[Literary passage] Chess metaphors in The Cardinal

Let’s delight in Henry Morton Robinson’s deft use of chess figures of speech towards the end of this scene. The man was a master at simile and metaphor.

Setup: Young Father Stephen Fermoyle has fallen in disgrace with the irascible Cardinal Glennon, who banished him to a remote, penniless parish as assistant to the ailing Father Halley. In time, Stephen discovers Halley and Glennon were once close friends, but became estranged after Halley, though a saintly man, proved a disaster at parish finances. Now Halley is gravely ill. Unwilling to ask Glennon for help, Stephen secretly sells a precious ring of his in order to pay the doctor. But Glennon learns of the sale, and demands to know its reason.

Chess board and pieces

Glennon picked up the ring, regarded it with a connoisseur’s curiosity. “How did you come by this?”

“It was a gift from a friend, Captain Gaetano Orselli of the Italian Line.”

“You seem to have quite a way with these Italians,” said Glennon dryly. “Why did you sell it?”

“For private reasons, Your Eminence.”

Hedging answers always stirred up Glennon’s wrath. “Between a curate and his archdiocesan superior, there can be no ‘private reasons,’ as you call them, Father Fermoyle. I demand that you tell me why you disposed of this ring.”

Very well, thought Stephen. You’re asking for it. “I sold the ring to pay the medical expenses of Father Edward Halley.”

“Medical what?” The Cardinal’s tone was that of an incredulous patrician hearing that an old club member was in straits. “Is Father Halley ill?”

“Dying, Your Eminence.”

“Ned Halley dying?” Terror and remorse struggled for possession of the Cardinal’s throat. For a moment he was speechless; then indignation had its habitual way. “Why wasn’t I told of this earlier, Father Fermoyle?”

Through the Cardinal’s broken defenses, Stephen saw his opening. A pawn sacrifice that might lead to an ultimate check. Shrewdly he invited attack: “I presumed that Your Eminence would be uninterested.”

Lawrence Glennon bought the gambit. “Presumed?” He bounced the heel of his hand off the table. “Your presumption passes belief, Father Fermoyle. How could I be uninterested in Ned Halley? He is one of my senior pastors, a fellow seminarian, a boyhood …”

Lawrence Glennon started to say “friend.” Then in mid-sentence he realized that Stephen had lured him into a fool’s mate, and that the frosty blue eyes of this extraordinary young curate were now gazing at him as a humorous chess master might gaze at a tyro.

Photo: Stella Becker

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Would you like to refresh your knowledge of the difference between similes and metaphors? You can quickly do that here.

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