XIV Drawing-room Conversation
“I found it only because I was looking for it.”
“What? You mean you were expecting to find it?”
“I thought it not unlikely.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The light on the stairs wasn’t working, and they went up in the dark, Munoz first, guiding himself with his hand on the banister. When they reached the landing, they stood in silence, listening. They heard no sound inside, but there was a line of light beneath the door. Julia couldn’t see her companion’s face in the darkness, but she knew Munoz was looking at her.
“There’s no going back now,” she said in response to his unasked question. The only reply she got was Munoz’s calm breathing. She felt for the bell and pressed it once. Inside, its noise faded to a distant echo.
It was a while before they heard the slow approach of footsteps. The steps paused for a moment, then continued, moving still more slowly and getting nearer, until they stopped completely. The lock turned for what seemed an age and then at last the door opened, casting a momentarily dazzling rectangle of light on them. Julia looked at the familiar figure silhouetted against the soft light, thinking that this was one victory she did not want.
He stepped aside to let them pass, appearing unperturbed by their unexpected visit. The only outward sign was a somewhat disconcerted smile Julia glimpsed as he closed the door behind them. On the heavy walnut-and-bronze Edwardian coatstand, a raincoat, hat and umbrella were still dripping.
He led them down a long corridor with a high, exquisitely coffered ceiling and walls adorned with nineteenth-century landscape paintings from Seville. He went on ahead of them, turning round every so often with the attentiveness of a good host. In vain, Julia sought some hint of that other personality she now knew lay hidden in him, like a ghost that had always floated between them and whose presence she would never again be able to ignore. Despite the light of reason seeping into the corners of her doubts, despite the facts that fitted together now like the smooth-edged pieces of a jigsaw and projected onto the images in The Game of Chess the outlines, in light and shade, of the other tragedies that were now superimposed on the one symbolised in the Flemish painting – despite all that and her sharp awareness of the pain which, little by little, was replacing her initial stupor, Julia was incapable of hating the man walking ahead of them, half-turning with solicitous courtesy, elegant even in private, in a blue silk dressing gown over well-cut trousers, a scarf knotted in the open neck of his shirt, his hair, slightly wavy at the back of the neck and at the temples, immaculate, his eyebrows arched in the expression of indifference proper to an ageing dandy but which, in Julia’s presence, had always been softened by the sad, sweet, tender smile that hovered now at the corners of his pale, thin lips.
None of them said anything until they reached the large drawing room with its high ceiling decorated with classical scenes. Julia’s favourite, until that night, had always been the scene depicting Hector in a shining helmet bidding farewell to Andromache and her son. The room, whose walls were covered with tapestries and paintings, contained Cesar’s most prized possessions, those which he had chosen to keep for himself, no matter what price was offered for them. Julia knew them all as if they were her own: the silk-upholstered Empire sofa, on which Munoz, his face set in an expression of stony seriousness, his hands in his raincoat pockets, hesitated to sit even though Cesar urged him to do so; the bronze statuette of a fencing master signed by Steiner, its swordsman erect and handsome, his proud chin lifted, dominating the room from his pedestal on the late eighteenth-century Dutch writing desk at which, for as long as Julia could remember, Cesar had always written his letters; the Regency corner cabinet containing a beautiful collection of chased silver that he himself polished once a month; the Lord’s Anointed ones, his favourite paintings: a Young woman attributed to Lorenzo Lotto, a very beautiful Annunciation by Juan de Soreda, a sinewy Mars by Luca Giordano, a melancholy Eventide by Thomas Gainsborough; the collection of English porcelain; the carpets, tapestries and fans. These were pieces whose individual histories Cesar had carefully compiled, collating every last fact about style, provenance and genealogy, to form a private collection so personal, so closely bound by his own aesthetic taste and character that he seemed to be part of the essence of each and every one.
