Today I’d like to share with you a sneak peak from The Blooding of Jack Absolute by C.C. Humphreys. The author is also giving away three copies of the marvelous first book in this series Jack Absolute (Escape Rating A review here)! Look for the Rafflecopter at the end of the post.
Chapter 2: Reunion
Jack came along the track at a steady lope, thinking about Time. The Papists had won, it seemed, despite Englishmen expressing their displeasure, in flame and riot, the length of the land. Time had stood still. So though Jack had been hiding for near three weeks now, by some trick only ten days had passed on the calendar. He and Treve, his only contact, had scratched their heads a lot, especially when considering if they were now younger than they’d been. If that was true, it was not good. He needed to get older as fast as possible, for with age would come size and strength and these were requirements for the hard life promised.
Or mayhap it was the lack of food that was curbing his reason. It had been a day and a night since last he’d rendezvoused with his friend and Treve had brought what little his mother Morwenna could spare. Since then, Jack had made do with a fish he’d found washed up on the beach. That had made him sick, probably because he’d been unable to cook it properly.
Jack halted. The track plunged into a gully whose steep sides, lined in thick bramble, would be hard to scramble up. He might need to for two reasons. Firstly, the effects of that fish made frequent halts a necessity and he didn’t want to be stuck with his breeches down on a track this close to Absolute Hall. Secondly, Treve had warned that Craster was once again hunting him, after the period of restraint that had followed Duncan’s funeral. Treve’s dad, Lutie, and many of the others had tried to persuade his cousin that Jack was gone, had joined the fishermen in Penzance or even set out for the clay pits over Austell. But Craster was determined. A warrant had been sworn, blaming Jack for his father’s death. In fact, since that day, it was said that Craster Absolute had changed, had taken on attributes of the dead man. His voice had settled deep, he cursed Jack day and night, and he had begun to drink.
Jack’s bowels calmed, enough to shift his feelings to his stomach and its emptiness. He hoped that Treve lay up ahead with perhaps a pasty or another of his mother’s Figgy Hobbans. The memory of that last one—three weeks, or ten days before, whichever it was—now made up his mind. He hastened down the gully.
Rounding the bend, he saw Treve there before him. But his joy in the sight died fast as he saw that his friend was not alone.
Craster’s voice had indeed settled low. He sat astride his horse and pointed. Men from the farms moved in on Jack and held him. Lutie was the first and his grip was firm enough to hold but not hurt.
“Don’t blame the boy, Jack,” he whispered. “Your cousin caught him sneakin’ food out. ‘Ee’d have had us out our cottage if ‘ee did not give you up.”
Jack nodded. At least it was over. Whatever happened now, wherever they took him, he’d have something to eat there.
His cousin dismounted slowly, handing his reins to a servant. He had a riding crop in his hands, his father’s, ivory-handled, a forearm’s length of leather furled tight. He bounced its looped end against his hand as he walked over to where Lutie held Jack. They watched him approach and Jack wriggled a little in the grasp.
“Well, cousin,” said Craster, “at last!”
He lifted the crop, struck down hard with it. Jack managed to turn his shoulder, Lutie letting him slip, but the blow still landed and it stung.
“Hold him, there,” shouted Craster, “hold him while I give him the beating he deserves.”
Instead of obeying, though, Lutie stepped back, releasing his grip. “Come now, Master Craster,” he said, his voice placating, “we’s catched the boy for ‘ee. Baint it now the magistrate’s turn?”
Craster’s face mottled, purple spreading over it. “His turn? I’ll tell ‘ee, Tregonning, there’s no ‘turns,’ not while this whelp is on my land. So you’ll hold him or face the consequence.”
Jack watched the conflict on both the Tregonning faces, father and son. Saw the anger harden, not soften, knew his friends were about to take a stand for him, one that could cost them the very walls they lived within. He could not allow that.
