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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 12 "A Victory" (part 4)

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nordmann
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20130109
PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 12 "A Victory" (part 4)

Easter Sunday started as any other day on Quinn’s farm. The cattle still needed to be milked and several of the sheep were lambing. Regardless of the religious calendar and in defiance of a jealous god’s retribution for labouring on the Sabbath or any other holy day, farm life kept its own agenda. Quinn woke Titus early – it was still an hour or more before daybreak – and they went immediately to the pen where the lambing sheep had been corralled. He had asked Quinn to rouse him once the day’s chores commenced and Quinn had taken him at his word, insisting that Titus accompany him to inspect the ewes that were lambing, a job that preceded all others in importance and must be done first thing.

Rather than complain at such an early rising, Titus had in fact been glad of the excuse to be up and about at the hour that was in it. The battering he had taken in the castle fire had left him a little stiff in joint and limb, and being up and about so early, he thought, would help limber his sinews a little. Besides, it was a night that he was glad to see behind him. In the evening he had attempted to elicit from Sarah a confirmation that Quinn’s suspicions regarding the note that she had slipped to Jack were unfounded. This had proved more difficult than he had anticipated. His attempts to be subtle had failed miserably, Sarah choosing to ignore the enquiry altogether and to change the subject at every opportunity. Eventually he had asked straight out if she had sent a letter to Dublin, and she replied that she had indeed. As Titus had expected, it had been a note to Lady O’Halloran. But though the admission was a relief, Sarah had then become quite angry with him, and in truth he could not blame her for that. She resented, she said, being spied upon, and on being made to account for her every action, as if she was deserving of suspicion. Before he could offer anything by way of denial or assurance, she had angrily left the parlour where they had sat privately, and pointedly moved to the crowded kitchen for the remainder of the evening, where she availed of the company to facilitate her in avoiding his futile attempts at engaging her. Eventually he had tired of trying to find an opportunity to apologise and had retired early. His aggravation at this had meant that sleep, he knew, would not come easy, and when it did, it was pitted with those old familiar nightmares and visions that he would have been the better for not seeing.

And so he had known that there was no point in planning to rise with the dawn. As he retired he had asked Quinn to rouse him in time to share the early chores, and now that he was up and moving again he was glad that he had done so. Today would be a long and fraught day with the task they had set themselves, and Titus needed to be at his best in mind and body, as indeed did they all who had agreed to assist in this demanding and dangerous enterprise. He noticed in the looking glass by candlelight that morning with wry amusement that the bruise left by Hugh’s hand on his cheek, though faded, was more pronounced still than any that he had sustained in the explosion. Therein lay an ironic lesson of some kind regarding cause and effect and the vagaries of fate, he amusedly reckoned, though not an experiment he should wish to repeat in order to prove.

Patrick and another farm labourer were already in the lambing shed, having been up all night attending to two ewes, one of which had presented them with severe difficulties. Her lamb had been born eventually, but not until after a severe struggle on both the men’s part to aid the poor ewe, her strength having failed in the long process and the lamb having therefore to be manually pulled from her womb for its own sake and its mother’s. The task had been difficult, arduous and lengthy, though ultimately successful. Both men were absolutely exhausted, having just now had a chance to rest from their labours, and Quinn commended them both for their efforts.

“Good on ye lads,” he said. “Get some food and sleep now – you’ll be wanting to get to church later. Grace will look after you up at the house.”
Titus watched the new-born lamb struggle to find its feet in the pen. Its mother stood docilely in the corner, its nose in the feed, recovering her strength and looking none the worse for wear after her ordeal. The lamb, having tripped and hobbled its way to her side, instinctively located her teat and began to suckle.
“That should be it for the lambing for a day or two I reckon, we’ve another few in the field above under watch though. Right, farmhand Perry, a-milking we will go!” Quinn and Titus then moved on to the byre where the cows waited obediently to be milked in the weak light of a lantern hanging by the door.
“Now it’s time to earn your keep Titus. When was the last time you tried your hand at this lark?” Quinn asked with a grin.
“Not since I was a lad in Shropshire.” Titus answered nervously.
“Well let’s see if you still have it in you.” He pointed Titus to a small stool hanging on a peg in the corner and handed him a wooden pale. “Grab that and let’s see you fill it.”

