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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 12 "A Victory" (part 3)

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Nobiles Barbariæ

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Join date : 2011-12-25

PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 12 "A Victory" (part 3)

When they returned they saw that Jack and the carriage had returned also. The sound of laughter from the kitchen indicated that he had met with success in rounding up his troops in Dublin. Sam Wilkins and Jonathan Swift had indeed arrived and were seated at Grace’s kitchen table, tucking into some freshly boiled potatoes with relish, while attempting simultaneously to conduct a conversation with Jack and Cuffe’s soldiers. The air of hilarity they had generated was infectious, and Titus could not help smiling as he entered the room. He picked up a steaming spud and hopped it from hand to hand as it cooled down. “Welcome, lads! Poor Grace won’t have any food left for the summer at this rate!”
Grace herself entered at this point with a loaf of bread from the pantry. “They don’t feed them up in that college Mr Titus. The poor divils are half starved! Look at them!”
“Ah, Mrs Quinn,” mumbled Swift through a mouthful of chewed potato. “I doubt if a Greek god on Mount Olympus, or those fortunate denizens of Ossian’s Land of Eternal Youth could ever have enjoyed such fare.”
“Or ate so much of it,” grinned Sarah. “And if you are going to dare compare yourself with our ancients, Mr Swift, it might pay you to get their names right! The warrior was called Oisín and the land in question was Tír na nÓg. If he’d known that tales of himself and the land of his lover were to be cheapened later in the telling by illiterate Englishisms, it is off his horse he would have hurled himself with glee, and not wait for a rueful slip to send him to the oblivion that awaited him. Now gentlemen, is there room at your table and potatoes in your pot for a hungry woman?”
Sam, with a sudden realisation of propriety and manners, made to rise sharply upon hearing Sarah’s request, but instead succeeded merely in cracking his thigh against the beam of the table. The recoil, and the pain, sent him back into his chair with a thump. Despite his apparent agony however, this only sent him and his friends into more convulsions of laughter, with Sam himself outdoing them all to the point where he looked like his heart might give out at any moment. As Jack gripped his sides as if to stop them from bursting, and thumped the tabletop with his fist, Titus could not help but reflect again on the lad’s resilience, much as he had at Sarah’s earlier. Just over twenty-four hours ago the lad had emerged from Newgate a severely shaken and pale shadow of his self. Now it was as if that had been a different person entirely. He felt again a twinge of guilt at having put the lad through his trauma, as indeed he felt personally responsible for it – yet he also felt that Jack obviously had an ability to recover from adversity that he could only envy.
As if reading Titus’ thoughts, Sarah smacked Jack lightly on the back of his head as she sat astride the bench beside him. She picked up a steaming potato and bit into it with gusto, then pointed the remainder of it at the young man as if it was a loaded weapon. “If you don’t stop laughing so much,” she just about managed to say through a mouth stuffed with food, “you’ll do yourself a mischief and finish the job the lads in Newgate failed to, Jack Quinn!” Even this only served to set Jack and his friends off in a new bout of convulsions. Titus threw his eyes up to heaven and left the bedlam to find Jack’s father.

Quinn was in the byre sweeping out the wooden stalls, assisted by a farmhand carting the waste to a pile in the courtyard outside. Titus saluted them both, grabbed a rake from where it rested against the wall and joined them. “I thought you were retired, Quinn,” he said as he set to work clearing soiled straw bedding from a stall.
“So did I when I came here. But there’s always work to be done on a farm Titus, and I’m not one to sit back and watch it being done badly by others. Hey Patrick, look right to the back there – can’t you see the damp straw behind you? You want the cows to catch their death?”
Patrick, the farmhand, turned and made a face at the straw, as if it was something that he had already wheeled out, and had now mysteriously made its way back in again. Quinn shook his head with a sigh and carried on in his own corner. “I’ve been thinking about tomorrow, Titus.”
“Oh?” Titus glanced across to make sure that Patrick was out of earshot. “Is there something I have missed, do you reckon? God knows I am familiar enough with its potential flaws.” He raked the straw with a vigour, as if the distraction of labour would somehow lessen the impact of any gloom that Quinn might cast on their venture. Quinn, he knew, was a realistic man, and his opinion one to be respected in these matters.
“No, no. I think we can do it all right with the grace of God, though I am not as sure as you that those young jackass friends of Jack’s will be an asset to us! I mean, in all honesty, I had to leave my own house with the howling from them!” He laughed, as if to show that this reservation was not the one that had been taxing his mind. “I swear, if such is the way they behave in class it bodes ill for the future of the professional class in this country.”