So he stepped up to his cousin, stood toe to toe and clouted him, a swift one to the stomach. It may not have been the hardest punch he’d ever given but it doubled Craster over, had him staggering back. A hand descended again as he made to pursue, Lutie’s voice following. “That’ll do, Jack.”
But Craster had straightened swiftly. “Let him go,” he screamed and at the same time leaped forward. Jack, off balance, was knocked to the ground, his cousin falling on top of him.
“Shall separate ‘em, Lutie?” one of the other men said.
“No,” he replied. “This reckonin’s been a long time comin’. Let ‘em be.”
The men formed into a rough circle. Jack was under still and Craster was trying to pin him, his knees moving up to hold Jack’s arms while leaving his own fists free. Whipping both his legs to the side threw the boy above slightly over. Whipping them back, he tipped Craster, who was forced to remove one of his gripping hands to stop himself falling. Jack reached up then, grabbing an ear, twisting hard. With a cry, both Craster’s hands came up. Jack threw his legs again, knocking Craster off.
Both boys rolled away, came onto their feet, breathing hard. They glared at each other but a moment and then they leaped together, like stags butting, arms out, seeking a grip. Jack went high, then dropped low, to grasp Craster around the waist, lift and twist him, throw him as hard as he could upon the ground. But his cousin anticipated it, dropped low himself, wrapped his arms around Jack’s shoulders. The two locked together and they spun and twisted, now one tipping down, now the other.
It could not go on that way for long. His cousin was heavier, older and even at his strongest Jack would find it hard to take him in a plain grapple. Weakened now by his hunger, he needed more than ever to break away, to gain space for the throws that required not weight but timing, which Lutie had trained him to do: the foreheap, the foretrip, the flying mare. But now he was locked in there, and no matter how much he jerked and twisted, he couldn’t break his cousin’s grip. The older boy had managed to link his longer arms. He’d begun to squeeze and Jack could feel less and less air getting in. It could not go on for long.
“…And this, my dear, is the very thing I was telling you of. It’s known as ‘wrasslin’ in these parts.”
The voice intruded, partly because it could have been heard in the next Hundred, partly because the accent was so strange coming from outside the county, beyond even the next one. Jack wondered, as Craster’s grip relaxed on him, if the accent did not come from as far away as London.
He used the slight release Craster’s surprise gave him, broke the grip, staggered away. His cousin did not pursue, just stood like Jack, hands on hips, breathing heavily and staring up the gully where the slope crested and two intruders were silhouetted against the sun.
The fighters, all those down below now, raised hands to shelter eyes against the glare and look at the man and the woman on horseback. The man wore a coat of palest blue, his waistcoat a contrast in vivid red, reaching to midway down the dark breeches. These were tucked into knee-length boots, gleaming black where they were not bespattered with mud, which was not in many parts. The horse also bore signs of hard riding, its chest caked brown, foam flecked.
The woman’s horse was equally muddied, her crimson riding habit as spotted, especially where her legs curled around the riding horn of the side saddle and a flash of a yellow petticoat could be seen. But, unlike the man, her face was unblemished by dirt. Narrow eyebrows curved down as if pointing the way to the firm, straight nose. The eyes made the blue of the man’s coat look gaudy, false. Her hair was held up under a bonnet but the ride had loosened some strands to fall across the high forehead. Staring up at her, Jack thought he had never seen anything, anyone, more beautiful in all his life. And he was discomfited to find this vision suddenly focus her attention back upon him. Those eyes widened, the crop she’d rested on her shoulder now reached out to tap her companion on his, then point at Jack. The gentleman looked and nodded.
“He has your nose, James,” she laughed, some lilt in the husky voice adding a musical run to the words.
“He has,” the man grunted. “Fortunately for him, he is compensated for it with your eyes.” He descended, reaching up to pluck the woman from her perch. Everyone in the gully, up to that moment, had been frozen, hands raised, jaws dropped. Now, men began to move, hats slid off heads, bows were given. Taking her hand, the gentleman led the lady down, to pause before Lutie.
