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Authors: Rita Boucher

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Miss Gabriel's Gambit

BOOK: Miss Gabriel's Gambit
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MISS GABRIEL’S GAMBIT

 

Rita Boucher

 

Chapter 1

 

An unnatural silence pervaded the dark paneled room at White’s. An occasional whisper, a stifled cough and the passing clatter of carriage wheels were the only sounds as all eyes focused on the bespectacled man seated before the table. David Rutherford pulled the crumpled envelope from his pocket and reverently broke the seal.

After scanning the contents, he reached across the table to the chessboard, selecting the lacquered black queen. He held it suspended for a moment, acutely aware of the expectant faces of the small audience of chess aficionados. Then, with a theatrical flourish, David placed it on the diagonal opposing his king. A collective sigh rippled across the room.

“Check,” he declared solemnly.

The silence was complete once again as David inspected the board, but it was obvious to himself and every member present that there was no escape possible. Shaking his head bemusedly, David rose, his chair scraping the floor. Like an awakening sleeper, his hazel eyes scanned the room until they lit on the familiar face of Ivan Petrov.

“There is no salvation,” David declared, pulling at his rumpled cravat.

“Have I not been saying so,” Petrov said, his slow, Russian-accented English emphasizing the mournful tones of his declaration. “Is been apparent for nearly a year now; you were in serious jeopardy. Your opponent is closing trap at last.”

“Still, one does hang on to hope,” David agreed with a sigh, pushing a shock of unruly, dark hair from his brow. “Nonetheless, Ivan, you are correct. I must confess myself surprised that it continued quite this long.”

“Is over,” Petrov said, shaking his head sadly, his hollow cheeks brushing against absurdly high shirt points.

“Done then. Check and mate,” David admitted, toppling the white king on its side in the middle of the board in acknowledgement of his defeat. “The King is dead!”

David’s solemn declaration resonated through the room, stirring old Lord Garth from his doze in a comfortably plump leather chair. He woke with a start as the deep bass voice announced the king’s demise.

“‘Farmer’ George gone?” Garth sniffed, unable to credit his ears. “What do they say about the King, young man?” he asked, poking Ivan with a cane.

 Petrov looked down his prominent nose at the old man. “Is all over, milord,” the Russian repeated. “The game is up.”

With amazing agility, Garth lifted his considerable bulk from the chair and shuffled off to share the news with his cronies.

Amidst the murmurs of sympathy, David shrugged himself into his loose fitting jacket. For a moment, he stood before the table staring thoughtfully at the array upon the chessboard as if somehow he had mistaken the configuration. But no, it was absolutely as Petrov had said. The outcome had been apparent now for a long time. Still, it was difficult to believe that the game was truly done.

Petrov echoed his thoughts. “Is amazing, David. How many years has it been since you are losing chess game? Never in all mine years with you in India.”

David smiled as he thought back to the last time he had been trounced on the chess board. “I was sixteen,” he recalled, “My father had brought me to Philador.”

“Francois-Andre Philador?” Petrov said, his eyes lighting in amazement. “Who was writing
L’analyze du jeu des Échecs
?”

“The same, the
Analysis of the Game of Chess
was his masterwork, but he made much of his income playing here in England,” David recalled, pulling a small notebook from one of the jacket’s many pockets. “When I first met him, poor Philador was desperately trying to return to his family in France after the revolution. Robespierre had proscribed him from the country. The man was suffering from gout and extremely glad of the money that my father paid for my tuition, I daresay.” He turned the to the last page and carried it to a small escritoire in the corner. With a sigh, he inked in the notation of black’s final move, completing the record of the game. “I played with all the impetuosity of youth, feinting and sacrificing. Despite his condition, Philador was ever the master. He bided his time, let me batter myself against his defenses. Then he proceeded to tear me to shreds. I never did defeat him, but I learned a great deal from those times.”

