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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 9 "The Mustering" (part 1)

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nordmann
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PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 9 "The Mustering" (part 1)

Titus , who was feeling hungry, decided to strike while the iron was hot and take advantage of this unexpected conviviality on his driver’s part to enquire of him if he knew perhaps a good place in the locality where one might get a decent meal. The question seemed to lift the man’s humour even more and he immediately suggested a roadside tavern in the hamlet of Raheny through which townland they were now indeed passing. The proprietor and his wife kept a neat establishment with excellent fare, he said, and this he could back up with personal experience of the place. In fact so frequently had he availed of the inn’s facilities that he now rated its owner, a man he called Daglan, as a good friend. Titus agreed that it sounded just right, and in an effort to further defrost the man - who was almost likeable indeed now that he’d apparently set his surliness aside - asked his host to join him for the meal. The driver seemed unsure initially as to how to respond to such an offer but eventually after much deliberation relented, and once the horse had been led to the trough at the inn’s rear he rather nervously seated himself by Titus at the table. The mapmaker was immediately glad that he had extended the invitation; he realised almost immediately that he could make no sense of the innkeeper’s speech and neither could he make himself understood even with the simplest English in return, so his dinner guest fortunately could act as interpreter while ordering. So much for DeLacey’s claim, Titus thought, that Gaelic was not spoken east of the Shannon!

The meal itself, as the driver had said, was simple but delicious, and something of a rarity to a man used to the dining options available to a cartographer of limited means in London, where variety in those establishments which best suited his pocket was represented primarily by the choice of meats on offer. The bulk of the meal when it arrived was comprised of boiled potato tubers – a root crop that was fast proving popular of late in Ireland but was shunned, like all its underground relatives, by the average Londoner. The buttered cabbage that accompanied it would likewise have never made it to the plate of a typical Londoner’s dinner, and the boiled cod that gave the meal its ‘raison d’être’ - as Titus’s father would say – was of a freshness that Titus could not remember when last he had tasted. Just as in London the food was washed down with a tankard of ale that was included in the price of the meal. Unlike in London however, the ale here was surprisingly sweet to the taste and went down the gullet with great ease. Titus found that he had drained his draft almost before he had noticed it, and immediately ordered another for himself and his driver. This offer of drink seemed to mellow his dining companion a little, who friendlily admitted that his name was Malachy and consented readily to act as interpreter again when Titus said that he wished to compliment their host for his fine hospitality. Through Malachy Titus learned that the innkeeper was grateful for the praise, and that he was especially pleased that the men enjoyed the ale. It was brewed, he said, by his wife and had a great local reputation. Titus agreed that its reputation was deserved and then, realising that here was indeed another golden opportunity to elicit information should this atmosphere of pleasantry which had been established prevail, told the man through Malachy that he knew of another innkeeper in Dublin City who, he was sure, would gladly buy some from him at a good price. Nor was this simply invention on his part. Collier had indeed told him that he was always on the lookout for fresh blends in beers, especially those brewed in Dublin’s hinterlands which were generally cheaper than their city equivalent as long as efficient transport could be organised. This was how he and Burke had first found each other, he’d said. If Daglan or his wife did not object to the extra effort that such a trade would incur, and if a means of collection and transport could be arranged locally, Titus would be glad to alert his innkeeper friend to its availability. To Titus’s amazement the man suddenly dispensed with the need for an interpreter at all, and proceeded to talk directly to the mapmaker in flawless – if heavily accented – English.