Munoz had remained standing, affecting a calm, silent exterior, although something about him, perhaps the way his feet were positioned on the edge of the carpet or the way his elbows stuck out above the hands thrust into his pockets, indicated that he was on the alert, ready to confront the unexpected. For his part, Cesar was looking at him with dispassionate, courteous interest, only now and then turning to look at Julia, as if, because she was at home there, it was up to Munoz, the only stranger in the house, to explain his reasons for turning up so late at night. Julia, who knew Cesar as well as she knew herself- she made an instant mental correction: whom until that night she had thought she knew as well as herself- had seen, the moment Cesar opened the door, that he understood their visit implied something more than just a call on their third comrade in the adventure. Beneath his attitude of friendly forbearance, she recognised, in the way he smiled and in the innocent expression in his clear blue eyes, cautious expectation and a touch of amusement. It was the same look with which, when he’d held her on his knees, he would wait for her to say the magic words, the answers to the childish riddles she loved him to set her: It looks like gold, it is not silver… Or: What is it that goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?… And, the best of all: The distinguished lover knows the name of the lady and the colour of her dress…
And yet on this strange night, in the diffuse light cast through the parchment shade of the English lamp with a base in the form of a book press, which lent strange foreshortenings and shadows to other objects, Cesar paid little attention to her. It was not that he was avoiding her eyes, for when he looked at her he held her gaze, frankly and directly, albeit only briefly, as if between them there were no secrets, as if everything between the two of them would already have been given an answer, precise, convincing, logical and definitive, perhaps the answer to all the questions she had asked throughout her life. But, for the first time, Julia did not feel like listening. Her curiosity had been fully satisfied when she had stood before Brueghel the Elder’s Triumph of Death. She didn’t need anyone now, not even him. And this had happened before Munoz opened an old volume on chess and pointed out to her one of the photographs. Her presence here tonight, in Cesar’s home, was motivated strictly by curiosity, aesthetic curiosity, Cesar would have said. Her duty was to be present, simultaneously protagonist and chorus, actor and audience for the most fascinating of classical tragedies. They were all there: Oedipus, Orestes, Medea and her other old friends. After all, the performance was in her honour.
Yet it was unreal. Julia sat on the sofa, crossed her legs and placed one arm along the back. The two men stood in front of her, and so formed a composition very similar to that in the vanished painting. Munoz, on the left, stood on the edge of an ancient Pakistani carpet, whose faded threads accentuated its beautiful reds and ochres. The chess player – now they were both chess players, thought Julia with perverse satisfaction – had not removed his raincoat. He was looking at Cesar, his head a little to one side, with that Holmesian expression that lent him a peculiar dignity. But he was not looking at Cesar with the smugness of a victor. There was no animosity, nor even, given the circumstances, justifiable apprehension, only tension in his eyes and the twitching muscles in his jaw. That, in Julia’s judgment, was due to the fact that Munoz was now studying the real appearance of the enemy after working for so long only with his ideal appearance. He was doubtless going over old mistakes, reconstructing moves, judging intentions. It was the stubborn, absent expression of one who, having won a game by a series of brilliant moves, is concerned only to work out how the hell his opponent had managed to snatch away one pawn from some irrelevant and forgotten square.
Cesar stood on the right and, with his silvery hair and silk dressing gown, he looked like an elegant figure in a turn-of-the-century comedy: calm and distinguished, conscious that he owned the two-hundred-year-old carpet on which Munoz was standing. Julia watched him draw from a pocket a pack of gold-tipped cigarettes and fit one into his ivory holder. The scene would be engraved for ever on her memory: the backdrop of darkly gleaming antiques, the slender classical figures painted on the ceiling; and, standing face to face, the ageing dandy, elegant and ambivalent in appearance, and the thin, shabby man in the crumpled raincoat, looking at each other in silence, as if waiting for someone, possibly the prompter hidden behind one of the pieces of period furniture, to give the cue to begin the final act.
