. He attempted to speak as business-like as he could. He was, after all, outlining a ‘private ambition’ just as Arran had scornfully suggested, so it was vital that its relevance be established first. He tried with all his might to hide his uncertainty. After all, even he was not sure that it was relevant at all. “This evening, before I came here, I met with the daughter of the man you referred to earlier, the one whose body I discovered in Stanhope’s warehouse on the quays.” He glanced up quickly to check their reaction and noted with relief that Arran displayed none, at least as yet, and DeLacey was the picture of attentiveness. They were at least listening, so he persevered. “I note, by the way Sir John, that you had no hesitation in surmising, as I did, that the man was murdered - though such was not the conclusion arrived at by your own constable, Captain Briar. I have listened to his daughter’s story and am compelled to agree with her when she says also that her own life is threatened by the same people who dispatched her father. As we have already discussed, there may well be a common thread between those whom you seek and those who lie behind her father’s murder. She is hiding in terror as we speak. I have promised to aid her.”
DeLacey smiled. “And you wish us to aid you in your gallantry?”
“No sir.” Titus ignored DeLacey’s sardonic tone. “For the moment I simply need to know from you where you stand with respect to apprehending her father’s killers.”
“That is a question that can be answered in two ways.” DeLacey thought a moment before proceeding. “If you mean, by your question, what resources will be committed now to apprehending the perpetrators of this one crime, then the answer is none whatsoever. If however you mean to know will the perpetrators be brought to justice, then the answer is yes, such is our intent, eventually. Her father’s enemies are most likely not friends of ours either, but they are not as yet men that can be tackled openly.”
“Then the task is very like the one that you have set me, is it not? Might I be right in assuming that they might even overlap?”
“How do you mean, Mr Perry?” It was Arran who asked.
Titus knew that it must sound like he was making his case up as he went along - perhaps he was - but he was convinced nevertheless of its veracity. “Both involve your adversaries acting with some degree of confidence that you are not in a position to do much about. For all we know, both might even be perpetrated by men with some degree of collusion or contact with each other. Tracing one might lead to all.”
Arran frowned. “Do you even know of whom you speak, Mr Perry? I admit that I am a man not inclined to patience, but you can see how I might be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that you are constructing an argument designed to persuade us to your will, while at the same time concealing your true motivation in this matter. Can you not?”
“No sir, I do not know them, not as yet, though I can assume from your comment that you do. And of course I can see why you, above all, would conclude that which you say you should be forgiven for.” He did not care how Richard Butler took that remark. “However, I have committed myself to aiding this woman, as I have said. If, as I suspect, my enquiries on your behalf will also give me access to intelligence which will help me in this other respect too, then do I have your cooperation in bringing them to justice sooner?”
DeLacey seemed about to answer this when Arran interrupted. “You are taking on forces about which we are not even fully aware, and of which you know nothing Mr Perry. You are playing a dangerous game, sir, and complicating your task further than it warrants by this gallant offer to aid your distressed damsel.”
DeLacey leaned to Arran and whispered something in his ear. It could only have been but a single word, but its effect was immediate. Arran seemed stopped in his tracks and momentarily confused, but quickly recovered his composure and air of austerity. “However we have employed you on the basis of your wits, so I have been advised that we must agree with your demand. There is no doubt that you will need to be clever indeed to trap the game you pursue, and in truth it would do us no harm at all to have these men removed from the board, or at least impeded in their course. You have my word that we will assist you, but only if we are satisfied that your gallantry has not endangered your principal task.”
“It will not.”
Arran smiled. “Good. And in the meantime we will offer this woman the protection of the castle, of course. She must be moved there forthwith.”
This took Titus by surprise. “Why would you do that? I ask for no such favour, merely the freedom to conduct my enquiries in both matters as I see fit.”
“It would be a favour to us all, herself included. You will bring her to my guest quarters tonight. A room will be prepared” He smiled beatifically, the obvious falseness of the expression advertising its equally contrived intent to portray magnanimity.

DeLacey coughed pointedly. Titus sensed that Arran’s proposal had surprised Ormonde’s secretary as much as it had him, and that Sir John did not approve of his colleague’s offer. He leaned across to Arran and whispered again in his ear, this time for some considerable time longer than before. Arran’s demeanour switched briefly to a flash of anger, and then just as quickly returned to the pleasant equanimity he had worn on his face just before. “On second thoughts,” he said, “my friend here informs me that it might be better if her enemies do not, in fact, suspect that she is enjoying the protection of the crown or its agents. Sir John is right of course. She is your responsibility to keep safe, Mr Perry.”