If the howls of Quinn’s laughter that emanated from the byre didn’t wake the whole household, the bellowing of the cows must surely have. Cows have a knack of knowing when they are being milked by an amateur, and an even worse knack of making the job as hard as possible for the interloper. Titus reckoned that more milk ended up on the floor of the byre, in his face, and all over his clothing than in the pale itself. Yet he persevered, despite Quinn’s raucous laughter, and by his third cow felt he had settled into something approaching a rhythm and technique. The fourth animal didn’t agree with his opinion however, and managed not only to kick over the meagre amount of milk already collected in the pale, but also to break free from her stall and embark on a crazed few laps of the milking parlour. Quinn almost doubled over with apoplectic laughter as she and Titus passed him on a circuit of the stalls, with Titus desperately trying to grab her rump while beseeching her to stop at the top of his voice. Eventually Quinn put him out of his misery by slapping his hands sharply, at which the cow halted as if struck, and shooed the beast back into its berth with the briefest and quietest of whistles. At his command the cow’s fighting spirit seemed to evaporate in an instant and she meekly complied. Then, just as she settled back into her stall and Titus stood panting, imitating the action of a strangler while glaring at his friend, an elderly man arrived in the doorway and paused with his head leaned slightly back, as if sniffing the air. For a moment Titus thought in the poor light that it was young Patrick the farm hand, and that he had somehow been disfigured overnight. Then he noticed through the grey haired stubble and unkempt eyebrows that the face beneath bore a remarkable resemblance to the boy alright, but obviously belonged to a different generation of the same family.

Quinn’s laughter died away abruptly, finishing in an embarrassed cough. “We’d better leave it to the expert, Titus. Hello Liam. We were trying to save you some work.”
The old man looked around the byre at the agitated and bellowing cattle, the upturned stool and the dishevelled and milk-stained Titus in their midst, still clutching his empty pale. He snorted and then spat on the ground. “Much obliged, sirs,” was all he said, but if contempt could be squeezed into three such innocuous words and hurled as a weapon then Titus reckoned he had just been speared.
“I hope Quinn pays you handsomely,” Titus muttered under his breath to Liam as he passed him into the welcome fresh air outside.

Back in the house things were stirring. Grace had started cooking a breakfast of porridge and bacon, and Cuffe was seated at the table, already gleefully tucking into a portion. His men stood outside the kitchen window, smoking a clay pipe that they passed to each other in turn, all three in hushed conversation.
“I’ve briefed them on our manoeuvres today,” Cuffe said as Quinn and Titus entered the kitchen. “They’re approaching it as if I am the great Marshal de Crequi himself and we are now in the Low Lands camped against the walls of Luxembourg. Poor buggers need more service under their belts! Oops – my apologies Grace!”
Grace laughed. “I’m married to a military man Mr Cuffe, you’d do well to issue an oath I’ve not heard yet. But why on earth won’t they come in to eat? They have me passing food out to them like stray dogs.”
“As long as I’m sitting here they regard your kitchen as the officer’s mess, Mrs Quinn. We’d better not disabuse them of the notion. They’re good lads, but I don’t want them getting ideas above their rank. It might be bad for discipline.”
Sarah entered the room at that moment and Cuffe rose, bowing slightly. “Good morning ma’am.”
“Good is one term for it.” She replied with a smile. “Good and loud is another. I thought country life was known for its peace and tranquillity. What on earth was being murdered in the byre just now?” She looked at Titus as she asked it, and, to his immense relief, smiled at him also. It seemed that her anger of yesterday had evaporated, or at least had been shelved; he hoped the former.
“Only my reputation as a country lad,” Titus answered. “Don’t worry, there were no other victims bar myself – the cattle are fine, despite their protests to the contrary.”
“Grace my love, If anyone called Perry applies for work here as a farmhand in my absence, feel free to use that shotgun of mine over the door in whatever manner you want.” Quinn was still enjoying himself at Titus’ expense.
“Very droll, Quinn,” Titus was grinning too. “But at the risk of curtailing your entertainment, shouldn’t we rouse the rest of our troops and review the battle plan one last time?”
Quinn hollered up the stairs for Jack and his friends to get up out of their beds and join them, and the sound of weary footsteps on the floorboards above after a few moments indicated that the squad was nearing assembly and deployment.

