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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 14 "The Calm Before" (part 1)

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nordmann
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20130925
PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 14 "The Calm Before" (part 1)

The morning saw a return to clement weather, an ephemeral state of things in these parts so Titus decided to make the most of it. He had Ruth Adams rouse Sarah, who arrived downstairs dressed already to travel. She took a seat alone by the front door as if eager to get going, and politely refused Ruth’s offer of breakfast in a dismissive manner that the young girl quite justifiably found offhand. Titus, who observed this while settling his bill with Adams, deemed it best not to intervene. His fears for Sarah’s state of mind the previous night he now knew had been justified, but however he would tackle her depression, the public entry hall to Adams’ inn was not the place to do it.

Despite the initial rebuff, Ruth, to the credit of her affable nature, made several more efforts to engage Sarah in conversation as she helpfully assembled her belongings and carried them down from her room, but each approach was met with the same silent indifference and at last the innkeeper’s daughter showed that her patience had been exhausted by flinging the last bag at Sarah’s feet and storming off in frustration. Sarah didn’t even seem to notice, but Titus could see that an angry Adams indeed had, and only the timely arrival of Cuffe at that moment at the door prevented the innkeeper from passing comment that would have only worsened an already taut situation. Titus hastily concluded his business with the irate man, threw in an inordinately large gratuity that at least took the edge off his wrath, and hastily hauled both Cuffe and Sarah out into the cold morning air.
Cuffe had obtained, just as he had said he would, a written apology from Armagh’s governor of the Bridewell. It was stiff and formal, but it at least confirmed her release as legitimate and her arrest as an error of judgement on the part of the officers who had effected it. Such a document might yet prove useful in these parts, where little could be left to chance, or indeed trust, when it came to the authorities. They discussed its contents as the three of them strolled in the orchard behind Adams’ inn, though it would be fairer to say that the men alone discussed it, while the subject of its contents ambled remotely beside them, apparently indifferent to its implications. Titus could see however that Cuffe, unlike Ruth Adams, seemed to take in at once that Sarah’s sullen silence was rooted in something a lot deeper than mere ingratitude. Titus had shot him an expression to that effect which he hoped the captain would understand, and had received a curt, almost invisible, nod in reply. The engineer, as Titus well knew, had an aptitude for reading people that his brusque military bearing and speech often belied. Whether his experience in combat had granted him ready empathy with someone so obviously reeling under the first waves of remorse after a harrowing ordeal, or whether the skill was simply an innate testimony to the man’s intelligence, Titus could only guess. But he was grateful nevertheless that Cuffe kept his tone even as he spoke, and addressed Sarah as if she was her normal self, with politeness and warmth in his voice as he did so.

The captain explained that the last few days had seen a heightened activity amongst the militias. Arms were being procured and stowed, and several army stations had reported mysterious ‘thefts’ of ammunition. There had also been a significant number of personnel changes in the command chains. Many of the militias in the area west of Lough Neagh, in Londonderry and Donegal and as far south as Fermanagh, both Protestant and Presbyterian, were being assigned to the command of regular army officers, though without approval of the army. Dublin was aware of this sudden development, but the authorities were powerless to prevent it. They could insist on the men concerned resigning their commissions, but to do so would invite another problem – many of those awaiting promotion were Catholic. Should they be foisted on the local population it could lead to rebellion in Ulster, and to deny them promotion could lead to anarchy in the ranks. At the moment the only option was to do nothing, and hope that nothing else should happen to kindle the powder keg being produced.
Titus informed Sarah and the captain of what he himself had decided. It was imperative, he said, that they quit Armagh immediately, and they were fortunate that the surveying work itself dictated so much as well, even if it had only ever been a blind for their other activities. What he had said to Sarah the previous evening had been true – aside from Jack Quinn’s team, their surveying work was up and it was time to move on.