Titus was relieved that Arran had changed his mind. It saved him from having to explain why he had had no intention of agreeing to the man’s proposal. Arran’s eagerness to offer the protection of his castle to someone he had just dismissed derogatively as a ‘distressed damsel’ had been too sudden a change of heart to ring true, almost sinister. He simply agreed however that this indeed was a better arrangement, to which Arran nodded briefly in confirmation and picked his cloak for the second time from the bench beside him, indicating that the meeting was at last drawing to its close. “Good. Then we are done here. I wish you both the best of fortune and wish us all speed in accomplishing our task. Time is the one element that we are fast running out of. And please gentlemen, try not to attract too much attention to yourselves while here.” Arran rose brusquely and proceeded to the steps without even so much as a backward glance or a farewell.
DeLacey rose to follow his colleague, though without his partner’s rude speed. “Especially from Captain Briar,” he added after a moment’s thought. “The less that man knows, the easier it is for all of us. Now, I suggest you wait here a while before you leave. Good night, sirs.” He crossed the room and began to follow his partner down the stairs but stopped after only a few paces along the creaky steps. Only his bearded face protruded over the banister rail and he smiled, as if realising the comic effect he was imparting. “Oh,” he added, “I might suggest also that you begin your inquiries with our host downstairs. He may not have much by way of information useful to our mission, but I think you will find him most useful with respect to your own, Mr Perry. Goodnight.” With that he disappeared.

Titus and Flitch sat in the room in total silence, long after their counterparts’ footsteps on the stairs had faded, and the only sounds to be heard were the distant, disembodied, hoots of revelry from Collier’s tap-room several floors below them. For the moment, indeed, there was nothing to be said. But there was much to ponder on, and each man knew that the other needed time to let the significance of what had transpired sink in. Titus, who up to an hour or so ago could labour under the illusion that he was a man constrained only by the demands of his craft, had now to appreciate that from here on in his Irish sojourn his craft indeed had become but a tool, a device to facilitate him in this other purpose whose nature he could never even have guessed before this fateful conversation. And fateful was the only term that sprang to mind, for it was not only his own fate that had most likely been decided in the preceding minutes. Others’ fates now rested on his actions too, and the realisation appalled him. Lord Ormonde, if he was indeed still alive, was one of course whose destiny had now become most obviously intertwined with Titus’s own. But there was not just James Butler to consider. DeLacey had spelt out in no uncertain terms what would in all likelihood happen if Titus did not accept their task, and the same prediction applied just as validly, he knew, should he fail in it. Many men whose names he did not know, nor might ever know, would come to meet their maker all the sooner, he was sure, should Arran’s and DeLacey’s faith in his intelligence have been misplaced.

But there was one man, whose name he knew only too well and who sat beside him still, whose fate had now been most remarkably linked to his own, and he found himself pondering his secretary’s surprising loyalty and courage in volunteering to share this onerous task, despite the obvious dangers it presented. It had of course been gratifying to hear Flitch reveal such unexpected devotion, but Titus could not shrug off some nagging questions that arose from this sudden expression of solidarity on the part of the erstwhile employee with his employer. The Flitch that Titus had thought he had known well – at least up to tonight - was a man who saw life as a series of opportunities for his own betterment. Titus had never had any illusions about that, and had long ago even come to depend on this characteristic of his partner as much as he might be infuriated by it. Flitch’s shrewd eye for a profit and his ‘unorthodox’ methods of obtaining it had often worked to Titus’s advantage as much as to his own. In fact, as Titus admitted honestly to himself, the small margin of success over failure that had meant his mapmaking business could be classed as a mildly lucrative enterprise up to now had quite often owed much more to Flitch’s ‘skills’ than his own. And despite the fact that their contract of business stipulated that he was Flitch’s employer, both men knew that Titus’s secretary endured that position solely because it lent a veneer of respectability to an otherwise wholly unrespectable man. Flitch was – to use a much overworked euphemism - his own person, and furthermore a person who only took risks, albeit many of them, when they involved a real chance of personal gain. To say that Flitch’s outbursts of support tonight had come as a surprise to Titus was an understatement. In fact his secretary had managed not only to touch the mapmaker deeply with this almost incredible pledge of loyalty, but had also contrived to