IX The Moat at the East Gate
ACHILLES: What happens if you then find a picture
inside the picture which you have already entered…?
TORTOISE: Just what you would expect: you wind up
inside that picture-in-a-picture.
Douglas R. Hofstadter
“That really was a bit over the top, my dear.” Cesar was winding his spaghetti round his fork. “Can you imagine it? A worthy citizen happens to stop at a traffic light, at the wheel of his car, which just happens to be blue, when a pretty young woman transformed into a basilisk appears, quite without warning, and tries to shoot him.” He turned to Munoz, as if seeking the support of a voice of reason. “It’s enough to give anyone a nasty turn.”
Munoz stopped playing with the bail of bread he was rolling about on the tablecloth, but he didn’t look up.
“She didn’t actually get that far. I mean, she didn’t shoot him,” he said in a calm, low voice. “The car drove off first.”
“Of course it did.” Cesar reached for his glass of rose wine. “The light had changed to green.”
Julia dropped her knife and fork on her barely touched plate of lasagne, making a noise that earned her a pained look from Cesar over the top of his wine glass.
“Listen, stupid. The car was already parked there before the light turned red, when the street was empty… Right opposite the gallery.”
“There are hundreds of cars like that.” Cesar put his glass gently down on the table, dabbed at his lips and composed a sweet smile before adding, in a voice lowered to a sibylline whisper, “It might well have been one of your virtuous friend Menchu’s admirers. Some heavily muscled would-be pimp, hoping to oust Max.”
Julia felt a profound sense of irritation. At moments of crisis Cesar always slid into his vicious viper mode, aggressively slanderous. But she didn’t want to give way to her ill humour by arguing with him, least of all in front of Munoz.
“It might also,” she replied, feigning patience after mentally counting to ten, “have been someone who, on seeing me come out of the gallery, decided to make himself scarce.”
“It seems very unlikely to me, my dear. Really it does.”
“You probably would have thought it unlikely that Alvaro would turn up with his neck broken, but he did.”
Cesar pursed his lips as if he found the allusion an unfortunate one, at the same time indicating Julia’s plate.
“Your lasagne is getting cold.”
“I don’t give a damn about the lasagne. I want to know what you think. And I want the truth.”
Cesar looked at Munoz, but the latter, utterly inscrutable, was still kneading his ball of bread. Cesar rested his wrists symmetrically on either side of his plate, and stared at the vase containing two carnations, one white, one red, that adorned the centre of the tablecloth.
“Maybe you’re right.” He arched his eyebrows as if the sincerity demanded of him and the affection he felt for Julia were waging a hard-fought battle. “Is that what you wanted to hear? Well, there you are; I’ve said it.” His blue eyes looked at her calmly, tenderly, stripped of the sardonic mask they’d worn before. “I must admit that the car’s being there does worry me.”
Julia threw him a furious look.
“May I know then why you’ve spent the last half-hour playing the fool?” She rapped impatiently on the table with her knuckles. “No, don’t tell me. I know already. Daddy didn’t want his little girl to worry, right? I’d be far better off with my head buried in the sand like an ostrich. Or like Menchu.”
“You won’t solve anything by hurling yourself on people who just happen to look suspicious. Besides, if your fears are justified, it might even be dangerous. Dangerous for you, I mean.”
“I had your pistol.”
“I hope I don’t come to regret giving you that derringer. This isn’t a game, you know. In real life, the baddies have pistols too. And then play chess.”
As if Munoz were doing a stereotyped impression of himself, the word “chess” seemed to breach his apparent apathy.
“After all,” he murmured to no one in particular, “chess is essentially a combination of hostile impulses.”
Cesar and Julia looked at him in surprise. What he’d just said had nothing to do with the conversation. Munoz was staring into space, as if he’d not quite returned from some long journey to remote places.
“My dear friend,” said Cesar, somewhat peeved by the interruption “far be it from me to doubt the blazing truth of your words, but we’d be most grateful if you could be more explicit.”
Munoz continued rolling the ball of bread round and round in his fingers. Today he was wearing an old-fashioned blue jacket and a dark green tie, but the ends of his shirt collar, crumpled and none too clean, curled upwards as usual.
“I don’t know what to say.” He rubbed his chin with the back of his fingers. “I’ve spent the past few days going over and over it all.” He hesitated for a moment, as if searching for the right words. “Thinking about our opponent.”
“As has Julia, I imagine. As have I. We’ve all been thinking about the wretch.”
“It’s not the same thing. Calling him a ‘wretch’ presupposes a subjective judgment… That won’t help us at all, and it could even divert our attention from what is really important. I try to think about him through the only perspective we have at the moment: his chess moves. I mean…” He passed a finger over the misted surface of his wine glass, from which he had drunk nothing, as if the gesture had made him lose the thread of his brief speech. “The style of play reflects the personality of the player. I think I’ve said that to you before.”
Julia leaned towards him, interested.
“You mean that you’ve spent the past few days seriously studying the murderer’s personality?” Do you think you know him better now?“
The vague smile appeared, fleetingly, on Munoz’s lips. But Julia saw that he was deeply serious. He was never ironic.
“There are many different types of player.” His eyes were looking at something in the distance, a familiar world beyond the walls of the restaurant. “Apart from style of play, each player has his own peculiarities, characteristics that distinguish him from other players: Steinitz used to hum Wagner while he played; Morphy never looked at his opponent until the final moment of the game… Others mutter in Latin or in some invented language. It’s a way of dispelling tension, of keeping alert. A player might do it before or after moving a piece. Almost everyone does something.”