“Mr. Tregonning, my dear. Do you remember him?”
“I do indeed. We are grateful to you for the message you sent.”
“My duty, your ladyship.”
“Duty to friendship, Lutie,” said the man, thrusting out his hand, “and I thank ‘ee. You be well?” For the first time there was something other than refinement in the gentleman’s voice. Lutie smiled took the proffered hand. “Proper, Jamie…Sir James. Proper.”
The lady had moved swiftly on, stood now before Jack and he knew not where to look, except down, into the mud. “Do you not know us, Jack?” she said, softly.
It was hard. A moment before he’d been fighting flat out with his cousin. His breath was still not back. His guts were once more reminiscing on half-cooked flounder. And now the most beautiful person he’d ever seen was bending before him, regarding him with interest…no, with something more than interest, something he could not recognize, because he had never seen it before.
“Can you not speak, boy?” the gentleman said, somewhat sharply.
He could not. So Lutie did. “G’awn, Jack. Say how do to your mother.”
It was too much. He knew them, these people he’d longed for all his life, had prayed for whenever he’d remembered to pray, had cursed far more often for leaving him with those he hated, who hated him back. And now they’d arrived too late. For now he was a criminal, had a warrant out for him, people to swear he’d killed his uncle. Too bloody late and their fault, this man who’d abandoned him, this woman who’d bred him to that sin.
What had Duncan always called her? What title had he always borne? He was her son and she, in her red dress with her fair face, was what they’d named her.
“I know ‘ee right enough,” he shouted. “For you’re the whore what bore me.”
She flinched and her face blanched. There was a gasp from all there, even Craster who’d stared as silent and awed as any. Only one man moved. He swept down on Jack where he was standing furious and defiant, readying more words to wound as he saw he had just wounded. But the man did not give him the chance. A fist swung down from on high and sank deep into Jack’s stomach.
Jack had been hit before, hit hard, by boys and men. But he had never been hit as hard as James Absolute hit him then.
He collapsed onto the ground, his breath all gone. His father leaned down and said, in a low tone meant for only him, “Remember this, boy, and you and I will rub along well enough: you will show nothing but respect to your mother and to myself. Is that clear?”
It wasn’t, not really, they were just words. Nothing was clear, for a time, while he attempted to find air, that search rendered harder by the woman, who’d gathered him up and clutched him deep into that dress, an extensive string of surprisingly crude curses aimed at the man who’d delivered the blow. His one consolation, as he stared out from the red folds, was that he wasn’t the only one shedding tears. Craster Absolute had begun to cry, too.
Jack sat on the beach watching near-perfect waves sweep in; yet he made no move toward the water. He’d always loved this place in the morning, the sun barely risen, reddening the whitecaps as they foamed and formed far out, then surged closer, disappearing for a moment only to be re-made nearer the strand where he and the others could snare them, adapt their bodies to the curl, ride them to the shore. Those he observed now were as good as any he’d seen, not so large that they’d spin you over and round so you’d go under and not know which way was up until you saw the bubbles climb; but large enough so that, with the timing right, you could be folded under the lip of the surge, drive along it at an angle, before it, yet within it, too. It was a freedom he never found on land—except maybe on a fast horse.
His knees drawn up to his chest, his chin on them, staring, wanting, still he did not move. He wouldn’t now, because once he began it would be the beginning of the last time and that was unbearable to consider. For when he was forced from the water, by cold and tiredness, freedom would end. He’d climb the cliff path, he’d walk back to Absolute Hall, he’d put on the new clothes they’d sent for, he’d ascend into the carriage and, with his parents, he’d ride all the way to London. And though he knew little of London, he did know it had no sea, just a stinky brown river. There’d be no waves on that.
Behind him, someone started down the path; he heard it in the slip of shale, the curse. He smiled because many had ended up on their arses on that slope. Then the smile went as he recognized the voice.