confuse his business partner deeply in so doing, because whatever one might say ill of Flitch, there had always been one thing that could be claimed to his eternal credit as far as Titus was concerned, and that was that he was a man of logic – a self-serving logic, but logic nonetheless. Despite the man’s assertion that to remain in Ireland would lend a crucial air of normality to Titus’s enterprise, Titus was well aware that in so doing Flitch was flying in the face of his own rationale. The man’s reasoned devotion, as he had expressed it tonight, stood in stark contrast to the disgruntled secretary who had been so upset when Titus had revealed to him on the boat journey from England just how long he intended to stay in Ireland for this first, pivotal, stage of the survey. Flitch, with the encouragement of more than a few white lies from Titus, had assumed that this trip would be purely to announce their credentials, and had reluctantly agreed to accompany Titus only on the understanding that they would be back in London within a fortnight. Flitch never liked leaving his native city, the stage on which he regarded himself in the self-appointed role of manager, playwright, leading actor and clown, all rolled into one. It was a place where the man had so many irons in the fire of commerce, legal and illegal, that it was often a wonder to Titus that the city had not been burnt to the ground for a second time long ago. In fact, so concerned had his secretary grown on the boat at being away from his ‘other business interests’, and so great had been his protests, that Titus had at last been bludgeoned into agreeing that he be allowed journey back to the capital alone after a month or so. This was meant to be for a week or two in which Flitch could look after his ongoing affairs, but Titus knew well that in all likelihood, Flitch’s departure would be the last he would see of the man, at least until he himself returned to London. Deflecting a man like Flitch from his own decided course in anything was nigh on impossible, and Titus had considered himself fortunate indeed to have secured an agreement from Flitch that he retain his very useful colleague for even just a few weeks. Yet here was the same man tonight pleading to be retained in Ireland indefinitely, and in a deadly enterprise that carried with it the potential for far more drastic inconvenience than that to which he had so objected on the boat coming over. The loyalty was touching, but the logic defeated Titus.

And there was something else that was adding to his confusion. A demand had been pointedly made on Essex Bridge that his friend should attend this meeting tonight, and the reason for it had not been expressed at the time by DeLacey. Titus had hoped that the purpose to his friend’s presence might be made obvious however in tonight’s proceedings, but no such purpose had been explained or could be deduced, and he had to admit that he was still none the wiser. Why had it been necessary for Flitch to be seated at the table at all when the castle men’s business was with Titus alone? Arran had made no secret of the fact that Flitch was only there at DeLacey’s insistence, and not his, but why such insistence? That DeLacey needed to be satisfied to the man’s character was a reason that did not bear up to too much scrutiny, given that Flitch’s character was not difficult to research, and that the results of such research would more plausibly infer that he was the last person one would invite to any parley over such sensitive themes as tonight’s. Yet no other reason presented itself – Flitch had not been offered any special role in the task they had been set. In fact he had had to fight hard to be allowed a role in it at all. And if DeLacey or Arran had found Titus’s secretary more to their liking after tonight’s meeting, it had never been made obvious by them, at least judging by the tones in which the castle men had deigned to address him on the rare occasions that they had.
Flitch, for his own part throughout the meeting, and even now judging by his cool manner, seemed however never to have questioned his right to be there in the least. And in truth Titus was glad that he had been there – the man’s refusal to be cowed in any way by his adversaries’ stature, and his indifference to their haughty tones had both been of great aid to Titus in summoning the courage to tackle them on his own terms when he needed to. Titus was nevertheless certain that the man must surely have guessed the confusion he had caused in his partner, and was already most likely preparing answers for the inevitable inquisition that would ensue from that quarter.

But such inquisition would have to wait for another occasion. Just at that moment Titus’s perusal of his secretary’s motivations were interrupted by the re-arrival of the innkeeper, struggling up the steep steps two at a time despite his portly frame, while dexterously balancing two full plates of steaming pork and potatoes in his chubby hands. His haste however caused him to stumble on the last step, sending him careering across the floor in their direction, and he all but cast the meals at them in his struggle to reach the table with the plates’ contents intact while simultaneously attempting to regain his balance.