Society exists on several strata that move in circles rarely overlapping. Each layer and each circle has its own agenda, its own values, and its own way of applying such values. There are similarities of course, since people are people whatever their circumstances, and institutions such as the church and the courts will always transcend some of the barriers. But to all effective purposes, each stratum works very much independently of the other and it suits those within each level to keep it that way. Thus can governments legislate, acceptable behaviour in society be established, and money be made – and so all who live in the system at whatever level can therefore, by knowing where they stand in relation to the rest, make whatever provision they deem necessary for themselves and those around them. That much is as true for the lowliest migrant farm labourer as for the monarch supreme himself. With the exception of those few poor souls, who, for whatever reason are excluded from this system, humanity thus makes a contract at birth to abide by this unwritten agreement, and therefore to recognise its limitations, its strengths, and its place in the scheme of things.

Society therefore uses several calendars and cycles which, while running often at the same time, are by their nature oblivious to each other’s existence. The seasons may be common to everyone, but whereas summer to one might mean unremitting toil in the fields, to another it might just as readily mean a succession of balls to be attended, or to another battles to be fought in foreign climes. Within all this diverse purpose and practise however, there were still two times of the year in which a great levelling of the strata takes place for the function of religious observation, and in which an oft needed reminder is made that, in the eyes of our creator, we are all as one in his image. Christmas is one, the point in mid-winter when everyone from prince to pauper can take stock of their year just passed and make provision for the one ahead. The other is Easter, when the arrival of a new cycle of life, personified in the death and resurrection of a humble carpenter, and upon which all depends that is sustaining to body and soul, is celebrated by everyone. And within Easter, the one day on which this levelling takes place in its most visible form is Easter Sunday.

Except in times of great social upheaval the pattern of the day had remained largely unchanged for many centuries. It began with religious service and due homage paid to the risen Lord, and then moved on to more hedonistic celebration. For many this celebration was justified on several levels. The resurrection of the son of their god, and in it their hope for their own salvation, was the principal - or only - reason for some. For others it was simply a feast to mark the end of having fasted on meagre rations in emulation of that same deity. Even for the most die-hard Puritan, who rejected such fasting as idolatrous superstition and vanity, it was still a celebration of the start of the new growing season, when God was asked to bless the efforts embarked on to ensure that the oncoming summer yielded bounty a-plenty and the means to survive another year. The form these celebrations took changed from locality to locality. In cities and towns it was generally marked by organised parades, organised sporting competitions and much disorganised consumption of alcohol. In the country, while the alcohol consumption might be as rampant as in the city, it was also an occasion for the landlords to vie with each other in demonstrations of largesse. They organised ‘occasions’ at which their neighbours might socialise and in the process become unwitting, but willing, advertisers of their hosts’ claims to be regarded as aristocratic doyens. In a society where many of the older aristocratic families’ fortunes had been devastated by religious and political upheaval, the ‘new men’ who had recently replaced them were eager not just to demonstrate that they were the equal of their predecessors as patrons and arbiters of fashion, but that they could also indeed excel their predecessors in displays of largesse. It was not enough for these men merely to know that they had arrived at the pinnacle of society’s pecking order, it was necessary also that this fact be shown to all and sundry, and especially to those who waited in the wings to usurp them, and would do so just as quickly and completely as they had indeed usurped those that had gone before them.