His father was coming for him. Jack found it hard to think of Sir James Absolute as such, the term having no place in his world. Other boys had fathers, Treve, even Craster. Jack was always the little bastard nephew, an error dumped in the country, the outcast. Father and this other term—Mother—were foreign ideas. And yet in the week his parents had been there they had changed his world forever.
At least they had ended the nonsense of the warrant. It collapsed under Sir James’s swift interrogation while the pretense of Craster’s legitimacy had been as easily punctured. Jack had heard that his father had dragged the curate by his ear to the church where the registry was examined by a local magistrate summoned from St. Ives. It was found to be recently and poorly altered and, with Duncan dead, witnesses now came forward who testified that the maid died the night of Craster’s birth and was most certainly unwed.
It didn’t matter much to Jack. There’d always been two bastards at Absolute Hall and there were two still. Except one was leaving. Him. And it now appeared the man who was taking him away had negotiated the cliff path, better than most unfamiliar with it, and could now be heard in the squeak of boots along the sand. Still Jack stared at the perfect waves he’d left it too late to catch. The man on the beach meant that decision was another thing beyond his power.
The boots had halted behind him. “Did you not hear us shouting for you, boy?” came that gruff voice, flecked with its ready anger.
“Deaf, are you?”
“Nay, sir. The waves make hearing hard.”
He expected the man—his father, he should get used to thinking of him as such—to order him up, grab him by his scruff when he was tardy, perhaps even strike him as he had that first day but not since. So he ground himself into the sand to make it harder. Yet instead of a blow, there was an exhalation as a body dropped down beside him. Jack would not look at first, just kept staring out. As the silence continued, he glanced quickly. Sir James Absolute sat beside him, staring straight out, too.
“A fine morning,” his father said at last.
“Tis,” replied Jack.
The silence returned. A cloud of terns changed shape over the water, diving and rising as one, from fan to flask to arrow. Thus formed, they shot away, their bodies skimming the whitecaps.
“You know, tis time, boy. If we’re to make Truro by nightfall, we must away.” James had picked up a line of seaweed and was engaged in pressing the rubbery balls, bursting one after another. “Your mother and cousin are packed, the horses in the traces.”
This turned Jack. “Craster does not come with us, do ‘ee?”
“Aye. Can’t leave him here, an orphan now.”
Jack, feeling the color rush to his face, turned it angrily back to the water. They’d left him there! He’d waited for these people for ever and now he was going to share them as Craster had never shared Duncan? It was not fair, yet another knot in the string of unfairness that was his life.
Yet his father, as if sensing the broil within him, went on. “But he’ll not bide with us in London. He’ll go to school, like you. But not with you. He’s for Harrow and he’ll be a boarder there. It’s far from us in the town and you’ll only see him on holidays, and mayhap not even then.”
This was better, but it raised another question. “And where am I to?”
His father dropped the seaweed. “You’ll attend Westminster School, where I went.” He smiled. “Once you learn some ABCs and suchlike. You’re a powerful way behind other boys of your age.”
And whose wrong is that? Jack thought, anger arriving again. It was amazing how easy it came to him. Craster had had some learning from the curate. But since the cousins could never bide in the same room for long without blows, Jack was usually expelled. Such knowledge he’d gleaned came from Morwenna. Half of that was Cornish and her little English learning was little indeed.
It was as if his father was still reading his thoughts. “Three weeks ago, before Lutie Tregonning got word to us about Duncan’s…tragedy, we couldn’t have bought you the grammar you’ll study from nor the cap for your head. Not with the earnings of a half-pay officer and an actress without a season’s contract. And now,” he laughed, a rich sound, as rolling as the waves, “now we can hire a carriage to take us back to London, put two boys into school…and much more besides. Oh yes, much more.” He chuckled again.
Jack had wondered about that. All he’d ever heard about James was from Duncan, the elder brother accusing the younger of being a wastrel who lived with his whore.