“Is difficult to be picturing you playing recklessly, David,” Petrov said. “In all these years, I have always been regarding you as model of caution. The many games that we have been playing in India, you have never moved from impulse.”

“I have seventeen additional years in my dish now, Ivan,” David said, sanding the ink dry. “Still, I wonder if a little panache might not have served me better this time than caution. You may examine the record of the game once more if you like. It is all here and you will see that my opponent made audacity into a virtue.”

As the group of chess enthusiasts gathered round Ivan and the notebook to reprise the game move by move, David withdrew to the window and stared out upon the rain drenched street. Defeat was a strange sensation, in truth, one that he had certainly become unaccustomed to. But surely, this melancholy feeling was not entirely due solely to the loss of a game. Outside, umbrellas moved through the twilight downpour like so many darkened moons. The chill of England’s spring permeating his very bones, David found himself longing for the warmth and sunlight he had found during his years in India, the vivid colors of silken saris and flowers. By contrast, his native land seemed cold, an empty place.

And now, with the conclusion of this chess game, one more tie to the past was severed. It was startling to realize that this game by post had been the single constant in his life these past few years. After his father’s death there had been no other personal connections to England. The family manor at Donhill had deteriorated into a mouldering pile of rubble, tenanted by vermin and the occasional poacher. The defeat of his king was far more than the end of a decade-long challenge, it was the closing of a chapter in his life.

“There he is!” Lord Garth declared, entering the room once more followed by a decidedly skeptical George Brummel and Hugo, Lord Highslip, one of the Beau’s lesser disciples. Garth pointed a fat finger at Ivan. “’Twas he who said it.”

“Ah, Petrov is it?” Beau Brummel asked, lifting his quizzing glass disdainfully.

Petrov nodded nervously, inordinately pleased that the English arbiter of fashion even remembered his name.

“Garth tells us you declared the King dead,” Brummel said.

“Yes, b... b... but,” Petrov stuttered, his English deserting him.

“Ye see?” Garth declared triumphantly. “I told ye, Brummel. Prinny is King now.”

“I would not go offering to help choose Prinny’s coronation garb yet, George,” David interposed, returning from his place at the window. “I am afraid Lord Garth is somewhat confused. The king that he refers to is there.” He pointed to the board. “I have just concluded a rather hard-fought chess game.”

“And who was foolish enough to play against you, David?” Brummel asked, rolling his eyes at the blustering Garth. “I trust you won, as usual?”

“Actually, it was my king that went down,” David admitted with a rueful grin.

“Indeed!” Brummel said, surveying the arrangement of pieces in surprise. “I would have wagered that no man on earth could surmount you on the chess board. Yet, you appear to have been trapped quite handily.”

“But the King!” Garth exclaimed once more, annoyed at being ignored.

“Chess, Lord Garth,” David said loudly, picking up his fallen piece to illustrate. “My king was defeated.”

“Oh,” Garth said. “No funeral or coronation then?”

“None,” David said, keeping his face solemn with effort. “It was but a game. My apologies for disturbing your rest, milord.”

“A serious matter, the death of kings,” Lord Garth muttered, his jowls shaking in annoyance as he returned to his chair. “Young people make light of everything these days.”

“Old fool,” Brummel said, as he seated himself at the table. “Still, I am rather glad that Garth roused me from my place at the bow window, for now that I hear the actual truth, I find the doddering lord’s pronouncement about the King’s death far more likely than the reality of you losing a game. How did this debacle occur?”

“It is a long story, gentlemen,” David said.

“Ten years long,” Ivan added.

“Perhaps I ought to sit then, for a ten year story,” Brummel declared. “Shall we share a drink? For surely such momentous events deserve an appropriate libation.”

A footman scurried off discreetly and soon David, Brummel, Petrov and Highslip were all were seated round the table, glasses and brandy before them.

“To the death of kings,” Brummel proposed, raising his glass.

“Treasonous pups,” Lord Garth muttered from his corner, closing his eyes.