From the moment Julia had noticed something familiar about the face of the young man staring into the photographer’s camera with all the seriousness of his fifteen or sixteen years, she had guessed that the final act would be more or less like this and how it would end. She looked at her two favourite characters as she sat on Cesar’s comfortable sofa and let her thoughts drift lazily. She would never have got such a perfect seat in a theatre. Then a memory came back to her, a recent memory. She’d already had a glance at the script. It had been only a few hours before, in Room 12 of the Prado: the painting by Brueghel, beating drums providing a background to the annihilating breath of the inevitable, sweeping away as it passed the last blade of grass on earth, and everything subsumed into one last, gigantic pirouette, into the sound of a loud belly laugh from some drunken god recovering from an Olympian hangover somewhere behind the blackened hills, the smoking ruins and the glow of the fires. Pieter Van Huys, that other Fleming, the old master of the court of Ostenburg, had explained it all too, in his own way, perhaps with more delicacy and subtlety, more hermetic and sinuous than the brutal Brueghel, but with the same aim. In the end all paintings were paintings of the same painting, just as all mirrors gave the reflection of the same reflection, and all deaths were the death of the same Death:
“Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays…
She murmured these words to herself, looking at Cesar and at Munoz. Everything was ready. They could begin. The yellow light from the English lamp created a cone of brightness that wrapped itself about the two main characters. Cesar inclined his head a little and lit his cigarette. As if that were the signal for the dialogue to start, Munoz nodded slightly and spoke:
“I hope you have a chessboard to hand, Cesar.”
Not the most brilliant of openings, thought Julia, nor even the most appropriate. An imaginative scriptwriter would doubtless have come up with some better words to place in Munoz’s mouth. But, she thought disconsolately, the writer of the tragicomedy was, after all, as mediocre as the world he’d created.
“I don’t think a chessboard will be necessary,” replied Cesar, and with that the dialogue improved. Not because of the words, but because of the tone, which was perfect, particularly that hint of boredom Cesar gave to the phrase. It was a tone typical of him, one he might use were he observing a distant scene from a garden chair, a wrought-iron one painted white, with a very dry martini in one hand. Cesar had his decadent poses down to a fine art, as he did his homosexuality, his perversity, and Julia, who had loved him for that too, could appreciate the value of that rigorous, precise attitude, so perfect in every detail. And the most fascinating thing was that he had been deceiving her for twenty years. Although, to be fair, the person responsible for the deceit was not him, but her. Nothing had changed in Cesar. Now he was feeling no remorse or disquiet for what he’d done. She knew this with absolute certainty. He appeared to be as distinguished and correct as he had when Julia heard from his lips beautiful stories about lovers and warriors, about Long John Silver, Wendy, Lagardere, Sir Kenneth, the Knight of the Couchant Leopard. Yet he was the one who had dumped Alvaro under the shower, rammed a bottle of gin between Menchu’s legs. Julia savoured her own bitterness. If he is himself, she thought, and it’s clear that he is, then the one who has changed is me. That’s why I see him differently tonight, with altered eyes: I see a blackguard, a fraud and a murderer. And yet I’m still here, hanging on his every word, fascinated. In a few seconds, instead of telling me a tale of adventures in the Caribbean, he’s going to tell me that he did it all for me or some such thing. And I’ll listen to him, as I always have, because this is better than all Cesar’s other stories. It surpasses them all in imagination and horror.
She removed her arm from the back of the sofa and leaned forwards a little, not wanting to miss the slightest detail of the scene. That movement seemed the signal to resume the dialogue. Munoz, his hands in his pockets, his head on one side, looked at Cesar.
“Just clarify something for me,” he said. “After the black bishop takes the white pawn on a6, White decides to move his king from d4 to e5, discovering the check of the white queen on the black king. What should Black do next?”
Cesar’s eyes seemed to be smiling independently of his impassive features.
“I don’t know,” he replied after a moment. “You’re the master, my dear. You should know.”