He straightened up and reddened with embarrassment, despite both men’s assurances that they were grateful for the food, however unorthodox its delivery had been. “Sorry I couldn’t be up sooner,” he stammered. “I thought you gentlemen might like a bite to eat, but I figured it best to wait until … Well, you know yourself.” He turned and made for the steps again without waiting for a reply. “I’ll be back up with some beer,” he shouted over his shoulder.
“Mr Collier!” Titus called him back sharply. The innkeeper froze for a moment, still with his back turned to the table, muttered something inaudible, and then slowly turned around – revealing cheeks that were even redder than before, if such a thing was possible. Titus beckoned him with a crooked finger to come closer, and when Collier had reached the table again spoke quietly to the patently nervous man. “The offer of beer is welcome indeed,” he said, “but there is something – indeed some things – that I must ask you first. Have you a minute or two?” He signalled for Collier to be seated, and the stout innkeeper settled himself reluctantly on the bench before them, obviously anxious about just what this man might want of him. That Titus seemed to be on friendly terms with two of the country’s most eminent personages had not been lost on Collier, and was obviously a large part of the reason for such anxiety, though Titus fancied that he detected also an element of guilt in the man, possibly for having ‘embroiled’ the mapmaker in matters that had since consumed him when he had requested his help in deciphering his letter that morning. Titus, who reckoned such guilt if it existed was well justified, decided that he would let the sweaty innkeeper wait a few moments more and allow his anxiety blossom into fear. Flitch had already begun tucking into his dinner, so Titus took a mouthful of food on his own fork, slowly delivered it to his lips, chewed it with deliberation, then nodded approval at its taste, swallowed it, and let an appreciable time elapse before speaking again. “You are no doubt aware of how illustrious some of your clientele has been tonight?” he asked quietly.
Collier did not answer, save for his embarrassed cheeks and a sheepish smile.
“Have you a notion of what was discussed up here? I advise you to be honest with me.”
This time Collier found words. “Not a bit of it, sir, and that’s the truth. I didn’t even know they were coming ‘til they came.”
“Yes, well that’s as may be, but I couldn’t help but notice that you and they had a wee chat on their arrival. What did they say to you?”
“Just to keep my mouth shut over the fact that they were here, while they were here - and for a long time afterwards, if I knew what was good for me.”
“Have they been here before? Is your inn an extension of their office?” Collier’s face and an obvious reluctance to answer told Titus all that he needed to know. “I see,” he said with as much suspicion in his tone as he could muster. He swallowed another morsel before proceeding. “Now, why would that be, do you think, Mr Collier? Wishing no disrespect, but I would not rate your loft the most salubrious of locations for the offices of such dignitaries. Of course, having said that, I have seen the latrines in the castle, and if it is that your friends only use your premises for their ‘house of office’ then believe me, I can well understand and sympathise with them! All the same, I hope they pay you well for such a convenient service!”
If Titus had hoped to indicate with his poor jest that while he was intent on getting answers to his questions, the innkeeper should not feel overly threatened by his authority, he had obviously failed. If anything, the poverty of wit in his remark seemed to have had the opposite effect. Flitch laughed of course – any witticism concerned with man’s defecation always amused him greatly - but this drew even more wary a look from Collier.

It was apparent that the innkeeper was not quite sure how to take these two men before him, and least of all, the mapmaker’s secretary. While Titus’s authority was something he recognised and accepted, the presence of Flitch was obviously unnerving him. Nevertheless he answered Titus’s question with an even voice. “Well, no, not both of them, but Sir John has used this room before, yes. He says it never hurts to have an extra …,” he hesitated and eyed Flitch closely as he went on. “… an extra chamber or two where one can work free of interruption.” He smiled weakly at Titus and for a moment it appeared that Collier’s distrust might have been dispelled somewhat, but when the mapmaker looked down he could see the man’s hands resting on the table trembled slightly, despite Collier’s attempts to hold one steady in the other, and he noted his obvious unease with some dismay. Even without DeLacey’s advice to question Collier Titus had known that he must talk to the man, and that he needed the man to be as forthcoming with information as possible, something that Flitch’s presence was obviously inhibiting. That was a pity, since he had even hoped to have the benefit of Flitch’s opinion later regarding what the innkeeper said, but if Collier was to be muzzled by his own suspicions of Titus’s secretary then such a useful analysis would not be possible. He introduced his secretary formally, hoping that this might allay the man’s fears somewhat, but Collier merely nodded a curt greeting when Flitch outstretched his hand. Titus, mindful of the lateness of the hour, decided he could waste no more time trying to mollify his reluctant witness. He realised that he would have to do without his secretary’s analysis of Collier’s testimony after all. “My friend is trustworthy,” he reassured the man, “and what you say to me you can say to him, believe me. But if it makes you more at ease, we can talk privately. In fact, my secretary must away soon in any case – there is something I need him to do.” He ignored Flitch’s sidelong glance of surprise. “Bring me the beer you mentioned, Mr Collier, and so we can talk in privacy when you come back.”