Titus regarded the stall that he had just swept, and decided that it had been done to Quinn’s satisfaction before replying. “Don’t worry about them Quinn,” he smiled. “They’re a bit more intelligent than they may appear at the moment. I reckon they’re just pleased to escape the city for a few days. They’ll do fine. Besides, as far as I can gather, such has always been the manner of our nascent academics. Baying and howling like stuck pigs at the learning stage seems to be an essential ingredient in the formation of the modern professional man!” Quinn just grunted at Titus’ levity, and he wasn’t quite sure if this implied agreement or derision. He decided to give Quinn the benefit of the doubt, and to presume the former. He waited a moment for Quinn to voice whatever doubt was obviously playing on his mind, and when he saw that nothing was forthcoming, opted to change the subject. There was no point trying to prompt a man like Quinn to speak his mind at anything other than its own pace. He was a man who might take his time in concluding a thought, but by the time he expressed it you could be sure that it had been honed to its most basic truth and was all the more reliable for that. “You’ve been very good to accommodate us all at such short notice Quinn,” he said as he moved with his rake to the next stall.
Quinn grabbed the rake from Titus’ hand and shook his head, signalling that they should now take a break from their labours. He gestured towards the byre door, and as they walked out into the courtyard he spoke in low, confidential tones. “It’s a big house – too bloody big sometimes, now that Jack’s up in college. It’s been nice to see a bit of life in it again, besides myself and the Graces, even if it comes with a volume that drives its owner out.” He laughed quietly, but quickly grew serious again. “About Ulster, I’ve had some success in organising a crew for you too. Did Flitch tell you before he went missing?”
“He mentioned it, yes. How soon can they be assembled?”
“Oh, a few days notice should do it. The demand for farmhands is dropping off these last few years because of the embargo. A chance of steady work through the summer and beyond wasn’t a hard proposition to sell. Mind you, I have been careful to appoint only those I felt were up to the job though.”
“Thanks Quinn.”
“By the way, they will need a foreman.”

They had reached the small gate that separated the courtyard from a small pasture where Quinn kept some goats and sheep. Titus paused in his tracks and looked for a while at a nanny suckling two kids on a patch of grass beside the mud of the pasture entrance, until he realised with alarm that her vacant, docile expression might not be too dissimilar to his own at the moment, especially if he should take any longer to respond. It seemed that Quinn had at last found expression for what had been troubling him. In his own typical fashion he had left the comment hanging provocatively in the air, inviting Titus to respond, and Titus knew from experience that Quinn was a man who could leave such a comment hanging a very long time if one did not help to reel it in. “You say that with some emphasis. Am I thinking you might have found one I know?”
“Myself Titus. There’s hardly enough work on the farm to keep us all going here now. As long as I have the freedom to come back and forth as needs be, I’d be happy to assist you.”
Titus smiled. “I’d be honoured Quinn, really I would. But would Grace not be a bit upset at that? She waited here long enough for you to arrive.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve spoken with Grace about this. She’s in agreement – says if it means she doesn’t have to sit around looking at my long face every evening it has to be for the best.”
“I take it this retirement plan hasn’t quite worked out as expected?”

