From the billiard halls and brothels of London to a clash of Empires on the Plains of Abraham, Jack life is forever altered by the tragedies of that night. Through duels, battles, frantic escapes and a brutal winter spent in a cave in Canada, Jack learns the truth of his father’s words… as well as a dozen things to do with a dead bear.
A year on, the schoolboy will vanish, a man appear. But first he must learn to kill. To come of age, Jack Absolute must be blooded.
I just loved this story. I may have even loved it more than the sequel, ‘Jack Absolute’ and the reason for it is Young Jack and what he lived through at such a young age.
Once more the author pulls me in Jack’s life, making me a part of this fascinating and very personal journey. So much a part of it that I honestly wanted to reread the book as soon as I was done, just to make sure that in all my excitement of this story, I didn’t miss anything.
He’s done everything a young man did in his time: drinking, gambling and whoring. He’s fearless and that gets him in hot water more times than even he can count or remember, but once he ends up in North America, the reckless boy is poised to become a man.
*Book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.
… … From Knaves Acre, it was but a short walk to her door. He took Compton Street, as he had had enough of alleys for the while. Turning left onto Thrift Street, in a dozen strides, he stood before his destination—the House of Guen, the goldsmith’s trade proclaimed in the gilt scales and model furnace that swung above the entrance.
Four years I have been coming here, Jack thought. Four, since his father decided his inevitable military career required French. But only in the last year did he enter this house with anything other than a schoolboy’s reluctance. Only in the last year did he bound through the door. And the stimulus was not a language at which, admittedly, he was showing much improvement. Unless it was a different kind of language…la langue d’amour!
The bell rang as he pushed into the shop. It was empty.
“Bonjour,” he called and was answered from the room beyond.
“Monsieur?” It was not Clothilde’s father who emerged, but his apprentice, Claude. He came out wiping his hands on a polishing cloth. On seeing Jack, he threw it down. “Ah, c’est toi, Jacques. Mon brave, comment vas-tu aujourd’hui?”
“Très bien, merci, Claude. Et vous?”
“Bien. Il fait beau, non?”
Jack eyed the apprentice, hoping this exchange of formalities would be an end to conversation. He was late and had little enough time as it was. He wished to spend all that little with his beloved. And this Claude…what was it about him? Only a few years older than Jack, he had recently joined his uncle in London and for the same reasons that had brought the family there ten years before: the persecution that had been driving the Huguenots from their homeland for decades now. While he had every sympathy with a man fleeing the foul despotism of the Bourbon to breathe freedom’s pure air in England, the fellow was still…well, French. Jack was not prejudiced in the least, of course, his closest friend was Marks the Jew, and he had lessons in pugilism from a Negro at Angelo’s school and never grumbled at the pummeling he took. But the French were different, his country at war with them again…yet this Claude showed not the slightest gratitude for the sanctuary provided him while maintaining an air of familiarity—“tu” indeed!—that was not quite decent. Jack would mix with any man, peasant or poet, that was the English way. By God, he considered the King to be not much more than one of his elected representatives! But he expected a man who was, essentially, a servant in his tutor’s house, to have a little more respect. Not only to him; he had also observed his attentions to Clothilde. They were familiar to the brink of flirtation. And his face, even in the context of Frenchiness, being thus rather prettified, annoyed Jack.
Fortunately, he was spared any more of the man’s insolence.
“C’est Monsieur Absolute?” a voice trilled from above and Jack’s knees gave at the sound.
“Oui, cousine. Il est arrivé.”
“Dis-lui à monter.”
That was unusual! They always had their class on this lower floor in a little room at the back, close to where Monsieur Guen and Claude labored. Delighted, Jack made for the stairs, Claude giving way a little reluctantly. He paused by him.
“Monsieur Guen, il est…he is out on business?”
Better and better. “Gone for how long?” The other man’s reply was a shrug.
“Then…” Jack dug into a waistcoat pocket, pulled out a silver sixpence. “See we are not disturbed. Tricky conjugations to learn today, eh? Vous comprenez?”
The man did not take the coin immediately and when he did he seemed reluctant. “Oui, monsieur, je comprends…très bien,” he said at last, nodded his head—it was not a bow—and stepped from the path. Jack took the three flights at a clip.
She was by the window, silhouetted against the sun, but were the day stormy Jack could not have been more dazzled. It was only two weeks since he had last seen her yet she seemed to have aged, in the most delightful way, continuing in that steady progression from the day the year before that Jack remembered so well. He’d arrived then in an ill humor, dragged from a game of tennis at his mother’s insistence. He’d been told that the daughter of the house would conduct his lesson that day and not the father, information that had deepened his temper, for his dealings with her had been that of any boy of near sixteen to a girl two years younger—brief and rather rude. But any temper had died when she’d walked in—for Clothilde Guen had started to become a woman. He was hers from that moment on.
