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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 12 "A Victory" (part 5)

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nordmann
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Join date : 2011-12-25

20130115
PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 12 "A Victory" (part 5)

Sarah, without a backward glance, rode alone up to the cordon, smiling broadly at the two uniformed men on duty. In her best voice she bid them a good afternoon. Titus could hear her every word distinctly, even though he and the lads were several yards away and safely out of sight around a corner. He hoped to god she wasn’t ‘over ladling the syrup’, as the saying went.

“Miss Catherine Meara, by invitation of Lord Drogheda. Isn’t it a beautiful day for it, gentlemen?”
“You’re on the wrong road so miss,” came the reply from one of the men. “That party must enter from the Dublin Road.”

Sarah affected a tone of incredulity. “But this is the way I travelled last year! Are you saying I must ride another three miles before I can join my party? I am a lady travelling alone as you must surely see! Would you have me take such a detour?”
“Sorry ma’am, but we’re doing you a double favour directing you and in truth, it’s not three miles at all. If you go through this way you’ll find it impossible to get to where your party is stationed, and as a lady alone you might not exactly be enamoured by the company you will find on this road.” A derisory tone had entered his voice at the last remark but it quickly became conciliatory. “You’d be best heading round to the Dublin Road, really! It’s only a mile out of your way.”

A sob had entered Sarah’s voice, which though it was patently sham, was such that many a female might employ as a play on the sympathies of her audience to achieve her will, or so Sarah, to whom such simpering was rather alien in truth, obviously hoped was the effect that she was striving to emulate. “But I’m meeting my friend the Captain, and I know he came through here only a short time ago!”
“Captain who?” asked the man.
“Umm – Leary.” The name had obviously come out of thin air. This could get quite complicated if such a man actually existed, thought Titus, who was following the ‘performance’ still from his unseen theatre stall around the corner of the lane.
“Can’t say I recall anyone passing here by that name. I’m sure you have the wrong gate ma’am.”
Sarah’s sobs were intensifying. “But Captain Leary even drew me a map so I could find my way here myself. Look!”
A moment’s silence was suddenly followed by a loud shriek from Sarah, and then by some rather theatrical and hysterical wailing. An even louder whinny from the horse and then a plethora of grunts and shouts from the men at the gate added themselves to the clamour. Titus nodded to his companions. “Ok lads, that’s our cue.”

They rode purposefully around the corner and up to the gate. Sarah’s brief had been to ‘slip’ from her saddle while reaching for the supposed ‘map’ and thereby divert the attention of at least one of the men from Titus and his companions as they passed. When they rounded the bend however they saw that she had exceeded her stage directions admirably. Sarah was almost horizontally suspended above the ground, one foot still in a stirrup and the other flailing in the air. Her arms were wrapped around the neck of one of the men to prevent her falling further, and her impassioned and tearful cries of “Oh my God, Oh my God!” rent the air. The other man desperately clung to the reins of her horse, whose own contribution to the chaos couldn’t have been better. His neighs and snorts, and his repeated attempts to rear up on his hind legs and unseat his rider completely, meant that both men were fully occupied as Titus drew alongside.
“Lowe, Crown Magistrate,” Titus barked over the bedlam, flashing his letter bearing the signature of Ormonde before one man’s eyes, ensuring that he saw the distinctive seal of the castle but little else. “My sons here are competing today.” He nodded back at the lads. Without waiting for any word from the men – yea or nay – he proceeded with his companions past the commotion. To his relief there was no order to return. Once out of sight of the guards they drew up on the lane and waited. A few moments later Sarah appeared around the corner, both she and her horse restored to a state of decorum.

“That went well,” she said. “I don’t know why, but they were glad to see me on my way in the end!”
“More well than we could have hoped,” Titus grinned. “Whatever about your own acting skills, I must commend your horse’s too. He was brilliant.”
Young Swift and Wilkins were laughing. “The lady commands the very beasts of the field, I swear!” Jonathan said. “They respond to her every word.”
Sarah held up a small crochet needle between thumb and forefinger. “Or this,” she laughed.
Sam and Jonathan almost fell from their own steeds with laughter - Titus let out a small groan. “Good God,” he said, and led his small troop on.

