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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 14 "Awakening" (part 6)

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nordmann
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PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 14 "Awakening" (part 6)

There were even more secure grounds for presuming an October trial. As a shipyard owner himself, Barrington was on sociable terms with Joseph Lairde, the shipwright who had been commissioned to construct the hulls. In a recent conversation the man, while revealing nothing with regard to the ship’s design, had freely admitted however that his own part in the project had just been completed. The hulls stood in his yard awaiting the imminent arrival of Bolt from London. Bolt was bringing his own crew, so Lairde and his men were looking forward with equal pleasure to the paid leave of absence that Bolt’s arrival afforded them - it was not every day that one was handsomely paid to avoid one’s place of work. This enforced holiday, the shipwright had inadvertently admitted, would be required to be taken between the first week in September and the end of the month. Lairde was then to make himself and his men available for the floating and final decking of the vessel in Belfast Lough prior to its departure for Dublin. For the purpose of the trial this needed not be too extensive a job, surmised Barrington, meaning that the second week in October seemed the most likely date for her arrival in Dublin Bay.

At this point a servant of Barrington arrived at the door to inform them that a young soldier called Lynam had called with concerns for Mr Perry’s lateness. It was only then that Titus realised the hour that was in it and for just how long he and Barrington had been talking. He apologised for having detained the man so long but received a dismissive wave in reply. “Nonsense, Mr Perry. I haven’t enjoyed a chinwag so much in a long time. Feel free to call again any time you are in the area, or indeed in Belfast. You were lucky to find me here, I am more often in my apartments there above my business place. Please, take this card. It contains the address. I would dearly love to see some of your surveys some time. May I say one thing however before you go?”
Titus had risen to retrieve his hat and coat. “Of course.”
“It would be rude of me not to inform you that I am aware of your, em, difficulties of late in Armagh.” He seemed genuinely uncomfortable at raising the issue but his tone also suggested that he was choosing his words with care and wished to say something of importance.
“There have been a few misunderstandings. I am hopeful they will be sorted out soon.”
“Good. I am glad to hear that. I am not one to pry but word travels fast in these parts and I must confess that not all the words one hears in connection with your surveying enterprise have been, well, complimentary to your efforts. Let us hope that in the sorting out of these misunderstandings the tone of these rumours improves.”
“Whatever tone a rumour has, it is still but rumour.”

Barrington smiled. “I have always found it prudent to listen to rumour. ‘There is never smoke but that there is a fire under it’, it is said, and I am well aware that even a small blaze can produce an inordinate amount of smoke.” He extended his hand to Titus. “And it is always best to be aware of a blaze, however small it might seem. Especially one that might singe you!”
Titus could not resist a wry smile as he returned the man’s handshake. “I think I understand you Mr Barrington. But don’t worry. Where I come from we also have a saying. ‘The wind that carries hearsay is a treacherous one. It can well blow back in one’s face’!”
Barrington nodded but did not smile. “Still, around here it’s a strong one, whatever direction it blows. Watch out for Mr Cummins. He’s an able man Mr Perry, and not easily thwarted when he sets his mind to something. You might even yet give thought to securing rather more allies yourself before taking on such a foe again,” he paused, “unless of course you have already done so?”
Titus thought it best not to respond.
“Yes, well, you know your own business best. I’ll say no more, except goodnight.”
Was this an offer of help? Or merely sound counsel from a knowledgeable man familiar with the local territory? Or was it indeed a veiled threat that had just been imparted? Titus could not be sure any more. He bid Barrington farewell and joined Lynam by the roadside. The young man sat mounted on his horse, puffing impatiently on a long clay pipe that disappeared with embarassed haste into a pocket as soon as Titus appeared.
“Where to, Mr Perry?” the soldier asked, tossing the reins of the mapmaker’s horse that he had been cradling on his lap to their owner.
Titus caught them deftly, set his hat firmly on his head, and climbed into the saddle smartly. “Back to camp. We return to Armagh in the morning.”
As they rode through the darkness from Ballygowan to the woodland where Griffin had pitched their tent, each man hoping silently that their colleague had prepared some late supper for them, a light drizzle began to fall. The poor visibility with which they had struggled to keep to the road now disappeared altogether, leaving them no option but to dismount and lead their horses gingerly along the ditch, feeling their way with sticks before them like blind men. “Bloody place,” Lynam grumbled aloud, and whacked a bush with his cudgel for no good reason other than to vent his frustration. “About the only thing you can depend on is the miserable weather!”
“Let us hope not,” Titus thought, but kept his words to himself.

