A Little Game Of Chess

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic
Volume I of "Friday Night Games." A girl called Robin and her adventures.

Submitted: July 14, 2016

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Submitted: July 14, 2016

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chapter one

 

The thin, cheap curtains began to let in the first rays of morning sunlight, waking the always alert Robin Easting. Her ears had learned to accustom themselves to any morning noise; that day, it was the dull, uninteresting sound of glass breaking. Robin had lain awake some time the night before, and thus she knew that her father had been drinking. Apparently, as she found out as she heard the sharp noise, more than he should have. Then her eyes flew open. If her mother was hurt…

She had had many years of experience dodging objects hurled at her by her drunken father, and she was young and strong, but her mother was older than she, and besides, her mother was expecting a child soon.

The girl descended the steps nimbly and without a noise until she reached the very base, where she flattened herself against the chipped concrete wall of the hole which she called home. From there she could see and hear everything; to her horror, her father was beating her mother with the broken bottles strewn across the cold, stained floor.

Robin adored her mother, who had many times stepped between a shard of glass and her daughter. This was her chance to show her gratitude. Under no circumstances would she display cowardice.

Robin slowly reached up and drew the pin from her hair. It was plain steel, but it was the only thing of any value which she owned, for her mother had given it to her when she was a child——a form of self defence. For sixteen years she had kept it hidden in her hair——she had never had to use it. For all that time, she had neither let her hair down, nor had she ever cut it. Now, when she fingered the lethal point, she did not marvel at its immense length. All she did was focus on the pin’s target——and then, as she was about to send it on its way, she drew it back. A single lock of moist blonde hair fell over her father’s eyes as he threw her mother on the floor one last time and began to stride towards the stairs. This was her chance, her last chance. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. He looked so vulnerable, so human. And he had looked her straight in the eye. As she pulled her hair up and thrust the pin through, she wondered whether she was a coward.

She had always relished the thought of running away into the night, a bag slung across her breast, not a care in the world. But she had always been grounded again by the sound of her mother’s soft voice. Now she regretted her decision to stay for the sake of her mother; her father grabbed her by the scruff of her neck. And good god, did it pain!

He held the last intact bottle in his hand and moved it menacingly close to her face. Drunkenly, he muttered, “You know, you are even more beautiful than your mother, Robin.”

Robin spat in his face. “Yeah, you bastard, cos you scarred her.”

Her father stared at her in stunned rage for a moment, and then whispered, “Just look at those rosy cheeks… do they have too much blood in them, do you think? Would you like to share some of it?” He ran the edge of the bottle down the side of her face, and then, quick as lightning, smashed it on the floor. He picked up the largest and sharpest piece off the floor. “No, perhaps later. I’ll finish your mother off first.” With that, he flung the shard at her mother just as the good woman was pulling herself to her feet. With a shriek, the kindly mother fell again, never to rise again.

Robin’s horrified scream could be heard kilometres away.

 

***

 

The coffee didn’t have enough milk. That was Henry’s main concern as he trod groggily down the steps. The carpet upon which he walked was didn't need cleaning, and the walls along which his hands never ran were not smudged. Henry threw the door of the kitchen open.

“Who made this coffee?” he asked angrily. None of the maids, who had all fallen silent, responded or even gestured in the slightest. Henry became ever more furious, and at last, he flung the mug on the floor, where it shattered, saying, “Fine. Then all of you shall clean this up.” At this, a pale lady stepped forward, quivering. Henry motioned her to come nearer. Every other maid stared in pity until Henry delivered a decisive glare to all of them, and then they returned to their work with only a sympathetic shaking of heads.

“What’s your name?”

“Diane, sir.”

“Diane, is it? Well, Miss Diane, you better get the hell outta here.”

“Yes, sir.”

Henry turned and walked coolly out, but stopped at the base of the steps, for the doorbell had just buzzed.

The girl outside was only about sixteen, two years younger than him, and wore a plain black frock splattered with dirt. Henry looked her over with considerable distaste.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“A girl seeking employment, sir. Where is your father?” The girl spoke with her head held high and with a calm voice.

“I’m in charge here. Name?”

“Irrelevant.”

“Come in.”

The girl bobbed a curtsey. “My gratitude, sir.” Her quick blue eyes immediately took notice of a few things pertaining to the room.