And yet if it was her beauty that caught him, it was the rest of her that held him, kept him coming back ever more enthusiastically to her side. The girl who could still take a childish pleasure in such simple presents as Jack could afford to bring her was also the woman who was learning, as Jack was learning, more adult delights: the pleasure of lips pressed to a palm, the colors that came to a face with a whispered compliment; while behind that face was a mind alive with ideas. Clothilde was as well read as Jack, better in many ways, for his schooling dwelt only on writers long dead. It was Clothilde who introduced him to the contemporaries whose ranks he aspired to join; half their lessons were spent translating Thomas Gray or William Collins into French, study and sentiment combining to make hours pass in moments.
And her transformation had continued. She stood now, golden hair up and held with tortoiseshell combs. Her dress was waves of ivory cloth, sweeping down to pink and delicate shoes, a glimpse of whitest stocking. Her almost almond-shaped face now held hints of color that came not only from her youth, but also from some external means, delicately applied, while her thick eyebrows had been tamed, teased, and darkened. These were raised against him now; together with the hand that lifted as he advanced, they prevented any contact.
“You are late, again. Toujours, toujours en retard.” The delicate lips—a trace of color there too, Jack saw—drew into a pout before she carried on in that mix of language they used before the lessons proper began. “You do not care that you spend so little time here. Your lesson—pft! Ça ne fait rien. Moi, aussi!” She turned back to the window.
“Non, Clottie, je suis desolé. J’ètais…très…très…busy. For you. Pour toi. Regarde!” She faced him again as he reached into his satchel. “I have three gifts—”
“Trois cadeaux,” she corrected, coming away from the window, eyebrows still raised.
“Oui, trois cadeaux. Le premier…”
She squealed when she saw the Pot and Pineapple’s distinctive paper cone. “Les fruits au sucre?”
“Naturellement.” He handed them over, content to watch her revert to the girl she still could be, especially as the woman he’d kept waiting now retreated. She offered him the cone, smiling up at him, those reddened lips now smeared in crystallized white, but he declined. It was more fun watching her unobserved. When she’d finished, she took a handkerchief and delicately patted at her mouth before raising her pale-blue eyes again. “Et le deuxième…?”
The second present, procured at the curiosities shop, required a touch of the theater.
“Ferme les yeux,” he ordered and went to the mantelshelf, moving aside the little china shepherds and milkmaids there, reaching again into his satchel. Just before he opened the Hessian sack though, he glanced back. “Ferme!” he bellowed, in mock anger, and with a little giggle she complied.
When he had put the object in position, he went back to her, behind her, laying his hands across her eyes. She gasped, and her own hands rose to cover his. Behind her like this, he could feel the heat of her body, rising from the ivory folds, could just glimpse within them the rounding that was another sign of her encroaching womanhood. He knew he shouldn’t, mustn’t linger on that view, on those thoughts. So he opened his hands.
Her reaction was everything he’d hoped it would be, for she shrieked, staggered back against him, he had to hold her to him as she fought both to turn away from and regard the horror on her shelf.
“Ah, Dieu! Dieu! C’est horrible! Qu’ est-ce que c’est?”
Her voice was frightened, her stare undeniably fascinated. She had often confessed a love of monsters. Now he had brought her one of her own. “C’est…c’est…” He had no words for this in her language. “It’s a merman. Caught in the Sea of Japan. Half man, half fish. Un…er…demi-poisson? See.” He tried to lead her forward but she resisted so he went to the creature. “It has the head of a man but look at its teeth…” he put his fingers into the gaping mouth and then cried out, jerking his fingers back at her scream. “Ah, like daggers,” he continued, smiling, sucking at his forefinger. “It has the arms of a man too and fingers, regarde…” He bent one back. “But look at the tail—pure fish.”
She came forward a step then. “How…why is it so…dry?”
“Mummified.” He tapped the tail and it gave out a hollow note. “Probably hundreds of years old. Maybe thousands.”
She came close now, reached up a finger to touch it. “It’s terrible,” she said, fascinated. “And how…how do you think he…they…is there a mermaid too?”
“Where there is one, there has to be more. I think this poor little lad has been wrenched away from his love.” He watched her eyes widen—delectable sight!—as she stroked the scaly tail.
“And that…that is my third present to you.”
He led her to the chaise, made her sit. Then he reached within his bag again and pulled out the paper he’d labored so hard on that morning. He took up position just beside the creature, adopted the prescribed pose for tragedy as gleaned from the works of Le Brun, and began.
Ode to a Merman
In distant seas I sought my love
Through reeds below and shoals above
And there, by man, was t’aen.
With my last breath, Clothilde, I cried,
For thee I searched, for thee I died
For thy sweet love was slain.
Jack glanced at his audience. Tears had filled her beauteous eyes; a hand was raised to her lips. He continued.
So here I sit, sans love, sans life
And dream of you, my half-fish wife
Who swims on all alone.
Yet mantelshelf contains me not
In dreams I seek our blessed plot
In reedy beds I moan.
He had turned side on to her, staring as if through fathoms of water to a heaven denied far above, a hand raised before him as if he would soar from those depths. He held the pose, waited for the sound of her tears falling, as they must.
A snort. Poor lass, he thought, so overcome that she releases so indelicate a sound. He turned to her.
“Fishwife?” she said, her lower lip thrust out, her brow distorted in a frown. “You compare me to a fishwife?”