The day after his pleasant and instructive, if slightly disturbing, meeting with Barrington had seen the arrival of Pringle - another engagement that had given him cause for pleasure also, but this one in an entirely different manner. Titus had no doubt that his ‘tete-a-tete’ with the young magistrate had had the desired effect, and that it was only a matter of some little time before Sarah would be freed. He must be there when that occurred, so he therefore found legitimate reasons to stay in the city after his interview with the lawyer – converting castle bonds to cash, preparing draught manuscripts of his survey findings thus far, commissioning more materials for the work, and in general giving any would-be scrutineer little reason to suspect that his activities in Armagh were related to anything other than his business there, while he awaited the outcome of the young man’s deliberations. He did not have long to wait, though the day and a half that it took seemed an eternity and even began to dent his confidence somewhat in that Pringle would see sense and do as he had been told. On more than one occasion he dispelled disturbing visions of what might occur should the lawyer’s faith in his own ability to resist or circumvent the overt pressure of Titus’ threat exceed his capacity for common sense. He countered this apalling prospect by constantly reassuring himself that no man could be that stupid, but with ever diminishing certainty on each occasion.

The following evening therefore it was a worried Titus who sat to eat alone in the common room of Adams’ inn when, to his amazement, Robert Cuffe entered with Sarah on his arm. Every diner in the room turned to look as they entered, and Titus rose from where he sat. He consciously resisted the urge that he suddenly felt to stride across the room and greet her with open arms, but limited his greeting instead to a curt nod in their direction and a gesture with his hand to join him at his table. He had played out in his mind this moment many times over the last while, though never once had he imagined it in so public a venue, and he found himself – even as relief flooded his senses – questioning the reasoning of Cuffe in bringing her here. But maybe it didn’t matter. He had already decided in any case that the safest and most sensitive approach he could take would be not to press her for information regarding her captivity. It would be best that she be given the time and opportunity to broach that subject in her own way, if at all. Besides, he had to admit to himself, a reunion in so conspicuous a surrounding as Adam’s common room suited him in some ways too. Here he would be less inclined to make a fool of himself in expressing his joy at her return, and, more importantly perhaps, he could avoid for a little while longer the admission that had so riled him over the last week the more its realisation had dawned on him - that he had been jealous of Sarah’s closeness with Holly, the tailor, and that this jealousy had distracted him from, or even blinded him to the real dangers that had surrounded them and had almost cost Sarah her liberty. In any case, the less of a performance they put on for the benefit of their curious onlookers the better, and surely Sarah would realise that too.
Or would she? Perhaps he was blaming Cuffe in the wrong in bringing her here straight from the Bridewell. Knowing Sarah as he did, it was just as likely that it had been at her own insistence that she had been brought. She was not a woman to hide, as he knew, and nor would her pride, once wounded, wallow long in its injury. To her it would be imperative that she show those who would have silenced her that her voice was still to be heard, and what better arena to raise that voice but in the open forum of Armagh’s popular dining hall? The next few moments confirmed this view, and his initial relief all too quickly turned to dread.

She had looked pale initially as she released Cuffe’s arm and ventured into the room but otherwise none the worse for her ordeal. The paleness however soon disappeared and her cheeks flushed red at the sight of the large assembly that Adam’s tavern had attracted this evening, all of whom it seemed strained to catch a glimpse of the freed felon who had the audacity to show her face so publicly and so soon after her release. Titus, mindful of poor Jack when he had been liberated from Newgate, knew however that it was in the eyes that the true extent of a person’s suffering showed, but even a blind man could have seen that hers had been anything but dulled, and nor had their intelligence been extinguished. On the contrary they blazed, whether with fury at the injustice of her imprisonment, indignation at the unabashed scrutiny to which she was being subjected or merely the exhiliration of being released it was impossible to tell, and her defiant glare shamed those in the room to avert their own eyes and to hurriedly resume their conversations and meals, all of which had been suspended upon her entrance. Her stride grew visibly more purposeful as she crossed the room, as if daring those present to comment on her presence amongst them. That she was accompanied in close succession by a uniformed captain, and one with an equally baleful countenance turned to her potential detractors, merely added extra threat to her dare. None thankfully took up the challenge..