“Thank you sir, I’ll inform her. She’ll be delighted to be sure! And my brother Canice runs a set of wagons along the Dublin Road so tell your friend he need not trouble himself to look further for transport, sir. Thank you indeed!”
Titus stifled his amazement and decided to utilise this newfound line of communication. “No, it’s I who must thank you on behalf of my friend. He could do with a new supplier; one of his existing ones has left the country it seems – a Mr Oliver Burke from around here. Do you know him?”
“Oh indeed I do,” replied the innkeeper. “He and his father before him have supplied me with the best French wines for more years than I care to remember. English beer too – not as good as Áine’s but much desired by the barracks here so I like to keep it well stocked. Terrible shame!”
“Shame?”
“About his friend’s death abroad – the low lands, they say. He must have been a very close one too, sure that’s one hell of a journey to take to bring him home.” It seemed that Burke’s ruse in disguising his true reasons for departure had been effective. Or maybe not, judging by what the man said next. The innkeeper’s voice lowered in volume and he pointed to both Malachy and Titus in a conspiratorial way. “Mind you, there’s rumour about that he’s fled for his life, and I’d well believe it! Sure, that ould ladder couldn’t last forever.”

This last remark defeated Titus but his driver obviously understood the reference and reacted with a sharp comment in Gaelic spoken between clenched teeth. “Dún do bhéal!” The innkeeper cast a glance at Titus, reddened, and hived off back to his kitchen. The arrival of some more guests at this point put paid to any hope of pursuing the matter in any case, and the sullen silence that had re-enveloped his companion meant that Titus was left to finish his delicious meal alone with his thoughts, of which the principal one was now how abruptly his inquiry had been terminated. The innkeeper had admitted something that he shouldn’t have, and it was something that Malachy had well understood, which suggested to Titus that it must be of the nature of an ‘open secret’. Yet it was a secret still to him, and that his surly companion was so obviously reluctant to share its nature with him, merely made him all the more resolute to learn about this ‘ladder’ before they left Raheny.

Once the meal had been eaten Malachy went out to harness his horse and Titus went into the kitchen to settle the bill. He smilingly paid a few pennies more than the innkeeper requested, and in a further effort to restore somewhat the mans inclination to trust Titus with his views, reassured him that the offer to act as middleman in asking Collier to buy some of his wife’s excellent beer had not been forgotten. This seemed to have the desired effect in that the innkeeper smiled in return as he pocketed his gratuity and thanked Titus graciously, so Titus made one final effort at learning what the man’s earlier enigmatic reference to a ladder was all about. He decided that this time he would lay his cards – pitiable in substance though they might be – on the table.

“You have nothing to fear from me, I assure you. But I think you could help me greatly. An acquaintance of mine lost her father yesterday - he was murdered. I have sworn to help discover the truth of why he was killed and who did it. I believe he may have been an acquaintance of Oliver Burke, hence my earlier question, and I have reason to suspect that whatever foulness befell her poor father could well be directed against Mr Burke too. I did not mean to compromise or take advantage of your seemliness, believe me, but I will honestly admit that your answer intrigued me and could well be crucial to what I am endeavouring to understand. What is this ladder you alluded to? I swear to you that I have no reason to ask this other than what I have told you. I have no axe to grind with anyone, save whoever it was that worked a terrible wrong on she to whom I have pledged my help. What you tell me will remain between us, I promise.”
Daglan’s distress was obvious. “You ask a lot, sir, whether you know it or not. And in truth I have not even the benefit of knowing who you are, let alone your reasons for asking.”
His point was a fair one, and Titus apologetically introduced himself. The man politely shook him by the hand and gave his own name, Daglan Shiels, but then fell silent. He seemed torn between two minds. It was obvious that he had spoken out of turn earlier and would retrieve his comment if he could, and for some moments he apparently deliberated whether he should indeed say anything else at all. Eventually he reached a decision and, with imploring eyes, he ushered Titus through the door, well out of earshot of even the most determined eavesdropper and out to the courtyard beyond. Looking furtively around him he stammered in a near whisper. “It’s hard to make a living these days sir. We, well, we need to look after each other as it were.”
Titus thought he knew what ‘we’ meant. “Give each other a leg up?”
“That’s it sir. That’s all it is, I swear.”
“Catholics helping each other in straitened times? I can well understand the necessity of it around here, especially now. As I said, you have nothing to fear from me, Mr Shiels. You already have my gratitude, and my sympathies too. Life is hard enough without being driven to its margins for no reason other than the prayer missal a man might favour!” Shiels’s resigned nod in agreement seemed to indicate that he had perhaps accepted Titus’s assurances of his motives, so he decided to press his advantage before the innkeeper might change his mind. “Did you happen to know a businessman named Eoin Reilly? He was the man who was murdered.” Even as Titus asked this he knew how ridiculous the proposition was – how could a simple country innkeeper know a seller of architectural instruments in the city? The answer therefore surprised him.
“A huge loss surely. A lovely man! The curse of God on whoever dispatched him.”
“You did know him then? He was a rung on the ladder, wasn’t he?”
“He was a good friend of Mr Burke, you were right there surely. We’re all rungs on the ladder though, whether we call it that or not. But it’s not that we know who is high or low, leastways until we take a step. Do you know what I mean?” Suddenly he froze, and looked at his shoes. “That’s all I know sir, or leastways all I can say.”