First, it was nothing like the hovel from whence she had come. It was just so… clean. And there wasn't any blood or glass or any of those things which she was used to seeing. Then there was the help. The maid had opened the door the second they heard Henry and herself conversing. Their faces were so friendly and kindly; she did not trust them. Her eyes displayed wariness, but the rest of her was as collected as ever. And then there was the boy himself, Henry. He had hostile green eyes and slicked-back brown hair, and his suit was crisp and fresh. Too fresh. The girl was used to things and people that were shabby and covered in dirt and soot; she disliked Henry instantly.

“This way, Miss Irrelevant.”

The girl clenched her fists behind her dress, taking care that no one should see. She was not a “Miss”.

Henry led her into a gleaming parlour. He motioned towards one of the gilded chairs; the girl sat down.

“Where, pray, are your parents, miss?”

“Does it matter?”

“No.” Henry shifted in his chair and leant on his elbow, studying her intently.

The girl suddenly cleared her throat. “If I might ask, where are your’s?”

“Does it matter?”

The girl didn’t smile. “No.”

“Why don’t you smile, miss?”

“I’ve grown out of it.”

Henry raised his eyebrows but said nothing. He was bored and needed amusement. It seemed to him that this girl and her odd ways held great potential in that respect.

“You can have the job.”

“In my state? I wouldn’t have guessed.”

“Didn’t you want employment? Diane will give you her clothes.”

The maids were still silent as the girl joined them, until Henry harshly ordered them back to work.

The girl looked about the bustling kitchen and finally found a lady weeping in a corner whose name tag bore the word “Diane.”

“Hello, Diane,” she greeted the crying woman tentatively. Diane didn’t look up. “I’ll be needing your clothes.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you ‘yes’ me, honey. You can have the clothes, just don’t be so goddamn polite. Don’t be like the master.”

“He’s quite cultured for his age. Where’s his father?”

“You don’t know?” The maid looked up in surprize. “His father was a rich man before he turned to alcohol. Master’s been in a lot of debt since his father terminated his allowance.”

“So his father can’t support him? But he still lives like this?” The new girl gestured around at her rich surroundings.

“He’s proud. And his ego is bigger than his common sense.”

“One could tell.”

The maid got up after a stretch of silence and went into a small room. “Here, take the clothes,” she said as she came out again. The new girl, although very much like an adult, still had a child’s kindness in her. She shook her head.

“No, Diane. You’re going to stay. I’ll go talk to Master.”

The maid’s eyes widened in alarm. “No! You cannot approach him, sweetheart. Like I said, he’s proud.”

“Shut up.” The new girl was obviously fighting against her own civility. “I’ll go talk to him.”

“No!”

“I don’t give a damn how many times you say no. Now shut up.”

The girl flung the door open with a dramatic flair and then walked coolly into the parlour. Henry looked up immediately.

“What do you want?”

“Diane stays.”

He thought rapidly, and then said, “Of course. But only if you sit down and have a little… chat with me.”

“Fine. About what?” She sat.

“Nothing in specific. What is your name?”

“Like I said, does it matter?”

“For Diane it does.”

The girl considered this for a moment, and finally said, “My name is Robin Darte,” making up a last name. Henry smiled.

“Robin Darte. Good. Now, where are your parents?”

Robin stood abruptly. “Don’t ever mention my parents again!” Her eyes flashed with indignation, but Henry could detect an element of grief in them. He was taken aback, but he only nodded quietly. Robin sat down ashamedly with a single tear rolling down her cheek.

“My father,” she said in a broken, soft voice, “is an alcoholic. Last night, he had one drink too many. He murdered my mum this morning. He bloody murdered her, master. He bloody murdered her.” She looked up. “So I ran away and came here. I thought it would be an easy job. Easy money, you know. But I guess not. I’m leaving. Keep Diane in my place.”

Henry grabbed her hand as she got up. “No, stay.——Diane will stay too.——I am truly sorry about your mum.” Robin scoffed.

“You’re too proud to care,” she said.

“And you’re too mistrustful to think otherwise. Here, take this.” He offered her his handkerchief.

She accepted it and expressed her gratitude. “Years of being beaten with broken bottles tends to do that to people, you know.”

“And what of pride? What causes pride?”

“Pride is not caused by anything but indoctrination and foolishness.”

“Oh, yes?”

“Oh, yes.”

Henry congratulated himself inwardly. He had played his first pawn——artificial genuine curiosity——in the little chess game, and if this was its power, then what could the queen do?——But no. The queen would keep quiet until it was her turn.

