The blooding of jack abs.., p.1
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       The Blooding of Jack Absolute, p.1

           C. C. Humphreys
The Blooding of Jack Absolute

  Critical acclaim for C. C. Humphreys

  The Blooding of Jack Absolute

  ‘A roaring adventure whose pages are remorselessly consumed … In this prequel, Humphreys begins the finest series of historical novels since O’Brian’ Good Book Guide

  ‘[A] most satisfying novel. Humphreys makes writing historical fiction seem easy. He brilliantly combines meticulous research with a breakneck pace and a terrific sense of humour’

  Historical Novels Review

  Jack Absolute

  ‘Jack escapes death more often than James Bond in his attempt to find the traitor in the King’s ranks … An exciting romp’

  Sunday Telegraph

  ‘Vigorously imagined, dashingly done espionage adventure with newly retired military man, Jack Absolute … New territory for spy fiction, but utterly convincing in its period and ethnic detail. Few comparisons unless you go back to Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. Quite bloody, thoroughly gripping, intensely readable’

  Literary Review

  The French Executioner

  ‘Falling somewhere between the novels of Bernard Cornwell and Wilbur Smith, C. C. Humphreys has fashioned a rollicking good yarn that keeps the pages turning from start to finish’

  Irish Examiner

  ‘How he fulfills his mission is told with enormous zest in this splendid, rip-roaring story … a fine addition to the tradition of swashbuckling costume romance of which Robert Louis Stevenson is the incomparable master’

  Hamilton Examiner (Canada)




  To my very own Roaring Boy –

  Reith Frederic Humphreys,

  born 2 February 2004


  Critical acclaim for C. C. Humphreys


  Part 1

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Part 2

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten


  Historical Note and Acknowledgements


  – PART 1 –


  – ONE –

  Cain and Abel

  Cornwall, September 1752

  The End of Time came on a Wednesday – and Jack was missing it. There was rage and riot in every corner of the realm, all because the Papists, led by some downser named Gregory, had stolen near half of September. He didn’t really understand how that could be, how True and Christian Englishmen could let a Pope tell them what to do; but the Government had ordered it so, surrendered to the will of those beyond the sea: Froggies, Italians and the like. Jack had never met any but he knew they wished him no good. And, like any other native of the Isles, he wanted to join his voice to the others, cry out, ‘Give us back our eleven days!’ The word had spread, just ahead of the flames. In Exeter, they’d burnt down the Court House. In Plymouth, seafarers from Naples had been tarred and feathered. And anything they could manage in Devon – where the people were known to have wishbones where their backbones ought to be – the Cornish would top. They’d be kicking up a dido all around and Jack had plans to join in, wasn’t going to rest content with a little fuss in the village. No, he and some of the other Zennor lads were bound for the big town –Penzance. Three hours across the fields, if they took it at a clip. He’d been there twice, never seen anything so vast. All sorts lived there, including, no doubting, foreigners! They’d get what they deserved. And Jack would be there to see it.

  Except he wouldn’t. Not unless he could shift these bonds.

  He strained against them, again to no effect. It was Lutie Tregonning who had tied them and Lutie, when he wasn’t digging for tin in the Absolute fields, was a fisherman and knew his knots. Though he’d shaken his head and muttered while he did them, he’d had his commandments from the squire and did a proper job. His liking for Jack didn’t extend to risk losing his livelihood.

  The hempen coils were passed through an iron hoop, which was driven hard into the wine cellar’s wall, then anchored to a barrel. The length of cord meant Jack could stand, crawl to that barrel, even draw some wine out from its spigot. He’d tried to console himself with that, had lain underneath the tap and sucked. But the wine had gone off, its foul sharpness still coating his mouth an hour later. An old pint pot lay under the tap for catching drips and it gave off an acrid, vinegar smell, its surface thick with tiny black flies.

