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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 14 "The Gathering Storm" (part 2)

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nordmann
Nobiles Barbariæ
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20140414
PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 14 "The Gathering Storm" (part 2)

The impasse was thankfully broken by the captain. Bramall interrupted with a low cough. “I might be of assistance here. Harbourmaster Forbes has advised me to advance our departure lest we risk more damage through foul weather to The Unicorn, which he regards as his own property and me a rather foolhardy and careless guardian of it, no less. We sail therefore tomorrow evening, once the chandler has fulfilled my order. Might I make a suggestion? It would, I believe, suit Mr Burke to take to the high seas himself. In fact I am sure of it. Might we not arrange so that you both meet on board and discuss what you must en route?” He glanced at Barrington. “Two birds, eh?”

Barrington merely nodded and looked enquiringly across the table. Titus, who had little option but to depend on Bramall for passage himself, agreed to the suggestion but with a rejoinder. “I will meet the man as you suggest, though I beseech you not for a moment to think that I have joined your little club on that basis. I am paying you well as your passenger Captain Bramall and I expect only the civilities and assurances of safety that you might grant to any paying guest on your ship.”
“That is understood, and you have my guarantee of both.”

Barrington thanked Captain Bramall for this solution to the problem. “Perhaps when you speak with Oliver, Mr Perry, you will find confirmation that there is no ill intent on our part whatsoever. As regards your membership of our ‘club’, well, consider yourself only as a beneficiary of its services, should you require them. We are not here to press you into its ranks, only to advise you of its existence and advertise the benefit of using it. I am sure that is what the good captain referred to by his ‘two birds’, eh, Kenneth?”
Bramall nodded vigorously.

“Aye! You get to talk with Mr Burke and you learn that we have nothing but your own interests at heart. Two birds with the one stone, aye!”
Barrington smiled. “Very well Kenneth, I am sure Mr Perry understands us well enough.” He turned to Titus. “ And I can see that you understand most of all that you are in a strange town and find yourself the guest of a duplicitous host. You are free to stay here of course, but if you wish to transfer your accommodation to an inn or hostelry, I understand of course and will assist you in finding one.”

Titus considered this option and decided that he would again trust his instincts, which told him that he was not in danger amongst these men. He agreed to stay as arranged.
“Excellent!” Barrington smiled. “Then the dinner waiting for us above will not have been wasted. Please gentlemen, let us retire to the dining room post haste and consider this conversation closed for the moment. Though let that not keep us from a convivial evening! Mr Perry, there are questions I believe you wish to ask regarding Mr Petty’s vessel? Mr Tully here has been quiet up to now. Maybe we should have introduced Lambert more fully earlier. He is the shipwright I referred to in our last conversation, the one who was commissioned to build at least part of the ship in question.”
Tully nodded to Titus. “Ezekiel has told me that there are aspects to its design that intrigue you.”
“Yes,” Titus answered dubiously. “And ones that are shrouded in secrecy, I heard.”
“There are no secrets between friends, Mr Perry.” Tully laughed and ushered the mapmaker ahead of him up the narrow stairs to Barrington’s living quarters.

That evening, and well into the night, the five men conversed. The clock in Barrington’s chambers was striking three when O’Grady finally suggested that he must call it a day, and the others agreed to retire also. In the few moments it took Titus to drift into sleep on the bed that his host had set up for him, he reviewed what he had learnt during the evening’s course. Much, was the answer. Tully had brought some prints of Petty’s hull design with him, and that which was not there on paper he knew readily in any case – the timber used and where it had been procured, the estimated stresses in pounds per square inch that the timbers were designed to withstand, and the materials used to construct the most crucial joints in its frame, those where the ‘mysterious devices’ would be mounted whereby the hulls could be connected and the rudder mechanisms synchronised. As it turned out, to a shipwright like Tully, there was little mysterious about it at all. Petty had indeed departed from the norm however. India rubber from the Dutch East Indies had been ordered in large quantities, at what must have been massive expense to Petty who was funding the project himself, and then moulded in casts of Petty’s own design in a foundry in Derby. The parts had then been shipped to Belfast where Tully had received them only last week. Earlier, while constructing the hull, Tully’s workmen had been instructed to leave several joints open that would normally be completed early in the process, though even he had not been advised as to why.