It was a good thing too that they should. It was obvious that from now on they could never be sure that they were free from scrutiny in these parts, so it was opportune that their official duties gave them reason to leave the area immediately, and without incurring even more suspicion than that which they had already aroused. Despite all else that had happened, and in no small measure down to Jack Quinn’s surprising aptitude for the tasks he had been assigned, the preliminary mapping of the Armagh and Down lands had been completed within schedule, and it was time to make preparations for the project’s next stage, a similar study of the topography south of the Mourne mountains in the counties of Louth and Meath, work that would naturally bring the surveyors back in the direction of Dublin, and hopefully just in time for when the winter weather would necessitate their stay there in any case. Between these two stages however Titus required time to evaluate the data collected from the first. This he would do in Dublin, and without delay. In the meantime, he requested, Cuffe should supervise the winding down of the survey in Armagh, pay the men, and put them on notice to resume their commissions a few week’s hence, when their new duties would be set. It being high summer and many of the men being farmhands by trade, they would be grateful for the respite to tend to the many chores that farm life demanded of its people at this time. Finally, the captain should also make arrangements to have the valuable gear stowed and moved back to Dublin. In this he was asked to take peronal responsibility for its safe transport, trusting it never to the care of the local military. Titus could not help adding playfully, but pointedly, that the three should meet up again in Dublin to dine out as soon as Cuffe was available. “I was thinking of perhaps enjoying a meal in Arran’s kennels in the Phoenix Park in the pleasant company of his hounds,” he said. “In any case, it would be nice if this time you could stay around to enjoy the atmosphere!” Cuffe laughed, but to his credit reddened slightly also.

Later that morning Titus and Sarah, along with the uniformed Lynam, made their way on horseback south along the Dublin Road out of the city. Sarah’s release may have been at the behest of the compromised magistrate Pringle, and they may have been holding a document testifying to her wrongful arrest, but Titus had no doubt that Barrington’s warning regarding Cummins’ tenacity should be heeded. In any case, he was not going to hang around just to test how true this advice might be. It was better that they make haste, he knew, which was why he had left Cuffe to tie up the survey, and why they rode at pace along the sundrenched lanes of Armagh, not even pausing for refreshment, but eating and drinking on the hoof from food caddies prepared back at Adam’s inn. Only when they had put a good league between themselves and the cathedral city did Titus reckon that they were unlikely to meet another patrol from Armagh. They had entered that part of the county which the Dublin authorities had deemed best left to govern its own security, and where the role of the army had largely been assumed by private militias organised and funded by the local gentry and concerned more with trespassing on their estates than with providing safety for travellers on the public highways.

This suited Titus, who reckoned his uniformed escort would be sufficient to discourage all but the most foolhardy tory from attacking them, though he kept his pistol loaded and accessible at all times as they rode. It was only a matter of weeks since a delegation of clergymen en route to the Bishop’s palace in Armagh had been waylaid and slaughtered by such renegades, with neither their clerical garb nor their hired bodyguards proving deterrence to the ruthlessness of their assailants. The ringleader of the robbers, a local farmhand who claimed royal Gaelic antecedents, had been quickly apprehended and executed in Dundalk in a much publicised trial which had shocked and titillated Armagh’s citizens when news of it was reported there; not merely for its salaciousness, but because the prisoner had steadfastly refused to divulge the names of his companions and had used his trial to pass warning to all Protestant and Presbyterian Ulstermen that their days were numbered. Others just like him, ‘Ireland’s true ascendancy’ as he called it, would soon continue his ‘work of divine obligation’ in ridding the land of imposters and heathens, and no man, woman or child born outside the protection of the ‘true Roman church’ would be safe in their beds evermore. It was a braggart’s threat, issued by an uneducated fool with nothing to lose, but one that sent a shockwave of terror through the community in these nervous times. As the condemned man had well known, it took little in Armagh to set neighbour against neighbour, and even less to encourage hotheads like himself to commit heinous acts of outrage against innocents using fanatacism as a justification for their deeds. While the danger of Cummins might abate with each step, Titus knew that other more indiscriminate dangers still confronted them, and he had urged his companions never to relax their vigilance, at least until they had reached the relative safety of Louth, where the roads were policed by more conventional means.
But vigilance or no, there were words that he wished to have with Sarah and which would be best said soonest and in the privacy that the open road afforded them. With Lynam riding a short distance in front and out of earshot, and on a stretch of road that afforded them a decent view for some distance of the terrain ahead of them, he dropped back and brought his horse in step with Sarah’s alongside. It was time, he knew, to admit to his own immaturity and how it had jeopardized their venture, and indeed Sarah’s own life. “I owe you an apology ma’am,” he said.