What the men had told Sarah was true however. Though the path that they now took led to an area in which many of the local lesser dignitaries, as well as the competitors, were congregating, it was nowhere near the enclosure that had been set aside for the Earl of Drogheda and his party. The next part of the plan meant gaining access to this area too. Quinn had been helpful in devising a method to overcome this obstacle and had informed Titus of a way in which he might do so surreptitiously, though he could not accurately assess the risk of detection. The Earl’s enclosure was in fact the garden of the only large farmhouse in Laytown, which sat on a small bluff by the strand’s edge and had a commanding view of the race circuit. A refreshment tent and privy had been erected in its grounds and much bunting hung from the gables and trees around. The garden’s slope made it an excellent viewing area also for the spectators within, and the garden’s wall – eminently climbable, but obviously being watched for sign of intruders - abetted the comfort and security of the race-goers from unwelcome intrusion. Their plan hinged on the fact that such diligence as might be applied to this watch would lessen once a race got underway, and Quinn, who had visited the house in the recent past to purchase the services of a bull from its owner, had told Titus of a spot near the wall where he remembered a small grove of ash trees, which might provide them with sufficient cover in effecting an unseen crossing. Titus visually located the grove from his vantage point on horseback and was relieved to see that Quinn’s instinct had been correct. As he peered above the heads of the many people thronging around him however, something registered in his peripheral vision that made his heart skip a beat, almost before his conscious mind had realised what it saw. His eye scanned the crowd again between him and the Earl’s enclosure and sure enough, to his dismay, he found that his vision had not lied. Leaning against the wall, one arm in a sling and in earnest conversation with a companion was none other than Captain Briar!

“Dismount Sarah! Quick!” he almost hauled her from her saddle as they dived out of view. Crouching between their mounts Titus explained whom he had spotted.
“What’s he doing here?” she asked with annoyance. “I thought he was a wanted man himself now!”
“Obviously not that he knows, or cares perhaps.” Titus said in low voice. “At least he’s stuck on this side of the wall. Once we can get over it we should be safe. If he recognises us though we’re scuppered.”
“What about Jack?” Sarah asked. “Briar knows him too.”
“Jack should be fine if he sticks to his part of the plan. Whatever Briar’s business is here today, I would doubt that he is too eager to make any arrests given that there is a warrant out for his own. Even if Briar recognises him in any case, at least Jack is here under his own name and need fear no exposure on that count. If he sees us however he needn’t arrest us to destroy our plan, merely call our names!”
Sam and Jonathan had dismounted and joined them, crouching also, though they could not know why. “Something up?” Sam enquired.
“Just a person we didn’t wish to meet. You go ahead and register your name for the race, Sam, and good luck! Jonathan, you’d better take our horses now.”

Young Swift had agreed to participate in the day’s events, but only if his involvement carried no risk to life or limb and, more importantly, on condition that the whole caper was enjoyable. It had been agreed therefore that his main contribution would be to mind the idle horses, but also to keep an eye out for the arrival of Wilson, who none of the company knew by sight, but who had to be identified in time for the plan to succeed. To do this Swift would have to ingratiate himself quickly with the locals, at least to the extent that Wilson be pointed out to him – a task he claimed to look forward to with relish and great expectation of success, given that it carried with it an intellectual challenge and the chance of cadging free food and drink, both of which he felt were his fortes. As Wilson was known to be a gambling man, it was expected he might divide his time between the inner sanctum of the Earl’s enclosure, to which he had undoubted access, and the gambling tent set up on the sands near the race line. It was essential also that the others knew whether Wilson was in the reserved or general compound at any given time, so Swift had been set the task too of devising a method whereby he might signal whichever situation pertained. This part of his task he had already solved.

“You see that flagpole by the gambling tent? I will climb it partly and wave this to indicate that the man is here.” Swift produced a black handkerchief from his pocket. “If I know he has gone into the grounds above I will wave this.” He pulled a red handkerchief from his other pocket. “And if I cannot tell either way I shall alert you with this.” He pulled out a white handkerchief. “A signal of surrender I know, but don’t worry – I have no doubt of victory!”
“How many of those things have you got?” Titus asked.
“Oh – one can never have enough of them you know.”
“Don’t you think people will think you rather odd, climbing a pole and waving like a lunatic?” Sarah asked.
“Oh no, they will put it down to the exuberance of youth ma’am!”
Sarah smiled. “Well it’s a good plan Jonathan! We’ll watch out for you.”