To Robin, he asked, “Would you like some tea, Robin? You look  a bit flustered.”

Robin declined. “It would hardly be proper, sir, you being my employer and all.”

“Robin, who bothers about propriety? It is only tea, besides.”

Robin hesitated. “Oh, why not?” She followed him out of the parkour and into a smaller, brighter room, after which he pulled the door close.

Diane, who had been watching the two with considerable interest, shook her head in surprize. Master Henry never took any of his maids into the tearoom.

She whispered to herself, “Perhaps he fancies her? She is quite pretty.”

An elderly maid carrying a large stack of dishes stopped by her and asked, “What’s that, my dear?”

“Nothing,” Diane hastily replied. “Just thinking aloud.”

“Well, Robin,” Henry said as he and Robin sat down. “What sort of tea do you like?”

“Oh… any kind is alright with me. I haven’t really had many types before.”

“Earl Grey alright with you?”

“Yes.”

Henry opened the door a crack and called out to the maids before closing it again and turning to Robin.

“Do you dance?”

“No. I never learnt how.”

“Would you like me to teach you?”

“With all due respect, sir——”

“Call me Henry.”

“——with all due respect, Henry, a reputation——your reputation; I haven’t got one——must be upheld.”

“No one can see us.”

“It is what one does when no one is looking that really speaks about one’s character.”

“Ah! A righteous girl. You know, Robin, not many girls would refuse to dance with me. Why do you?”

“Because I have, in my mind, standards. It seems you do not.”

“Standards! Now that is a word I haven't heard in a long, long time.”

“One could guess.”

Henry stood and pulled her out of her chair. “I have a ball tomorrow evening. You need to know how to dance.”

“But, sir, I am your maid! I shall do those things such as carrying little platters of finger food, or washing the dishes, or cleaning up after everyone is gone——”

“Don’t be a fool, Robin. I wish for you to come.”

“Then let all the other maids attend as well.”

Henry paused. “But who shall carry the finger food? I'll tell you what——why don’t we disguise you? Curl your hair, give you a splendid gown——no one would recognise you.”

“It won't work.”

“It might.”

“No, it won't. And I shan't go without Diane and the others.”

“Could you please? Just tomorrow night. I promise they'll come next time.” Henry was putting on an excellent show of pleading, according to him. According to Robin, though, he was being more genuine than anyone she had ever known.

“Fine. Just this once. But I shan’t be taught to dance.”

Henry smiled very convincingly at her. “All right. Thank you.”

“May I skip the tea? I must get back to work.”

Henry considered this. The game could not be hurried; he needed to think every step through. A great move had already been made. He had played his first knight——persuasion. “Yes, yes, run along.”

Robin curtseyed in acquiescence and left. When the door was shut once more and Henry was alone, he murmured, “How easy it is to win this game! That girl is so innocent; she doesn't know what she's getting herself into.”

Robin dashed through the door of the kitchen and ran up to Diane.

“Diane! You can stay!” she cried breathlessly. Diane nodded and explained that she had heard.

“Well!” Robin mused aloud. “You maids have a tendency to eavesdrop, don’t you?”

Diane agreed sheepishly. “Yes, I guess we do.”

The elderly maid nudged Robin away from Diane and towards a stack of dirty dishes.

“Would you wash those for me, sweetheart? My arms are old and worn out.”

“Yes, of course,” Robin replied absently. She drifted towards the sink and began scrubbing the first plate.

Henry reclined on the tea-room sofa and soon fell into a doze.


 

chapter two

 

Robin took a full twenty minutes to finish washing the plates. The last one was fine china, and Diane entreated her to let her do it. As Diane began scrubbing, though, the sharp edge of the china cut her. She felt an awful searing pain course along the entire length of her arm, and she dropped the platter. She watched in horror as it fell and shattered on the floor. The noise was piercing and woke Henry.

He threw open the door and stared menacingly at each of the maids in turn. Diane quivered.

“Who made this mess?” he asked quietly.

Robin, trembling, instantly stepped forward, much to the other maids’ surprize. “I did, sir. My apologies. I shall set about cleaning it up immediately.” She curtseyed fearfully.

Henry’s countenance lost its frown.

“Ah! Robin, it was you? Come, follow me. You and I shall have a little talk. Diane, the rest of you, get rid of this mess.”