“I know, sir. But this is hardly the time.” She said it taciturnly and dropped back into silence, leaving Titus to think what he wished, and unsure if he should intrude on her thoughts again.
They rode for a while more in single file, none communicating with the other save for whenever Lynam directed them at a crossroads or warned them of potholes on the way. The clement weather that had encouraged Titus to hasten his departure proved illusory after all. As they rode, dark clouds rolled in from the west and the musty air felt damp on their cheeks, a precursor, he was sure, to some heavy downpours in the offing. It was weather that lent itself to ominous brooding, and Titus knew that his companion must be spared from its influence, given her recent experiences. The brave face she put on life was all well and good, but he knew that what she had lived through in the last few days and weeks would daunt the courage of stronger men. Whether she felt herself ready and able or not, she must at least be encouraged to share her ordeal. Of that he was certain. Experiences such as hers, if left unvoiced, tended to fester and grow in one’s mind, and the more they took hold of one’s moods and thoughts, the less amenable they were to being communicated. That was when they became dangerous, and often more destructive than the incident itself that had planted them like a cancer in one’s very soul. Flitch had often described such private obsessions as demons, and Titus had learnt to his own cost how true that analogy was.

At a milestone by the side of the road that marked the county boundary he reined in his horse and waited for Sarah to catch up alongside him. She did not acknowledge him, so before she could overtake him, and before he lost his own nerve, he reached out and held her horse’s rein so that she must at least stay within earshot of his next remark. “I mistrusted you. Worse – I was angry with you. Over your activities with Holly.”
She said nothing but at least returned his gaze, so he continued.
“Truth was that I was jealous, I suppose. It was stupid of me, and I am sure if I had not been so caught up in such childish thinking my mind could have been better employed in assessing the true danger we were in. You were right about Cummins and I was wrong, and I admit that I most likely have been wrong about much more besides. In fact I am sure of it now – I have learnt much in the last while that has rocked me to my core and revealed me to be the presumptious fool that I am. I apologize.”
She smiled warmly, and Titus felt immense relief at the sight of it. “You’re being very hard on yourself!” She frowned, and her smile vanished. “I too must apologise, as well you know but are too considerate for my feelings to say so. I have been less than direct with you of late and it is that that has almost cost me my freedom, if not more.”
“We must talk of that, Sarah. It is not wise to harbour within you that which you have just survived. It eats at a man – I should know.”
She seemed to consider this for a moment. “I know, you are right. But it is not that which taxes my mind at the minute.”
“Oh?”
“No. We must combine what we know. I feel we are a hair’s breadth away from deducing the full scheme that we have set ourselves the task of unravelling. But as yet the puzzle is not complete.”