Munoz made one of his vague gestures, as if brushing aside the title Cesar had bestowed on him.
“I insist,” he said slowly, dragging out the words, “on knowing the authorised version.”
Cesar’s lips became infected by the smile that until then had been restricted to his eyes.
“In that case, I would protect the black king by placing the bishop on c4.” He looked at Munoz with courteous solicitude. “Does that seem right to you?”
“Then I’ll take that bishop,” Munoz said, almost rudely, “with my white bishop on d3. And then you’ll have me in check with your knight on d7.”
“I’ll do no such thing, my friend.” Cesar held his gaze unflinchingly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. And this is no time to play charades.”
Munoz frowned and looked stubborn.
“You’ll have me in check on d7,” he insisted. “Stop play-acting and concentrate on the board.”
“Why should I?”
“Because you have very few escape routes now. I avoid that check by moving the white king to d6.”
Cesar sighed when he heard this, and his blue eyes rested on Julia. In the dim light, they seemed extraordinarily pale, almost colourless. After placing his cigarette holder between his teeth, he nodded twice, with a slight look of regret on his face.
“Then, I’m sorry to say” – and he did indeed seem put out – “I would have to take the second white knight, the one on b1.” He looked at Munoz contritely. “A pity, don’t you think?”
“Yes. Especially from the knight’s point of view.” Munoz bit his lower lip. “And would you take it with the rook or with the queen?”
“With the queen, naturally.” Cesar seemed offended. “There are certain rules…” He left the phrase hanging in the air with a gesture of his right hand. A fine, pale hand, on the back of which could be seen the bluish ridges of his veins, a hand that Julia now knew was capable of killing, perhaps initiating the lethal blow with the same elegant gesture.
Then, for the first time since they’d arrived, Munoz smiled, that vague, distant smile that never meant anything, that was a response to his strange mathematical reflections rather than to the surrounding reality.
“In your place I would have played queen to c2, but that’s of no importance now,” he said in a low voice. “What I’d like to know is how you were thinking of killing me.”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” replied Cesar, and he seemed genuinely shocked. Then, as if appealing to Munoz’s sense of politeness, he made a gesture in the direction of the sofa where Julia was sitting, though without looking at her. “There’s a young lady present…”
“At this point,” remarked Munoz, the smile still there at one corner of his mouth, “the young lady is, I imagine, as curious as I am. But you didn’t answer my question. Were you thinking of resorting again to the tactic of a blow to the throat or the back of the neck or were you saving a more classical ending for me? I mean poison, a dagger or something like that… How would you put it?” He glanced up at the paintings on the ceiling, seeking some appropriate phrase. “Ah, yes, something ‘Venetian’.”
“I would have said ‘Florentine’,” Cesar corrected him, punctilious as always, although not without a certain admiration. “I had no idea you had a sense of irony about such matters.”
“I don’t,” replied Munoz. “Not at all.” He looked at Julia and pointed at Cesar. “There he is: the man who enjoys the trust of both king and queen. If you want to fictionalise the thing, he’s the plotting bishop, the treacherous Grand Vizier who conspires in the shadows because he is, in fact, the Black Queen in disguise.”
“It would make a marvellous soap opera,” remarked Cesar mockingly, clapping his hands in slow, silent applause. “But you haven’t told me what White would do after losing the knight. Frankly, my dear, I can’t wait to find out.”
“Bishop to d3, check. And Black loses the game.”
“That easy, eh? You frighten me, my friend.”
“Yes, that easy.”
Cesar considered this while he removed what remained of his cigarette from the holder and placed it in an ashtray, having first delicately removed the ash.
“Interesting,” he said and slowly, so as not to alarm Munoz unnecessarily, went over to the English card table next to the sofa. After turning the small silver key in the lock of a chest veneered in lemonwood, he took out the dark, yellowing pieces of a very old ivory chess set that Julia had never seen before.