They handed him the reins, then Titus and Sarah started making their way slowly through the crowd towards the farmhouse grounds, keeping one eye on Briar, who still maintained his station by the wall, engrossed in conversation with the other man. Once out of sight of Briar, and near enough to the wall so as to reach it quickly but not arouse suspicion, they stood and waited for the first race to get underway. Titus still scanned the crowd congregated on the sands to ensure that their progress had not been monitored, and at one point made out the unmistakeable form of yet another person he could have done without seeing – the lawyer MacCarthy. Still it made sense, he reckoned. Wilson and MacCarthy were obviously more than just legal acquaintances and the obese lawyer seemed a man who would be happy to avail of an associate’s hospitality at a function like today’s. He had parked himself on a bench that was strategically placed between the gambling tent and another in which liquor was being sold. His rat of a dog sat at one end of a lead, the lawyer’s posterior on the other. At least both looked like they had found a spot in which they were content to remain. Titus found himself looking at the lawyer with intense loathing, and as if he had transmitted the emotion, McCarthy swung round on his perch at that moment and looked up the sands to where they stood, one hand above his eyes against the glare of the sun. Titus instinctively ducked slightly, though he knew that MacCarthy would never discern him from that distance against the sun, if even he could remember what he looked like. True enough, MacCarthy swung around again and scanned in the opposite direction. When a man has made as many enemies as MacCarthy, Titus reckoned, all too aware of the ironic parallel with his own behaviour, it is probably second nature to reconnoitre any scene when he arrives.

A chorus of cheers from the start line, and almost as many jeers, signalled that preparations were underway for the afternoon’s first event, a handicap race in which the principal handicap, according to the wags at the meeting, was that the competitors were all personal friends of the Earl of Drogheda. A small group of horses – six in total – duly made their way to the front of the paddock in which all the day’s competitors had congregated, and from here the riders cantered them up to the line. As they did so they waved to the crowd, who responded by either waving back in return or, as in the case of many of the poorer members of the congregation, lobbing various epithets and verbal missiles (and some missiles of a more solid nature) in their general direction. The noise from the gambling tent grew tremendously in volume as punters within made a last desperate attempt to lay their bets before the off. Private wagers were also being conducted all around the crowd, and the sound was not unlike that of a swarm of frenzied insects around a nest. As the buzz peaked and then rapidly descended in volume the starter took position and raised a flag in his hand. Then, with a sudden downward swing of the flag the race was on.

A large roar from the crowd accompanied the six horses on their way. One rider wore the uniform of a soldier, and an even larger cheer went out from the crowd as his horse, panicked by the noise it seemed, veered to its right and shot off like a thunderbolt towards the ocean and away from the field, despite its rider’s frantic attempts at reining it in and rejoining the race. As the jeers and catcalls died down however, Titus was aware that one punter’s voice still rang out above the rest.

He was halfway up the flagpole as promised, but if Swift thought his persona of a race punter was the perfect cover for his signalling operation, he had omitted two crucial aspects to the disguise. Most punters tend to face the race that they are cheering, not away from it. And most punters shout expressions of encouragement, not “He’s here! He’s here! And he’s here for the day! He’s staying over here!” while frantically waving a white handkerchief – which according to Swift’s own stated code flatly contradicted what he was all too audibly shouting.
Sarah, through the corner of her mouth, whispered “Can we take it Jonathan has located Wilson and he’s staying in the gambling tent?”
“I think the whole of Laytown can take it.” Titus muttered in reply.

At last Jonathan was dislodged from his perch - or fell, it was hard to see. At least what he had rather over-enthusiastically imparted was good news; it simplified the operation enormously if Wilson stayed in one place or the other, preferably the vicinity of the gambling tent, where both Quinn and his son could play out their roles in the plan, safe in the knowledge that their prey would not flit off at a crucial point in the exercise. That left Titus and Sarah the freedom to concentrate totally on the task in hand, which at the moment was to cross the wall unseen into the Earl’s enclosure. Their intended cue to move was when the riders were just over halfway through the back straight of their circuit. In the meantime there would be too many eyes focused on the area around the farmhouse and surrounding farmland, across which land the race travelled. After what seemed an eternity, the approaching sounds of hooves signalled that they were at last on their way. The cheers that had died out altogether when the riders had disappeared up the beach began again, and rose in crescendo, as they reappeared over a ditch on the slight hill beyond the farmhouse. There was still little separating the horses as they raced across country towards the descent back onto the sands. Even though concentrating on the mission in hand, Titus had time to notice that the uniformed rider had nearly regained the pack, trailing now by only a length or two, and as he vaulted a small hedge to land neck and neck with the horse in front of him, the crowd responded with a resounding roar of approval. With all eyes riveted on the drama of the race, this was their moment to move.