Titus was sure that the innkeeper had started with the intention of a fuller explanation and instinctively glanced round to see what had unnerved the man. Malachy, he noticed, had hitched up the horse again and had assumed a stance between the carriage and the inn’s wall from where he could see, though surely not hear, the others’ conversation. He regarded Titus and the innkeeper however with undisguised suspicion as he adjusted the halter around the animal’s chest. This apparently had been enough to silence Titus’s informant, who bid the mapmaker a hasty farewell and almost ran back into his scullery. Titus returned Shiels’s farewell and thanked him loudly, then strode back to the carriage, eyeing his driver all the while to show that he was not cowed by the man. As Titus clambered aboard into the passenger seat, Malachy snorted and made to climb up to his own lofty pew. Then, to Titus’s surprise, he immediately jumped back down again and came around to the window. He leaned on the wooden sill and peered intently at the mapmaker. Then, in a thick Dublin accent, but speaking slowly and deliberately so that he knew he would be understood, he addressed Titus with words that he had obviously rehearsed in his mind in those seconds of silence. “There’s two kinds of persons in this world sir. Them that’s content to make a living by fair means and them that want more than a living, and will use foul means if needs be to get it. Now I’m no philosophiser, and I’m certainly no man of a political bent, but it strikes me that if more found fault with them that does wrong and less with those of us who struggle to do right, then the world would be a better place. And if you choose to disagree with me sir, or if I think maybe that you might be fancying some harm to befall a man” he jerked his head back towards the inn, “whose only fault is that his mouth might work a little faster than his brain, then you and your views might enjoy a brisk walk back to Dublin”
Not the most eloquent speech but its point, Titus ceded, had been well made. “Don’t worry, Malachy. What I have just told your friend Mr Shiels is true. I have no desire to see any harm come to him, and deplore that which already has to any man by virtue of his faith. Besides, I can only agree with you. Life is cruel enough without the machinations of greedy men. The same could be said in London, or anywhere, believe me, and I hate it as much as you do.”
“Maybe so, but men aren’t hanged in London for making a legal profit. Nor children orphaned for the sake of their surname neither.” Malachy pulled away abruptly and hoisted himself over the seat-irons, calling his horse into movement even before he had landed so that Titus, jolted backwards by this sudden departure, had to brace himself to avoid being un-perched. For the rest of the ride in to town, one that Malachy took with accentuated haste, he was left to mull over his driver’s words, and indeed those of the innkeeper that had elicited such rekindled antipathy in his coachman.