Robin took a tentative step in his direction; he pulled her the rest of the way. Henry walked briskly to the breakfast-parlour; Robin hurried to keep up. He closed the door and then turned so he could inspect her expression.

“You didn’t really break that china, did you?”

“No.”

“So you lied to me.”

“I’m afraid I did.”

“You deserve to be punished.”

“I do.”

Henry broke into a smile. “I have the perfect punishment in mind——I shall teach you to dance.”

“Oh, no, you won’t!”

“Yes, I will. Here,”——he picked up a light pink gown off the window seat——“wear this.” Robin stared incredulously at him.

“Sir——”

“And as for your hair——no, that can wait.”

“Sir!——”

“Yes, the hair is fine.”

Robin sighed reluctantly and gestured for Henry to leave. He could not be reasoned with. After a few minutes, she opened the door. Henry looked her over.

“Brilliant. Quite a bit prettier.” He took her hand. “Now we can dance. Left foot forwards, right foot forwards, twirl——that needs a lot of work——left foot back, right foot back, repeat…”

It is pointless to describe the scene in greater detail; it is only necessary to say that Robin was far more skilled by the end of a few hours——skilled enough to attend the ball, by Henry’s reckoning.

Robin sank down onto the kitchen chair, once again in her black frock. Diane sat down beside her.

“Robin, you shouldn’t have! He must have beat you; you’re so red.”

“No, he didn’t beat me.”

“What did he do, then? Did he fire you?”

“No. He talked to me.”

“Oh? What did he say?”

“Not much; he just reprimanded me a bit.” One of her duties was to preserve the master’s dignity; she could not tell Diane what he had done.

“Reprimanded? What does that mean?”

“You don’t know what reprimanded means?——Why, Diane, didn’t you get any education at all?”

Diane shook her head embarrassedly. “No, Robin. No one here has had any schooling. Have you?”

Robin was taken aback. “I thought I was the only one who never got any formal education. I did learn on my own sometimes, though. Often, I guess. Every day.”

“No; on the contrary, you are the most learned person on the estate, except, perhaps, for Master Henry.”

“Ah, yes… does Henry——Master Henry——intend to go to university?”

“Yes. Next month, we are all to leave and he is to go to Oxford.”

“Oh.” Robin thought about this for a second. “Oh.”

“Why?”

“Nothing, Diane. No reason.” Robin got up and dried the plates, taking great care not to let Diane handle them. She was feeling quite faint from dancing, and frankly, quite light-headedly happy. Happier than she had ever been in sixteen years.

At last, the dishes were dried, and the work was done for that morning. The maids crowded onto the narrow, winding staircase that led to a tower; Robin followed them. She had barely reached the fifth step, though, when a firm hand grasped her shoulder.

Robin sighed and muttered to herself, “Oh, dear. Not another of his talks.”

“Hello, Robin.”

She turned. “Does it take much effort to leave your maid alone?”

“No, not to leave a maid alone. But yes, it does to leave you alone.”

“Oh, is that so?”

“Yes.” He seemed to be impatient. “I thought you were smart enough to figure that out. Here, I want to show you something.” He led her to a grander staircase.

“I wouldn’t have guessed maids were allowed up there.”

“They aren’t. Robin, when you are near me, you are not a maid.”

Robin looked up at him confusedly. “If I am neither a maid nor a relation, what am I?”

Henry smiled. “A visitor.”

“Well, then, I thank you for your hospitality, but I have no further business here. I shall be on my way.” She broke away from him and attempted to find the door. Eventually, she stumbled outside.

Henry didn’t follow her immediately, but rather stayed and thought. She had used her first pawn——stubbornness.

He waited a while before setting off for the front garden; she wasn’t there. He visited the shaded walkway and still could not find her.

He mused to himself. “She could not have left altogether, or else she is far more resolute than I reckoned. I need her back, or I shall get terribly bored. Perhaps she is in the woods? She cannot be far…”

He hastened towards the foreboding forest, and called out to Robin often. “Miss Darte? Please come out. I am truly sorry; I shouldn’t have said that to you. I was foolish. Please come out! Miss Darte!”

Robin nimbly shinned up a tree as soon as she heard his voice. Her frock caught on a low branch, though, and a little piece tore off. She caught her breath and silently held onto a branch about three metres from the ground.