Titus realised at once that a powder keg might just as well have been rolled into the dining room, but it was essential that no spark should ignite it, at least if he could help it. The circumstances might be extraordinary, but a veil of normality needed to be imposed on them at once, if they were not to find themselves in even deeper trouble than they had just miraculously extricated themselves from. “You must be hungry,” the mapmaker said firmly for the benefit of the eavesdroppers when she arrived at his table at last. “Please, sit down and we’ll rectify that. Captain, you will join us?”
Cuffe declined the invitation. “No, thank you, Mr Perry. I am sure your business has suffered enough unwarranted interruption for the moment. You and your assistant will have much to discuss.” He looked around and noticed that some persistent patrons were visibly straining to hear his words. At that, he raised his voice obviously. “Enjoy your meal, Miss Reilly. The apology that you have just received from the governor of the Bridewell will be delivered in writing first thing in the morning, I have been assured. I am also sure that the good people here will join with me in expressing regret at the unfortunate misunderstanding that led to your detention, and joy in seeing you out and about again.” He looked around mischievously, and his intense scrutiny even managed to elicit a surpressed ‘hear hear’ and some muffled handclaps from the congregation in the room. If this half-hearted applause had been intended to ameliorate the captain, then his features suggested that it had not only failed but achieved the opposite effect. His voice on the contrary now adopted an even harder edge, and rose even higher in tone as he bid his friends goodnight. “The generosity of spirit in this part of the world is not mere rumour then, as you can see,” he added, with undisguised sarcasm. “Now, like these good christians here, I must leave you in peace. I have other things to attend to. Goodnight.” As he left he paused at the doorway, drew himself to his full height, and surveyed the hall one last time with a steely eye, as if searching for someone with whom he wished to speak. His gesture had the desired effect. The diners’ conversations rose in animated clamour as each person in the dining room instinctively avoided the eye of the uniformed officer at the door. When Cuffe seemed satisfied that Titus and Sarah could converse in comfort and privacy he winked at them, turned and left.

Their conversation however was delayed by the appearance of Ruth Adams in the room, no doubt curious at the sound of the applause, however muted, that she had just heard from within the kitchen. When she noticed Sarah she ran over and took her by the hand, welcoming her back gleefully, as if she had just returned from a short holiday visiting friends. Sarah answered in kind, thanking Ruth smilingly, and then attentively listened to the snippets of gossip that Miss Adams had accumulated in her absence and which she thought Sarah might be interested in. There seemed nothing affected about Sarah’s demeanour and this relieved Titus enormously. Perhaps his previous trepidation had been unfounded, and Cuffe’s heavily implied warning to the assembly to leave her in peace had been enough to sooth her passions. Still, he thought, there was no point in taking any chances, and perhaps they might both be able to quit the assembly before long without incurring any more unwelcome curiosity.
His hopes were dashed almost as soon as they were raised. Belatedly noticing that neither person at the table had food before them, Ruth insisted loudly that they both accept a meal without payment by way of a token of her relief at seeing Sarah safe and sound again. Sarah, whose hunger must after all have been very real indeed, had no hesitation in accepting the offer and Titus had no option but to follow suit, thanking Ruth politely for her offer. With a heavy heart he accepted that, come what may, he must stand custodian over the powder keg for a little while yet.

When Ruth had returned to the kitchen Sarah fell silent, as if the effort of being sociable had indeed exhausted her. She smiled briefly at Titus, and then devoted her concentration to the small pepper pot on the table, which she picked up and turned slowly in her hand as if gauging its weight prior to hurling it. It was clear that her thoughts were elsewhere, and such was understandable, but Titus knew that it was essential he begin constructing a normality to the scene as soon as possible. There was no way that seemed better than simply to engage in conversation, and preferably one of as banal a nature as possible, to shake off whatever remaining audience they may still have attracted. Besides, her silence was beginning to excite curiosity in itself, he felt, and it would be best that they at least provide inquisitive ears with the sound of human voice, even if it meant only discussing the weather until the end of their meal. “Forgive me if it seems brutal to discuss the trivia of business at this moment,” he said softly, “but there are one or two things you should be apprised of.”
She looked up but did no respond.
“The team under Mr Quinn has yet to report back this week, but other than that I have amassed as much data as I require at the moment, and this needs to be annotated and ordered, when you are ready.”
She followed his words with a nod, but again said nothing.
“I have settled any outstanding bills, save that for clothing of course, but there are some drafts and correspondence awaiting your signature that you might attend to before you retire.”
Again no response, and he began to wonder if she was in fact too exhausted to realise the importance in at least pretending to attend to business. But there was nothing for it but to persevere.
“In short, I consider our work here is done,” he said. “It is best that we leave tomorrow. I have begun to make the necessary arrangements for transport.”
“Yours might be. Mine is not.” Her tone was matter of fact and she spoke softly, but her eyes regained that defiant fire that he had noticed as she had entered the room. “That bastard Cummins will pay for what he did. But first I have some questions that only he can answer, and, by God, I will have him do so too, however the hell I achieve it!”