The ‘ladder’ was obviously the Catholics’ way of getting around the strictures placed on them by law. Ormonde’s policy over the years to neither toe the London line nor yet goad his English masters into intervening directly in Ireland’s affairs had led to a situation whereby they lived a precarious life – not quite the outcasts that Cromwell had hoped to leave them, but equally not quite able, no matter how industrious, to make much headway in the world of commerce. Lord Malahide might be a notable local exception but for every Malahide there were thousands of others who knew that but for the disaster that followed the Great Rebellion, they too would have enjoyed title and wealth in their own right. What little freedoms they had left to run a business were maximised by close co-operation. Despite the odds, by this method therefore they could not only survive, but also even prosper to some extent. The ‘rungs’ of the ladder were seemingly those of various degrees of influence and prosperity who could thus act as patron to others on the way up below them. Eoin Reilly, as well as his efforts on behalf of his immediate neighbours, had also obviously been happy to serve as a ‘rung’ of the ladder himself, and that this was recognised by such far flung Catholic brethren as Daglan Shiels confirmed the man’s elevation in this role.

But there were still limits to how effective this system could be, and the ladder, operating as it was in defiance of the law of the land, could only ever reach so high and no further. Eventually that law itself must effectively halt the progress of even the most able and ambitious Catholic. Old statutes, some dating back to the commonwealth and others so ancient indeed that they bore Plantagenet imprimatur, were still regarded as politically useful to a Stuart monarchy mindful of keeping in with those who had already deposed it before. Lip service might be made to their Catholic subjects’ aspirations, and indeed the next Stuart in line might go even further, but up to now it had been a case of recognising the plain truth of it; repressive as the laws might be, and even contradictory to the monarch’s own politics though they might be, those drafted to copper-fasten Cromwell’s success in extinguishing Catholic rebellion in Ireland had not only exceeded their aim but had also reduced the necessity of keeping a large standing army in place in this quarrelsome corner of the kingdom, and therefore a huge financial drain to a monarchy already up to its eyes in debt had been avoided. The law would always remain therefore a guarantee that no Catholics, regardless of how well organised they were, could ever threaten the status quo itself or those who benefited from it.

And yet it seemed now that someone had identified them not only as just such a threat, but indeed a sufficient one to merit the execution of one of the ladder’s most prominent ‘rungs’. DeLacey’s - and indeed Malachy’s - assessment of Reilly’s murder was substantially correct. His religion and his social standing might indeed have made him a conspicuous target, and to some hotheads this was probably enough indeed to merit his extermination. But even to Titus, who acknowledged though could never claim to understand the extent of bitterness that drove men to do such deeds, it was plain that this could not be the whole story, as Collier himself had stated. Bitterness and open audacity were seldom bedfellows, Titus knew, and Reilly’s murder had been audacious in the extreme. Catholic he might have been, but a friend to Huguenot and Anglican had he proven to be too. A small profit may have accrued from his nascent business venture, but surely a desire to kill him on that basis in even the bitterest of opponents would have been tempered by the intelligence that he enjoyed some protection from the Lord Lieutenant himself. The opposition to the ‘ladder’ might be well organised, and with a network extending through several of society’s strata, but they would still surely be wary of targeting such an individual.

Yet someone apparently had, so it was logical to assume that something must have motivated them. If it had been merely a perceived threat to their own commercial interests from a Catholic neighbour that had driven them to murder, then given the laws as they stood their reaction had been excessive, to say the least. Such a premature death might stop one Catholic in his tracks in no uncertain terms, but the law itself stopped them all eventually in any case. Even the excuse that the laws restraining Catholics might soon be renounced, and that now was therefore the time to make an example of any who might be ready to benefit most from that change, still did not ring true in the case of Reilly’s death. Even if such reform was due - and as yet it was still merely tavern gossip on the part of wishful thinkers and rise-a-rows - then even the most diehard defenders of the status quo would know that no amount of murder could delay the onset of that commercial competition for very long, and besides, there were bigger fish and easier targets than Eoin Reilly whose murder would set such an example more effectively. This was therefore a puzzle in which the resolution rested on acquiring more pieces whose nature as yet had not presented itself, and as Titus pondered on what these pieces might be during the long ride up to the North Strand and back into the city, he realised that they might also well be the ones required to solve that other puzzle he had been set. He decided therefore that it was time to talk to Sarah Reilly and question her more closely on her own suspicions, however unsure she might be in them. She had claimed to know who her father’s likely murderers were. If their network was as extensive as DeLacey and Lord Arran intimated, then these men could be the start of a trail that might lead to the captors of Ormonde themselves, and even Sarah Reilly's wildest guesses could well be relevant still.