They slipped quietly into the cover of the ash thicket that grew next to the wall. A quick glance over the top revealed that all the people inside had congregated at the far side to get a good view of the exciting proceedings downfield, so Titus quickly cupped his hands into a makeshift stile and hoisted Sarah to the wall’s summit. She vaulted it neatly and descended with a graceful hop to the other side. His own traversal of the wall was done with less grace however. The toehold he had employed to hoist his bulk to the top gave out at a crucial moment and he found himself momentarily lying half on the summit and half in mid-air, one leg flailing madly to keep the rest of him balanced on top. The completion of the manoeuvre had to be effected quickly with an ungainly roll that left him landing in a heap, and with an audible thump, amongst the nettles and bracken at the wall’s base. He hopped to his feet as fast as he could, brushing the foliage from his clothes and Sarah, stifling her giggles, led him quickly to the sidewall of the farmhouse. She peeped around the corner at the garden. To join the assembly without raising suspicion it was vital that they identify an unwitting chaperone to assist them.
“Here’s a likely one,” she said after a moment or two as an elderly lady approached, obviously not too interested in the sport and having detached herself from the throng. She was heading for a chair, where several had been removed from the farmhouse and placed on the lawn for the comfort of the Earl’s more infirm guests. Sarah approached her gaily with both hands out to grasp the other’s, like two old friends meeting at a ball. “Lady Wallace, how good to see you again!” Sarah spoke with her best accent and as much artificial enthusiasm as she could muster. The elderly lady screwed her eyes up and peered at Sarah.

Thank God, thought Titus, she’s blind.
“I’m afraid you’re mistaken girl,” the lady was saying. “Who is Lady Wallace? Fenton is my name!”
Titus drew up alongside Sarah. He inserted an imaginary plum in his mouth and spoke around it as he imagined all the nobility to do. “Mrs Fenton, I do beg your pardon, my good lady wife has, alas, a terrible memory for names and faces.”

The lady’s scrutiny switched to Titus and her squint, with her scowl, intensified. “Damned impertinent man! Lady Fenton to you, sir!” The good lady’s potential usefulness as a chaperone was fading with every second.
Fate intervened on their behalf. A young man, bewigged and with his face plastered by a layer of paint obviously designed to deflect attention from his pock-marked cheeks, advanced to join them as the race-goers in the enclosure streamed from one side of the garden to another. “Nanna Henrietta, come, you’ll miss the finale. Well, well. Who are your friends?” He eyed Sarah as he spoke and with a leer that was as blatant as it was odious.

Before Lady Fenton could draw breath Sarah interjected. “I was just about to admire Lady Fenton’s beautiful gown. Absolutely charming, isn’t it darling?” She nudged Titus. “Did I not say that to you already?”
“Oh, delightful!” agreed Titus. “Yes, sweetheart, you did indeed! Oh look, the riders are returning, let us spectate – darling! Lady Fenton, please excuse us. You are right, sir, the finale is imminent. We simply must not miss it!” He grabbed Sarah’s elbow with vigour and they marched with as much haste as decorum allowed away from Lady Fenton. Her young companion, whose leer had been replaced by an open jawed expression which was both gormless and stupefied in equal measure, followed them closely, unsure as to whether he had actually been invited to accompany them or not. This was exactly what they wanted – any suspicion on the part of other guests as to who they were, or what entitlement they had to be there, would hopefully be averted by his presence. It was not a ‘companionship’ they wished to encourage however, so at the first opportunity, Titus, his grip still firmly on Sarah’s arm, suddenly veered her to the left and into the throng, away from the young fop. Thus extricated from their ‘chaperones’ and apparently safely inside the sanctum, they mingled with the assembled revellers at the beach end of the garden.
“I think we pulled it off,” he muttered to Sarah when he was sure that they were safely enveloped by the crowd and divorced from their new ‘friend’.
“If by that you mean my elbow, I think you’re right! You can let go now – darling!” she muttered back with feeling, not at all amorous.