It was Quinn’s turn to regard the nanny goat as he formulated his thoughts. Her own deliberations seemed as weighty as her observer’s, and she even appeared to tacitly nod in Quinn’s direction, as if acknowledging a kindred philosopher. The gesture seemed to surprise Quinn, who quickly turned his back on her and addressed his companion again. His confidential tones had now sunk so low as to be practically inaudible. “Don’t get me wrong. There’s no bad feeling between Grace and myself, none at all. It’s the bloody inactivity is wearing me down here, not the work. I feel like I’m wasting away in mind, body and soul here. Grace agrees – a stint on the road might be just the tonic I need. That’s if you’ll have me of course.”
“I’d be mad to refuse you Quinn. In fact it’s the best offer I’ve had in a long time.” A concern was growing however in Titus’ mind. Quinn was one of the trustworthiest people he had ever met, but could he be told of the true nature of Titus’ work in Ulster? And if he could, would it be fair to implicate him in it?
Quinn had seemingly prepared for such demurring on Titus’ part, and now revealed that he had been no slouch either in anticipating its probable cause. “I’m not a prying man, Titus, but …” He noticed that Patrick had entered the courtyard with the last of the raked straw in his barrow. “Hey Patrick, good lad! Take a rest from that now. Fetch us some ale from Mrs Quinn will you?” Once Patrick had left he resumed his point. “Well, it doesn’t take a savant to see that whatever happened in Dublin has changed your commission somewhat, Titus.” He took Titus’ studied silence as affirmation enough to proceed, and by his tone it was obvious that something else still troubled him. When Quinn tried to speak tactfully, it was often with such obvious deliberateness that his words defeated their own purpose and merely drew attention all the more readily to whatever sensitive subject that he was attempting to broach. The nanny goat came in for further scrutiny as he spoke. “That Sarah is a nice lassie, and I dare say she’s a dab hand at the interpreting and all. But she’s a lassie on the run from something, I can see that.”
Titus had no idea where this might lead. Quinn’s perception was stunning sometimes, and he had a feeling that this last remark might not have revealed the extent of it either. He decided it best for the moment just to play along with Quinn’s line of approach. “From her outlaw remark when we arrived?”
“No, from her eyes. I’ve seen it before a hundred times in the eyes of army volunteers. Service is a great way of escaping for some. Have you feelings for the girl?”
Titus nodded. “Though I think I am only discovering that myself now.”
“Well you are doing right in assisting her I reckon, though in what is not my concern if you wish it that way. But I am, I hope, a man whose advice you would take as if from a brother.” He paused again, obviously finding his next comment even more difficult to phrase. The nanny goat decided that she had been scrutinised enough, tore herself from her sucklings, and trotted indignantly out of sight, the two kids bleating miserably behind her as they scurried after her teats.
“Unless my brother were an exceptional man, I dare say I would value yours more highly still, Quinn. But out with it, man. Is there something on your mind?” Titus knew from experience that Quinn had himself reached the point of no return, and that should he stall now, he might never actually say what all this preamble had been leading up to. He decided to help the man tip the load, but bit his lip even as he made his request. Asking Quinn to speak his mind could be akin to requesting a surgeon to proceed with the amputation of one’s limb – it might be a request based on logic and in one’s own interests to ask, but that didn’t make what followed any easier to bear. There was much that he had yet hidden from his old friend, and Titus knew that Quinn was not only close enough a companion to sense this, but also astute enough to deduce what was hidden, if not take umbrage at being excluded. If something was indeed bothering him, it would be best to have it aired now. Besides, there was much, Titus knew, that he himself had yet to resolve about the very person of whom Quinn now spoke so guardedly. Quinn’s insights, if he ever got round to expressing them - even ones grounded in misgivings - might throw more than a sliver of light on Titus’ own uncertainties.
“Is she trustworthy, Titus?”