Henry paused at an oak tree and examined the piece of black fabric dangling before his eyes. “Miss Darte?” he called tentatively. He looked all around before casting a hasty glance upwards, where he saw Robin clinging to a limb.

“Miss Darte?” he asked in shock. “What the deuce are you doing up there?”

“Hiding from someone who obviously hired me for my appearance.”

“No, Miss Darte——it wasn’t that, truly it wasn’t.”

“Then why did you treat me differently?”

“Miss Darte, it was because you were different. You had a certain air of mystery about you. And, Miss Darte, I am bored. I need a mystery to solve.”

“Then, sir, that means you were planning to use me, does not it?”

“Yes, Miss Darte, it does——but not in that way.”

“Oh? Then in what way?”

“I wished to play a game with you.”

“Without my consent?”

“If I had requested permission, the game would be, effectively, naught.”

“I see.” Robin did not see at all.

Henry grew impatient. “Miss Darte, must I come up and get you?” Robin didn’t answer but merely jumped deftly to the ground.

Once she smoothed out the wrinkles in her dress, she turned to Henry and said, “You forget that I could leave anytime, even right now, and it would not be within your powers to stop me.”

Henry looked at her piercingly. “I also know, Miss Darte, that you won’t do that.” His clear green eyes met her sharp blue ones. That was her only weakness——eye contact. It had stopped her from saving her mother, and now it was about to stop her from saving herself. She shifted uneasily and tried to look away, but he held her gaze more firmly than anyone had ever done before.

“No,” she said at last. “I suppose I won’t. I’ll play your game, whatever it is.”

A small smile flitted across Henry’s face. Robin did not realise that she had been, and was, playing the game already. At that stage, he had used ‘persuasion’ again, this time to kill her ‘stubbornness.’

“Sir,” she said after a moment of silent thought, “is it true that you are to leave for Oxford next month?”

His face registered instant worry. “Yes; yes, it is. My mother insisted.”

Robin was curious. “Your mother——why do not you live with her?”

“That does not concern you.”

Robin, ashamed, answered, “No, you are right. I have no business asking about that sort of thing. I apologise.”

“But you were honest when I enquired about your parents, so I shall be honest now. My mother is living with an alcoholic. As soon as she realised the nature of my father’s drinking, she placed me in this mansion, only asking me to attend university when I was eighteen. I did not refuse, being at the time confused about why I was being sent away. You see, I was five years old when this all happened.”

Here Robin interrupted. “How very strange! I was three years old when my father first beat me whilst intoxicated.——That’s all I remember from before I turned six.——That would mean both our fathers resorted to alcohol at the same time. How strange.”

Henry quickly asked her the only thing he remembered from his childhood. “Miss Darte, tell me something about the ocean.”

Robin looked up at him in surprize. “The ocean… well, it’s blue, and it’s very big——”

“Come on, Miss Darte, think!”

“——and scores of children swim in it——”

“Think!”

A memory flashed across Robin’s mind for a split second. “——and sometimes it sits inside a pretty little shell.”

“Yes! Yes, Miss Darte!” But he could not jump to conclusions. “Miss Darte, why would it be in a shell?”

It was suddenly clear in Robin’s mind. “Well, it wouldn’t, not unless a little boy or girl asks it to!——How odd, I could swear I was asked the exact same——”

She had not time to complete her sentence, for Henry had thrown his arms around her in a tight embrace.

“It is you, Robin! It is you! And your last name is not ‘Darte’, it’s ‘Easting’, now isn’t it?”

Robin was taken aback. “Henry!——dear lord, what are you doing?——Why, yes, it is… how did you know that?”

Henry grinned cheerily. “Well, Robin, I knew that because mine is too!”

Robin was silent in shock for a agonisingly drawn-out second, and then she burst into tears. “Henry! Dearest, dearest Henry! I had almost forgotten you after all these years!”

“Come, let us walk back to the house. Please, tell me everything you did these past——oh, thirteen years. And how is Mum?”

Robin’s face immediately darkened. “Henry, you don’t remember what I told you about my parents?”

Henry stopped abruptly. “No. No. You’re not Robin Easting, Miss Darte. Stop pretending.”

“Whatever makes you think that?” Robin was hurt and bewildered.

“I——Miss Darte, my mother is not dead. She cannot be.”

“Henry——”

“Get out of my sight, you damned impostor!”

“Henry!——”

“Go!”


© Copyright 2017 Anna C. P. Moore. All rights reserved.

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