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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 14 "The Calm Before" (part 5)

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PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 14 "The Calm Before" (part 5)

But in the meantime the Dublin summer had progressed – a hot summer by local standards – and one that saw Titus and Sarah slowly integrate themselves into the social milieu of the city’s high season. Theatre goers and concert devotees became ever more familiar with the sight around town of the tall English mapmaker and his beautiful companion, who they quickly learnt was the ‘protégée’ of Imelda O’Carolan. As Sarah’s poise was honed with her ever growing confidence, and her wardrobe expanded to meet the demands placed on it by invitations for them both to attend dances, dinners and charity balls, so too it seemed that such invitations grew in corresponding numbers. And though these occasions often brought them face to face with some of the men about whom Eoin Reilly had expressed the most misgivings, they knew that the time had not yet arrived when they could do much about it. Instead it was enough for the moment that they merely continued to establish a high social profile, and in doing so acquire the security that goes with the station. And while both retained a high degree of caution regarding these men, they also found that many of them – when one disregarded their shadier business practises or even more repugnant political views – were men not lacking in social graces, and were people whose company could actually be quite enjoyable up to a point. Indeed, for all her earlier antipathy towards these men, Sarah herself seemed quicker and more eager than he to adapt to their new found social status; so much so that Titus found himself having to advise her occasionally to curtail her flirtatious behaviour in certain company, and eventually, as her obvious popularity blossomed, that it might be best indeed that they limit their public appearances to occasions where they were least likely to run into those who they most wanted to undo. In any case, such was the increasing number of engagements to which they were now being invited that a stricture such as this hardly dented their social schedule. Nor did it work against their ultimate aim of finding a security of sorts through their association with Dublin’s elite society. Their selectivity with regard to what functions they attended merely served to add to their mystique, and thus get them even better known than before - an eventuality that fitted neatly with their intentions. People who are more readily missed on their departure are less likely to have that departure hastened wickedly by their enemies, at least not without a great deal more consideration than that which would be afforded an anonymous soul.

But while the time for action was not yet ripe, this did not mean that they were by any means idle in that respect. Titus, with William Robinson’s help, identified and sought the companionship of several men whose local knowledge and expertise he could avail of. Fortunately Humphrey Jervis also could be included in that group. It had taken Titus some time to pluck up the courage to visit the man, but Jervis had received him in good humour and with more grace than the mapmaker felt he deserved. If anything, he had explained, the true explanation for Titus’ deception in Mellifont had only delighted Jervis all the more. For the wealthy Corporation doyen, the public embarrassment of Lord Drogheda at his own function would have been ample reason to support Titus in his ploy in any case. Henry Moore was a serious rival to Jervis’ ambitions and used his position of baronial authority often to circumvent the rules that bound even wealthy men like Jervis. The entrapment of his agent and the subsequent return by his bank of his ill gotten land deeds merely added to the glee of the jape in his view. Jocularly, Jervis had added that what had convinced him to ‘play along’ on the night was not so much Titus’ inept and bumbling impersonation of a London lawyer, but the surprising appearance of Captain Cuffe as an obvious conspirator in the plot. Jervis knew Cuffe – he had benefited from Robert’s engineering prowess in some of his projects in recent years – and had been astounded that the man he considered ‘straight-as-a-die’ and ‘the most unlikely stick in a uniform one might meet’ could not only find himself party to such an enjoyable caper, but in the process give so fine and unexpectedly authentic a performance of a military commander, that it would not only have been churlish, but indeed criminal, to have halted the display. He assured Titus that far from being plagued by subsequent enquiries as to why he had not intervened to expose the charade, he had indeed welcomed, even encouraged such enquiry as the days progressed, and had dined out several times on the strength of his albeit accidental involvement in the ‘plot’. The agent Wilson’s incarceration and subsequent death in captivity had kept the topic on everyone’s lips for weeks so the question had indeed been asked many times, and many enjoyable dinners had been consumed in the meantime – each one an opportunity for Jervis to savour and prolong Drogheda’s embarrassment. As far as he was concerned the longer the thing continued, the longer Henry Moore would not dare show his face in the capital, and in Moore’s case absence most certainly did not make the heart grow fonder.