He alighted in Sheep Street and settled with Malachy, who counted the coins and let out a low whistle. “I had you down as a skinflint this morning sir!” He sounded in much better form than when last they had spoken.
“Well, consider it a payment for both of your excellent services rendered today Malachy – speedy transport and advice.”
The coachman smiled. “Sure you’d be mad to take advice off an ould old fool like me! Still, if you need a ride again you know where I am!” He pocketed the coins and jingled them twice with a light slap of his palm. “I’ll throw in the advice for free next time. Christ knows, you need it!” Then, with a loud ‘Hi!’, Malachy goaded the horse into movement, and Titus laughed as he watched the carriage trundle effortlessly through the mill of customers that had gathered around the stalls selling sweetmeats, steaming chitterlings and other dainties under the castle’s giant curtain wall, its driver supplementing his obvious skill at steering through confined quarters with an impressive selection of oaths and profanities directed at anyone foolish enough to stand in his way.

His smile soon evaporated when he walked into the inn. Neither Jack Quinn nor Flitch were there waiting for him as he had instructed. He saw however that Collier’s daughter Letitia stood behind the bar, laughing and chatting with a girl of around her own age who, Titus noticed, was also knocking back a pitcher of beer with a practised ease that totally belied her apparent youthful innocence. Excusing himself and interrupting their parley, he enquired if a message may have been left for his attention. Even young Quinn, he reasoned, would surely have remembered such an obvious expedience should their arrangement have had to be altered, as apparently from his absence it had been. His enquiry seemed to fall on deaf ears however, or at least ears attuned to only one source at a time. Miss Collier was engrossed in listening to what sounded like a physician’s summation of a corpse’s anatomy, but which upon closer attention was in fact a disturbingly similar breakdown of some young suitor’s physiological attributes. Titus’s repeated attempts to distract her from such a diverting account of cleft chins, cupid bow lips, rod-straight backs, tree trunk arms and legs, and indeed some other aspects to the man’s make-up that were surely only being guessed at, merely succeeded in eliciting a series of hand flutters and shushes from Miss Collier designed to convey that he should suspend his interruptions until she and her friend had completed their verbal tour of the young man’s physique.

At last the peregrination reached its inevitable terminus and he finally succeeded in asking, rather sharply, if a note had possibly been left which might be addressed to him. After stating impatiently, and just as sharply, that she hadn’t a clue what he was talking about - at which Titus was about to surrender and quit his enquiry despondently - she suddenly arrested herself in mid sentence, slapped the frown from her forehead with an exaggerated smack of her hand and then sheepishly admitted that she had just remembered indeed that such a note had been left in by a small child earlier. With a muttered apology – so faint as to be almost inaudible – she quickly retrieved it from under the counter and handed it to him, her coy smile and wide eyes pleading forgiveness while simultaneously inviting him to sympathise with one so obviously overworked by her father as to quite forget such important communications. Titus chose not to offer either absolution or sympathy, instead snatching the letter from her hand with what he hoped was the right amount of vigour to indicate his annoyance, while adding a pointed ‘thank you’ as he did so just so as to emphasise his point. Such subtlety was lost on Miss Collier however, who issued a cheery ‘don’t mention it’, and immediately swung round to resume conversing with her friend, leaving Titus and his irritation to come to terms with each other if they so wished. Both had quite left her orbit of consciousness, a faculty now once again centred solely on her friend’s breathless description of the young soldier’s physique.

