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  Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 10 "Mortals" (part 4)

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nordmann
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20120617
Post Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 10 "Mortals" (part 4)

Sarah and Lady O’Carolan were seated on a trestle bench outside the front door enjoying the early afternoon sunshine, Bran lying contently at their feet, as Titus cantered up the long drive. The dog barked loudly, Sarah jumped up and waved, smiling broadly upon seeing him. He returned her salute, dismounted and led the horse to the foot of the steps. Lady O’Carolan peered at him through her glasses, rapped her blackthorn stick against the bench and screamed “Martin! Come here!” Titus was about to correct her and remind her of his true name when a groom, presumably said Martin, appeared running from the stables next door, gathered the horse’s reins with muttered obsequiousness and led it away.

“And take the bloody saddle off the poor creature this time, Martin!” Lady O’Carolan shouted at the boy. “The little eejit seems to think the thing is a natural appendage of the beast. But we’ll make a groom of him yet. So, Titus Perry, tell us all. What have you been up to?”
Titus decided that an oblique reply might suit best. “Nothing scandalous enough to merit inclusion in that book of yours Imelda, all very innocuous actually.”
“Ha! Innocuous seems to carry more punch these days!” She indicated her cheek with her finger and winked at Sarah. “You’re not getting off that lightly. I’ll retire and let you two have a good natter, but you will see me before you go. See what you can get out of him, Sarah dear!” She rose with difficulty and hobbled back into the house.
“Isn’t she great?” Sarah asked with a smile of affection for the old lady once Imelda was safely out of earshot. “Come, let’s walk a bit. I’m sure you could do with stretching your legs.” She looked with concern at the bruise on Titus’s cheek but when he didn’t volunteer an explanation seemed content to leave the subject alone for now, despite Imelda Carolan’s instructions.

“Do you know by what name she refers to that journal she maintains?” Sarah asked as they walked a path which meandered through the long grass in the field behind the house and eventually climbed a small ridge overlooking the bay. “She calls it her insurance book, but not for her. It’s for her granddaughter Caroline.”
“Ah, and am I to take it then that Caroline’s mother is the result perhaps of that ‘bump’ which elevated her late husband to the ranks of the nobility?”
Sarah laughed. “Yes, and the bump Margaret went on to be a lady in waiting to her father’s wife, Catherine of Braganza! Now Margaret’s daughter Caroline has just started service in the household of Anne Stuart, the king’s niece, but it was a position due more to Ormonde’s help than Margaret’s influence, which places Caroline at a distinct disadvantage.”
“Oh, why is that?”
“Religion, what else?” Sarah sighed. “Catherine’s household, once Villers’ mob were expunged from it, is as Catholic as it gets. Anne’s on the other hand is about as Protestant as it can get, and is where much of the Villers crew washed up. They don’t call the household ‘The Cockpit’ for nothing! Imelda says; ‘when it comes to the lackeys and lickspittles that form the bulk of what’s in waiting to English royalty, there is no class of vixen or weasel more cunning or dangerous than that breed of bitches and bastards, and, since Caroline’s an outsider she needs all the ammunition she can get!’” Her imitation of Lady O’Carolan’s imperious voice was heavily laden with comical, but affectionate, overtones. She giggled. “Imelda records all the salacious news about them and all belonging to them that she can lay her hands on and posts it to Caroline every so often – so she has a fighting chance, she says.”
Titus laughed loudly. “Well if what I heard yesterday was anything to go by, the girl’s got as much ammunition as she needs to become the next queen if she wants. Jesus, I’m glad Lady Carolan’s on our side! A spymaster whose spies include a spymaster himself is not to be trifled with.”
“I don’t think Imelda’s on anyone’s side.” Sarah smiled. “Imelda’s like a force of nature. But blast the Stuarts, what about yourself then?” She studied his cheek, this time more closely. “So it’s innocuous things you’ve been up to, Titus? You must tell me more. What happened you?”
“I had a small chat with some remnants of the Gaelic nobility, though the chat was all one-sided. One of them spoke eloquently through the back of his hand. A funny language you have here, though I admit I had no problem understanding it. I had more problems understanding his colleague, who spoke the King’s English.”