Another who Titus found himself friends with was his new Werburgh Street neighbour, Thomas Parnell. Parnell in his youth had been a rabid Cromwellian, in the manner that the young often attach their own immature ideals to the coat tails of safely dead figureheads whom they might regard as heroes, despite those same ‘heroes’ widely publicised lapses from the high morals expected of such exemplars – or possibly because of them, given youths’ unquenchable desire to shock their elders. Age and experience had modified his view, though even into adulthood had he clung to his support for the democratic ideal of a commonwealth run by a London parliament. But lately had he grown disenchanted even with the notion of commonwealth, especially after acquiring a small Irish estate and living amongst so many of those whose perspective on his old champion’s moral character and statesmanship differed fundamentally from the Englishman’s. In England, Cromwell had been loved or loathed on the basis of his attempts to transform both the body politic and the attitudes of his fellow countrymen towards it. In Ireland, where he had correctly deduced that there was no strong contingent of support for his ambitions, he had attempted a much more fundamental transformation. To him ‘Irishman’ and ‘dissenter’ were interchangeable words, and the only people whom he could truly depend on in this country were those he had brought with him. The result was that those whom he did not murder or vanquish through deportation and dispossession, he essentially united in their antagonism towards him. Even those few Irishmen of wealth whom he cited as his allies were wont to loath him, such was the diminution of their local power and the economic ruin that he left in his wake. It was amongst such antagonists that Parnell had settled and from his new neighbours he acquired in time not just a convincing Irish accent but also a strong belief in Irish self government, which had led him in turn to become a staunch supporter of Ormonde’s policies. His Irish wife, Constance, had aided him in his education in this regard, to the point that in his middle age he had become quite an authority on Gaelic literature and culture, which he saw as a beautiful thing unfairly suppressed and worthy of study and support, though he stopped short of allowing himself the same sentiment with regard to the Irish peasantry who had largely produced it. It was Constance who had made the effort to welcome Titus to the street and had insisted he dine with them. So enjoyable was the evening he had spent in their company that he had returned the invitation, and had insisted that Sarah join them. The two women struck up an instant bond of affection for each other and in time the same could also be said of the two men, who initiated a debate between them at their first encounter regarding the true nature of man as a political animal that seemed set to endure until one of them should take the debate to the highest, and most final, forum of all. Titus relished his long evening discussions with Parnell, often in their kitchen as the children played about their feet. The Parnells had two young boys and an infant girl. The younger boy, also called Thomas, was only five years old but already showed a studious bent, and Titus noticed that his parents were as apt to feed his nascent love of literature with a book of Gaelic poetry as with an English psalter. It was odd, and even more remarkable when the boy’s father sat next to young Thomas as he read his Irish poets, while roundly advocating the old Puritan ethic as the only worthwhile religious ideal, and the relationship between the English parliament and its monarchy as the only political model with a hope of success should it ever be freed from its religious characteristics.

Through Parnell, Titus discovered others of like mind in Dublin debating circles – men who seriously questioned not just the direction in which the politicians were steering the country and this benighted island that it had annexed but the very nature of politics itself, and how only a radical departure could rescue the kingdom from impending disaster. They might differ in their belief of what this departure should be, but Titus noticed that they were all men such as he – reasonably well read and professional, who owed their living often to the patronage of those very politicians whose worth they discussed, but did not consider themselves so immersed in that system of patronage that their dependence precluded free speech. Unlike the Philosophical Society, who no doubt debated similar topics with equal ardour – and just as inconclusively – their arenas were the coffee houses, guildhalls and taverns of Dublin, where one was as apt to meet a bishop as a beggar, and where debate flourished without the necessity for its practitioners to keep one eye peeled to see how their views might be accepted by the establishment that succoured them.

Another benefit to being a party to this milieu, Titus found, was that the same venues were where the dissemination of news took place, and if one was considered an ‘insider’ by the circles who frequented them, as he now was, the more news came one’s way. Admittedly it was often slanted to suit the bias of its provider, but news it was. Here one could learn of the fall of Luxembourg to the French or the defeat of the great Ottoman armies that had besieged Vienna, delivered with the same urgency and import as might be given to the news that Todd’s Brewery on Usher’s Island had burnt to the ground or even that a woman in Tallaght had reputedly given birth to a child with two heads. Most importantly, it was also where one learnt of the ins and outs of Dublin trade – who was newly set up in business and needed capital, who was reputedly thriving in his and could therefore provide it, and who was on his way to debtors’ prison for the want of it. Most crucially, it was also where one learnt what property was consequently changing hands in the process.