  Something moved in the house above. Someone coming for him? He tipped his head. Through the door came only the same muffled shouts, snatches of song, banging of tankards. His uncle was still celebrating some change in the family fortunes. Duncan Absolute was not renowned for being sober – indeed, he was universally known as ‘Druncan’ – but this debauch outdid even the King’s last birthday. His cronies from the Plump Pigeons had arrived three days before and never left. This annoyed Jack. When his uncle was this drunk he was easy to elude. So how was it that he’d been caught?

  Jack spat into the corner but sourness clung to his tongue. He knew how, knew his betrayer. Duncan’s son, ever mindful of a chance to do Jack down, would have stayed watchful. So when Jack, forbidden to leave the house, ordered to slave doubly hard on all the guests’ horses and carriages, had snuck from the barn on his way to the rendezvous of the brave boys bound for Penzance, Craster Absolute was waiting.

  Craster. The image of his cousin’s smirking face, peering from behind Duncan’s back as the man raved and frothed, made Jack tug again against his bonds until the skin at his wrists bled, still to no avail.

  Another sound distracted him, the faint booming of the surf beneath Zennor Head. Jack listened, to the long roll, the crash as the wave smashed down. He didn’t need to see it to tell that the tide was running strong and it made his imprisonment all the worse. If he couldn’t be in Penzance, he could at least be there, plunging into those waves, he and Treve Tregonning, hurling themselves ahead of the walls of water just before they peaked, riding them to the shore line, their bodies straightened out like arrows, neck bent up, hands thrust ahead to steer. In the chill, pulsing water, the shock and the thrill of it, timing it just right so that you were in and on and of the falling cliff of salt, using its power till the very end, gliding gently onto your belly in the sand, to leap up, turn, run in again and again, until you were blue and shaking and had to stop or drown. Some had, Billy Wits last year, and the activity was strictly forbidden ever since – such prohibition making it all the more delicious.

  That was a sound now. The door above opening, feet on the stairs. Jack tried to guess whose footfalls it could be, how he could prepare for whoever was coming through the door. Duncan had promised to return to punish. Craster would be there to watch and gloat. The key shrieked in the lock. The door swung in.


  If Jack could have moved, he would have leapt to the ceiling in his relief. For in the doorway, filling it, was the comforting, near-spherical shape of the housekeeper of Absolute Hall. Morwenna Tregonning, Lutie’s wife, Treve’s ma, and the only woman in the world Jack loved.

  ‘Ah, there’s the dear of him.’ Morwenna raised a chubby finger to her lips, thrust out beside the lamp she held. ‘Hush now, my
lover, and no fuss, see.’

  She put the lamp on a barrel top, pulling the two huge jugs dangling by their handles off one forearm. Straightening, she let out a sigh and rubbed at the small of her back.

  ‘They’ve finished them casks they dragged up bevore. Now they want beer vor their terrible thirsts. Then it’ll be the brandy again. Tis a circle I can’t see closing this side o’ Sunday.’ She came over and bent again, her hand pulling his thick black locks away from his eyes. ‘How are ’ee then, Jack?’

  ‘Proper,’ he replied, and tried to smile.

  ‘Ess, look proper too,’ she said sadly, lifting the bound wrists, her finger lightly touching the reddened skin. With a sigh she lowered herself to the floor to sit beside him, pulling his head over so it could rest against her considerable chest. ‘Can’t stop long, vor they’ll be missing the beer. But I brung you this.’

  From a cloth bag at her waist, she pulled out a pear-shaped object. Jack, who had not eaten in a day, leaned forward excitedly. ‘Figgy Hobban,’ he cried.

  ‘Was makin’ a batch for the squire and his friends so I snuck one off the tray. I’ve orders not to feed ’ee but if you sup up every grain, so none ’ull see … now, I bain’t able to free your poor hands—’

  ‘I wouldn’t want you to.’

  ‘But mayhap you can feed yesself if I holds it here.’ She held the delicacy in her cupped palms and Jack bent over them, biting off the pastry plug, chewing swiftly to the sweet raisins within. As he chewed, Morwenna talked.