Titus filled Sarah in on what had transpired, including his conversations that morning with Arran and later with Robinson. She listened attentively, interrupting him only to prise more detail from him, especially when he recounted the antipathy he had sensed between Richard Butler and Richard Talbot in the castle drawing room. She nodded in agreement as he expressed his unease over Lord Arran’s true motives and intentions, and adopted a distraught look when he relayed Robinson’s news of the apparent opposition and end to Ormonde’s ambitions for the city. When they reached the ridge that bordered the rear of Lady O’Carolan’s extensive garden, they both fell silent and paused to look out at the sea. A group of small fishing boats hauling nets was clearly visible anchored off Lambay, and to their south a large galley, sails a-billow, was plying her way across the horizon towards Howth Head. Shafts of sunlight broke through remnants of the cloud that had brought this morning’s mists and one such caught the galley’s white sail, irradiating it with a brilliance that lent it an otherworldly nature as it hovered against the dark backdrop of the shower-laden sky beyond. A cold wind whisked in from the water and Titus realised that his companion shivered slightly. He offered Sarah his riding coat to place around her shoulders. Then, noticing a stile beside them, they sat down on it, enjoying both the view and the silence for a little while longer. Eventually Sarah spoke. “You are using me as a confidante, Titus Perry, you do realise that?”
Titus looked at her but did not respond.
“Oh, I am not complaining. How could I, after all you’ve done for me? But it appears that we are becoming familiar, and I just want to say that it is a condition with which I am not accustomed but find rather agreeable. I say this of course only in case you were worried should you be compromising my … detachment.” She looked at Titus as if awaiting a response this time.
“Sorry,” said Titus, “but it seems I am at a loss for words.” He immediately contradicted this statement by adding nervously “Please don’t misunderstand me but ‘detachment’ is not the quality I had most associated with you up to now.”
“Oh! So I am not deficient in all qualities, just the one. That is gratifying to know.”
Titus stammered an apology. “I meant to imply no deficiency, I assure you. I …, I …, damn it, I had better hold my tongue before I cause further offence. I am afraid that you really do have me at a loss of words.”
“Ah, well that explains your look then, which I must say reminds me of a cat I once owned called Tobin who would try ever to impart his thoughts through one of only two expressions he could muster. The one you share is the one where fear dictates that one should appear to hold one’s counsel but where false pride dictates that one should appear knowledgeable. It is touching, but not very convincing.”

She smiled warmly but then grew serious. For a moment she regarded the galley once more, her gaze focused on the distant silhouette but her mind’s eye clearly attending something else entirely. She looked down, and then turned to look at her companion. “Very well, let me do the speaking so and please hear me out. Three weeks ago I was the respectable daughter of a prosperous businessman. I even stood to inherit a small property and an interest in a thriving trade. In the meantime I had vague plans to engage in charitable work. The Liberties in Dublin are cruelly named. People there are free all right, but free only to die in childbirth and consumptive disease for the want of a hospital, or free to live in penury and ignorance for the want of schooling. I’d even secured promises of contributions from some surprising people – pricking a guilty conscience is a wonderful way, I found, to enhance the coffers of charitable causes and there is much of that commodity in this city these days! Anyway, that was then, and this is now. Three weeks may as well have been a lifetime ago when you look at what has transpired in the meantime. I have in that period gone from learning that I had enemies to being sorely hurt by them, and now to being a refugee from their malice. But I’ve not lost everything. It was your friend Cormac who made me aware of that. He told me that there were two things, which, if retained throughout one’s life, will make one richer than the wealthiest emperor – principle, and the ability to judge character honestly, including one’s own.”
“He’s a dab hand at it himself it seems,” Titus interjected.
“Yes he is that. And I hope therefore my own assessment of you is as accurate as his. I judge you to be an honourable man, Titus Perry, and in many ways beyond the obvious one of my virtue, I am relying on that to be true. You have volunteered to help me bring my father’s killers to justice. I confess that, in my desire to avenge his murder, I may have neglected my manners and appeared less than grateful for that. But you have also been set a task that overrides mine completely, and indeed the failure of which could well make my own ambitions pointless. There will be little or no justice in this land if those who took Ormonde have their way.” Sarah grew quiet. She turned momentarily and looked into Titus’s eyes with a look approaching sorrow, then turned back to gaze at the ocean beyond. “What I’m going to say next will be the height of presumption, Titus, especially coming from someone so dependent on others to keep body and soul together at the moment. But what I am trying to make you see is that you are speaking to someone who is not accustomed to this tenuous grip on destiny which I now find I clutch. I trust you though I hardly know you, and I don’t just say that in gratitude for all you’ve done, which is much. If you will allow it, I would like to go to Ulster with you, or wherever your task brings you. And, beyond that, if our fates are to be intertwined then I would gladly accept it.” And then, as if her serious mood had been but the shadow of a small cloud passing on a summer day, her features broke into a radiant smile and she laughed out loud. “Hark at me - if I sound like an ungrateful, pompous and arrogant wretch feel free to tell me.”