Titus and Sarah met regularly in Werburgh Street and Kinsealy to exchange what tid-bits of information they had garnered from their sources. It was not a pleasant task, and grew ever more depressing as the summer drew to its close. The men they were most interested in were more than secretive about their business dealings, as well as their political manoeuvres. Such things were just not discussed in open company, and Titus dreaded to calculate just how many tedious hours of inane conversation, quarts of ale, over-rich dinners and gallons of wine that he had worked his way through in the course of finding out the little useful information that he had, which itself amounted to no more than a list of foibles and excesses on the part of some of those on their list. Sarah had fared no better, and worst of all, they had learnt little or nothing about those whom they most suspected and for whom they most needed an angle through which they might exert some pressure at a later point. The Pettys, Droghedas, and Butlers of this world did not consort with Dublin’s middle classes socially, and in the case of Petty, did not consort at all. He had removed himself to England during Trinity’s summer recess and had let it be known that he would not be available to lecture there when it opened again. His advancing years, by all accounts, had prompted his decision, but the more accepted view was that Petty wished to be close to London and his Oxford contacts when the inevitable regime change transpired on Charles’ death. Much of his status, and indeed his estate, was founded on royal favour, despite his Cromwellian roots. It was not surprising, given the nature of the man about to assume the royal mantle, that Petty should seek to insinuate himself quickly into his good graces.

It seemed that their plan of revenge had quite run out of wind and now sat marooned in the doldrums. Time was their enemy, and they knew it. The more of it that passed from the time of Sarah’s father’s murder to the time they chose to act, the more difficult it would be to do so. Politics was a fluid thing, and carried its passengers quickly on its many courses. Men whose profiles were raised above all others at one moment might disappear altogether in the next. Such was the nature of the game. And indeed such was the nature of life itself. Ill health and ill fortune stood a better chance of claiming revenge on their victims than they did, or, as they well knew, could even claim them before they had time to act. As Summer turned to Autumn and the evenings drew in, their mood darkened correspondingly. It seemed their time to act had passed, and that they were no nearer to identifying their enemies, let alone to devising a plan of retribution against them.

But then three things, quite unrelated, happened in quick succession and forced them to the realisation that - ready or not - act they must, and soon. In September the coffee shops were suddenly abuzz with the news that William Petty was returning to Dublin to be present for the launch of his new two-hulled vessel, which was to be given the lugubrious title of “St Michael the Archangel”. Her trials were set for the end of October. It was still rumoured that the Duke of York might attend – his self imposed ‘exile’ from England, where his brother the king had deemed it politic that he should deflect his detractors by removing himself from their sights, meant that a trip to Ireland in his capacity as nominal commander of the navy would not be so far-fetched an idea. But even if James did not attend, the nautical trial and the interest it had engendered meant it likely still that the cast they required be assembled in the city.

Then, on the last day of that month, a letter from John DeLacey’s wife Margaret arrived in Werburgh Street with startling news that sent a cold shiver of fear down Titus’ spine. Almost as if she were merely relaying some gossip overheard, such was the flat tone of her words, she regretfully informed Titus - as the good friend of her husband she knew him to be - that Sir John had suffered a stroke which now left him near death, and with little hope of recovery alas. His doctors had bled him all that they dared, and had administered what tinctures and medicines they deemed wise, but her husband was confined to his bed and unable to move neither limb nor lip. He was being fed by a nurse, though even this chore was proving a great labour, and it could only be a matter of time before starvation alone would carry him off. She and the doctors had no doubt that the stroke, which had struck with great violence in the middle of the night as he slept beside her, had resulted directly from the shock and injuries he had received when he had been savagely attacked while riding in Hyde Park on his way to the palace at Whitehall just the day before. He had been set upon by a gang of ruffians, armed with swords and cudgels, who had all escaped capture, though the park was well attended that day and the incident had been witnessed by many, including some militia. His injuries had been severe in their quantity, but with none so grave as to cause any fear for his life at the time – a few bruises and nicks, and the breaking of his wrist bone where he had attempted to ward off the blow of a cudgel to his face. Before the stroke he had asserted several times that nothing had been stolen from him, and neither had he recognised his assailants. This whole sorry series of events had taken place on the twenty third of the month, and in the week since then he had received visits from many of his friends, some with the view that their presence might help jolt him back to consciousness, while others had made no secret of the fact that they had called to bid goodbye. Alas the one man whose presence might have insinuated itself into the mind of her dear husband, and possibly revived enough of his wits and passions so that she could at least say farewell to the man whom she loved and not just his husk, had not himself been one of those visitors. His patron and mentor for so many years, the Duke of Ormonde, had not so much as sent even a letter of condolence. He himself was quite ill, and some said it was grief following the death of his own beloved Elizabeth a few days earlier that had caused it. She found this surprising herself as both she and Sir John had attended the funeral in Oxford, and thought Ormonde bearing up rather well with his loss at the time. Grief or no grief, Lady DeLacey concluded, it was ill mannered of Ormonde’s staff at least not to have communicated some sympathy at their plight, especially since the Butlers lived a mere five miles from where her husband lay dying.