  ‘Oh, Jack, you’m daft as a carrot half-scraped! Why could you not have bided? They’re drinking and drinking, o’man, like the drink’s about to end for ever and they better get it down. And though it’s all “Damn the Jacobites!” and “Health to the fair maids” now, it’ll be blows bevore supper. And I fear’s them’s to fall on ’ee, sure enough.’ As Jack had guzzled more than three-quarters of the pastry, she was able to remove one hand to stroke his head. ‘I told ’ee, sure: the more you meddle with an old turd, the worse ’ee do stink. And your uncle’s reeking foul now.’

  Through a mouthful of dough and raisin, Jack spluttered, ‘When Druncan’s that gone, his switch arm tires fast. I’ll be right.’

  Morwenna hesitated, taking her lower lip between her teeth, chewing at it. Finally she said, ‘Trouble be, I just heard ’un say it’s time his son and heir had the correction of ’ee.’

  Shite, thought Jack, and felt the first real prickle of apprehension. Craster was two years older, big for eleven and strong with it. He’d beat Jack till his arm fell off.

  To counter his fear, Jack sought his ready bravado. ‘Anyway, “son and heir” is a big name for such a coose downser. He may be the son but he’ll be no heir. Craster Absolute’s a bastard, just like me.’

  Morwenna hit him lightly for the cuss words for though she swore as hard as any miner’s wife, she made to curb it in the young. Then she stroked where she’d struck, continued, ‘And didn’t think any less of ’im than we did of ’ee. But this party is not for nought, o’ man.’ Her voice dropped to an excited whisper. ‘There’s tin found on the Absolute lands, a brave keenly lode, they say. T’will make Duncan Absolute rich.’

  Above them, the noise got louder suddenly, the cries of ‘Where’s that damn’d ale,’ coming clearly down. Then a door was opened above. Jack leaned away and spat dough and raisins behind a brandy cask, running his tongue over his lips to wipe away any trace that might betray Morwenna’s kindness.

  ‘Mind that step, Father.’

  It was unmistakably his cousin’s voice, that new and strange quaver in it as if it sought to settle. Its caution was ignored for a roar followed hard upon it, a sound of slipping, a series of guttural oaths.

  ‘Here, Father, I’ll help you up.’

  ‘Leave me alone, boy. I am more than capable of aiding myself.’

  These words were spoken slow and measured, the phrasing precise, in contrast to the curses. The man on the stair was mastering himself and Jack and Morwenna looked at each other in mutual horror. When Duncan Absolute was roaring he was least capable of harm. When he was drunk and attempting not to be so, he was dangerous. Jack had switch scars on his back that testified to that.

  Father and son lurched there, the wavering lamplight giving their faces an equally grotesque cast. They blocked the doorway, for the Absolute blood tended to produce size and Craster had filled out in the last year, his head coming up above his father’s shoulder now. But he still had a boy’s face beneath his thick, red-gold hair and his features were coarser than his father’s, wider at eye, thicker of lip. His mother had been a milkmaid at the Hall and Morwenna had hinted more than once that there was coercion in the coupling. She had died giving Craster life while Duncan had acknowledged the only child he’d ever produced, raising him to be Jack’s plague.

  In their stance at the doorway, the boy imitated the man in the stare down the prominent nose but what was inherited in the face of the son was corrupt and bloated in the father. Duncan’s skin was a web of broken vessels while greying hair spilled out beneath the heavily powdered and ancient periwig, whose curls had unravelled to reveal patches of pink and flaring skin. He had a habit of rubbing the coarse horse-hair across his head, the regularity of the activity increasing the need for it.

  He was doing so now, while his eyes roamed from Jack to Morwenna and around the cellar. Craster simply stared at his cousin and while Jack tried to stare back, the weakness of his position, squatting and hog-tied made him drop his gaze at last. It settled for a moment at his uncle’s side and moved on swiftly and too late. For clutched there, in Duncan Absolute’s right hand, was a bundle of thick and springy staves.

  Jack swallowed, trying to get moisture in his mouth. They would break one stave on him in their enthusiasm. Even two would mean the punishment would be over soon enough. But there were at least five in his uncle’s grasp … and that did not bode well for his arse.