Titus cleared his dry throat. He had become conscious of an undercurrent to his circumstances that both pleased and appalled him. He had his own reasons for offering her his aid, but there was a danger in allowing this woman mistake her own resultant gratitude for affection, as he was afraid she might. By the same token, he could not deny that it was affection indeed however that he himself felt for Sarah Reilly. She had said that she was happy to let their fates be intertwined and he knew in all honesty that such was how he felt himself. But yet this realisation brought only discomfort. One reason for this discomfort was obvious. It would be an act bordering on the behaviour of a blackguard to encourage her affection for him, even an imagined affection, so soon after suffering such a grievous loss. But he knew also that there was another reason that had nothing to do with Sarah at all, and everything to do with him. Titus had reasons enough to distrust such sentiment and the paths it led one down. It was a journey he had made before, and in fact he was not even sure if that journey was as yet finished.

He chose therefore to return her warmth, but resolved to arrest his affections. In any case, he reasoned, he might well be misunderstanding the woman’s friendliness entirely, and that it was born out of simple manners and good grace, nothing more. “As arrogant wretches go I have to say you stand out alone, Sarah Reilly.” He then gave Sarah’s forearm the briefest of squeezes and stood up abruptly. “Yesterday morning I appointed you my interpreter, remember. I’m beginning to think I displayed great foresight in doing so!”
She looked him in the eye and smiled back to him. “I think in time I could be more than that Titus.” Sarah accepted Titus’s hand as he helped her to her feet. To his dismay, she held it for a second longer than strictly required for the purpose of balance, and then suddenly squealed with delight. “Look!” She was pointing to the rushing waters in the straight between the land and Lambay Island. Just discernible in the choppy waves were the black heads of a dozen or more seals. They were making steady progress towards the small fleet of fishing boats and Titus could see that those in the leading group were particularly active, leaping almost totally out of the water with apparent abandon in anticipation of a feed.
“Someone’s having fun at least,” he remarked.
“Good,” said Sarah with a coy smile directed at Titus, “I’d hate to think we’re the only ones!”

