Beginning the Great Game
Robert Fitzgerald sat gazing out the window of his second-floor room at the Oxford and Cambridge University Club on Pall Mall. He was playing a game of sorts, hoping he might see someone.
He was looking for a girl.
In the afternoon’s growing twilight, pedestrians hurried along the walk in front of the Club. Fall had arrived, and the evenings could take a sudden turn from crisp to cold with no warning. He could make out the figures as they passed: children running ahead of tired mothers, dawdling young men loping along with no destination in mind, schoolgirls clutching bags of books.
He wasn’t looking for just any girl. He had only ever seen her, he realized with a mirthless smile, in the uniform of His Majesty’s nurses from the Great War that had so recently passed into history. He rubbed absently at a sprinkling of scars along his cheekbone…the Great War would not ever pass into mere memory for him. The distant forms on the street hurrying past his eyes, he mused that nor would the Nurse move quickly into memory. He could not abide the suggestion that she would become an abstraction, less than a reminiscence but a rote story he told himself that served in place of the living, breathing presence he felt within him. For mere stories fade, lose their power; become bleached of their essence like watercolors carelessly left to ruin in the rain. As happened often without his consciously willing it, his hand touched his chest, the fingers pressing until they made out the shape of a small cross under his shirt.
He would know her form. She was barely five feet, with thick black hair that reached to her shoulders, those lovely locks restrained beneath her nurse’s hat. Stray strands would playfully curl around her ears, as if to remind one that this most accomplished and steady nurse was still a comely young woman. Her eyes were a brilliant blue against a faintly olive complexion. He would not be able to see such details from this distance; still, he would know her by the determined set of her shoulders, and perhaps, if he were to allow himself an ungentlemanly admission, by the sway and contour of her hips.
Her name was Charlotte Braninov, and Robert Fitzgerald loved her.
Her name was Charlotte Braninov, and she was dead.
Yet Robert looked for her as the light faded from the world.
His man, Orlando, let himself into the small room. Orlando, a small, gnomish fellow, had been Robert’s batman at Base Hospital No. 12 during the war. A batman was a combination of servant, butler, valet, and, in Orlando’s case, occasional bodyguard. It was a position of both honor and responsibility that baffled American officers when they had first encountered it. Fitzgerald had taken ill with the typhus near the end of the War, and Orlando had remained in His Majesty’s service to aid Lieutenant Fitzgerald’s recovery in London. The small man’s countenance fell to see Fitzgerald again by the window. Putting his best face on the moment, Orlando said, “The last of your baggage has been delivered to the docks, sir.”
“Thank you, Orlando,” Robert said, not turning from the window.
“May I bring you something from the kitchen, sir?”
“No, old boy, thank you.”
“I’ll retire then, sir. Let me take your suit…I’ll tidy it up for tomorrow.”
Now Robert did turn from the window. “Mr. Pyle, there is no need. You should go home now.”
“Home?” The man echoed the word as if it were some foreign term whose meaning he did not entirely grasp.
Fitzgerald was holding out his hand. “Yes, home. Your old Da must want to see you again.” Robert knew little about his servant, but had heard of his old Da and a tale or two about the sheep they had raised.
Orlando leaned closer and perceived that Robert was offering him a cheque. The small man drew himself up with great dignity. “Am I to be released from your service, sir?”
Abashed, Fitzgerald laid the check upon the sill. This was not developing has he had imagined. “No, of course not, but you must…you must know I am cut off.”
Of course Orlando knew. He had been there when the elder Lord Fitzgerald had stormed in, passions inflamed at the unspeakable idea that his elder son had dared to defy his father’s wishes. There followed a veritable typhoon of attack and accusation, punctuated with liberal cries of “This will not do, sir, this will not do!” Orlando, who would never utter such a thought aloud, had mused behind his implacable aspect that perhaps Master Robert, when younger, had been cowed by such ill-treatment. If so, Master Robert was no longer as young, for three years in the trenches can age a man in ways beyond the conception of a blustering Lord safe in London. Master Robert had roared back at his father, with the end result that he had been disinherited, cut off from all society of his father. No great loss, that, Orlando had allowed to himself.
Knowing all this, Orlando said to the younger Lord Fitzgerald, “Yes, sir. What of it?”
“I’m a lord without lands or rents. I have a title, and nothing else. I’m as useless as one of Bismarck’s counts.”
“I would not say that, sir.” Orlando had seen Master Robert pursue a fear-maddened nurse out into a night lit by falling bombs and bring her back to safety. Such a man would never be useless, not to those who knew the value of a man.
“But I cannot pay you, Orlando. I am near to penniless and it would not be proper of me to abuse your good nature by continuing a pretense of employing you.”
Orlando looked round the room. Even though Lord Robert had been here nearly a week, the quarters felt empty, unlived-in, as if Fitzgerald were merely a pale spectre inhabiting the world of the living out of rote habit. The loss of Miss Charlotte had struck Robert hard, as it had Orlando. The small man tugged upon his jacket to ensure that he was presentable, then strode to the sill and took up the cheque. It was made out to him, and for the staggering sum of 1000 pounds.
“Sir, my people have been freemen since the time of King Richard.” He smiled thinly, as if embarrassed to have to say this, and in that steely curve of the lips Robert saw a faint echo of the hard-muscled Picts of legend, feared warriors who painted themselves blue and fought naked, bringing terror to even the hardened Roman legionnaires and those who would enslave the Britons. Orlando crisply folded the cheque once, twice, then tore it into several neat pieces before dropping them back onto the sill. “We give our service to whom we will, and we will not be compelled. I have given my service…my word and my honor to you, sir.”
Robert realized he was gaping at the man. Charlotte had told him of Orlando’s deceptive strength, even going so far as to call him her Dwarven Warrior, praising the unassuming servant for his heroic efforts when Base Hospital No. 12 had been ruthlessly bombed by the Bosche in violation of all the rules of war and civilization. He made one more attempt to dissuade the man. “But…I cannot afford to employ you.”
“Then we’ll both be penniless, sir. I doubt His Majesty would allow two of his servants to starve playing the Great Game.”
“Indeed.” There it was, out in the open. The Great Game upon which Robert was to embark, in service to the needs of His Majesty’s government, somewhere far from England. “Well, then, it will be an early start, I suspect.”
“As do I, sir.”
They nodded at one another, and took their leave.
Charlotte Braninov, traumatized by loss and her service as a frontline nurse, returns to war-torn Russia to find her family. Captured by the Red Army, she exchanges one hell for another. Her still-loyal Lieutenant, Robert Fitzgerald, believing the woman he loves is dead, struggles to recover from the ravages of combat and typhus. In a desperate bid to rediscover himself, he commits to serve his country as a pawn in distant Shanghai. Forging their destinies in a world reeling after The Great War, Charlotte and Robert will learn anew the horror and the beauty the hands of men can create when they descend into the flames. (440 pages, 161,000 words. Published November 15, 2015)