“My thoughts exactly,” he agreed. She had surprised him with her last comment, but then he had grown to expect nothing less from this determined young woman. Whereas others would have succumbed to melancholy having lived through a quarter of the misfortunes that had been visited on her in only a few short months, she had seemed instead only to use them as spurs to her own concentration, her own determination to complete the ambitious goals that she had set herself. Where she drew such courage from, or how much could be left in that well, Titus dared not even contemplate. But he knew her well enough now to understand that she tackled adversity in her own way, and came to terms with tragedy by rising to its challenge rather than yielding to the despondency that it strove to plant in her heart. He had mistaken her silence for brooding over her own misfortune, because he knew that was exactly what it would have meant in his own case. But Sarah was made of much sterner stuff than he, and her silence had been because her thoughts had been focused all the more, rather than less, on the task in hand. This was no woman to be laid low by hardship, but a determined fighter who would never lose sight of her goal, however distant circumstances might make it appear. He could learn much from her, he knew, and the least he could do now as her student and friend would be to assist her in her method. “I am not sure if we are the breadth of a hair from what we seek. But we are close, that is true. And you are right of course also in that we must share all that we know to close that gap.” He then proceeded to tell her all that had transpired since her incarceration – the discovery of Flitch and the true purpose of his secretary’s role, the fact that he had seen the list compiled by her father, the details of the scheme whereby her liberty had been secured , and then finally the meeting with Ormonde and O’Neill when he had learnt that she carried a letter from Arran designed to prematurely inflame the Ulster Gaelic forces into action. She listened carefully as if memorising every word as it was spoken, merely nodding when he mentioned the list that she had hidden from him and that he had found in her room, and only showed emotion the once, when he mentioned Ormonde, at which point she interrupted him.
“What was he like, our Wild Goose?”
Titus shrugged. “A politician in the end, no more or no less. Though I grant that at least when compared to his son, his machinations and schemes carry some merit. I believe he is genuinely trying to negotiate an opportunity for his people to sidestep the bloodshed that seems imminent when the king should die.”
“But you do not support his view?”
“I have not the mind of a politician. He is like a player of chess and is already contemplating a strategy many moves further into the game. I on the other hand am struggling to understand the move that is being made before my very eyes.”
She smiled. “Maybe he struggles too, but merely hides it well. It is not chess he is playing but chance. And with risks greater than ever he took before. In any case from what you say it seems that O’Neill has decided that Ormonde’s strategy is his own best chance too.”
“So it would appear. He is wise to Arran’s true purpose in any case, or at least if he wasn’t he is now. I left them under no illusion.”
“Good. We can count on him as an ally then, for now at least.” She cleared her throat and phrased her next question with some deliberation, almost embarrassedly, which showed Titus that her earlier contrition over witholding vital information from her co-accomplice had not been expressed for effect, but was real. He had every right to be livid with her, she knew well, but her need for an answer outweighed in importance her reticence in bringing up such a thorny subject between them, and Sarah was obviously not one to let a small matter like shame get in the way of acquiring knowledge that she needed. “My father’s list. No one but you has seen it? Where is it now?”
Titus patted his breast pocket, but made no move to extract it. Nor did she demand it. He mentioned to her evident relief that it had never been found by the soldiers who had searched her belongings. Then, since it was she who had brought it up, he decided that now was as good a time as any to ask the one question that had been troubling him since its discovery. “You knew all along that Arran was pursuing a land grabbing policy, as you knew also that this was something I could have done with knowing too. That was bad enough, but you witheld knowledge of the list itself. In fact you denied that the list still existed at all, when asked directly. You must understand that such is hardly the behaviour of a colleague, and why one could be forgiven for doubting your honesty. For my part I will willingly avoid any such conclusion should I receive an adequate explanation. Believe me when I say that I wish to cast no judgement on your actions Sarah, but you have to admit that I have a right to know why, and as much a right to be furious with you. I will stay my anger if you can tell me now, but I cannot promise the same for my disappointment in your deed.”