Imelda was waiting for them in the kitchen when they returned. She and Mairéad were cutting and washing vegetables. “Sit down you two. Here Titus, make yourself useful.” She handed him a knife. “My poor hands don’t have the strength for this work anymore alas. Now, tell me! You’re taking my guest away aren’t you, and we just after getting acquainted too!”
“Well, actually I think your guest is safest here Imelda,” said Titus as he began to work his way through a pile of spring onions with the practised ease of someone who has had to fend for himself as well as a platoon of hungry workers on more than one occasion. “She seems determined to put herself at risk however.”
“So she tells me – and she’s right. She’s more than welcome to stay here as long as she likes, and she knows that. But I think Sarah is not the type of person who will skulk in a borrowed lair while the hunt mills around her.”
“Excuse me, I am here you know. I can speak for myself too.” Sarah spoke up with a hint of indignation. “I know I am welcome here and I am not ungrateful Imelda.”
Lady O’Carolan patted Sarah on the wrist. “I’m no gaoler, Sarah Reilly. I see a lot of me in you, you know. I’d no sooner keep you here against your own judgement than I would a sparrow in a birdcage. I just wish I had the years again and the strength to go with ye! Now, what you both need from me is about all I can give these days – the benefit of hindsight. Us ould ones still have a trick or two to teach you know. Isn’t that right Mairéad?”
“Speak for yourself,” was Mairéad’s surprising retort. “There’s some of us haven’t quite given up the ghost yet, and for all your talk I’d say the same for you too. To listen to her you’d swear she was a frail old thing lying-a-bed entertaining the death rattle! Tell them where I found you last night, why don’t you?”
“Ha!” Lady O’Carolan wagged a finger at Mairéad, who merely cast her eyes to heaven and continued peeling the potatoes in the basket before her. “Found me indeed! You wouldn’t have woken at all if I hadn’t nearly drilled my stick through your ceiling. Sure it took me five minutes to rouse you!”
“Up in the attic she was,” Mairéad continued, momentarily suspending her peeling to point in the direction of the loft with her knife. “She got up the ladder but found she couldn’t get down again. If I didn’t know the woman going back years I’d say she was in her dotage.”
“I had no difficulty with the ladder whatsoever. I needed someone to hold the candle while I rummaged, that’s all.”
Titus and Sarah were both smiling at the exchange. “What were you rummaging for?” Sarah asked.
“You’ll see. Now Titus, we’ll have a meal and then you’ll meet me in the parlour afterwards. I want to talk with you alone!”
“Poor Titus”, muttered Mairéad almost indiscernibly.
Lady O’Carolan raised her voice above the mutter. “I wish to speak with Titus about some news I received yesterday after he left, if that is all right with my servant! Did you happen to see anyone advertising their services as a maid in town?” She shot a sideways look at Mairéad who continued her peeling regardless. “It seems that civil ones are hard to find these days!”
“Call me your servant again and you can find your own way down ladders in the middle of the night in future!” Mairéad’s eyes flashed with mock indignation. Still she peeled away without looking up. Imelda laughed out loud and Titus noticed that Mairéad entertained a small smile too, though still the peeling continued uninterrupted. Sarah mentioned the seals they had spotted and Imelda immediately embarked on the narration of an amusing old legend involving abandoned children, mad kings and magical seals that effectively ended the banter and diverted the company – including Mairéad who must have heard it many times before – until mealtime.

Sarah helped Mairéad wash the tableware in the scullery after their meal and Titus went to meet Imelda in the parlour as summonsed. She was seated by the bureau at the window where she had sat recording “Caroline’s insurance book” the day before, and signalled Titus to pull up a chair and seat himself beside her. She was holding something in a closed fist, and when he sat down she bid him open his hand and placed it on his palm. It was a signet ring of some description, and not, Titus reckoned, one of any great value. “Can you see the pattern?” Imelda asked. “It is very old and I’m afraid much worn with the years. A bit like me.”
Titus peered at the inscription and mark. It appeared to be a harp, upon which stood a bird of some kind. The reversed letters beneath the symbol were indecipherable. Imelda closed her eyes and spoke softly.

“Chief among all the tribes stands the Brothers of the Bittern,
They are wise and courageous,
And they are ever in the service of their countrymen.
They are the salvation of the land in her hour of need,
They know not fear nor do they know defeat,
They will heal the riven and strengthen the spirit of our heroes.”