For this reason, estate vied with estate to attract the same honoured and elevated guests, and each season saw a heightening of the competition over the one before, a thirst for popularity that coincidentally benefited many from all levels of the community in its slaking. The grounds of many large houses were given over for the whole day to frivolous and flamboyant activities and to which all of the lords’ workers, tenants and anyone else in the area were invited to attend. Come evening and night time however, the wealthier echelons of society were specifically catered for with exclusive balls and grand dinners, but it was not uncommon for members of this group to take advantage of both worlds and attend every entertainment that they could throughout the day beforehand also. In this part of the country there was one such event that attracted everyone regardless of stature, wealth, gender or creed, and that was the event organised and funded by the Earl of Drogheda himself – the Laytown Races.

Laytown was a small hamlet on the coast, comprised of just a few small cottages and one larger farmhouse, but it also gave its name to the miles of sands beside which it sat. Titus and Sarah had walked a small part of it the previous day at the Gormanston end, but the sands themselves stretched for seven more Irish miles, unbroken by headland or cliff. The time of the event changed every year, dependent as it was on the tide being out, exposing the flat and compacted sands on which the horses ran, and this year, everyone agreed, was the perfect scenario - the main race being scheduled to start at three in the afternoon, giving everyone time to attend to their religious observations, break their fast, and make their leisurely way to the venue. The course of the race was a giant circuit, half on the open sands at full gallop and half through the fields along the coast, where obstacles included ditch, fence and hedgerow. The main race was the final one of the day, open to all who wished to enter, regardless of the condition of the horse or rider, and in fact bets were made as much on who would fail most spectacularly as on who might win. As an appetiser to the main event there were two minor races, and it was the second of these that would play a crucial role in the conspirators’ plans.

A small enclosure, overlooking the start and finish line, housed the local nobility and those in their favour and employ. This was notoriously hard to gain admission to, contingent as it was on being specifically invited by the Earl or his private circle of friends. The bulk of the spectators, thousands in number, gathered on the sands themselves. It was here that the main industries of the day were enacted – mostly gambling and drinking, with some sundry other ‘entertainments’ thrown in for good measure. But even here there was a hierarchy, and a second enclosure was marked out near where the racehorses were paddocked, facilitating society’s middle classes – those not elevated enough to enjoy the Earl’s hospitality directly, but who still wished to disassociate themselves from the rabble. Entrance to this area was strictly controlled therefore by militiamen, paid for by the Earl, who were zealous in executing their set task of admitting only local landlords, race competitors with a ticket to show that they had been officially entered in the event, and those known to them as being of sufficient social rank and stature to warrant inclusion in these partially exalted ranks.

It was to this enclosure that a small company on horseback made their way in the early afternoon. Quinn and his wife Grace led the entourage, Gráinne having elected to remain at the farm. Titus and Sarah rode on horseback just behind them. Sam, Jack and Jonathan took up the rear, chatting as if they were truly on a pleasant day out, and not as participants in a mission that carried with it some very real danger. Indeed, it had taken Titus several attempts, culminating in a threat to withdraw his firearm and blow their impertinent heads off, to silence the jibes he had been receiving on account of his wig. Even then he knew that the subject had not been dropped, and the occasional stifled giggle caused him to swing around with a baleful look in his eye, only to encounter three angelic countenances beaming innocently back at him.

Sarah laughed. “You had better be careful, Mr Lawyer. If your wig flies off into the mud I am afraid our plan is doomed from the start. I doubt very much if Quinn has another he can lend you, or will admit to!”
Titus self consciously adjusted the apparatus on his head. As he did so he pushed the spectacles that Quinn had also loaned him to complete the illusion up the bridge of his nose. He was already beginning to regret that he had insisted on taking such precautions. The itch on his scalp was growing unbearable, and he almost found himself rationalising that even a chance of detection was worth the risk rather than the endure the agony of his disguise.
Sarah seemed to read his mind. “Think of it this way,” she said. “Had you a favourite dog as a boy?”
“Yes.” Titus failed to see the relevance.
“What was it’s name?”
“Simon.”
Sarah arched her eyebrow, but chose to skip over any queries as to why the child Titus had chosen such a nomenclature for his pet. “Very well, Simon has returned from doggy paradise. He has but one day that he can share with his old master, and the rule is also that he must spend it on his master’s head. If he sets one paw on terra firma then he is lost to both realms. Your task, simple as it is, is to help him keep his little balance. Of course, Simon has returned fleas and all, but you won’t let such a trifling little detail mar this one day on which you can both be reunited, will you?”
Titus hoped that his icy stare alone would answer her, but either his icy stares weren’t what they used to be, or more likely were thawed considerably when filtered through borrowed spectacles and ludicrous curls. Instead, Sarah’s giggles merely set the three lads behind off again in howls of mirth.

