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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 leaped 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 forever 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 naught, 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 graying hair spilled out beneath the heavily powdered and ancient periwig, whose curls had unraveled to reveal patches of pink and flaring skin. He had a habit of rubbing the coarse horsehair 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 succor 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?"
"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?" 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?"
"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 honorable name's responsibilities." He hiccupped loudly.
"To...to have charge of the...distaff side of the family."
"It would be my honor to fulfill my duty."
Father and son smiled at each other. Then Duncan handed the switches across, formally, as if he were passing over a symbol of his office. "Punish him well, boy. Give him a most excellent thrashing."
"Oh, I will, Father."
Without another glance at Jack, Duncan left the cellar, the same step that had given him trouble on the way down catching him again. Spitting curses, he stumbled beyond reach of their ears.
The slamming of the door above still echoed as Craster turned. "Well, cousin." Smiling, he sat down on a barrel and, in the accent he used with everyone but his father, said, "You'm fitchered and no mistake."
Jack tried to think of something to say, some defiance to cast back, but his speech was stoppered by the sight of each switch being lifted, bent back, laid down in a row on the barrel head in a gradation of suppleness and strength. Jack found he was gauging each one's merits almost as keenly as his cousin.
When the fifth had been placed between numbers two and three, a choice Jack found himself disputing to himself, Craster stood, yawned, and began to take off his jacket. "I don't blame 'ee, Jack, wanting to go see the fun. They's kicking up such a dido at Penzance, they says, anyone with a uniform is in for a duckin', at the least. Teach 'em Pope's arse-kissers, eh?" Craster sighed, attaching the coat to a hook on the door, reaching for the knot of his stock. "I'd be over to there myself, 'cepting I didn't want to miss the celebration here." The stock was pulled from round the neck, laid over the top of the jacket. Even in the pale lamplight Jack could see the excitement in the other boy's eyes. "You've heard? A keenly lode, they say, biggest in these Hundreds for fifty year, more. The Absolute family fortune made, tis said. Well, part of the family." He smiled and reached for one of the switches.
"Which part?" Now his cousin looked ready, Jack needed to delay him as long as possible.
"Mine, boy." Craster bent to bring his gaze level with Jack's. "Don't they say, ‘The Devil shits luck for some but when it comes to 'ee, he's hard bound.'" He dropped his voice as if confiding. "Know what's going off up there?" He raised his eyes to the ceiling above through which the sound of a drinking song came faintly. "The curate's there, along with a few of Father's other friends. His cloth don't make him no less drunk than t'others. Maybe it makes him more so. But he's come to share in the family good fortune, for Father will get the living over to Morvah out of mortgage. He'll have to give it to someone. Someone who's done us a favor. Someone who has filled in a marriage registry form." The voice had now dropped to a whisper, their heads so close Craster's lips were almost on Jack's ears. "Someone who has sworn he married my poor ma and Sir Duncan Absolute before I was born."
He straightened, swished the stick through the air with a delighted laugh. "Sure enough, Jack, you'll be the only bastard left on Absolute lands. Till I start gettin' a few of my own, course!"
Jack winced, but not from the sight of the switch still cutting the air. The pain of a beating, however severe, would pass, its scars mend. But what gave him the little status he had was that both Absolute boys were bastards; neither could crow over the other, though Duncan was the elder and held the baronetcy of Absolute Hall, while Jack's father, James, was the younger, the wastrel soldier with a mistress and a life of sin in London.
The thought of these people-doxy mother, debauched father-whom he had seen only twice in his life, the last time so long ago-three years-that he could barely remember them, though he could recall the wren-egg green of his mother's frock, pressed to his face, the day they departed Zennor again without him. The idea of them now, leaving him as the sole bearer of shame, suddenly brought water to his eyes. He turned away, not swiftly enough.