“Do you?” asked Julia.
Munoz hesitated, embarrassed.
“I suppose I do.”
“And what’s your peculiarity as a player?”
Munoz looked at his fingers, still kneading the ball of bread.
“We’re off to Penjamo, one j no aitches.”
“We’re off to Penjamo, one j no aitches?”
“And what does ‘’We’re off to Penjamo, one j no aitches‘ mean?”
“It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just something I say under my breath, or else think, whenever I make an important move, just before I actually pick up the chess piece.”
“But that’s completely irrational.”
“I know. But however irrational your gestures or idiosyncrasies are, they reflect your way of playing. They tell you about the character of your opponent too. When it comes to analysing a style or a player, any scrap of information is useful. Petrosian, for example, was a very defensive player, with a great instinct for danger. He would spend the whole game preparing defences against possible attacks, before his opponents had even thought up such attacks.”
“He was probably paranoid,” said Julia.
“You see how easy it is? The way someone plays might reveal egotism, aggression, megalomania. Just look at the case of Steinitz. When he was sixty, he was convinced he was in direct communication with God and that he could beat Him, even if he gave away a pawn and let Him play White.”
“And our invisible player?” asked Cesar, who was listening attentively, his glass halfway to his lips.
“He’s good,” replied Munoz without hesitation, “and good players are often complicated people. A chess master develops a special intuitive feel for the right move and a sense of danger about the wrong move. It’s a sort of instinct that you can’t explain in words. When he looks at the chessboard he doesn’t see something static; he sees a field crisscrossed by a multitude of magnetic forces, including the forces he himself contains.” He looked at the ball of bread on the tablecloth for some seconds before moving it carefully to one side, as if it were a tiny pawn on an imaginary board. “He’s aggressive and he enjoys taking risks. For example, the fact that he didn’t use his queen to protect the king. The brilliant use of the black pawn and then the black knight to keep up the pressure on the white king, leaving the tantalising possibility of an exchange of queens. I mean that this man…”
“Or woman,” put in Julia.
Munoz looked at her uncertainly.
“I don’t know about that. There are women who play chess well, but not many. In this case, the moves made by our opponent, male or female, show a certain cruelty and, I would say, an almost sadistic curiosity. Like a cat playing with a mouse.”
“So, summing up,” Julia said, ticking the points off on her fingers, “our opponent is very probably a man and far less probably a woman, someone with plenty of self-confidence, aggressive and cruel by nature and a kind of sadistic voyeur. Is that right?”
“Yes, I think so. And he enjoys danger. That much is obvious from his rejection of the classic approach whereby Black is always relegated to a defensive role. What’s more he has a good intuitive sense of what his opponent’s moves might be. He’s able to put himself in someone else’s shoes.”
Cesar puckered his lips, gave a silent whistle of admiration and looked at Munoz with renewed respect. The latter now had a distant air, as if his thoughts had again drifted far away.
“What are you thinking about?” asked Julia.
Munoz took a while to answer.
“Nothing special. On a chessboard, the battle isn’t between two schools of chess, but between two philosophies, between two world-views.”
“White and Black, isn’t that it?” Cesar said, as if he were reciting lines from an old poem. “Good and evil, heaven and hell, and all those other delightful antitheses.”
Munoz shrugged. Julia looked at his broad forehead and at the dark shadows under his eyes. Burning in those weary eyes was the little light that so fascinated her and she wondered how long it would be before it flickered out again, as it had on other occasions. When that light was there, she felt a genuine desire to delve into his inner life, to know the taciturn man sitting opposite her.
“And what school do you belong to?”
He seemed surprised by the question. His hand moved towards his wine glass but stopped halfway and lay motionless on the tablecloth. His glass had remained untouched since the beginning of the meal.
“I don’t think I belong to any school,” he replied quietly. He gave the impression that talking about himself represented an intolerable violation of his sense of modesty. “I suppose I’m one of those who sees chess as a form of therapy. Sometimes I wonder what people like you, people who don’t play chess, do to escape from depression and madness. As I told you once before, there are people who play to win, like Alekhine, Lasker and Kasparov, like nearly all the grand masters. Like our invisible player, I suppose. Others, like Steinitz and Przepiorka, concentrate on demonstrating their theories and making brilliant moves.”
“And you?” asked Julia.
“Me? I’m neither aggressive nor a risk-taker.”
“Is that why you never win?”
“Inside, I believe that I can win, that if I decided to win, I wouldn’t lose a single game. But I’m my own worst enemy.” He touched the end of his nose, tilting his head slightly to one side. “I read something once: man was not born to solve the problem of the world, merely to discover where the problem lies. Perhaps that’s why I don’t attempt to solve anything. I immerse myself in the game for the game’s sake and sometimes when I look as if I were studying the board, I’m actually daydreaming. I’m pondering different moves, with different pieces, or I go six, seven or more moves ahead of the move my opponent is considering.”
“Chess in its purest state,” said Cesar, who seemed genuinely, albeit reluctantly, impressed.
“I don’t know about that,” Munoz said. “But the same thing happens to many other people I know. The games can last for hours, during which time, family, problems, work, all get left behind, pushed to one side. That’s common to everyone. What happens is that while some see it as a battle they have to win, others, like myself, see it as an arena rich in fantasy and spatial combinations, where victory and defeat are meaningless words.”
“But before, when you were talking to us about a battle between two philosophies, you were talking about the murderer, about our mystery player,” said Julia. “This time it seems that you are interested in winning. Is that right?”
Munoz’s gaze again drifted off to some indeterminate point in space.