Titus knew his friend long enough to realise that no impertinence was meant by that question. It stung nevertheless. “I believe so. Why do you ask?”
“It was possibly nothing, but I saw her pass a note to Jack when he was setting off to Dublin. She was waiting for him at the sallies up by Kill Cross, and neither of them knew that I was watching from the old churchyard. On my way back from the strand with kelp, I was, otherwise I’d never be up there.”
“How do you know she was waiting for him?”
“Either that or she had found something of tremendous interest in the sally bush. She was half submerged in it, up until he arrived. I’d figured she was hiding from view, even before my young lad appeared on his horse.”
For a moment Titus felt a twinge of alarm. Quinn was not a man to jump to hasty conclusions, and knew enough to spot a person behaving covertly when he saw it. Besides, Sarah’s appreciation of the cover that a bush could provide was well known to Titus already. But just as suddenly an explanation occurred to him. “Jack’s journey took him past a great ally of ours, Lady O’Halloran. She has quickly won Sarah’s respect and affection. I would imagine it was she to whom the letter was addressed.”
Titus’ assurance did little, it seemed, to dispel Quinn’s suspicions. “Well he was mighty secretive himself about it when I asked him on his return - subtly, mind. Still, the letters that pass between others is of no concern to me, and if he was trusted to secrecy I would expect little else from him.”
Titus was sure that he could verify his own assumption with the lad later, himself. Why Sarah might be furtive in her correspondence with Imelda O’Halloran escaped him, but there was always a chance that even this was merely supposition on Quinn’s part. She may indeed have been pursuing an activity no more sinister than picking flowers – she had indeed returned with an impressive posy of wild blooms in the afternoon – then, having noticed the lad riding by, had impulsively availed of the opportunity to have her letter delivered. “I dare say that your son has taken a request to be discreet as a command to be clandestine, Quinn! He sees himself very much as Sarah’s champion, I fear.”
Quinn smiled. “She’s acquiring quite a collection then.”
Titus reddened. “Why do I feel that I am now about to receive that brotherly advice you mentioned?”
“About Sarah? I have nothing to offer you there by way of advice, man. Whether a man follows his head, his heart or his baser organs in the matter of amour, it all comes out much the same in the wash!” If this was meant to assure Titus in some way, it achieved quite the opposite effect. The mapmaker reddened even more and found himself at a loss for words with which to reply. If Quinn noticed this, he chose to ignore it and continued his point. “I’ll say no more about the woman, Titus. I know a good one when I see one, and you’ve a fine one there, whatever else she may be. If she’s secrets about her, then you and she could not be a better match in any case.”
“I admitted that I like the girl, Quinn. Leave out talk of matching, if you please.”
Quinn smiled even more broadly. “If you want, but I’m right about both of you having your little secrets, am I not?”
Titus suddenly realised that Quinn’s reservations about Sarah had themselves been but a preamble to more serious ones again. He realised at once that he was in the grip of an expert, a man well experienced in learning what he needed to know, and in circumventing any obstacle to that ambition. Years of dealing with uncooperative superiors, unwilling natives, unreliable informers and subordinates with the mental acumen of slugs, had taught the man a thing or two about interrogation. There was more than one way to skin a cat, and even more ways, it seemed, of softening a man’s resistance to passing on information. Nervous as he was of the answer, he knew that Quinn’s last remark had also been a statement that grew with deliberate provocation the longer it was left suspended in mid-air, so he asked Quinn in as disinterested a voice as he could manufacture what it was that he meant, knowing that this was merely playing into the man’s hands and taking the conversation into territory that he had hoped to avoid.
“Well you see, there is something else that has been bothering me. As I said, I have no wish to pry, but I spoke to Cuffe last night, as you suggested, about the gunpowder in the castle. Damned thing’s been bugging me since it came into my mind. It just didn’t make sense that the stuff had been salvaged. If the fire was an accident there was no time to save it. If someone had set it with a view to destroying the castle, then it seemed the powder store would have been a more logical target to light than Arran’s house. Either way, it should have been first to go up.”