“What?” Jack turned, lowering the paper. “No, no, not ‘fish-wife.’ It is ‘half-fish…wife’! The hyphen, see where it is?”
He showed her the paper and she squinted down at it. “Ah, je comprends. Je suis ‘the mermaid,’ la Petite Fille de la Mer. Comme lui, half fish. Un moitié poisson.”
Her frown clung as she scanned the sheet. “I think the terms might be better…en français.”
Of course! Everything always sounded better in French! Surely, it was fairly clear. He didn’t mind someone analyzing his endeavors, indeed he always welcomed criticism, but surely she could have shown the emotion first and saved the commentary for later?
“Clothilde,” he said sadly, “do you not like the poem I wrote for you?”
“Ah, non, Jacques. Je l’adore. I love it. It’s so…so…” She studied the paper for inspiration.
He didn’t think he could bear another comment. And there were other things that needed attention. “And does the poet not deserve a fee?”
She looked up then, all pretend innocence. “What fee?”
He lowered himself beside her, took her hand. They had been in this very position two weeks before. He had kissed each of her fingers then. He had something more ambitious in mind now. “This,” he said, and leaned forward.
“Jacques!” She turned her face but did not pull away. Not far enough, anyway. His lips reached her cheek, touched her.
“Jacques,” she repeated but in a different tone and turned her face back. “We mustn’t. My father—”
“Gone out,” he said hoarsely, “and Claude has silver to warn us of his return.”
“Claude…” she said, her voice concerned, but he could not let another man’s name rest on her lips. So he kissed them, his hand behind her back so that he could help her resist her initial impulse to pull away. It worked, for she tensed, then relaxed and they stayed joined for a delicious age. Her lips were as sweet as their promise, as sweet as they had been in a thousand dreams. He was sure that had nothing to do with the crystals of sugar that clung to them.
He could, would have stayed like that for weeks, content only with that. Clothilde, though, had begun to lean further and further back so that to maintain contact he had to lean forward. They reached the balance point and toppled over it, she falling, him on top. Suddenly he was pressed to her at more points than just lips and he realized that she had indeed grown into a woman.
“Clothilde,” he said, huskily.
And then came the sound of boots on the stairs, coming up fast. Jack was across the room to the mantelshelf in a moment. Clothilde rushed to the window, trying to puff out a skirt that had been somewhat flattened. They reached their respective positions just as the door burst open.
“Monsieur Absolute!” Clothilde’s father stood in the doorway. Though of smallish stature, he was broad in the shoulder, with hands surprisingly large for a man who did such delicate work in gold. These were clenching and unclenching now as he looked from his daughter to Jack. “I did not think you were coming today, Monsieur Absolute, you were so late. That is why I was not here to greet you.” He entered the room slowly, looking around as if he expected someone else to be lurking there. Behind him on the landing stood Claude.
Jack glared at the apprentice for a moment, then turned his attention back to the goldsmith. “Yes, I am sorry, sir, I had…business in the town that delayed me.”
“Business?” Her father had reached her at the window and Clothilde was not doing well under his gaze. “Ça va, ma petite?” he said, then continued, turning to Jack, “Do you not think my daughter looks a little fevered, sir?”
“Can’t say I noticed, Monsieur Guen. But I am fevered myself. Been having the Devil’s own time with some conjugations.”
“Indeed? Is my child not teaching you correctly?”
“Au contraire, monsieur. She is…most agreeable.”
It was a word Jack would have had back. He was sure there was something similar in French that he meant to say. That was the problem with this bantering in two languages at once!
Monsieur Guen raised a hand to his daughter’s brow. “Hot indeed. I fear for her, monsieur.”
“Papa, I am quite well,” Clothilde protested.
Her father ignored her. “Would you mind if we terminated the lesson for today to let her rest?”
“Oh no, Papa, why?”
Jack struggled to veil his disappointment. He had thought of little but Clothilde since waking and now to have only these brief moments with her? But the goldsmith looked immovable.
He swallowed. “As you wish, monsieur.”
“Same time next week then. But downstairs, hein? Where I will make sure I can keep an eye on your…conjugations, yes?”
Jack collected his satchel from near the fireplace, his hat and stick. Straightening, he winked once at the merman, then turned.
Clothilde’s father had the poem in his hand. “Fishwife?” he inquired.
As his mother said, these days every man styled himself a critic. It was best to ignore them. “Monsieur. Mademoiselle.” He bowed to each of them, then proceeded to the door, where a smirking Claude stepped aside. Jack gave him another glare. There was no doubt that the fellow had gone to fetch his master back, despite the sixpence he had retained. There was nothing that Jack could do about that now. But he’d pay him for it one day, nonetheless.
Gaining the street, plunged immediately into the hurly-burly, Jack leaned in the doorway and took stock. Disappointment still held him. But then the second of his morning reveries returned and he remembered what his satchel, lightened by the removal of the merman, yet contained.
“Chair!” he called out and immediately two fellows stopped beside him. It was not a long walk but the streets were crowded and the cobbles made slick by a small shower. Besides, he wished to conserve his stamina. He suspected he would need it.
Climbing in, he called out his destination. “Golden Square.”