“I suppose it is. Yes, this time I do want to win.”
“Instinct. I’m a chess player, a good one. Someone is trying to provoke me, and that forces me to pay close attention to the moves he makes. The truth is, I have no choice.”
Cesar smiled mockingly, lighting one of his special gold-filter cigarettes.
“Sing, O Muse,” he recited, in a tone of festive parody, “of the fury of our grieving Munoz, who, at last, has resolved to leave his tent. Our friend is finally going to war. Until now he has acted only as an outside observer, so I’m pleased at last to see him swear allegiance to the flag. A hero malgre lui, but a hero for all that. It’s just a shame,” a shadow crossed his smooth, pale brow, “that it’s such a devilishly subtle war.”
Munoz looked at Cesar with interest.
“It’s odd you should say that.”
“Because chess is, in fact, a substitute for war and for something else as well. I mean for patricide.” He looked at them uncertainly, as if asking them not to take his words too seriously. “Chess is all about getting the king into check, you see. It’s about killing the father. I would say that chess has more to do with the art of murder than it does with the art of war.”
An icy silence chilled the air around the table. Cesar was looking at Munoz’s now sealed lips, screwing up his eyes a little, as if troubled by the smoke from his cigarette. His look was one of frank admiration, as if Munoz had just opened a door that hinted at unfathomable mysteries contained within.
“Amazing,” he murmured.
Julia seemed equally mesmerised by Munoz. However mediocre and insignificant he might appear, this man with his large ears and his timid, rumpled air knew exactly what he was talking about. In the mysterious labyrinth, even the idea of which made men tremble with impotence and fear, Munoz was the only one who knew how to interpret the signs, the only one who possessed the keys that allowed him to come and go without being devoured by the Minotaur. And there, sitting before the remains of her barely touched lasagne, Julia knew with a mathematical, almost a chess player’s certainty that, in his way, this man was the strongest of the three of them. His judgment was not dimmed by prejudices about his opponent, the mystery player and potential murderer. He considered the enigma with the same egotistical, scientific coldness that Sherlock Holmes used to solve the problems set him by the sinister Professor Moriarty. Munoz would not play that game to the end out of a sense of justice; his motive was not ethical, but logical. He would do it simply because h: was a player whom chance had placed on this side of the chessboard, just as – and Julia shuddered at the thought -it could have placed him on the other side. Whether he played White or Black, she realised, was a matter of complete indifference to him. All that mattered to him was that, for the first time in his life, he was interested in playing a game to the end.
Her eyes met Cesar’s and she knew he was thinking the same thing. It was he who spoke first, in a low voice, as if fearing, as she did, to extinguish the light in Munoz’s eyes.
“Killing the king…” Cesar put the cigarette holder slowly to his lips and inhaled a precise amount of smoke. “That’s very interesting. I mean the Freudian interpretation of the game. I had no idea chess had anything to do with such unpleasant things.”
Munoz, his head slightly to one side, seemed absorbed in his own thoughts.
“It’s usually the father who teaches the child his first moves in the game. And the dream of any son who plays chess is to beat his father. To kill the king. Besides, it soon becomes evident in chess that the father, or the king, is the weakest piece on the board. He’s under continual attack, in constant need of protection, of such tactics as castling, and he can only move one square at a time. Paradoxically, the king is also indispensable. The king gives the game its name, since the word ‘chess’ derives from the Persian word shah meaning king, and is pretty much the same in most languages.”
“And the queen?” asked Julia.
“She’s the mother and the wife. In any attack on the king, she provides the most efficient defence. The queen is the piece with the best and most effective resources. And on either side of the king and the queen is the bishop: the one who blesses the union and helps in the fight. Not forgetting the Arab faros, the horse that crosses the enemy lines, the knight. In fact, the problem existed long before Van Huys painted his Game of Chess; men have been trying to solve it for fourteen hundred years.”
Munoz paused, and seemed about to say more, but instead of words, what appeared on his lips was that brief suggestion of a smile.
“Sometimes,” he said at last, as if it were an enormous effort to formulate his thoughts, “I wonder if chess is something man invented or if he merely discovered it. It’s as if it were something that has always been there, since the beginning of the universe. Like whole numbers.”
As if in a dream, Julia heard the sound of a seal being broken and, for the first time, she was properly aware of the situation: a vast chessboard embracing both past and present, Van Huys and herself, even Alvaro, Cesar, Montegrifo, the Belmontes, Menchu and Munoz. And she suddenly felt such intense fear that she had to make an almost physical effort not to express it out loud. The fear must have shown in her face because both Cesar and Munoz gave her a worried look.
“I’m all right,” she said, shaking her head as if that might help calm her thoughts. Then she took from her pocket the list of different levels that existed in the painting, according to Munoz’s first interpretation. “Have a look at this.”
Munoz studied the sheet of paper and passed it to Cesar without comment.
“What do you think?” asked Julia.
Cesar was hesitant.
“Most disturbing,” he said. “But perhaps we’re being too literary about it.” He glanced again at Julia’s diagram. “I can’t make up my mind whether we’re all racking our brains over something really profound or something absolutely trivial.”
Julia didn’t reply. She was staring at Munoz. He placed the piece of paper on the table, took a pen from his pocket and added something and passed it back to her.
“Now there’s another level,” he said in a worried voice. “You’re at least as involved as any of the others.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Julia.
“Level 6 is the one that contains all the others.” Munoz pointed to the list. “Whether you like it or not, you’re there in it too.”
“That means,” said Julia, looking at him with wide-open eyes, “that the person who may have murdered Alvaro, the same one who sent us that card, is playing some kind of mad chess game. A game in which not only I, but we, all of us, are pieces. Is that right?”