He stepped away from the counter to the light of the doorway and perused the note in his hand. The letter was short and Titus surmised that it was indeed Jack’s inexpert handwriting that he read. If this was an example of the boy’s letters, he thought, it went a long way to explaining why he was loath to take notes in class.

The Curtin Curtin by colledge. Explane there.

Concise it may have been, but Jack’s note did not alas have the merit of comprehensibility in its brevity. There was nothing for it therefore but to seek the assistance of the only people to hand who, through their age and domicile, might offer some insight into its meaning. He returned to the bar. It then took Titus quite a few more feigned coughs to interrupt the girls again, who were now absorbed in estimating the character and worth of the same unfortunate man whose more physical characteristics had already been dissected earlier to their most fundamental particles. Titus by now had only sympathy for the man and therefore felt it almost his compassionate duty to end the poor wretch's dismemberment in absentia by shouting his question above their chatter in a voice so loud that even if its sense did not impinge on their thoughts its volume would most definitely drown them. “Do either of you," he roared, "know where, or what, or indeed who is a ‘Curtin Curtin’?”

They stopped in mid flow and each looked at Titus as if they had just noticed that he was still there, which indeed could well have been true, with expressions much as one might assume when one finds with dismay that a stray dog has continued its pursuit of one long after it had been presumed effectively shooed away.

Eventually it was Miss Collier’s friend who answered, and her face broke into a smile. Her voice was polite and, Titus noticed, did not betray even a hint of simulation. “The Courting Curtain, I assume. Is it that which you meant?” she asked. Titus nodded, though he was still none the wiser as to what he meant at all, so vague had Jack’s scribble been. After first telling Letitia to hold whatever thought regarding their earlier subject that she had been about to express, she then told him that the Courting Curtain was a tavern near St Andrew’s Hill, and a favourite haunt of Trinity students. Her mention of the latter prompted her to adopt a mock-disdainful look, which alone suggested that it was a place whose reputation she cared little for - and its patrons even less for. “What do you want to be going there for? It’s not really for the likes of you, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

The girls in this town were nothing less than direct Titus thought - exasperating, but nonetheless refreshing after a few years of what passed for effete society in London. He disguised his irritation and spoke evenly. “I’ve been told to meet people there.”
The girls exchanged glances and burst into giggles. “Are you that desperate for a shag?” Miss Collier’s friend asked smilingly. “Strikes me a cannon cocker of your looks needn’t be out trawling for fish!” This elicited a loud screech of laughter from Letitia Collier, and both girls then gave him a perfectly coordinated and exaggerated lubricious look which merely compounded Titus’s irritation with even more acute embarrassment.
Before he could reply however Letitia chimed in, still laughing at her friend’s comment. “Sure don’t mind Ezzy, she’s only slagging you. Listen, I’m just about to knock off here. We’ll walk you down to it, if you’re willing that is. It’s quite a respectable place, and so are we, so don’t worry ”

Titus couldn’t believe the effrontery of these girls, though in truth he couldn't help but see a droll aspect to their strange and forward suggestion. If he’d heard right, they were offering to escort him, a man, to what sounded for all the world like an upper class brothel. What sort of town was this, he wondered, where amorality was a feature that young ladies and cathedrals displayed in equal measure? Still, they were offering their aid magnanimously and it would be churlish of him not to respond with gratitude and courtesy, he reckoned. The one in need has no place deigning to criticise the source or nature of its fulfilment, and especially when the source was two such friendly, if disconcertingly confusing, young ladies. He felt his earlier irritation all but evaporate, and he answered them with a smile. “I’d be delighted for your company, ladies. But shouldn’t your father be told?”
“Of course, sure who’d mind the shop otherwise? Daddy! Daddy!” She roared down to the cellar with a voice that would have shamed the most accomplished town crier. “We’re off with Mr Perry down to the Courting Curtain!”
“Very well,” came Collier’s voice from the cellar. “You have fun Letitia. You too Esmeralda! Mind yourself Mr Perry sir! Don’t let those two lead you astray!”
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