Quinn stared hard at Titus. He may not have phrased it as a question, but the mapmaker knew that he was being scrutinised for an answer, and he was just as sure that his failure to reply immediately had probably told Quinn all that he probably needed to know. He remembered from old that his companion could read a face like an open book. No matter what Titus said now, the man had already advanced several chapters through the story. It would be best to come clean. Besides, he had no doubt that poor Robert Cuffe had already been through this very mill, and that Quinn was in possession of more facts than his opening statement – innocuously phrased but bursting with implication - might have suggested. He laughed, not just at the relief of no longer having to perpetuate a lie to a friend, but also at his own folly in thinking that a man like Quinn could ever have been kept in ignorance of anything that had already aroused his considerable curiosity. “There are men in high places in Dublin hoping that no one in London applies the same tenacity as you have Quinn, and to that same investigation. What did Cuffe say?”
“Oh he said something damned silly about being lucky. Then he said that he wrote as much in his report. I told him that I’d submitted a thousand false reports to my seniors over the years and could spot a blatant fib from a thousand paces.”
“Ah, how did he take it?”
“I didn’t give him a chance to say, though he looked none too pleased. ‘If you’re going to fib,’ I said, ‘have the wit to do it in true military fashion! Your typical political master is a man who can only absorb one fact at a time. It’s in his nature; to judge a fact in isolation and only in terms of how it can be used to his advantage. We military men have not such a luxury. We must often absorb our facts in tandem and quantity, and make several decisions at once. Therefore hit him with as many facts in the same breath as you can think of. By the time he has tried and failed to absorb them he will be grateful for whatever decision you say that you arrived at yourself on their basis! In the heel of the hunt he cares only that a finger in the future cannot be pointed at him.’ Then I told him he should have said that the kegs nearest the fire had grown damp over time from a leak in the store’s ceiling which hadn’t been spotted, and which retarded their ignition point. I told him that he should have said the initial fire then caused a collapse of the wall onto the outer kegs that further insulated them against the heat of the blaze. I told him that he could then say that enough time was bought for some of his men to roll them towards the stables, using the natural slope of the courtyard to that end. I told him that a portable piston pump drawing water from the Poddle, which flows underground conveniently at that point, and whose jet was directed at the powder as it was moved, meant that the whole exercise could be achieved with minimal risk and in minimal time. Since the whole thing is a pile of rubble now anyway, there is no one can say that it wasn’t true.”
Titus laughed aloud. “Poor Cuffe, what did he say to that?”
“The man was so red I thought he’d go up like a powder keg himself. Fortunately he didn’t, and he and I spent a pleasant half hour or so writing a missal that might have a little more credibility than its predecessor. He rode himself to the Dublin Road to try and catch the midnight coach.”
“He’s gone?” Titus’ heart skipped a beat.
“No, no. The coach runs every other night between Drogheda and Dublin. It carries errands and messages to and from the castle. For a small fee they will often deliver letters for us as well, but I dare say Cuffe needed no such inducement for the driver. His letter was addressed to a castle man called DeLacey. He’s a high one, is DeLacey. Do you know him?”
Quinn’s question seemed innocently asked, but Titus knew when his friend was fishing. He shook his head, and crossed his fingers in his pocket as he did so.