The horses by now were speeding up the sands towards the finish line and the noise of the crowd was surpassing itself in volume. The reason for the excitement was obvious. Two horses had detached themselves from the pack and were vying closely for the victory. Amazingly, given his false start, one was the mount ridden by the soldier. With a fantastic burst of speed just at the death, he managed to get his nose in front of his rival, and raced first across the line drawn in the wet sand that marked the close of the chase. The explosive cheer as he galloped at full speed across the mark was so loud that Titus wondered just how many thousands had descended on the sands, and, more puzzlingly, how come they had all seemingly backed this one rider. Despite the amount of jeering that had accompanied his initial detour, it seemed that the Irish liked their underdog - the soldier’s achievement being appreciated all the more for the handicap he had set himself at the start. A cascade of hats and bonnets sailed into the air and the soldier returned through the crowd on his horse with great difficulty, such was the amount of pats and backslaps both he and the beast were being given. He eventually rode right up to the garden wall and as he reached it, a purse was thrown from one of the men by Titus’ side, which the rider caught deftly in mid-air. As the crowd cheered yet again Titus eyed the man who had thrown the purse and who was now applauding the soldier on horseback. There was no doubting it - this was Moore himself, the Earl of Drogheda, whose largesse on the day extended to providing the prize money awarded the victors. He wasn’t a very tall man. He also seemed to be missing a chin, sported a rather pinched and aquiline nose out of proportion to the rest of his face, and his lank greasy brown hair protruded from beneath an expensive jet-black wig that had been inexpertly placed on the crown of his head. Yet his clothes were immaculate, more decorous than anyone else’s in view and much too ornate for the occasion, Titus reckoned. Here was a man who liked to stand out, even if God hadn’t given him much by way of natural features to embellish his appearance, or the wit to compensate for this deficiency by using apparel with style. What the good lord had denied him in looks and taste however he had made up for with wealth, and the Earl was proud enough of the fact to display it ostentatiously. Titus was happy he’d identified his man. Now to identify himself.

The next scheduled race, and the one crucial to their plan, was half an hour or more away. Barkers on the course were announcing that registration was taking place, for the benefit of those punters who wished to study the form of the runners prior to placing their bets. This event was limited to three year old horses or younger, so registration was a time-consuming affair involving the horses being inspected beforehand by a local horse breeder named Purcell, who proclaimed the animals qualified or not on the basis of an inspection of their teeth and a rudimentary measure of their shoulders from the ground. Naturally this gave rise to numerous arguments and differences of opinion as various riders, who knew they stood no chance in the main event, tried to hoodwink the stewards into allowing their more seasoned racers into this easier field. Purcell, to his credit, was not a man easily fooled, and was well known to be above bribery, but that did not discourage the less scrupulous riders from chancing their arm and gaining admission. The queue of would-be riders each year was invariably twice as long as the eventual line-up. Titus saw Sam in the distance as he joined the line of candidates on Cuffe’s five-year-old mare LaMancha and kept his fingers crossed. Although her owner had been full of confidence that LaMancha would fool all but the most knowledgeable judge, Titus had harboured real reservations. Purcell’s reputation was such that he rarely made mistakes, and if Sam failed to get into this race their scheme would be undone at the first hurdle.

Some time about now Quinn should also be making his move on Wilson. Again there was a danger that the plan could unravel at this point too. If Wilson recognised Quinn for who he was, and knew that Quinn’s farm was not in debt to the extent that its owner was about to claim, he might not take the bait. Likewise, the ploy depended on Wilson’s reputed avarice outweighing his possible wish not to conduct business affairs in such a public arena. Unfortunately there was no way of knowing how either aspect to the man, or their scheme, might pan out at this point. There was nothing for it but to commence with their own part of the strategy and hope that the rest would take its planned course. Titus made a subtle nod to Sarah, and nodded his head very slightly in the direction of Moore, who stood temporarily alone in the garden as he watched the field on the sands assemble. She nodded in confirmation, took a prolonged intake of breath, and ambled over to the Earl.
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