"What's this?" Craster grabbed at Jack's shoulder, pulling him around, lowering himself to eye level. "Cryin'? Cryin', is it? Thought I'd never see the day when Jack Absolute deigned to cry." He pushed himself off with a hoot of laughter. "Well, have to take 'vantage o' that." He stepped back. "Tell 'ee what I'll do, Jack," he continued, that strange quaver in his voice still making it go up and down. "Seein' as good luck has come for us, I'll pass some onto you. You show us your arse and I'll beat only 'un. Break the third stick and it's over. Don't, and I'll use all five on 'ee."
Jack looked up, gauging the offer. Three sticks wasn't a bad one; even Craster'd tire after two. But when he saw the triumph in his cousin's eyes, when he heard the echo of his own sole bastardy proclaimed, he knew he couldn't do it. He'd make no pact with the Devil. He had to beat him.
"I tell 'ee what I'll do, Craster Absolute. I'll fight 'ee, here and now."
The stick paused, lowered. "Now why should I do that, when I already have 'ee tied like a hog for the knife?"
They had known each other all their lives. They had fought, one way or another, a thousand times. With luck, and space to move in, he could outmaneuver the bigger boy, for he spent more time with Lutie, learning the wrassler's ways. Yet in a cramped cellar, where he'd have to stand toe to toe and punch, his bulky cousin would have the edge. And that gave Jack his little hope-for he knew that Craster knew that too.
He could see him weighing it now, and pressed home. "I pinned 'ee last week with a flying mare and made 'ee shout for terms. Can do it again too, even in a cellar."
Craster's eyes flicked around, measuring the room. His voice was not all that had altered in recent months. He was a foot taller than Jack now and many pounds heavier.
Jack waited and watched and, when his cousin took the bait, kept his smile to himself.
"Done. If you vow that when I beat 'ee, you'll tell all how I did it." There'd been an audience for Craster's humiliation the week before, Treve and some other of the Zennor boys.
"Done." Jack said it a little too quickly and he saw Craster hesitate as he bent to Jack's knots.
He straightened again. "But just so you can't try any of your cheatin' ways..." He formed a fist, the middle knuckle sticking out, and punched Jack hard in the center of his upper right arm. As Jack twisted away, he punched him with equal force on the left. While he cried out, his cousin bent again to the knots. "Evens, eh, Jack?" The fisherman's knots proving too testing for his impatient fingers, he drew a small knife from a sheath at his side. As the slashed bonds fell and Jack rubbed life back into his wrists, Craster ran his foot back and forth over the floor. Stepping behind the mark created, he adopted the stance of the prizefighter, left fist forward, right back, weight on his rear foot.
"Come on then, you little bastard," he smirked. "Toe the line."
Jack's arms burned. The blows had been well placed and he wondered desperately if he would be able to lift them at all. For lifting them was a vital part of his plan. He needn't get them as high as Craster's; but he'd need them up all the same.
He stretched them out to the side, groaned, heard his cousin's gratified laugh. Then he began to stand slowly, making to stagger slightly to the side while he was still low down to the floor. This brought him near to the cask that held the befouled wine, close to the chipped pint pot that caught the leaks.
With movement as swift as his previous had been slow, Jack snatched the glass from the floor and dashed the contents into Craster's face.
The wine-turned-vinegar had its instant effect. Craster shrieked and spun away, heels of hands pressed into his eye sockets. As Jack ran past him, his cousin made a grab for his legs. Jack twisted from the grasp, kicked back, catching Craster on the shoulder. Another howl pursued Jack as he took the stairs two at a time.
The cellar door was a small one set into the mansion's main staircase. Accompanied by the shrieking from below, now resolutely high-pitched, Jack burst out into the entrance hall...and straight into the voluminous folds of a dress.
"Lawks!" yelled Morwenna, tumbling backward, landing with a thump, Jack on top, the empty beer jugs launched from her hands. One dropped beside her, bounced, didn't break; the other skittered and slid backward to thump and smash into the half-open door of the parlor. The force of it knocked that entranceway open and Jack, spluttering up from the skirt, looked through the gap. Half a dozen men, with red faces, yawning jaws and sagging jowls, looked back; and the reddest one there, once the glazed eyes had focused, began to bellow, "The whidden! Young whelp bastard! Where's 'ee to? And where's my Craster?"