She looked down – he fancied shamefacedly, but when she looked up again, her clear eyes and furrowed brow showed that she had merely been taking the time to phrase her answer. “I could not tell you, as much for your own sake as mine. You were reporting to Arran almost daily – he or DeLacey. If either got wind that their activities were understood then the game would be up for us all.”
“You mean for you.”
“No,” she answered defiantly. “I mean for us both. You are an astute man, and one that would not knowingly have revealed anything to these men that it was better they do not know. But this is a game that they are masters of and in which we are but amateurs. They have skills in deducing what they need to know that we cannot understand, or even pretend to guard against.”
“Your concern is genuine, I know,” Titus replied. “But I fear it was misplaced this time. I will not pretend to be the equal of a politician in guile, but I have enough sense to keep my guard, believe me. Besides, in this instance you might have done more harm by withholding what you knew from me. Do you realise that?”
She bit her lip and nodded.
“Very well, we will say no more of that, then. It is more important now that we understand each other, and moreover, trust each other’s judgement. So let me begin by telling what I understand of you, and what you meant by ‘the game being up’ should Arran get wind of the list’s contents. Correct me if I err in my summation. You think that your father was killed by an agent of Arran’s, whether he himself was aware of it or not.” She nodded again and made to speak, but he silenced her with a gesture and continued with his deductions. “But I would venture on the basis of your father’s list that whether he is involved in directing his underlings’ dirty work or whether he purposely stands aloof from the seaminess that his policies require in order to bear fruit, it is indeed Arran who you see as pulling the strings. And should the man at the top of the pyramid have to revise his strategies for fear that has been detected, then those below would have to do likewise. Your father’s assassin, in other words, would in all likelihood go to ground, and thus make your mission of revenge all the more difficult, if not impossible.”
She nodded again. “Yes, that is more or less as I saw it.”
“So the search for Ormonde suited your purpose well. Besides giving you access to information regarding the very people you suspected, it also very much provided you with opportunity to influence events and flush out the man you seek all the sooner.”
“So I hoped. But it seems that I was the dupe.”
“You mean Arran’s letter? Ah yes, that other little secret you kept from me.”
She reddened.
“It was for Holly I assume.”
“Yes.”
“I can see why it was not given to me. They knew I would have refused immediately to serve any purpose but that which I had been originally set. The letter’s intention was overt and had nothing to do with locating Arran’s father. I would have told them to shove it up their arses.” He had come to the part of his deductions where logic failed him and he eagerly anticipated her answer. “But why you, Sarah? Why would Arran pick you to deliver his note? And why on earth did you agree to deliver it if you suspect the man so?”
She reined in her horse and looked long at Titus before speaking. Her voice grew harder. “I wonder about you sometimes. On the one hand you can show true perception, but on the other a woeful tendency to blinker your view – to your own detriment I might add.”
“If by that you mean I am confused then you are correct ma’am. But I eagerly await being made to see sense, as I must admit I fail to see a damned bit of sense in the risk you took!”
She paused before answering. “Then listen to me well. You are right to understand that I intend to find my father’s killer and exact a revenge on the bastard. But that is not my only purpose, and if you had all day I could not begin to explain to you obviously why it is not. My father’s death was not merely a sordid deed enacted by one who simply saw a gain to his pocket or power in doing so. It is true that an individual such as that must have extinguished his life, but just as guilty in the act are those who lent purpose to his actions – those whose system promotes such a crime and protects its perpetrator!”
“Do you mean Arran or England?” He had meant the question derisorily but she answered it nonetheless.
“In terms of nature they are both of the one – rapacious, without a shred of morality and have no depths to which they will not stoop. But yes, I meant the system that you English have enforced on us, as well you know!”

Her comment stung him, and he was about to reply that she had had no problem enlisting the aid of an Englishman when it suited her purposes, when he suddenly remembered that it was he who had initiated this conversation, and ostensibly to lift her spirits! What manner of gentleman would descend to gainsay and argument in circumstances such as these? Besides, if the truth be known, there was little in her summary of England’s treatment of her country that he could disagree with. His gall had been raised by the way she lumped him in with the English authorities as if they were both one and the same. But when he thought about it, who was he fooling when he said that he stood apart from his political masters? Himself at times, perhaps, but most certainly no one else – that much had been made perfectly evident since he had set foot on Irish soil in Ringsend all those months ago. Sarah was right, as usual.