The eventual arrival of the rubber mouldings in unmarked crates had provided the answer. When assembled and inserted into the joints, using instructions accompanying them written and sketched in Petty’s own hand, they performed three functions at once, which no other material could. As stress absorbers they liberated the shipwright from a dependence on thick timbers along the lines of the rudder assembly, thereby making the hull less than half as heavy as otherwise it would have to be, and its keel all the more effective a stabiliser. Also, being a malleable substance which regained its shape automatically after distortion it allowed the mechanism to easily ‘feather’ the rudders simultaneously – not a requirement for a normal vessel, but one that proved the undoing of Petty’s earlier two hulled designs. His first had tried to avoid the problem by mounting a single large rudder between the hulls. This allowed subtle manipulation but the design placed too much stress on the hull timbers where they adjoined the rudder mounting, even when reinforced with steel plate. Eventually the ship had torn itself apart in turning.

His later vessels had experimented with two rudders but had proved equally disastrous in the long term. The rudders synchronised well enough in basic manoeuvres, but disagreed too much in more intricate ones, the result being snapped shafts, especially in heavy seas. Now, with each rudder’s hinge buffered by rubber packing, the slightest twitch in one would cause a reciprocal movement in the other without straining the connecting mechanism, and without the need to correct the movement manually. The rubber’s third property was its impermeableness to water when oiled, thereby solving in a stroke a problem that vexed every ship designer faced with assembling that part of a vessel where moving parts must protrude from the main hull below its water line. This meant that the rudder, and its hinge, could be submerged at all times, thereby simplifying the assembly enormously and simultaneously rendering it more reactive to its controls and easier to manage.

A similar contraption of rubber buffered hinging would be used to synchronise the sails, another amazing innovation as it allowed each hull its own sail assembly, making the ship all the harder to disable completely in battle. The rubber again acted as a stress absorber, allowing the two decks to depart from a common plain without injuring the assembly, another feature which had defeated his earlier prototypes. On top of this were Petty’s other innovations, not as revolutionary as the use of rubber-grounded joints but in themselves almost as impressive. The use of hawsers made from intertwined steeled metal strands throughout; sails with fluted seams and vents to add speed to tacking manoeuvrability; tensile spring assemblies behind each cannon to absorb the shock of recoil and thus stop it spreading through the infrastructure of the hull. Perhaps the most striking specification was also seemingly the most innocuous, as it showed that Petty truly understood his mechanics and was prepared to leave no detail to chance in ensuring that his project succeeded. Wide flanged screws of his own design replaced the irons and pegs normally used to attach the sheet timbers to the hull supports. This meant in theory that the vessel could be built with a rigidity that most other ships simply could not sustain, the stress being absorbed primarily in its innovative joints and not having to be spread along the structure to its detriment.

Tully was in two minds about such innovations however. The shipwright in him balked at such radical departures from tried and trusted methods, but the engineer in him revelled in the chance to test such pioneering technology. In theory, on the whole, he felt that Petty had come up with a winner. Only time would tell how long the rubber mouldings would last, but he was sure that at least in the ship’s trials she would set a daunting mark for stability, manoeuvrability and payload.