There was no sadness in Munoz’s face, only a sort of expectant curiosity, as if fascinating conclusions could be drawn from what she’d just said, conclusions he would be only too happy to comment on.
“I’m glad,” he replied at last, and the diffuse smile returned to his lips, “that you’ve both finally realised that.”
Menchu had made herself up with millimetric precision and had chosen her clothes to calculated effect: a short, very tight skirt and an extremely elegant black leather jacket over a cream sweater that emphasised her bosom to an extent that Julia instantly decried as “scandalous”. Perhaps foreseeing this, Julia had opted that afternoon for an informal look, choosing to wear moccasins, jeans, a suede bomber jacket and a silk scarf. As Cesar would have said, had he seen them parking Julia’s Fiat outside Claymore’s, they could easily have passed for mother and daughter.
Menchu’s perfume and the sound of her high heels preceded them into an office with walls of fine wood, a huge mahogany table, and ultramodern lamps and chairs, where Paco Montegrifo advanced to kiss the hand of each of them, smiling the trademark smile that displayed his perfect teeth, a flash of white against his bronzed skin. They sat in armchairs offering a splendid view of the valuable Vlaminck that dominated the room; Montegrifo sat beneath the painting itself, on the other side of the table, with the modest air of someone who deeply regretted being unable to provide them with a better view, a Rembrandt, perhaps. At least that could have been the implication behind the intense look he gave Julia, once he’d cast an indifferent eye over Menchu’s ostentatiously crossed legs. Or perhaps a Leonardo.
He lost no time in getting down to business once his secretary had served coffee in china cups from the East India Company, coffee that Menchu sweetened with saccharin. Julia took hers black, bitter and very hot and drank it in small sips. By the time she’d lit a cigarette -Montegrifo leaning impotently across the vast table with his gold lighter – he’d already outlined the situation. And Julia had to admit that he could certainly not be accused of beating about the bush.
At first sight, the situation seemed crystal-clear: Claymore’s regretted that they were unable to accept Menchu’s conditions as regards equal shares in the profits from the Van Huys. Menchu should know that the owner of the painting, Don – Montegrifo calmly consulted his notes – Manuel Belmonte, with the agreement of his niece and her husband, had decided to cancel the agreement made with Dona Menchu Roch and transfer all rights in the Van Huys to Claymore and Co. All of this, he added, was set out in a document, authenticated by a notary public. Montegrifo gave Menchu a look of deep regret, accompanied by a worldly sigh.
“Do you mean to say,” said a shocked Menchu, her cup rattling in its saucer, “that you’re threatening to take the painting away from me?”
Montegrifo looked at his gold cuff links as if it were they who had uttered some unfortunate remark and tugged fastidiously at his starched cuffs.
“I’m afraid we already have,” he said in the contrite tone of someone regretting having to pass on to a widow the bills left by her dead husband. “However, your original percentage of the profits on the auction price remains the same; minus expenses of course. Claymore’s does not wish to deprive you of anything, only to avoid the abusive conditions that you, my dear lady, tried to impose.” He slowly took out his silver cigarette case and placed it on the table. “Claymore’s simply sees no reason for an increase in your percentage. And that’s that.”
“No reason?” Menchu glanced towards Julia in despair, expecting indignant exclamations of solidarity. “The reason, Montegrifo, is that, thanks to research carried out by us, the painting will vastly increase in price. Isn’t that reason enough?”
Montegrifo looked at Julia, making it silently and courteously plain that he did not for a minute include her in this sordid bit of horse-trading. Turning back to Menchu, his eyes hardened.
“If the research that the two of you have carried out” – that “two of you” made it absolutely clear what he thought of Menchu’s talent for research – “increases the price of the Van Huys, it will automatically increase the percentage of the profits you agreed to with Claymore’s.” He allowed himself an affable smile before turning away from Menchu again and looking at Julia. “As for you, the new situation in no way affects your interests. Quite the contrary. Claymore’s,” he said, and the smile he gave her left no doubt as to exactly who in Claymore’s, “considers your handling of the affair to have been exemplary. So we’d like you to continue your restoration work on the picture. You need have no worries at all about the financial aspect.”
“And may one know,” Menchu said, and her lower lip, as well as the hand holding the coffee cup, was trembling now, “how it is that you’re so well informed about the painting? Because Julia may be a little naive, but I can’t imagine that she’d pour out her life story to you over a candlelit supper. Or did she?”
That was a low blow, and Julia opened her mouth to protest. Montegrifo, however, calmed her with a gesture.
“Look, Senora Roch, when I took the liberty of putting some proposals of a professional nature your friend a few days ago, she chose the elegant option of simply saying that she would think about it. The details about the state of the painting, the hidden inscription and so on, were kindly supplied to us by the niece of the owner. A charming man, by the way, Don Manuel. And I must say that he was most reluctant to withdraw responsibility for the Van Huys from you. A loyal man, it would seem, for he also demanded, indeed he insisted, that no one but Julia should touch the painting until the restoration work was done. In all these negotiations my alliance, my tactical alliance, if you like, with Don Manuel’s niece has proved very useful. As for Senor Lapena, her husband, he raised no further objections once I’d mentioned the possibility of an advance.”
“Another Judas,” said Menchu, almost spitting the words out.
“I suppose,” he said, shrugging, “you could call him that. Although other names also spring to mind.”
“I’ve got a signed document too, you know,” protested Menchu.