“And now, whose hand am I to shake,” Brummel said. “Petrov?”

“Not I,” the Russian said, stroking his chin. “More likely to be winning at fisticuffs with Mendoza than to be beating David at his game.”

“Then where is your opponent?” Highslip asked, pouring himself another glass of brandy.

“Here,” David said, pulling a crumpled envelope from his pocket. “It came in this morning’s mail. Queen takes pawn to fatally check the king.”

“A game by post?” Brummel asked.

David nodded. “It began in India ten years ago, during my soldiering days. My father put me in touch with an old friend of his who was also pawn mad and we have been playing move by move via correspondence the past decade.”

“Ten years! Longest game I ever heard of,” Highslip declared.

“Indeed, it might have been a bit shorter had I not been required to return to England unexpectedly, to attend to my late uncle’s affairs. This
letter containing the final move took some time to catch up to me. I spent three months waiting for the
coup de gr
â
ce
.”

“How tedious,” Highslip said, before Brummel struck him silent with a jaundiced stare.


I
find it most intriguing,” Brummel said. “The wait between moves must have been interminable.”

“Yes,” David admitted, his tanned face alight with animation as he recalled those days. “But for me the wait was part of the excitement. Oftentimes, I would find myself pondering the board in my head, wondering what his next move might be and as the game developed the moves grew bolder, intriguing ...” David trailed off, flushing. “I am sorry, gentlemen. I tend to forget that chess is not a passion for most people as it is for me,” he said, filling his empty glass once more.

“Better than many passions I can think of,” Brummel allowed. “And far simpler than others. Women for instance.”

“Is truth,” Petrov said, pausing to down his liquor in a single swallow. “In chess, moves are set, rules determined, but women?” He shrugged his shoulders. “They are making rules as they go and changing them mid-game.”

“They are inherently erratic,” David said, his voice rasping from the effects of the brandy. “The fair sex is incapable of logic. Emotion rules the day. That is why I believe that women are unsuited to games like chess where reason is all.”

“I am knowing some decent female players,” Petrov said, his tongue loosening with the liquor. “Mine sister plays excellent game. Always loses, but putting up damned good fight.”

“Ah, but women do have some inherent qualities which might be assets in chess,” David owned, watching the liquor swirl in the glass before he downed the amber fire. He knew he was drinking far more than he ought, yet the warm, mellow feeling seemed to fill some hollow within. “Their natural disposition to deceit and treachery could make them formidable would that it were coupled with superior male logic.”

“Heaven forfend,” Brummel declared, laughingly. “I vow, the very thought of such an unnatural female makes me shudder.

Ivan frowned. “Mine sister is treasure, a jewel,” he said in defensive tones.

 “I am sure your sister is a delightful chit,” Brummel hastened to say, knowing the young Russian’s hot temper. “I meant no offense. But what David says is true. Women like your sister can grasp the game, but only on a more rudimentary level. I have yet to meet a woman who can play chess with the skill of any reasonably expert man, let alone defeat someone with anything akin to David’s skills at the board.”

“Who would wish to meet so perverse a creature?” Lord Highslip muttered. “No doubt she would be one of those Friday-faced bluestockings.”

“You need not fear any such confrontation, Highslip, for no such woman exists,” David asserted, his tongue feeling heavy. “Still, I must admit, the idea is intriguing. A female who could best me at the chessboard ... ”

“But as you are saying, no such female Goliath is existing, mine friend,” Petrov said, raising his glass. “To the fair sex, those incomprehensible creatures,” he declared. “Both being delight and demon of our sad existence.” He downed the remains of his glass and blinked owl-like at the company. “Speaking of demons, mine cousin Dorothea asks why she is never seeing you at Almack’s, David?”

“I shall tell the Countess Lieven that you style her so, Petrov,” Brummel said, a wicked gleam in his eye.

BOOK: Miss Gabriel's Gambit
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