At first this realisation irked him, but then he could not but laugh - both at his own abject inability to perform so simple a task as cheering a companion up, as well as the extraordinary directions conversations with this woman could take, even if launched in a straightforward manner. “So, ma’am. Is your other purpose to destroy England and its system? You have ambitions within you that would make you a formidable ally of King Louis in Paris, were you a country! But no matter. As countries go you may be rather small, but if such is your ambition I can only say that I have heard worse. Better now that I merely wish you well. And lest you be invaded tomorrow and I not get the chance, let me tell you now in all humility that it was nice of you to let this traveller within your borders when you did!” His smile and raised eyebrow were intended to let Sarah know that he spoke in jest, but only partly.
She smiled in acknowledgement of his jest, but again grew serious. “Aye, I do hold England responsible for much. But it is not just that. I am not so stupid as to dismiss as evil all that this land’s tie with England brings with it. But one thing it does bring is an imbalance between men that is founded on nothing more than the camp they are born into and not on their abilities or character. Such imbalances I know exist everywhere, but here, surely you can see, it is all pervasive. We are a country rotten to the core, administered by men rotten to the core, and it is in your country’s interest to keep it so. My father was killed as much because he wished to address that imbalance, even in a small way, as because he might have posed a threat to any one individual. There is no tolerance for such ideals here. And no, my other purpose is simple – if by exposing my father’s killer the system takes a knock, then all the better. The harder the knock the more shall I reckon my success.”
“I can see why you think so, and for the large part I agree with both your assessment and your intentions. But, tell me, if you hate so much the machinations of these rotten men, why assist them by delivering their letter? Its contents might have seemed to suit your purposes, but surely their motives in asking you must have seemed suspect, even to one without half the insight into these wretches and their schemes that you have.”
She reddened slightly. “I was wrong, or at least placed too much faith in my own intelligence.” Then she laughed dryly. “If such a thing I can claim to possess any more!”
“You can, and I wouldn’t dare question it. But it is your rationale I am trying to fathom. Did you calculate that you could avoid mishap, without fully understanding Arran’s intentions? It was a foolhardy decision, if so, and one that frankly surprises me. Or worse, did you think that you could trust him?” Titus realised that his questions implied a doubt about her judgement, and indeed her own trustworthiness.
“The answer is ‘no’ to both,” she answered flatly, displaying no ire at what Titus was implying. “Of course I knew that Arran’s motives lay in political expediency – I would expect no less of a man of his station - though I could not quite see what it was. But I could see a value in it too. It gave Cathal hope, as it gave others like him, and believe me Titus, around here hope is the one currency those people have been poorest in of late. But I was wrong, I admit. Hope is not enough any more, and to raise it without some means of securing one’s ambitions is folly indeed. Those who would crush it will use everything to that end, from force of arms to cruel deception.”
“At least Cathal is free again to hope, and thanks to some political machinations of another kind, which for once worked in our favour.”
She frowned. “Why do you say that?”
“Was he not released with you yesterday? Cormac awaits him with his wife Jenny in Omagh.”
“No, he was not. He is being deported for trial in London.”

Titus was dumbfounded. He had presumed all along that Sarah’s liberation had implied the release of the tailor also. Then he remembered what Ormonde had said when he quizzed him on that very point. The old man had maintained that it was Sarah alone who O’Neill most wanted freed from arrest. ‘She has something, or she has access to something, or she knows something’ were his very words. At the time he had felt that Ormonde was exaggerating Sarah’s role purposely in order to fish for information, or simply an opinion from Titus regarding where he stood on O’Neill. Now he wasn’t sure of that at all. He told Sarah what the Duke had intimated and asked her what she thought O’Neill might want from her.
“I really don’t know,” was her reply and they both fell silent.
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