Titus could not believe either the audacity or volume of Sarah’s words - the first directed at him since she had entered, and which he was more than sure every ear in the room had been straining to hear. He coughed, as if the noise could belatedly disguise her tone. There was no disguising her look. “Later!” he said even more softly than before, but found himself bereft now of any method whereby he could proceed with his plan of a normal, banal conversation and lapsed instead into a dispirited and fearful silence.
She scowled at him, thankfully fell silent for a long while herself, and then most unexpectedly smiled. “You are right, of course. It would be folly to remain in this accursed town longer. Our presence is not in fact required to complete our business here!” Her voice had raised slightly and she nodded pertly to Titus, with a glance that indicated she well understood the validity of his point, but at the same time vehemently disliked it. In an even louder voice she added for good measure; “And of course, the clothing bill must remain unpaid since the creditor involved is no longer in a position legally to collect it. Have there been other such unpayable bills in my absence? We have several Catholic creditors here.” By now she was almost screaming, as if no longer content simply to gratify their nearest eavesdroppers, but to ensure that every person in the room – not to mention those outside of it – should hear her every word.
“No,” he answered. Her tone was making him very nervous. It was almost as if it was not Sarah who sat before him, so alien was this voice from what he was accustomed to. Indeed even her face appeared that of a stranger, familiar but new at the same time. Her incarceration had changed her, and what it had turned her into was a harsh and bitter parody of herself, or at least so it seemed to a startled and dismayed Titus. The smile she had adopted had assumed the character of an ugly leer and the animated pitch she applied to her speech had all the subtlety of a delicate fugue being played on harpsichord keys with a sledgehammer. One could discern the tune and hear that each note’s sequence was true to the integrity of the piece, but its rendition was discordant in the malice and clumsiness of its execution. He had seen her speaking bitterly before, and often in anger, but never before had he sensed such a chill as he felt now. Her voice, and her features, had been contorted by pain – such was obvious – and this pain had evidently blinded her to her own danger. But there was still a control being exercised, he reassured himself healf-heartedly, and he could only hope that her exhaustion would render her mute before that little control was lost and her words brought calamity upon them, even where they sat. There was little else to hope for. He knew instinctively that any attempt by him to remove her from the room now could be dangerous. Who knows what else her anguish would cause her to say? He feared to try. He feared even more to turn around and see just how large an audience that they must surely have accumulated, but he managed a few surreptitious glances and noted with relief that no one had, at least obviously, taken an inordinate interest as yet in their discourse. Perhaps he was letting his fears get the better of him. He decided it best to play along. Trying to keep his voice even, but finding it a challenge, he responded to her remark in a way that he hoped would alert her to her foolishness, and the danger they could find themselves in as a result of it. “Truthfully there is little amiss with the ledger, or indeed anything else that you should concern yourself with now.”
“Good.” Her sardonic smile never wavered. “I take it though that you have revised your opinion regarding your barrister friend?”

An involuntarily spluttered cough from an adjoining table startled Titus, but a quick glance revealed its owner to be merely a stranger whose food had apparently gone down the wrong way, and who was guzzling now from a tankard of water to relieve his discomfort. In any case, so Titus hoped was all that had prompted the man’s attack. He forced himself to smile back to Sarah - more to confuse the perception of any inquisitive onlookers than in sympathy with her dark humour - and struggled vainly to find a retort that would finally end this alarming turn that the conversation had taken. Nothing came to mind immediately, and they lapsed into silence – one that held no comfort for Titus as he was sure it was merely a calm before a storm and evidence only that Sarah was taking the time to formulate yet another thunderous broadside with which to lambast the ears of the room’s occupants.
To his immense relief his dilemma was resolved by Ruth’s reappearance at that moment carrying two plates of steaming potatoes, beef, and cabbage which she laid before them with a flourish and a jocular, exaggerated ‘bon appetit’ in what was obviously intended as a French accent but sounded more like that of a Scotsman with a hare lip. They thanked her, and then to Titus’ sheer amazement Sarah’s expression switched in an instant. As if a mask had suddenly fallen, the playful, smiling Sarah emerged from beneath who responded by laughing uproariously at Ruth’s jest, and replying in a surprisingly accomplished French that it was reassuring to see the good people of these parts take the trouble so early to acquaint themselves with the language of their new masters. He was sure Ruth could never have understood the sentiment, or indeed even the words, but a momentary silence that ensued from the remark quite suddenly errupted into uncontrollable giggles from both women that they found hard to subdue. It was infectious laughter, and he found himself smiling along with them, though what the hell he had to laugh at momentarily escaped him, until he looked again at Sarah’s joyous mirth and realised just how moments before he had resigned himself to possibly never seeing it again.