Behind him, Jack heard his cousin's slipping footsteps on the cellar stair, his voice alternating pain and fury. Before him, red-faced men were struggling up, Duncan throwing back his chair, using the table to rise. Jack's weakened arms did not seem able to push him out of the engulfing folds of the dress and his toes scrabbled for purchase on the polished floor.
"Jack!" hissed Morwenna. "Kitchen."
He turned to it. The door there was ajar and past the flames of the range, the steaming pots, the chickens on their spits, Jack saw something more enticing than the food his stomach craved. He saw freedom; for the back door of the Hall was open and beyond the yard were the fields he knew so well.
He heaved himself to his knees. His uncle, still roaring, was shoving aside a bulky man in the cloth of a cleric who squawked and fell against the table. Behind, Craster had just gained the top of the cellar stair. Pushing himself off the floor, Jack began to run, his legs weak at first, gaining strength with every step. By the time he was halfway across the kitchen's flagstones, he was flying.
The roar built behind him, a discordant sing-song of question and response, Duncan's bass harmonizing poorly with Craster's erratic alto. It faded as Jack rushed through the door and into the yard, then built again as he sprinted across its cobbles. He was vaulting over the gate when his uncle's voice came clear again.
"My hunter! Whip out my hounds!"
If Jack had discovered before that fear could weaken the legs, he learned now that it could also do the reverse. He raced the three hundred yards up the pitted Hall lane to where it intersected with the road. To the right led to Zennor; to the left to St. Ives. Houses, with places perhaps to hide, but both a fair way and if he could move fast on a roadway, horses and dogs could move faster. He could turn part back on himself and sprint for the cliffs, to the path down to his beach. But since there was just that one way onto and off it, he'd be trapped down there.
As he hesitated, the yelping of the pack, the clatter of hooves on cobbles, carried clearly. He had to decide! Ahead were fields, bisected by streams and little stands of bush, crisscrossed by walls of piled stone, all Absolute land. Even if there was a slim hope the horses would tire from the jumping, he knew the dogs would not. They would not hurt him, for he knew them all by name, but they'd lick him to death when they caught him, and hold him with their pressing bodies.
He scrambled over the first of the walls. This field was long, full four hundred paces across, sloping sharply down. He took it at speed. The stream at the bottom was swollen by the early autumn rains and he had to run up it a little way to find a point where he could leap, his foot plunging into mud on the far bank. As he drew it out, the sucking sound was topped by a shout.
"There! There's the whelp! Get 'un!"
Glancing back for the briefest of moments, he saw Craster peering over the wall. His uncle's grooms rushed to the gate, flung it open. Dog, horse, and man charged through it.
The field beyond was the reverse slope of the valley and steep. Jack's breath came hard as he struggled up it but he was pushed on by the "Halloos," the hounds giving tongue, the snort of horses. Someone had brought a bugle and played it now off-key. Craster probably, his musicianship as unsettled as his voice. The memory of his cousin from the cellar, the legacy of his dead arms, the thought of his gloating spurred Jack as he neared the summit of the hill.
I may be a bastard, he thought, but I'm a bastard that can run!
He gained the summit. At his feet three fields lay like a spread fan. One was filled by a small copse; hard for riders, yet riders could dismount and the hounds would pen him in. The second was full of after-grass, not yet gathered, swept up in drams, long piles that curled like snakes from wall to wall. About half Jack's height, he could burrow into them, remain hidden for a while. And he could see rabbits hopping between the rows, sight and sniff to distract any dog. He nearly ran into one...until he glanced into the third and largest field to his right. This looked different from when he'd last been there and it took him a moment to realize why. When he did, he immediately began sprinting toward it.