T know. But it’s an unauthenticated agreement, whereas mine was made in the presence of a notary public, with the niece and her husband as witnesses and all kinds of guarantees that include a deposit as security on our part. If I may use an expression Alfonso Lapena used as he signed our agreement, it’s a whole new ball game, my dear lady.“
Menchu leaned forwards in a way that made Julia fear that the cup of coffee her friend had in her hand might just end up all over Montegrifo’s immaculate shirt front, but she merely placed it on the table. She was bursting with indignation, and, despite all the careful make-up, her anger added years to her face. When she moved, her skirt rode up still further, and Julia, embarrassed, regretted being there with all her heart.
“And what will Claymore’s do,” asked Menchu in a surly tone, “if I decide to take the painting to another auctioneer?”
Montegrifo was contemplating the smoke spiralling from his cigarette.
“Frankly,” he said, and he seemed to give the matter serious thought, “I’d advise you not to complicate matters. It would be illegal.”
“I could also sue the lot of you and tie you up in a court case that would drag on for months, putting a stop to your auctioning the painting. Have you considered that?”
“Of course I have. But you’d come off worst.” Montegrifo smiled politely. “As you can imagine, Claymore’s has very good lawyers at its disposal. You risk losing everything. And that would be a great pity.”
Menchu gave a tug at her skirt as she stood up.
“All I have to say to you” – and her voice cracked, overwhelmed by anger – “is that you’re the biggest son of a bitch I’ve ever set eyes on.”
Montegrifo and Julia also stood up, she upset, he in complete control of himself.
“I can’t tell you how much I regret this scene,” he said calmly to Julia. “I really do.”
“So do I.” Julia looked at Menchu, who was at that moment throwing her bag over her shoulder with the determined gesture of someone slinging on a rifle. “Couldn’t we all be just a bit more reasonable?”
Menchu glared at her.
“You can be reasonable, if you like, seeing you’re so taken with this swindler, but I’m getting out of this den of thieves.”
Her high heels click-clacked fast and furiously away. Julia remained where she was, not knowing whether or not to follow her.
“A woman of character,” Montegrifo said.
Julia turned towards him, still uncertain.
“She’s just invested too many hopes in the painting. Surely you can understand that.”
“Oh, I do understand.” He gave a conciliatory smile. “But I can’t allow her to blackmail me.”
“But you plotted behind her back, conspired with the niece and her husband. I call that playing dirty.”
Montegrifo’s smile grew broader. That’s life, he seemed to be saying. He looked at the door through which Menchu had departed.
“What do you think she’ll do now?”
Julia shook her head.
“Nothing. She knows she’s lost the battle.”
“Ambition, Julia, is a perfectly legitimate feeling,” Montegrifo said after a moment. “But where ambition’s concerned, the only sin is failure. Triumph automatically presupposes virtue.” He smiled again, this time into space. “Senora Roch tried to get involved in something that was too big for her… Let’s say” – he blew a smoke ring and let it float up to the ceiling – “that she just wasn’t big enough for her ambitions.” His brown eyes had grown hard, and Julia realised that behind his rigorous mask of politeness, Montegrifo was a dangerous adversary. “I trust she will cause us no further problems,” he continued, “because that would be a sin that would have to be punished. Do you understand? Now, if you don’t mind, let’s talk about our painting.”
Belmonte was alone in the house, and he received Julia and Munoz in the drawing room, sitting in his wheelchair near where The Game of Chess used to hang. The solitary nail and the mark left on the wall created a pathetic air of domestic desolation, of despoliation. Belmonte, who had followed the direction of his visitors’ gaze, smiled sadly.
“I didn’t want to hang anything else there just yet,” he explained, “not for the moment.” He raised one bony hand and waved it in a gesture of resignation. “It’s difficult to get used to…”
“I understand,” said Julia with genuine sympathy.
The old man nodded slowly.
“Yes, I know you do.” He looked at Munoz, doubtless hoping for a show of equal understanding from him, but Munoz remained silent, looking at the empty wall with inexpressive eyes. “I’ve always thought you were an intelligent young woman, right from the very first day.” He looked at Munoz. “Wouldn’t you agree, sir?”
Munoz slowly shifted his eyes away from the wall to the old man and nodded slightly, without saying a word. He seemed immersed in remote thoughts.
“As for your friend,” Belmonte said, and he seemed to be embarrassed, “I’d like you to explain to her… that I really had no choice.”
“Don’t worry. I understand. And Menchu will too.”
“I’m so, glad. They put a lot of pressure on me. Senor Montegrifo made a good offer too. He also undertook to give maximum publicity to the painting’s history.” He stroked his ill-shaven chin. “And, I must confess, that did influence me somewhat,” he sighed softly, “that and the money.”
Julia pointed to the record player.
“Do you play Bach constantly, or is it just a coincidence? I heard that record the last time I was here.”
“The Musical Offering?” Belmonte seemed pleased. “I often listen to it. It’s so complex and ingenious that every now and then I still find something unexpected in it.” He paused, as if recalling something. “Were you aware that there are certain musical themes that seem to sum up a whole life? They’re like mirrors you can peer into and see yourself reflected. In this composition, for example, a theme emerges expressed in different voices and different keys; indeed, sometimes at different speeds, with inverted tonal intervals, or even back to front.” He leaned on the arm of his wheelchair. “Listen. Can you hear it? It begins with a single voice that sings the theme, and then a second voice comes in, starting four tones higher or four tones lower, and that becomes a secondary theme. Each of the voices enters at its own particular time, just like different moments in a life. And when all the voices have come into play, the rules come to an end.” He gave Julia and Munoz a broad, sad smile. “As you see, a perfect analogy of old age.”