O’Grady had been informative too. A man in his late fifties, Cicero O’Grady had once been a tutor of what he himself had called ‘enlightened philosophies’ in Trinity College but had fallen foul of the authorities there over his insistence that his students be apprised of the teachings of Locke, amongst the other contemporary thinkers of their day. His main adversary had been Petty, who, O’Grady informed Titus, had once been a student of Hobbes, at least according to himself, and was most definitely still a champion of Hobbes’ philosophy which by its very nature precluded any appreciation of Locke’s oeuvre. Eventually O’Grady felt that his position was becoming untenable, and he had jumped at the chance to relocate to the fledgling college in Belfast which was petitioning for a royal charter to become a university in its own right. Besides, he felt in recent years that Trinity had degenerated into a political cockpit, where the secular issue of Catholic admittance now outweighed all academic considerations to their cost. The charter of the college did not expressly forbid such students from entering, but in practise the college was funded largely by the treasury administered through the castle. The wildly fluctuating stance of this authority in the matter over the years had seen a corresponding fluctuation in the college’s own admission principles, to the point that even the relatively tolerant policies pursued by Ormonde in latter years had done little to restore the confidence of many of the country’s leading Catholic families in the college’s independence, and had even frightened many Protestant families from admitting their sons to its cloisters. The result had seen many students therefore opt for an education abroad, and the subsequent loss of fees had reduced the college to beg all the more from its treasury masters. It was a viciously descending circle that could well result in the college’s own demise, and the descent was being encouraged, if not accelerated, by the views of William Petty and his colleagues, who now found themselves fighting a rearguard action, their staunch pro-Protestant policies about to be strongly challenged by a radical change in the Dublin administration and the elevation of Catholics to office. The college might soon find itself without any funding whatsoever, and the men at its helm seemed vain enough to let it go to ruin rather than compromise their stance. O’Grady reckoned he was as well out of it.

Bramall, for his part, had explained better his friendship with Robert Cuffe, and why Titus should not be suspicious of his engineer friend or of his involvement with this unofficial ‘guild’. As youthful friends, he explained, they had both entered into service at the same time, having first served an apprenticeship together to a shipwright in Portsmouth. Bramall had used his trade to apply for a naval commission and then to advance himself through its ranks, a rapid advance accelerated by openings created through the naval enlargement policy of the Duke of York and his secretariat, headed by Samuel Pepys. Cuffe had enjoyed a similar career as an army engineer, a division of the king’s forces that had enjoyed a boost in funding and manpower when it was realised from the European campaigns the new direction of modern warfare. Large cities, effectively wealthy statelets in their own right, had proved rich pickings for armies with the wit and resources to take them. Whole kingdoms could now be seized through such a strategy, as the wealth of many such states was concentrated often within one administrative hub at their heart. If a hub could be besieged and taken, then an otherwise lengthy and expensive war could be ended swiftly or even avoided altogether. No city was now considered too large to besiege, and as a result a whole new industry had developed in perfecting the means to do so, as well as the means for a city to defend itself by the same token.

Only the previous year Vienna had proved the worth of such engineering innovation when it had withstood an Ottoman assault in a manner that had left its would-be besiegers all but destroyed, and their army transformed into a retreating headless rabble – those same Turkish troops that had just swept invincibly across the Hungarian plains, taking cities almost at will, before meeting their match in the Hapsburg capital. More recently French troops, with quite a few English mercenaries fighting alongside them, had taken the allegedly impregnable citadel of Luxembourg after a siege of only a few months – and the amazement that this surprisingly quick defeat engendered amongst Englishmen had been heightened rather than decreased when their compatriots returned with news of how it had been achieved. The lessons were there to be learnt and King Charles’ forces were wasting no time in doing so.

Cuffe, who had been employed to assess the defences of several English ports in light of these new developments, had often used Bramall as his transport officer, so the two had kept in touch. Meanwhile Cuffe, in the course of his surveys, had become aware of the need for a city to have a sound infrastructure of well kept roads and drains, not just for sanitation purposes but also for military ones. A city with the means to control and distribute its water supply internally, and to keep it clean in the process, had already overcome the one factor which weakened it most when under siege. As time went on, Cuffe found that his expertise was developing along these lines, and when, on an assignment to Dublin, he had been ‘poached’ by Ormonde’s administration – who recognised a good city engineer when they saw one and had dire need of one too – he had insisted that Bramall also be offered the chance to relocate. At the time Bramall’s need to move to Dublin had been greater than his friend’s. Under the naval system, captains still tendered for commissions, often at their own expense. The end of the war with Holland had seen the competition for the remaining commissions increase, and Cuffe’s friend was having problems staying afloat, literally. By coming to Ireland, Bramall could enter a long term commission with Dublin Castle. This at least guaranteed wages for his crew, and still gave him the scope to compete for wider work. In fact it had worked out even better for the man. Within a year of his arrival he had successfully argued with his London masters for the existence of a small standing fleet under Ormonde’s direct command, and had duly found himself appointed its commanding officer by a grateful duke who had long cherished just such an addition to the country’s defences but had lacked an ally with which to press the case. His crew now jokingly referred to him as ‘the Admiral’, though not to his face he added, and in many ways they were right. His recent procurement of The Unicorn as an addition to his small fleet, for example, proved just how much influence beyond that of a normal captain he had acquired. This elevation had led to some jealousy within the ranks of course. Already he had found himself the subject of several slanders, originating in London no doubt, but designed to lessen his standing in Dublin Castle’s eyes and thereby free his position for some other aspiring ‘admiral’. Cuffe had offered to use whatever influence he had in the castle to mitigate the effect of these slanders, and, when he had learnt through William Robinson of this collection of ‘like minded men’, had considered it advantageous that they both subscribe to it.