This third field was pitted with new shafts. This was where they'd found the keenly lode of tin, which would make the family rich again. These were test shafts and they'd be deep. Horses and dogs could not go down 'em and men would little want to. Jack could, would, for he'd played down such holes all his life despite the prohibitions. He'd get in a deep one and worry about getting out of it later.
His dally had let the pursuit gain. Jack glanced back. Hounds flowed over the wall behind him and, among them, hunters jumped, five at least, Duncan and Craster prominent at their head. The look back cost him. He stepped into a divot, one of thousands in that chopped-up ground, tumbled, rolled, was up and sprinting in a moment. But the fall had been seen and the yelling behind him doubled in volume.
He was not going to make it! They were closing fast and the nearest mine head was still a hundred paces off. Suddenly, he jerked to a stop. The land was cleft before him, a jagged rent in the earth where someone had begun to dig, then abandoned the effort. It had been a while before as the grass had grown over it again. If he hadn't been looking he'd have plunged down. The rent only went for six feet in length and a dozen across, maybe as deep. He ran its edge, straightening to head for the shaft again. Maybe there was a chance still, maybe if he ran flat out, maybe he could beat them there. He knew it was a faint hope; but he'd not surrender until all his hope was gone. There was no mercy to be expected from his relations. He was a fox now; and Craster would be blooded.
The first dog ran by him, nipped playfully at his hand-Demelza, a favorite and fastest of bitches. The others would not be far behind. She leaped before him, blocked him, happy with the game. He could only slow, fifty yards from his hope. It was over. Then he heard different sounds. An animal shriek of terror, followed by a human one.
"Christ!" screamed Duncan Absolute, and the scream was still in the air as Jack turned to see his uncle and his mount arrive at the concealed gash in the ground. The stallion must have seen it late; its forelegs were scrabbling in the grass, gouging trails as it sought for purchase. The suddenness of its attempt to halt had shot its rider forward. Duncan's feet were out of the stirrups, his hands still clutching the reins but under his stomach now, his body halfway along the horse's neck. The animal's eyes were wide and white, its ears at the alert. They proved no obstacle to the man as he slid over them, down the long nose. His feet jerked, his hands came free, reached, found nothing but air as the animal's rear legs, scrabbling furiously, countered the slide for a brief moment, while the man's momentum propelled him ever faster and finally into a fall.
Duncan Absolute tumbled screaming into the earth. One moment he was there, the next vanished. The horse he'd left, lightened in its load, looked as if it had won its fight against the drop until its rear legs slipped from under it on the mud at the hole's edge. Its rear came down hard, its front legs whipped out. With a shriek almost indistinguishable from its master's, it followed him into the pit.
The wail that came from below was swiftly cut off and replaced by the hideous screeching of an animal in agony.
Jack, frozen by the sight for those extended seconds, now reacted to the sound. He ran back, through the pack of hounds that surrounded him. The other horsemen were struggling with their mounts that were whirling, heads jerking, huge-eyed. One turned and bolted, the rider unable to halt him as he galloped straight back up the field, clearing the stone wall there in a jump. As it disappeared, another shape came over the stones. It was Lutie Tregonning, who ran down toward them, followed by half a dozen hands from the farm.
As Jack reached the lip of earth, so his cousin managed to regain control of his mount. Immediately he hurled himself off it, staggered the few yards to the hole, dropped to his knees. The two boys stared down.
Into horror. The pit was not that deep but it was narrow and there was nowhere for the stallion to move. Besides, Jack could tell in the instant that at least one of the beast's legs was broken. Above ground, a horse would go still when that happened but its situation would not let it here. Not when it was lying on a human body.
Back and forth the beast rolled, Duncan Absolute rolling beneath it.
"Father! Father!" Craster cried, his hands reaching down toward the crumpled figure. Then they went up in vain effort to block out the terrible animal screams.
Lutie Tregonning ran up, looked down, cursed, then turned back to a horseman, one of Duncan's cronies, only now bringing his mount under control. "Your gun. Quick, man."