Titus read the letter twice before fully absorbing its contents, and indeed their implications. Whether Sir John’s wife knew it or not, she had deftly alluded to the two aspects of her husband’s misfortune that marked this attack out as something far more sinister than a random act of violence in a London park. The beating he had received from the gang had been designed to hurt the man, but not to disfigure or injure him greatly. It smacked of a warning, albeit a gruesome one, and a desperate one at that for it to be delivered as it had been in broad daylight and on so eminent a character as Sir John. That the man had then suffered a stroke from shock in its aftermath could not have been calculated by its perpetrators. The other aspect that leapt from the page, at least to Titus’ eyes, was Ormonde’s reticence in even acknowledging his old friend and servant’s illness. This could mean one of two things, Titus surmised. Either the old man had seen his secretary’s beating as a warning directed at himself, and was now intentionally playing things in a way to confound and confuse his enemy, or – and Titus dared himself to disbelieve it but found that he could not – Ormonde himself was in some way responsible, directly or indirectly, for its occurrence. Of course it could still be true that grief at his wife’s death had caused the man to forget such an obvious duty to an old friend, but if such were true then it must be great grief indeed, and could just as equally be the cause of the man behaving in other ways, even less rational and more drastic than mere forgetfulness. Titus found himself rather stupidly considering calling on Sir John himself in the hope of hearing the man’s views on the matter, and had to remind himself that there was the matter of the man’s unconsciousness, as well as the fact that he lay on a sick bed in another country entirely, presenting themselves as obstacles to such a plan. But so great was this natural urge to at least attend in person to a man who he had grown to admire over the last few months, and in fact to come to like a great deal in the same period, that the idea was planted in the back of his mind that perhaps the time was right to pay a visit to his homeland.

A sad and sorry time all round, was the phrase Margaret DeLacey had used to close her letter – a pithy summation given the enormity of the news she had just imparted. Sad indeed, Titus had thought as he lowered the paper and gazed out at Werburgh Street with its resident hawkers, fruit sellers and other denizens diving for cover from the first heavy pellets of a sudden autumn shower, but now, he swore, it was going to be someone else’s turn to be sorry.

For reasons that were then vague, but which were now much more evident, Flitch had always considered himself as something of an authority on the subject of locks. He was never short of advice regarding which locksmiths in London produced the best examples of the trade, and nor was he reticent, given half a chance, in boring any audience on the subject of what constituted a perfect lock – or at least as near to perfect as one could get, as it was also his tenet that there was never a lock made which no man could open without the correct key if given a proper understanding of the subject and enough time and determination to achieve the task. A good lock, Titus consequently understood, was one which required several keys – each apportioned a task of setting in motion several ‘tumblers’ in a given sequence – and in which even the right keys, if used in a sequence other than that designated by the locksmith, would fail to retract the latch. The smiths had various names for such a lock, and the one that Flitch had been fond of quoting most often was the ‘Gordius’, after the knot in myth that proved impossible to untangle and was unravelled in the end only through the use of brute force. And it was just such a ‘Gordius’ that was now in the making, Titus reckoned, as he mulled over his and Sarah’s plan as it stood. To achieve their ends, just as with the locksmith’s masterpiece, it would be necessary to utilise several ‘keys’. Easier said than done, however. Though they knew full well their objective – to expose and defeat her father’s murderer, and if possible, the apparatus behind the perpetrator – to call it a ‘plan’, given the gaps in its method, was a mite optimistic they knew. But, as they had agreed that day in Ardee, they had little choice but to attempt it. Not to do so would be tantamount to admitting failure, and if there was one thing they had agreed upon immediately it was that failure, in this case, would mean their own demise.

The most obvious key that they already held in their possession was also the one that they as yet failed to recognise, and it was of paramount importance that it be identified. Ormonde had alluded to it when he had questioned O’Neill’s motives in helping to free Sarah, and the more they thought about it the more they realised that other men, even more powerful than the exiled Gaelic nobleman, also understood the same thing. Sarah, it was apparent, knew something or possessed something that these men required. O’Neill, in effecting her release, had been merely the most overt in advertising his desire to attain whatever it was. Cummins also might have been so motivated when he had her detained in the first place, and had merely overestimated the time he had at his disposal to elicit the information from its owner. Ormonde, in his arch manner, might even have raised the question in Titus’ mind only to indicate subtly that he also wanted this very thing also.