Flitch, obviously surprised to hear that his duties had not ended for the day, was just as obviously distressed to hear that he would miss out on a free beer as well. He began to voice his protest, but Titus talked across him sharply. He could sympathise with his friend’s objections but chose to ignore them – in any case it did not look good to be gainsaid by one’s employee, even before a mere innkeeper. “And I would advise you to be honest and open in answering my questions, Mr Collier.”
“Will there be many of them?” Collier’s face was the picture of wretchedness at the prospect.
This was something Titus could not honestly answer. Nor indeed was he even sure just what questions he needed to ask. A few minutes to prepare his enquiries would in fact be welcome, but that was not something that Collier need be aware of. He tried to sound as resolute and authoritative as possible when he answered Collier’s query. “That very much depends on you, sir. Have you a reason to fear my questions?”
“No, it’s just that I’m very … I mean we’re very busy downstairs tonight,” Collier’s protest was weakly voiced, as if he knew himself that it was pointless. But he added, “I would just like to know what to tell my daughter – how long she’ll be on her own down there. Not that she can’t look after herself, but …”
“It will take as long as it will take, Mr Collier,” Titus said with more force and determination than the phrase warranted, but from his tone Collier knew not to argue more. He stood up to go, looking decidedly nervous. “And Mr Collier?” Titus added with a little more congeniality, “that sweet beverage you served me this morning would be just the job. Here’s an English groat to cover the meals, and if the beer is as good as I remember it from this morning, I will gladly toss you an elephant as well, I assure you!” He tapped his pocket and smiled.
The jingle of coins minted in London, and the promise of more, did much to settle the man’s anxiety, as Titus had hoped it would. English coins he knew were hard to get in Dublin, and the baser Irish coinage meant that it was practically useless as a currency outside of the country. Businessmen like Collier, who traded with foreign suppliers, far preferred to pay with English tender if they could get their hands on it. Titus’s promise of an English shilling stamped with the elephant – a sign that indicated Africa as the source of its silver – would have been enough to settle the anxieties of the dourest Irish businessman. Collier snatched the fourpence eagerly and scuttled off, promising to be back as soon as he could.
“That beer sounded good to me too, you know,” Flitch spoke with undisguised irritation as the echo of Collier’s footsteps began to fade on the rickety stairs. “And what the hell is this bloody job you have for me so late of a cold evening that couldn’t wait until morning? Have you no heart man?” This last question was expressed in such a loud and pitiful whine that even the retreating Collier must have heard it - at least judging by the noticeable pause between the man’s heavy footfalls in its immediate wake.
Titus could not help but smile to himself. Only a few moments before, he had been worried over Flitch’s surprising transformation into an unquestioningly loyal and faithful retainer. It was almost a relief now to see how the mere prospect of being deprived of a beer had seen a reversion to his true nature. But relieved or not to see his secretary of old re-emerge, Titus could not accede to his request. “I’m sorry, Flitch, but you saw yourself. The man won’t talk with you here, and I need to hear what he has to say. Besides, the task I have for you involves a beer in any case.”
“It does?” He sounded sceptical.
“It does. Can you extricate our new apprentice from whatever tavern he is ensconced in and bid him meet me back here in the taproom? Take your time,” he handed Flitch a shilling. “But not so much that either you or he are incoherent, I want to talk to him. An hour or so, alright?” Flitch shot Titus a curious look. He obviously questioned that the innkeeper might have enough intelligence in his head that could warrant an hour in its extraction. Of course he knew nothing of the letter that Titus had read earlier, and if Titus’s suspicions were correct, a thorough examination of its contents was overdue, whatever about Collier’s knowledge of Reilly’s death. “And if I’m not down when you come back then just wait for me in the tap-room. Do not come back up to this loft, lest it might stifle whatever flow of sensible information I can prize out of our host.”