Quinn silenced them with a wave of his hand, followed by a silent pointing to the road ahead. They were approaching a bend in the road, around which they knew was a cordon of Drogheda’s men in charge of admission. This was where the plan began to unfold in earnest, and where it could well fail at its outset. Before they rounded the bend they pulled up and organised the order of entry that they had agreed beforehand. Quinn, as a local landowner, had an automatic right of entry that allowed himself, Grace and Jack through the barrier without question. Titus was depending on his credentials from the castle to see him through, but there was a complication. It was vital that he neither be associated with Quinn, nor that he reveal his true identity in the process. For the purpose of his scheme therefore he had adopted not just Quinn’s wig and spectacles, but the pseudonym Lowe, and the assumed character of an English magistrate. The letter from Ormonde on which he depended for access, though it had easily fooled the illiterate stable hands in the castle, would hardly suffice if it was inspected too closely by the guards on this occasion. To this end he had scripted a diversionary tactic into his scheme that should hopefully curtail the sentries’ scrutiny. However all contingencies had to be anticipated and a plausible ‘relationship’ between the three men had been devised, or so he hoped, should they be questioned. Sam and Jonathan, much to the latter’s amusement, would be his ‘sons’ if asked by the sentries.

“I reckon,” Jonathan had said when he learnt this, “that our mother must have been an awful embarrassment to her family, or at least extremely short sighted, to have been serviced by such a young buck as you were then Mr Perry! How old were you at our conception? Twelve, thirteen?”
Titus had smiled in reply. “Let’s just make our passage through the sentry point as quickly as possible lads. We can’t depend on the guards’ eyesight or mathematics to work to our benefit if we linger too long and give them reason and time to compute the sum! Besides, they must not have time to read my credentials too thoroughly.”

Once the Quinns had passed through the cordon he bid Sarah, Sam and Jonathan to his side. “No sniggering now lads, let Sarah do her bit and we’ll move when I say. Sam, you and Cuffe’s mare seem to be getting along fine. Are you both up to it do you reckon?” There was genuine fear in his voice and it was well deserved. The crux of their scheme hinged on Sam’s reputed ability to ride, and Cuffe’s faith in the mare that he had lent the young man. Suddenly his own faith in the scheme, which he had himself devised, was faltering.
“If you think I’ll let Jack Quinn have all the fun you must be joking Mr Perry, sorry, Mr Lowe.” He patted the mare on the neck. “The question is – is this girl up to it?”
“Cuffe assures me she’s more than up to it, if you do your bit and get her past the judge, Purcell. Then, remember, all you need to do is stay on the bloody beast, at least up to the crucial moment! And please, no more mention of anyone called Perry. It’s Lowe!”
“I’m a Kildare man Mr Per – Mr Lowe. I was born to ride, and I can see she’s a mount born to be ridden. It’s her acting abilities I’m nervous about!” He patted the mare again. “And what about yours ma’am?” He nodded to Sarah. “No stage fright I hope? Maybe you should take lessons from LaMancha here, she’s as cool as a seasoned troubadour!”

All the way from Balbriggan, Sarah had been quietly practising the accent and voice she would require for the role ahead, much to the impudent amusement of the Trinity students in her company. “Why thank you kind sir, no, none at all. Though it is disconcerting to learn that you place more faith in your horse’s thespian skills than in my own. I sincerely trust I shall not overly disappoint such a discerning audience on my stage debut!” Sarah smiled benevolently at Sam, who had the decency to blush.
“Right, well let’s get our debutantes on the stage.” Titus seemed to be the only one harbouring real reservations. He nodded to Sarah. “Off you go.”
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Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 12 "A Victory" (part 4)

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