In fact, once on that line of thought they realised that such reasoning might explain a lot that hitherto they had ascribed to bad fortune or happenstance. DeLacey, for example, had not questioned for a moment Titus’ news that he was incorporating the young woman into what was meant to be a covert and dangerous mission, despite the obvious perils to their cause - at it was then, a search for a missing earl - that such a complication entailed. In fact he had not only accommodated Titus’ demands to include the girl, but had actively encouraged him to do so, and had even gone out of his way to safeguard this ‘asset’ that had fallen into his hands from the outset. Even Sir John’s parting remark to Titus as he had left to his retirement in England – and as it turned out, his doom - suddenly took on an altogether more sinister implication in this light.

And if that was not sinister enough, there were those shadowy figures who had despatched her father and destroyed their home, but had ensured that she survive to witness both. Was this also an attempt through terror to achieve the same end?
All the time they reckoned that they had stayed one step ahead of those who pursued them. But was the reverse true instead? Had Briar intentionally let herself and Jack ‘slip away’ from Collier’s inn that day, in the hope that she might innocently lead him to whatever it was he, or his masters, sought? And if so, was the presence therefore of Petty and Stafford in the Courting Curtain later that evening less of a coincidence than they had assumed? In fact had their every move, even their supposedly clandestine plot to assist Quinn and his neighbours in exacting some remittance from Lord Drogheda while ruining his agent Wilson, also been monitored by persons above who had also hoped to gain?

God knows they had been easy enough pickings when the same powers-that-be decided enough was enough and wished to haul them in. Poor Jack had been easily found and imprisoned by Briar, despite the lad’s claims to have taken every precaution that night in being unobserved. Sarah herself had proved easy prey to Cummins when he had decided, for whatever reason, to drop the guise of a friend for that of a gaoler, though he was surely aware of her purpose all along. Even Titus’ own close escape from death in the castle fire assumed more sinister overtones when assessed in the cold light of what they now suspected. At the time he had reckoned that he somehow must have represented a threat to those who wished him dead. Now he could see that it was more likely he had merely been considered expendable. He had befriended her by then. Maybe his death was intended merely as another terrible signal to her that certain people were about to take what they wanted from her, and that nothing, not even association with an agent of Ormonde’s, would stand between them and what they desired.

But still these nebulous foes hadn’t - at least as yet - got what they wanted. Whether through sheer luck or some other unfathomable logic yet beyond their ken, Titus and Sarah had somehow managed to engineer themselves some breathing space and an opportunity to turn the tables on their pursuers. And the first step in doing so was to identify that thing which these others so desperately desired. But what was it? What could be of equal importance to an exiled Gaelic nobleman, a Lord Lieutenant and confidante of the king, his titled son, a wealthy Armagh barrister, and a small coterie of the city’s elite in the guise of a Philosophical Society? Or, for that matter, to a gang of cutthroats in the employment of unscrupulous property barons in the guise of a political militia? Eoin Reilly’s list was an inadequate solution to that quandary. No doubt it contained information that would be of interest to some of those whom they suspected as their foe. But beyond embarrassing certain individuals should it become public, it contained no real political threat. The biggest name on it for example, Lord Arran, seemed content to have abandoned any political ambition indeed and had instead set his sights on making a small fortune in his exit from the political stage. And in or out of public office, there was little real damage could be done to his ambitions by merely advertising his schemes in any case. The law was very much on his side, as it was for many others on the list, and even where these people had departed from lawful methods their high connections would safeguard them from prosecution anyhow. Even Eoin Reilly had understood that. Besides, despite it being a secret list painstakingly compiled with stealth by the late champion of the weavers, much that it contained was already known to those who they now came to regard sardonically as the invisible enemy - ‘invisible’ because, even when their faces were seemingly obvious, their motives were not.

No, the answer was something else, and to find it involved turning some other keys first. In fact, this was now their primary aim – to identify who and what could be utilised to this end. And so, as the tail end of September ushered in an unexpected, but nonetheless welcome, week of late summer warmth, Titus found himself reacquainting himself with his sea-legs aboard The Unicorn, having left Dublin on a quiet Sunday morning, bound for Belfast. There she would dock for two nights before setting sail south again for London – an itinerary that suited Titus perfectly. There were people in both cities whom he dearly wanted to see.
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