It was reassuring, but at the same time something of an indictment of his own standing in her estimation, he knew. The girl’s intervention had achieved what Titus himself had abjectly failed to do, or which Sarah had refused to allow him to do. But this was no time for self-recrimination or pity. It at least showed that Sarah, for all the ordeal she had been subjected to, had an indomitable character at her core. He allowed himself a small rebuke for ever having doubted it and was subsequently both relieved and a little disconcerted, once Ruth had again returned to the kitchen, to see a slightly less sardonic Sarah pour herself some water, take a deep draught of its contents, and then shoot Titus a quizzical, but less laden look. “You didn’t answer my question. Your friend?”
He sliced a portion of beef and chewed on it thoughtfully before replying. “There are always times when a good master must bow to his assistant’s superior expertise, however belatedly. This is one such. But there are also times when a good assistant should trust her master’s instructions. And this is one such also.”
“Good. As long as we agree.” She tucked into her meal.
Titus noticed her hand slightly tremble each time she lifted her fork to her mouth, and her face strain at each swallow, but he said nothing. He tried again to keep the conversation limited to the business of surveying, and Sarah, to his relief, responded in kind, obligingly asking those questions that a secretary would be concerned with after a short absence – the state of the accounts, the levels of stock and how, if at all, they had adhered to their schedules. Titus responded flatly in a tone designed to render their business as uninteresting as possible to the casual listener, just as a businessman should in such surroundings, and in the knoweldge that such banality lent an air of realism to their charade. This illusion they managed to maintain throughout their meal, allowing Titus to gradually believe that they had successfully diverted attention from themselves and might soon even be able to effect an escape from the room.

His hopes were again dashed however when a playful Ruth reappeared and asked Sarah, again in atrocious French, if there was anything else she required, throwing in a mock curtsey at the end to add to the comic effect. Sarah dropped her fork with undisguised relief and smiled broadly. “A pint of your father’s cider, Ruth. I’d bloody murder one!” she answered loudly in English and in the broadest Dublin accent, to which the young girl laughed, and Titus could only groan inwardly. Her request, or perhaps her accent, caused splutters of disgust and surprise from those seated at the tables within earshot, and to his dismay he at once realised that they had re-aroused the curiosity of their fellow diners. He decided it prudent therefore to forego any more attempts at meaningful conversation of any description, and resigned himself instead to a very nerve-racking meal, consoling himself with the knowledge that his ‘assistant’s’ spirit was not only unbowed but that her devilish humour had remained intact.
But in the end the cider proved Titus’ ally after all. After just a few swallows of the heady brew Sarah visibly flagged and her manifest tiredness at last began to overwhelm her. She acknowledged Titus’ concern but assured him not to worry, and even tolerated a few more minutes of the most banal surveying banter that Titus could muster in a renewed effort to discourage their audience, without herself falling asleep with boredom. Then, when the remaining diners in the room were engrossed in other things, she demonstrated the presence of mind to excuse herself (or merely the desperate need to escape Titus’ tortuously monologue) and managed to retire swiftly without being noticed.
Titus waited a respectable time at the table and then retired to his own room, relieved that the evening, and their ordeal, was over, but with a nagging fear in his heart that Sarah, despite her commendable and surprising show of spirit, had yet been changed for her ordeal. The more he thought about it the more he realised that it could not be otherwise, and only time would tell the extent of the wound and how long it would take to heal. He knew her well enough now to sense when her bravado sprang from her heart, and when it was applied with effort to mask her fears. Tonight, he felt, it had most definitely been the latter, and as she had succumbed to tiredness he had seen confirmation of that in her eyes. Sheer strength of character had brought her to the dining hall and fuelled her show of indignant defiance, but that strength had visibly ebbed as the evening went by. Exhausted she must have been, but Titus knew to distinguish physical exhaustion from the collapse of spirit – a much more serious debilitation – and all the more shocking to observe in the eyes of a person whose indefatigable courage he had begun almost to take for granted. But by now he was weary himself. Such fears would have to wait until the morning to be addressed. Despite them, and for the first night in a while longer than he cared to consider, he slept soundly until the dawn.

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