  ‘Mrs Tregonning,’ Duncan continued in his formal and steady tone, ‘why do you dally here, when I have guests above who thirst? You do not bring any succour to this villain, do you?’

  Morwenna had stood as soon as she heard the foot on the stair and now waited with head bowed. ‘No, sir,’ she muttered in a small voice, ‘was … was … just trying to remember which ale you required.’

  ‘Why, the strong, of course, Mrs Tregonning. You would not have me insult my guests with small beer?’

  ‘No, sir.’

  ‘Then about my business, if you please.’

  Morwenna curtseyed and went to fill the jugs. Craster moved into the room, stopping before Jack, taking in the bonds, the raw skin beneath them. Then he gazed past the prisoner, to the floor behind him, and stopped suddenly.

  ‘Crumbs, Father.’

  ‘Crumbs?’ Duncan peered.

  ‘And …’ the boy raised a finger to his eyes, squinted, ‘and a raisin.’

  ‘A … raisin?’ As Duncan spoke, chillingly calm, Morwenna froze, then bent again to her task. She’d begun the second jug.

  ‘A raisin,’ Duncan repeated. ‘Seems to me that we ate raisins just now, did we not, Craster?’

  ‘We did, Father. Figgy Hobbans. You commented that they were over-dry.’

  ‘Ay, yes. They were. And did I not also say – nay, command – that this wretch was not to share any of our food this day?’

  ‘You did.’

  ‘Well,’ said Duncan Absolute, his voice beginning to shake, ‘it appears I have been disobeyed.’

  The second jug was full and Morwenna, just replacing the spigot in the barrel, was bent over, facing away, when Duncan crossed the space between them and kicked her. His stride was unsteady and so perhaps the blow was not what it could have been but it was with the toe of the boot and Jack could see it hurt. Morwenna gasped, staggered forward, head banging into the barrel, beer slopping from the jug.

  ‘Leave her be,’ Jack screamed.

  Duncan turned and cuffed him with the back of his hand. ‘Take that beer
to my guests, you disobedient slut,’ he bellowed.

  As she scurried out, he aimed another kick, missed. Morwenna paused in the doorway, looked back at Jack, as if she would say something. He managed to look into her eyes, to shake his head. She nodded, turned, went. Nothing she could say would aid him now. Quite the reverse.

  ‘And now, you whoreson …’ It was Duncan’s most used endearment, yet reserved only for Jack. ‘So you would riot with the peasants of Penzance. You would bring more disgrace to the Absolute name than your father has already done since he got you on your doxy of a mother. Well, I have methods here to correct you. Five good and true methods.’ He raised the switches into the air and Jack could see them clearly for the first time. They were cut from young birch, springy, hard to snap. His cousin’s work. He shuddered. ‘Turn him, Craster.’ His uncle laid four of the sticks down on a barrel head. ‘Turn him and hold him fast.’

  Surprisingly, the boy did not move. ‘May I remind you, Father, of your promise?’

  ‘Promise?’ Duncan growled. ‘Just do as I say, boy, or I’ll save a switch for ’ee.’

  Craster stood still and for a moment Jack had a little hope. Duncan’s temper was like any of his moods, it could change direction like a breeze off the sea. It could blow into another sail.

  ‘But I only remind you, Father, to spare you effort. Why tire yourself and remove yourself any longer from your guests’ company and the fine ale you’ve just ordered up?’ As Duncan licked suddenly parched lips, Craster added, ‘Let me do the beating.’

  All hope fled in Jack, taken by the sudden smile that came to his uncle’s face.

  ‘I did promise you his chastisement, did I not, boy?’

  ‘You did, Father.’

  ‘And since it is a special day for the Absolutes, a day of change as well as celebration,’ Duncan’s voice had again become measured, ‘and since you will be an Absolute in all ways soon enough, you should begin to take on some of that honourable name’s responsibilities.’ He hiccoughed loudly. ‘To … to have charge of the … distaff side of the family.’

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