“Is it so very rich, sir, the mine?”
“So they say. I became soldier just so I would know little of these things and care to know little more now. So long as the profits come my way. But I’ve made Lutie Tregonning into my cap’n and he’ll see me right. He’ll move into Absolute Hall, with money to do her up. There’ll be gold enough for that. Tis like alchemy, boy, as rich a seam as they say this is, pure alchemy. For it turns tin into gold.”
Jack couldn’t help himself. It was the question that had harried him since the moment he’d heard of the riches to be dug from the earth. “And who will get it after you, sir? I know Craster’s a bastard again so…?”
“Craster?” James interrupted, puzzled. “Craster’s not my son, anyway. For better or worse, and may God help us both, you are my only offspring.”
“But a bastard’s a bastard and, I’m told, cannot inherit. T’was what my uncle was trying to change.”
“Aye, and I soon put a stop to that cozenry.” James’s puzzlement had not left his face. “But who says you are a bastard, boy?”
“Tis known. Tis a fact.”
“Tis?” James smiled. “Well, I know you was there, boy, but I don’t recall you taking in much except great gulps of air to deafen us with. Or you’d perhaps recall that I was there too, despite the outrage of the midwife. I was there because I’d come back from the war in Germany the very morning that you decided to kick your way into the world. I knew naught of you or your coming, so when I found out I came to the attic where your mother bided and I dragged a clergyman with me. There was he and me at your mother’s head, taking the vows at a gallop between screams and there was the midwife at your mother’s legs, sliding you fast into the world. Vicar’d only just pronounced us man and wife when he added the title of parents.”
This was impossible! He’d lived all his life as one thing, held this title of shame. “So…”
“So you’re an Absolute true, Jack, and heir to the family fortunes. If I leave you any to inherit. Which is far from a certain thing.” He winked.
Jack turned back to the sea to hide the saltwater that ran from his eyes. He didn’t know if he’d been in time. Beside him, his father rose, scraping sand from his breeches and coat-tails. Jack rose too. Looking up at his father, he saw that he was staring out to the water again.
“You know, when I was about your age, boy,” he said, after a long pause, “before I was sent off to school, Lutie Tregonning and I would come down to this beach and we’d climb atop of waves like that and ride ‘em.” He looked down at Jack. “Don’t suppose you do anything like that?”
His father’s voice, so refined in all the talk so far, had suddenly taken on a very Cornish tone.
“Might do,” sniffed Jack, “now and again.”
James looked to the cliff top so Jack did too. Someone was waving a cloth up there, summoning them. It looked like Morwenna. They turned back to the sea.
“Bollocks,” said James suddenly. “Redruth’s got inns too and changes of horses. If we only make it that far tonight, that’d be proper.”
His father was suddenly pulling at his clothes, dropping each beautifully tailored item with no ceremony to the ground.
“C’mon, boy,” he said, hopping as he tried to pull off one boot, “bet you a gold guinea piece I ride one further than ‘ee.”
“You never will, so done!” yelled Jack. His few clothes came off fast, and together and naked the Absolutes rushed into the sea. His father’s cursing at the cold taught Jack several useful new words whose meaning he could only guess at. For an old man of nigh on forty, he wasn’t too bad, if a little unused to the trick of catching the wave just so. A few pointers from his son and he was managing fine. Not enough to win the bet, mind.
Later, with the feeling gone from his feet and barely able to stretch out his arms, with his father waiting for him on the beach, Jack launched himself ahead of what he knew would be his last wave. He didn’t begrudge it, now. Endings were beginnings, too, he reckoned and, as he steered himself down that final enfolding tunnel, he thought that even if Time had ended and they’d stolen eleven days from his young life, he still had a few of them ahead.
Chris lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his wife and young son.
C.C. Humphreys is giving away three copies of Jack Absolute! To enter, use the Rafflecopter here.