She opened her eyes. “Do you know of whom I speak?”
Titus shook his head. “It is an old poem you quote.”
“A song, yes, a planxty to a High King and his tribe from a very long time ago. The King was an O’Connor from Breffni many hundreds of years ago. They married into the O’Reillys, just like Sarah’s stock, but that is of no matter. In time the High Kingship passed to the Uí Néilligh, the O’Neills, but each High King in between, regardless of name, had this planxty sung to him when he was crowned and took the title as his own. This ring also was passed through the royal lineage as one of the tokens of authority. The words you see on it are from the planxty – ‘The Brothers of the Bittern’.”
“From what you say I am surprised it is not already in London. It is the type of trophy they would delight in owning.”
“I doubt if the English would care a toss for such a trinket these days, Titus. Those times have long gone, and whatever authority passed down with this ring has long fled our shores too. But it does have one value yet, and one that might serve you well.”
“Oh, I could not possibly accept such a gift Imelda!”
“It is not a gift. Such things cannot be given, only lent. I have no doubt it will find its own way further through time, but you can return it to my safekeeping when your need of it is over. In the meantime wear it, and use it. In Ulster it will be a token of your trustworthiness amongst the true people, and it will save you from situations such as you found yourself in yesterday!” She nodded towards his bruised cheek. “To others it is just a trinket, as I said, so will bring you to no harm from them either.”
“You are very well informed. Everybody seems to be except me.”
“Ha! The only reason I know is because I was visited last night by one of O’Neill’s troop, looking for money to finance their visit. I gave him five shillings and I’d say he never saw so much gilt in his paw in one go in his life before!” She cackled at the thought. “He told me of how they had passed their message to Richard Butler and even an old dotard like me could figure out who the messenger had been. They have great plans these men, but their day has gone. Young O’Neill will never reclaim any authority, let alone any kingship, in this land again. The best they can hope for is to be forceful enough to harry and hinder those who would plot against the Butlers. They’re wanted men though. If they can even do this they’d be doing well. Most likely they’ll end up dead in a ditch or locked in chains, young fools.”
“He didn’t happen to say what the message meant? It is one that Lord Arran is taking very seriously.” He gave her the gist of its content, but Imelda seemed as ignorant of its import as he had been himself.
“Who knows what deals are being struck? As I said, these are desperate men and you can be sure that what they have demanded will be just as desperate! Still, they are desperate not entirely through their own fault, and might surprise us all yet. As long as Dick Butler thinks they have an important role to play, then indeed they do, and they’d as best make the most of it while they can!”
“There is one of them who Arran and Talbot both seemed sure was important – Ball-Dearg?” Titus wasn’t sure he had pronounced it correctly.
Imelda perked up. “Ah! There is hope then. That would be Hugh O’Donnell – the ‘ball dearg’ means he has the O’Donnell birthmark. He is a shrewd one.”
“He is also the one who spoke with his fist.”
“Finesse is something they will leave to those who can afford the luxury. Now, you will tell me what transpired.”

For the second time that day Titus found himself being debriefed about his short, but obviously important, meeting with the Gaelic exiles. Like Arran, Imelda seemed disappointed that he had not gleaned more names of those present. She was especially interested in hearing of O’Neill’s appearance. She questioned Titus closely about his height and hair colour, and tutted perceptibly when she heard of his wig. Such affectations did not obviously square with her image of a Gaelic Lord. She seemed incredibly impressed, and let out a loud laugh when she heard of Hugh O’Donnell’s whispered parting comment as he had ‘escorted’ Titus out the door of the smelly hovel. Titus asked her why.

“Three hundred years ago,” she replied, “the English were at their wits’ end trying to figure out a way to keep this land that their Norman brothers had won for them, or so they thought. It was a Butler of Ormonde who acted as their Lord Lieutenant then too, albeit reluctantly, and he had been less than diligent in making sure that the crown got paid the taxes it thought it was owed from its Irish subjects.” She cackled at the thought of it, and then frowned. “It wasn’t just disobedience on his part either, people here had more pressing things to attend to. Plague and famine had just ravaged the country. Many died and those who remained grew ever more desperate and warlike. On top of all his other woes, Butler found himself besieged by his Gaelic neighbours in Munster led by the O’Brien, opportunistic young blaggard, and gave up the pretence altogether of being an agent of the ‘boy king’ Richard in London. He rightly decided it best to look after his own!”