Munoz pointed at the wall.
“That nail,” he said rather abruptly, “also seems to symbolise a lot of things.”
Belmonte looked attentively at Munoz and nodded slowly.
“That’s very true,” he confirmed with another sigh. “And sometimes I find myself looking at the place where the picture was and I seem to see it there still. It isn’t there, but I see it. After all these years, I still have it up here.” He tapped his forehead. “The people, the exquisite detail. My favourite parts were always the landscape you can see through the window and the convex mirror on the left, reflecting the foreshortened figures of the players.”
“And the chessboard,” said Munoz.
“Yes, and the chessboard. I often used to reconstruct the position of the pieces on my own chessboard, especially at the beginning, when I inherited it from my poor Ana.”
“Do you play?” asked Munoz casually.
“I used to. Now I hardly ever do. But the truth is, it never occurred to me that you could play that game backwards.” He paused, tapping his hands on his knees. “Playing backwards. It’s odd. Did you know that Bach was very keen on musical inversions? In some of his canons he inverts the theme, elaborating a melody that jumps down a pitch every time the original theme jumps up. The effect can seem strange, but when you get used to it, you find it quite natural. There’s even a canon in the Musical Offering that’s played the opposite way round from the way it’s written.” He looked at Julia. “I think I told you before that Johann Sebastian was an inveterate joker. His work is full of tricks. It’s as if every now and then a note, a modulation or a silence were saying to you: ‘I’ve hidden a message in here: find it.” “
“As in the painting,” said Munoz.
“Yes. With the difference that music doesn’t consist of images, the positioning of chess pieces or, in this case, of vibrations in the air, but of the emotions that those vibrations produce in the brain of each individual. You’d run into serious problems if you tried to apply to music the investigatory methods you used to solve the game in the painting. You’d have to find out which particular note provoked which emotional effect. Or which combinations of notes. Doesn’t that strike you as much more difficult than playing chess?”
Munoz thought about it carefully.
“I don’t think so,” he said at last. “Because the general laws of logic are the same for everything. Music, like chess, follows rules. It’s all a question of working away at it until you isolate a symbol, a key.” One half of his mouth seemed to twist into a smile. “Like the Egyptologists’ Rosetta Stone. Once you have that, it’s just a question of hard work and method. And time.”
Belmonte blinked mockingly.
“Do you think so? Do you really think that all hidden messages can be deciphered? That it’s always possible to reach an exact solution just by the application of method?”
“I’m sure of it. Because there’s a universal system, general laws that allow one to demonstrate what is demonstrable and to discard whatever is not.”
The old man made a sceptical gesture.
“Forgive me, but I really can’t agree with you there. I think that all the divisions, classifications, categorisations and systems that we attribute to the universe are fictitious, arbitrary. There isn’t one that doesn’t contain within it its own contradiction. That’s the opinion of an old man with some experience of these things.”
Munoz shifted a bit in his seat and looked round the room. He didn’t seem very happy with the turn the conversation had taken, but Julia had the impression that he didn’t want to change the subject either. She knew he was not a man to waste words and concluded that he must be after something. Perhaps Belmonte was one of the chess pieces Munoz was studying in order to solve the mystery.
“That’s arguable,” Munoz said at last. “For example, the Universe is full of demonstrable infinites: prime numbers, the combinations in chess.”
“Do you really think so? That everything is demonstrable, I mean? Allow me to say, as the musician I once was, or, rather, despite all this,” he indicated his useless legs with a kind of calm disdain, “as the musician I still am, that every system is incomplete. That demonstrability is a much weaker concept than truth.”
“The truth is like the perfect move in chess: it exists, but you have to look for it. Given enough time, it’s always demonstrable.”
Hearing that, Belmonte smiled mischievously.
“I would say, rather, that the perfect move you talk about, whether you call it that or whether you call it the truth, may exist. But it can’t always be demonstrated. And that any system that tries to do so is limited and relative. Try sending my Van Huys to Mars or to Planet X, and see if anyone there can solve your problem. I’d go further: send them the record you’re listening to now or, to make it still harder, break the record and send them the pieces. What meaning will it contain then? And since you seem so keen on exact laws, I’d remind you that the angles of a triangle add up to one hundred and eighty degrees in Euclidian geometry, but to more in elliptic geometry and to less in hyperbolic. And that’s because there is no one system, there are no universal axioms. Systems are disparate even within themselves. Do you enjoy resolving paradoxes? It isn’t only music, painting or, I imagine, chess that are full of them.” He picked up pencil and paper from the table, wrote a few lines and showed them to Munoz. “Have a look at that, will you?”
The chess player read it out loud:
“The sentence I am now writing is the one that you are now reading.” He looked at Belmonte in surprise. “So?”
“That’s all there is. That sentence was written by me a minute and a half ago and you read it only forty seconds ago. That’s to say, my writing and your reading correspond to different moments in time, but on that piece of paper ‘now’ and ‘now’ are undoubtedly the same ‘now’. Therefore, on the one hand the sentence is true, but on the other hand it lacks all validity. Or is it the concept of time that we’re failing to take into account? Don’t you think that’s a good example of a paradox? I can see you have no answer to it. Well, you’ll find the same problem with the enigmas posed by my Van Huys or by anything else. Who’s to say that your solution to the problem is the correct one? Your intuition and your system? Fine, but what superior system can you count on to demonstrate that your intuition and your system are valid? And what other system can you call on to corroborate those two systems? As a chess player, I imagine you’ll find these lines interesting.”