The man fumbled the pistol from his saddle holster. Checking that the pan was primed, Lutie lowered himself into the pit. "Hoke, hoke, hoke," he called to the stallion, as he would to cattle in the fields. But the animal was lost, in its agony, in terror. With a grimace, Lutie pulled the hammer to full cock, placed the muzzle right between the beast's eyes, fired. With a last jerk, the stallion reared up, then collapsed, its limbs twitching.
The sudden silence was somehow as awful as the noise that had preceded it. The acrid tang of powder filled Jack's nostrils while his sight was half-obscured by smoke. When he could see clearly again, he watched Lutie reach beyond the dead horse's neck to the man's. Fingers pressed there for a long moment; then he looked up at the curate and shook his head.
"The Lord have mercy," said the man of God.
Jack found his legs would no longer hold him and he sank down like his cousin, directly opposite him on the pit's edge. Lutie's son, Treve, Jack's sometime playmate, now ran up, with several of the servants from the Hall. "Treve," said his father in a voice suddenly calm, "take the boys over to that shaft. There's a small derrick there, do 'ee see it? Dismantle it and fetch it here."
Craster, pushing himself up, nearly slipped into the pit, staggered back. "That's right, Lutie. Father's fine. Needs a doctor, is all. Hoist that beast off 'un. He'll be fine."
Lutie looked away, glanced back to the curate, who stepped up to the boy, dropped a hand onto his shoulder. "I'm afraid...Craster...I'm sad to tell 'ee..."
"No!" Craster shrugged the hand off, stepped away, eyes wide and glaring. "Father's alive. He's hurt, but he'll be proper when we get Thunderer off 'un." He looked down into the pit in desperate appeal. "Tell 'em, Lutie. Tell 'em."
Lutie's voice was soft but clear. "'Ee's dead, Craster. I be sorry. But that's God's truth. Gone to a finer place, 'ee has."
"No!" Craster's eyes were now ranging all round, settling on faces that bore it for a moment, then turned away. All except one. When his cousin's gaze reached him, Jack held it.
"I'm sorry. So sorry."
He meant it as condolence, nothing more. But Craster took it as something else.
"'Ee done it," he yelled, a quavering hand raised to point. "Jack killed 'un."
Lutie had heaved himself from the pit. He went to Craster now. "No, boy. T'was accident, nothing more."
Craster shoved aside the hand that reached out to calm. "No! He killed my father. Led 'un to this field deliberate, led 'un to this pit to die." The quavering voice rose to a shriek. "Seize 'un! I'll swear a warrant and you'll be witnesses, every one." As no one moved, he screamed, "If Father's dead, then I'm Master of Absolute Hall and all your livings come from me. I'll turn each out of their cottage and your families can starve this winter. Seize 'un! Get a gun and hold 'un." When no one moved still, Craster turned and ran to where the horses were held. There was a second pistol in a saddle holster there.
Lutie turned to Jack, gazing at him across the pit. "Will 'ee come, boy?" he said softly. "All know that such a charge won't hold. You'll only be kept awhile. And..." here he colored, "'ee could be our new master."
One of the other men, hearing Lutie's words, began to step around the pit. "Ess, boy," he said, "you'll only bide a time."
Craster had fumbled the gun out of the saddle. "We'll hold him for the magistrate. Take him. Take him to the cellar."
Until then, Jack had been almost too numb to think. Tired too, and scared, and wanted nothing more than to be back with Morwenna in the kitchen eating soup and curling up before the fire. And he didn't want to cause any trouble for his friends, Lutie and Treve and the rest. But as soon as his cousin named the place where they must take him, he knew he couldn't go. He'd bided in that cellar once and had just escaped a terrible thrashing. He knew that what faced him there now would be far worse.
So Jack ran. The pistol roared behind him but he did not think the shot came near. He soon crested the hill and was down the other side, out of sight. Not sound though. His cousin's strange, cracked piping came clear to him.
"You'll hang for this, Jack Absolute. By Christ, I'll see you hang!"