Titus noticed that Imelda spoke of these things as if she had witnessed them herself. Her expression of approval for the ancient Lord Lieutenant’s policy gave no hint of the fact that it had obviously failed in its aim. Titus was aware of no time in the last three hundred years when the Irish could ever truly claim to be ‘looking after their own’, free from obligation to an English crown. Undeterred by such harsh political fact however, Lady O’Carolan continued with her story.
“King Richard’s advisors sent a letter to Butler telling him that he was bound by the Statutes of Kilkenny, that traitor’s parchment which Butler’s father and the king’s grandfather had concocted to assert their spurious title on this land. Butler sent a communication back to London and all he said were the words that Hugh O’Donnell said to you last night – ‘All things must end’. It seems young Hugh knows his history, and has the wit to quote it aptly! If, please God, you ever get to pass on that message as Hugh intended it won’t be lost on James Butler that it’s his own ancestor’s words that are being relayed to him, and with the same sense to them now as they had then!”
“And to a man like Hugh O’Donnell, long overdue at that.”
“You had better believe it, Titus. It’s not just their exile abroad that has these men as desperate as they are!” Abruptly, she changed the topic to Titus’s plans for when he headed north and Titus had no hesitation in outlining such plans as he had in detail. If his assumption was correct then there was every chance that she had helped DeLacey compile the inventory of friendly and unfriendly Ulster contacts every bit as much as William Robinson, and now guessed his intentions as well as he knew them himself anyway, just as she had known of, or surmised, Ormonde’s disappearance. She nodded in approval when he mentioned some of the estates he wished to visit and frowned visibly at others. When Titus mentioned that DeLacey insisted he visit the Earl of Drogheda her frown turned to a scowl. “Be careful with that hoor, Titus, give him nothing. If he gets a bit high and mighty just ask him where ould Moore hid during the siege. That will shut him up!”

As Titus prepared to leave for Dublin, he and Sarah stole some time alone together in the garden. He showed the signet ring that Imelda had lent him and recounted the story behind it. Sarah held it with something approaching awe before returning it. “If only my father were still alive, he would have loved to see this. This ring would have been worn by an ancestor of his once, or so he would have delighted in telling me.” The pain in her voice was evident. Titus paused in silence until Sarah’s reflective expression switched suddenly to one of enquiry and she asked pointedly “You think this is all sentimental and superstitious nonsense, do you not?”
“No, not at all.” He assured her. “History, to me, has never been just the litany of names and dates that some would have it. My father often said that the past is like another country and the artefacts surviving from it are indeed its emissaries, come to explain their country’s nature and deserving therefore of our respectful audience. I wonder how Lady O’Carolan came to have it?”
“I think I know.” Sarah replied. “Her grandfather, Fiach MacAirt, chose to stay in Ireland after the Flight of the Earls. She told me of him last night. He opted to pledge allegiance to the crown and retain his lands. In fact this house was a reward for that allegiance. But secretly he continued to act as an intermediary between the exiled Earls and their families left behind. He held many things in trust for the exiles – documents and deeds proving ownership of their properties, should fortunes change and the Irish reclaim their own from the English invaders. This must have been one of these things entrusted to him too. The nobility who left were heading into uncertain futures, tokens of their continuity were safer left with trustworthy souls back in Ireland. In any case, they had every intention, should chance allow it, to return and claim back what was theirs.”
“I’d better not lose it then,” Titus smiled, but Sarah didn’t share his humour.
“No you must wear it as she said, though what the Uí Néilligh would make of an English mapmaker wearing a badge of their office I would hate to think.”
“Well then I shall. But I don’t think it’s the Uí Néilligh I have to fear most.”
“We have to fear. Remember I’m going with you.”
Titus smiled again. “But not just yet. I must return to Dublin at least until tomorrow. There may be news from Jack of Flitch, and I have equipment that needs organising in the morning. I’ll return here tomorrow afternoon and then we’ll head up to Balbriggan. I’ll be rallying my workforce there prior to moving north.”
“Where to?”
“I had hoped to start on the Down coast, around Rostrevor, but it seems Armagh is where your Gaelic chieftains would like me to commence my visit. By all accounts it is a pleasant town.”
“My father would have corrected you there. Small though it is, it is a city on account of its cathedral.” She paused. “Titus?” Sarah looked worried.
“Yes?”
“I don’t know, I just had a strange disquiet come over me.”
“After all you’ve been through I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Not for me – for you. Be careful in Dublin.”
“I will visit with Cormac, and then I’ll be in the castle all the time. What harm can befall me there?”
Sarah’s dark look unsettled him and they lapsed into silence.

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