His companion seemed not even to notice Titus’ response and carried on with his tale. “I waited up for him – though I dare say he’d have preferred that I didn’t, if only to hide from scrutiny the relief on his face. He’d obviously managed to intercept his original dispatch. But as I said, I’m not a prying sort. I simply wished him a good night and retired. Still, I reckon there was more to his relief than simply avoiding looking like a fool with such an obviously contrived report,” he paused, and raised his eyebrow as he regarded Titus keenly, “just as there’s more to your missing secretary, and your ‘change of schedule’, as you called it, than you’ve chosen to share. But that’s your own business.”
“That it is,” Titus admitted to his friend. So much for being clandestine, he thought, and inwardly shuddered at the realisation of just what he was letting himself in for. If an ingénue like Quinn, however astute he might be, could deduce so much and so quickly, how long would it take those whose entire life has been spent in devising and detecting subterfuge to do likewise. The penalty of being found out by a man like Quinn would be possibly merely the umbrage taken by a friend excluded from one’s deliberations. The penalty with these others would far exceed that. He banished the thought from his mind. “And a sorry business it is too, for a man who came to this land thinking he was only required to chart its boundaries. Think yourself lucky not to be involved in such things, and to have a friend such as I who would deliberately keep it that way!”
Quinn grimaced at Titus’ remark, which defined friendship in terms that he could not understand. “Are you in trouble, Titus?”
“If trouble is that which taxes the mind and makes one regret a path that one has chosen, then you might say that. If you ask am I in imminent danger, then I can only tell you what I myself believe – that I am more dangerous to my friends now than my enemies.” Quinn was about to ask something more but Titus stayed him with a gesture. “No more questions, I beg of you. I swear on my life that were I to tell you all that you might wish to know, I would simply be placing you in the way of dangers that even a man as resourceful as yourself would find hard to elude. I plead with you to trust me on that.”
Quinn smiled grimly. “And so I do, my friend. So no more questions from me – merely a statement. You’re in a pickle of some sort, and from what I can glean you share the pickle jar with some very rare fruits indeed. But you are still intent on completing your commission here; and perhaps indeed it is essential that you do so, or at least be seen to be doing so. All I’m saying is that you could use me all the more so – if you have other ‘business’ to attend to in Ulster but still wish the surveying job to proceed, then I’m the man to see that it is done. You do whatever you have to do, and I’ll ensure that your commission is fulfilled.”
Titus leaned on the gate and regarded Quinn afresh. “You wish to become my employee?” He looked hard at his old friend.
“Well, a junior partner in the surveying enterprise would be more apt a description of the role I had in mind.” Quinn smiled slyly, and Titus could not but laugh.
“I could think of no better a partner. But what I said still applies. It would be just as a surveyor that you would be employed.”
“I understand.” Quinn’s sly smile had not disappeared. Either he did not think that Titus could long keep a secret, or he was confident in deducing its content in any case. Titus had to admit that the conversation they had just had would suggest he had good reason to feel the latter.
Still, it was better to iterate his reason for his secrecy and assure his friend again that no slight was intended. “But believe me, I withhold nothing from you that I don’t think it might endanger you to know. If you’re content with that arrangement then let’s agree to it.”

He had to assume his friend’s compliance with his offer, as at that moment Patrick arrived carrying a large pitcher of ale and two tankards, thereby putting paid to their private discussion. Titus poured himself a drink and saluted Quinn as he poured his. “Please God you may never need to know either, Quinn, and thank you again for your offer of service. Consider yourself appointed. And here’s to one of the best army engineers I’ve ever had the honour of working with, and will ever, I dare say.”
Quinn saluted Titus in return. “I think you honour me slightly too much with the title you bestow on me, but here’s to one of the most puzzling sods that this old soldier has ever had to fathom. And long may he remain so. The world has enough easy men to read. Sláinte Beo.” He drained his ale in one swallow, and then handed the empty pitcher to Patrick. “What say you, my friend? When you shave, do you see a trite old story too often read in the glass, or do you see the tantalising first sentence of a masterpiece, its content infuriatingly obscured?”
Patrick must have known that he was being jibed. He collected Titus’ pitcher silently as he considered his response. “Well, t’is my daughter Sheila who barbers me, Mr Quinn.” He looked his employer in the eye. “And she often says, as she does it, that the best books are bound in the best leather! Mind you, I have to tell her that you can’t judge a book just by its cover, just as you shouldn’t assume that the bull who bellows sweetest is the one with the balls to match.” He spat on the ground and sauntered away chuckling to himself, leaving Quinn and Titus momentarily speechless at the gate, sure that they had just been slighted in return, but unable to do much except admire the easy style with which they had just been laid low.
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