Pausing between each line, Belmonte recited:
The player too is captive of caprice
(The words are Omar’s) on another ground
Where black nights alternate with whiter days
God moves the player, he in turn the piece.
But what god beyond God begins the round
Of dust and time and sleep and agonies?
“The world is just one vast paradox,” the old man concluded. “And I defy you to prove the contrary.”
Julia glanced at Munoz and saw that he was shaking his head slightly, and his eyes had grown dull again. He seemed disconcerted.
Filtered by the vodka she’d drunk, the music – gentle jazz with the volume turned down to a tenuous murmur that seemed to blossom from the shadowy corners of the room – surrounded her like a warm caress, soft and soothing, that was transformed into calm lucidity. It was as if everything, night, music, shadows, even the comfortable feeling of the arm of the leather sofa under her neck, blended into a perfect harmony; everything, down to the tiniest object in the room, down to the most fleeting of her thoughts, had found its precise place in her mind and in space, fitting with geometrical exactitude into her perceptions and her consciousness.
Nothing, not even the gloomiest of memories, could have shattered the calm that reigned in her spirit. It was the first time she’d managed to recover that sense of balance, and she plunged into it with absolute abandon. Not even the ring of the telephone, as it announced one of those threatening, by now almost familiar, silences, could break the spell. With her eyes closed, moving her head gently to the rhythm of the music, Julia allowed herself a warm, secret smile. At times like this it was so easy to live in peace with oneself.
She opened her eyes lazily. In the shadows, the polychromed face of a Gothic virgin was smiling too, her gaze lost in the stillness of the centuries. Leaning against the table leg, on the paint-stained Shiraz carpet, was a painting in an oval frame, its layer of varnish only half removed, a romantic Andalusian landscape, nostalgic and peaceful, that depicted the river in Seville flowing quietly past leafy green banks, with a ship and some trees in the background. And in the middle of the room – in the midst of sculptures, frames, bronzes, paintings, bottles of solvent, canvases, a half-restored baroque Christ, art books piled up next to records and ceramics – at the strange intersection, random but undeniable, of lines and perspectives, The Game of Chess presided solemnly over the orderly disorder reminiscent of an auction room or an antiques shop. The dim glow from the hallway cast a narrow rectangle of pale light on the painting, enough to bring the surface to life and for every detail, although steeped in deceptive chiaroscuro, to be clearly visible from where Julia was reclining, her feet and legs bare below her baggy black woollen sweater. Rain was pattering on the skylight but the radiators kept out the cold.
The golden letters of the newly uncovered inscription gleamed from the shadows. It had been a difficult, painstaking task, interrupted often to photograph each phase of the process as she removed the top layer of copper resinate and as the orpiment of the Gothic lettering was gradually revealed, five hundred years after Pieter Van Huys had covered it up, the better to conceal the mystery.
Now it was there before her: Quis necavit equitem. Julia would have preferred leaving the inscription hidden beneath the original layer of pigment, given that the X-rays proved its existence. Montegrifo, however, had insisted on uncovering it; according to him, it would excite the morbid curiosity of clients. Soon the painting would be open to the gaze of everyone: auctioneers, collectors, historians. The discreet privacy it had enjoyed until now, apart from its brief spell in the Prado, would be over for ever. Soon The Game of Chess would come under the scrutiny of experts; it would become the subject of polemical debates, and newspaper articles would be written about it as well as erudite theses and specialised texts such as the one she was preparing. The old Flemish master, its creator, could never have imagined that his painting would achieve such fame. And should Ferdinand Altenhoffen ever learn of it, his bones would doubtless tremble with pleasure beneath his dusty gravestone in the crypt of some abbey in Belgium or France. His name would at last be cleared, and a few lines in the history books would have to be rewritten.
She looked at the painting. Almost all of the top layer of oxidised varnish was gone, and with it the yellowish surface that had dulled its colours. Unvarnished and with the inscription uncovered, there was a luminosity about it and a perfection of colour that was apparent even in the near darkness of the room. The outlines of the figures could be seen in all their extreme precision, perfectly clear and succinct, and the sense of balance that characterised the domestic scene – paradoxically domestic, thought Julia – was so typical of a certain style and period that the painting was sure to fetch an astonishing price.
Paradoxically domestic: the phrase was exactly right. Nothing about the two serious gentlemen playing chess or the lady by the window dressed in black, reading, her eyes lowered, a demure expression on her face, would lead one to suspect the drama that lay coiled beneath the surface, like the twisted root of a lovely plant.
She studied the profile of Roger de Arras as he leaned over the chessboard, absorbed in the game, a game in which he was already dead. The steel gorget and the leather cuirass made him look like the soldier he once was, like the warrior whose insigne he had worn (perhaps dressed in burnished armour like that worn by the knight riding alongside the Devil) when he had escorted her to the nuptial bed to which she was destined by reasons of state. Julia could imagine Beatrice clearly – still a virgin, younger than she appeared in the painting, before bitterness had etched lines about her mouth – peeping out between the curtains of the litter, a maid by her side, and admiring the gallant gentleman whose fame went before him: her future husband’s best friend, still a young man, who, having fought beneath the fleur-de-lys of France against the lion of England, had sought peace by the side of his childhood companion. And Julia imagined Beatrice’s wide blue eyes meeting, just for a moment, the calm, weary gaze of the knight.