In effect, Bramall suggested, their ‘guild’ was little more than a collection of men who, standing alone, were at the mercy of the petty spite and ambitions of better connected individuals, but when working together could at least forestall such attacks for a while. There was nothing more sinister than that at play. Furthermore, it was no coincidence that it was an Irish guild at that, Bramall added. By and large, as Titus could have himself deduced from its membership, they were English men who had chosen Ireland to live in, and their motivations had been similar. Many in England saw Ireland as a backwater, or even a sump pit which caught the dregs of England in its maw – the misfits, the incompetent, those without ambition, and those who lacked connections with the right people in London. Bramall, even in the few years he had lived in Dublin, saw the opposite, as had others. By being one step removed from London, the Dublin administration had an independence that only now it was realising it could exercise, and this freedom filtered down through its channels to all who could see it too. The explosion about to be detonated by the accession of James to the throne would be felt here too, but in a way that few in England might realise. A Catholic ascendancy in Ireland would inevitably lead to a weakening of its tie with England, not a strengthening of it, and a truly independent Ireland at the doorstep of a neighbour who aspired to be a giant would make it a major player in European affairs, where alliances were already being drawn with one issue at stake – how much further France dared, or was allowed, to pursue its ambition of establishing a Catholic hegemony across the continent. In fact, it could well transpire that the very future course of England herself would be decided by what happened on this island, where already many men in office, who up to now had been ignored or despised by the crown, were being hand-picked by the Duke of York for his new administration. The influence of this island on her neighbour, rather like the tail wagging the dog, might soon be disproportionate but very real. For any man with the inclination and foresight to influence events in his own way, this was the place to be.

While Titus had thought Bramall’s version of the future was simplistic to the point of being far-fetched, he could see the captain’s point. There were many men who found that England, under the Stuarts, had degenerated into a stifling stand-off between court and parliament, where even religion differences had been subsumed into what was in effect a local squabble over what individuals should hold the reigns of power. The divisions established in her civil war had yet to be properly healed, even the language of that day was still used to describe her protagonists. Those who saw a different role for England, one in which the country would take a central role in dictating the shape of its world, rather than meekly follow the trends and dictates of her continental neighbours, had no ready champions in the English system as yet, obsessed as it was with its own festering sores and the archaic divisions set in the time of Cromwell. Men like Bramall saw Ireland – an adjunct of England about to be thrown into the centre of the European stage – as a natural base from which to launch their own long term ambitions, and in which to consolidate their plans in the meantime. Even Robert Cuffe, who Titus doubted shared Bramall’s obvious zest for adventure, had once replied as much when Titus had asked him how a man of his patent abilities could settle for a career in the army and one in Ireland to boot, when he must know that he could make a fortune in London, a city on the march into its hinterlands where good architects and engineers could practically name their own price. At the time Titus had put Cuffe’s reply down to his support of the Ormonde administration. Now he had reason to reassess its insinuation. “A backwater it may still be,” Cuffe had said in that half muttered tone with which he often indicated that he considered a topic of conversation closed, “but not for much bloody longer.”
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