Flitch pocketed the shilling half-heartedly, but if he intended a further protest regarding this extension to his working day the sound of Collier’s approaching footsteps silenced him. He rose to go as Collier reappeared carrying two pitchers of ale, looked longingly at the beer as it passed under his nose, shot a murderous look at Titus, and then set off down the rickety steps.
“I brought two,” said Collier needlessly as he set the beers on the table. “If you’re going to force me into a rest from my labours, I may as well make the most of it.”
“So you may, Mr Collier.” Titus took the beer that Collier offered him and took a deep draught. “Excellent stuff, sir! Now, to business. Let’s start with your letter.”
“Ah, indeed! You were good enough to share its contents with me, so maybe now you will be good enough to share its meaning. And I warn you I am a perceptive man with friends in high places. If I detect anything less than the truth from you, then you have my word that it will bode ill for you.”
Collier simply nodded, as if he expected nothing less.
“Fine, then let’s begin with its author. Who is this ‘O’, the instigator of the missal, as well as much of my misfortune today?”
Collier winced. “That is Oliver Burke of Raheny, a wine and beer importer.”
“Simply an importer? Come now, Mr Collier. I meant what I said.”
The innkeeper’s cheeks proved again a barometer of his conscience and blushed bright crimson. “No, I mean that it is as an importer he makes his living. He is also, that is we are also, I mean he and I are both …” Collier was at a loss for words.
“Spies of some description?” Titus helped him with the admission that was obviously causing him such difficulty.
“Spies? Oh, good God, no! We’re businessmen, that’s all. It’s just that in Dublin sometimes a man has to …,” his explanation ground to another halt.
Obviously the subject of Burke touched on too many things that Collier would also have to reveal about himself in its relation and the man, despite Titus’s threats, was not ready to divulge them just yet. Titus was determined to learn of them anyway, but in the interest of speed he switched abruptly to another line of enquiry. “And this George Courtney, whose list of names inspired such terror in your business associate? Who is he?”
Collier seemed relieved to have moved on to a person of whom he was willing to talk. His features hardened at the thought of the man, but his voice found strength. “Courtney is, or was, the estate manager to Lord Malahide, or the Talbots I should say.”
“Was? Why, is he dead?”
“No, worse luck! But he’s most likely lying low now, the rat. And if he knows what’s good for him he’ll stay lying too!”
“Oh, why?”
“He was fingering innocent souls for slaughter at the hands of the Modellers.” Collier noticed Titus’s quizzical look. “They call themselves the New Model Army, after Cromwell’s outfit, but really they’re just unscrupulous gets who profit from executing honest traders like myself. There’s other gangs like them but they’re by far the worst. Bloody murderers, and now they’re murdering without even a pretence to a cause. Christ, they are bastards, and no mistake!” Collier’s anger was manifest, and he bit his lip to save him from expressing his disgust for these thugs in even less savoury terms.
It occurred to Titus that Collier, with his vexed condemnation of these marauding self-styled ‘executioners’, might already have thrown some light on Reilly’s death. The victim had been coldly executed, not murdered in a fit of rage, and the innkeeper’s description of these ‘modellers’ and their sort fitted well with the likely nature of the perpetrators. Moreover Sir John DeLacey, who had scanned the letter’s contents earlier and had recommended this interview with Collier, must have thought so too. In fact, what DeLacey must have known and what Titus could now surmise was that the innkeeper, directly or not, was kin to a network of men who had struck up an opposition to these thugs. If there was a connection, then Collier’s testimony could well prove crucial in establishing it, and despite the man’s reticence to talk about his own activities, Titus reckoned that Collier was a man one could depend on to speak his mind. It had struck Titus that the innkeeper, despite his obvious ability to tell a white lie when it suited him, was an honest man at heart. ‘A man with the impediment of an honest face’ was a phrase that his father had often used when describing such people, for whom mendacity was an avenue all but closed to them, their features being prepared as they were to announce to the world the moment their owner even set foot down that path. While it did not preclude the odd falsehood it rendered such attempts so transparent that their author, one knew, would invariably suffer more than gain from making a habit of it, and that such a person had survived in life up to now must mean that he had either refrained from the temptation to lie too much or could employ some other over-riding and altruistic quality about his person to mitigate his all so obvious trespasses. Such men were in fact hard to dislike, and Titus found himself warming to his interviewee. He did not welcome this realisation however; it would make the next thing he had to say all the harder to admit.

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Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 8 "The Commission" (part 5)

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