It was impossible that the two of them were never united by anything more than that one look. For some obscure reason, by some inexplicable twist of the imagination – as if the hours spent working on the painting had spun a mysterious connecting thread between her and that fragment of the past – Julia contemplated the scene in the Van Huys painting with the familiarity of one who had experienced every detail of the story alongside the characters depicted in it. The mirror on the wall in the picture reflecting the foreshortened figures of the two chess players also contained her, in the same way that the mirror in Las Meninas reflected the king and queen as they watched – was it from inside or outside the picture? – the scene being painted by Velazquez, or just as the mirror in The Arnolfini Double Portrait reflected the presence and the meticulous gaze of Jan Van Eyck.
The flame from the match as she lit a cigarette dazzled her for a moment, hiding The Game of Chess from her view until, gradually, her retina readjusted to the scene again, to the people and the colours. She herself had always been there – she was sure of that now – right from the beginning, ever since Pieter Van Huys first imagined that moment, even before he had begun the careful preparation of calcium carbonate and animal glue with which to impregnate the wood before he started painting.
Beatrice, Duchess of Ostenburg, a touch of melancholy in her eyes intent on her book – perhaps prompted by a mandolin played by a page outside at the foot of the wall – remembers her youth in Burgundy, her hopes and dreams. Above the window framing the pure blue Flanders sky, a stone St George plunges his lance into the dragon writhing beneath his horse’s hooves. It does not escape the implacable eye of the painter observing the scene – nor that of Julia observing the painter -that time has blunted the tip of St George’s lance, and where his right foot, no doubt once wearing a sharp spur, used to stand out in sharp relief, there is only a broken stump. This St George, putting the vile dragon to death, is not only half-armed, with his stone shield worn away by time, but also lame. Perhaps that only makes the figure of the knight all the more touching, reminding Julia, by a curious transposition of ideas, of the martial pose of a lead soldier.
She’s reading, this Beatrice of Ostenburg, who, by reason of lineage and family pride and despite her marriage, never really stopped being Beatrice of Burgundy. And she’s reading a strange book, whose binding is decorated with silver studs, and with a silk ribbon to mark her page, a book whose chapter headings are exquisite brightly coloured miniatures by the master of the Coeur d’Amour epris, a book entitled Poem of the Rose and the Knight, which, although the author is officially anonymous, everyone knows was written almost ten years before, in the French court of King Charles Valois, by an Ostenburg gentleman called Roger de Arras:
Lady, the same dew
that at break of day
lays on the roses
in your garden hoarfrost,
falls, on the field of war,
upon my heart,
upon my eyes, upon my sword.
Sometimes those eyes, which have the luminous clarity of Flemish eyes, leave her book and look up at the two men playing chess at the table. Her husband is leaning on his left elbow, his fingers distractedly playing with the insigne of the Golden Fleece that his uncle by marriage, the late Philip the Good, sent him as a wedding present, which he wears about his neck, on the end of a heavy golden chain. Ferdinand of Ostenburg cannot decide on his next move; he reaches out a hand towards a piece, touches it, changes his mind, and looks apologetically into the calm eyes of Roger de Arras, whose lips curve in a courteous smile- “Touching a piece is the same as moving it, sir,” those lips murmur with just a touch of friendly irony, and a slightly embarrassed Ferdinand moves the piece he touched, because he knows that his opponent is not just a courtier, but his friend. He shifts on his stool, feeling vaguely happy, for he knows that it is no bad thing to have someone who, from time to time, reminds him that there are some rules even princes must abide by.
The notes from the mandolin drift up from the garden into another window, not visible from there, the window of the room where Pieter Van Huys, court painter, is preparing an oak panel, made up of three sections his assistant has just glued together. The old master is not sure yet what use to make of it – perhaps a religious subject that has been in his mind for a while now: a young Virgin, almost a child, shedding tears of blood as she gazes, grief-stricken, at her empty lap. But, after due consideration, Van Huys shakes his head and emits a discouraged sigh. He knows he will never paint that picture. No one would understand its true meaning, and in the past he’s had his fair share of problems with the Inquisition; his weary limbs would not withstand another encounter with the rack. With paint-encrusted fingernails, he scratches his bald head beneath his woollen beret. He’s becoming an old man and he knows it; he has too few practical ideas and too many vague phantasms in his mind. To exorcise them he closes his tired eyes. When he opens them again, he sees the oak panel still there, waiting for the idea that will bring it to life. In the garden someone is still playing the mandolin; some lovesick page no doubt. The painter smiles to himself and, after dipping a brush into a clay pot, he applies the primer in thin layers, up and down, following the grain of the wood. Now and then he looks out of the window, and his eyes fill with light. He feels grateful for the oblique ray of sunlight that warms his old bones.
Roger de Arras has just made a remark in a low voice, and the Duke is laughing, in a good mood now, for he’s just taken a knight. Beatrice of Ostenburg, or of Burgundy, is finding the music unbearably sad. She’s on the point of asking one of her maids to have the player stop, but she doesn’t, for she hears in its notes an exact echo, a perfect harmony of the pain flooding her heart. The music mingles with the friendly murmurings of the two men playing chess, and she finds a heartbreaking beauty in the poem whose lines tremble in her fingers. Born of the same dew that covers the rose and the knight’s sword, there is a tear in her blue eyes when she looks up and meets Julia’s gaze, watching in silence from the shadows. And she thinks that the gaze of that dark-eyed Italianate young woman is only a reflection in the dim surface of some distant mirror of her own gaze, fixed and anguished. Beatrice of Ostenburg, or of Burgundy, feels as if she were outside the room, on the other side of a pane of dark glass, from where she observes herself sitting beneath the mutilated St George, next to a window framing a blue sky that contrasts with the black of her dress. And she knows that no amount of confession will ever wash away her sin.