“Interesting,” he repeated. His slender fingers with their manicured nails arranged the pieces on the board. “The situation, then, would be like this.”
“Exactly,” said Munoz, who was looking at the board from a distance. “The white bishop, when it withdraws from c4 to d3, allows a double check: white queen on black king and the bishop itself on the black queen. The king has no alternative but to flee from a4 to b3 and to abandon the black queen to her fate. The white queen will provide another check on c4, forcing the enemy king to retreat, before the white bishop finishes off the queen.”
“The black rook will take that bishop.”
“Yes, but that’s not important. Without the queen, Black is finished.
What’s more, once that piece disappears from the board the game loses its raison d’etre“
“You may be right.”
“I am right. The game, or what’s left of it, is decided by the white pawn on d5, which, after taking the black pawn on c6, will advance, with no one to stop it, until it is promoted. That will happen within six or, at most, nine moves.” Munoz put a hand into one of his pockets and drew out a piece of paper covered with pencilled jottings. “These, for example.”
Cesar picked up the piece of paper and very calmly studied the chessboard, his empty cigarette holder clamped between his teeth. His smile was that of a man accepting a defeat that was already written in the stars. One after another he moved the pieces until they represented the final situation: “You’re right. There’s no way out,” he said at last. “Black loses.”
Munoz’s eyes shifted from the board to Cesar.
“Taking the second knight,” he murmured in an objective tone, “was a mistake.”
Cesar shrugged, still smiling.
“After a certain point Black had no choice. You could say that Black was also a prisoner of his mobility, of his natural dynamic. That knight rounded off the game.” For a moment Julia caught in Cesar’s eyes a flash of pride. “In fact, it was almost perfect.”
“Not in chess terms,” said Munoz dryly.
“Chess? My dear friend” – Cesar made a disdainful gesture in the direction of the chess pieces – “I was referring to something more than
a simple chessboard.“ His blue eyes grew dark, as if a hidden world were peering out from beneath their surface. ”I was referring to life itself, to those other sixty-four squares of black nights and white days of which the poet speaks. Or perhaps it’s the other way round, perhaps it should be white nights and black days. It depends on which side of the player we choose to place the image… on where, since we’re talking in symbolic terms, we place the mirror.“
Julia felt that his words were addressed to her.
“How did you know it was Cesar?” she asked Munoz, and Cesar seemed startled. Something suddenly changed in his attitude, as if Julia, by giving voice to and sharing Munoz’s accusation, had broken a vow of silence. His initial reserve disappeared at once, and his smile became a bitter, mocking grimace.
“Yes,” he said to Munoz, and that was his first formal admission of guilt, “tell her how you knew it was me.”
Munoz turned his head a little towards Julia.
“Your friend made a couple of mistakes.” He hesitated for a second over the exact sense of his words and then glanced towards Cesar, possibly in apology. “Although I’m wrong to call them ‘mistakes’, because he always knew exactly what he was doing and what the risks were. Paradoxically, you made him give himself away.”
“I did? But I hadn’t the slightest idea until…”
Cesar shook his head, almost sweetly, Julia thought, frightened of her feelings.
“Our friend Munoz is speaking figuratively, Princess.”
“Please, don’t call me Princess.” Julia didn’t recognise her own voice. It sounded strangely hard. “Not tonight.”
Cesar looked at her for a few moments before nodding his assent.
“All right.” He seemed to find it difficult to pick up the thread. “What Munoz is trying to explain is that your presence in the game provided him with a contrast by which to observe the intentions of his opponent. Our friend is a good chess player, but he’s turned out to be a much better sleuth than I expected. Not like that imbecile Feijoo, who sees a cigarette end lying in an ashtray and deduces, at most, that someone’s been smoking.” He looked at Munoz. “It was bishop to pawn instead of queen to pawn d5 that put you on the alert, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. Or at least it was one of the things that made me suspicious. On his fourth move, Black passed up a chance to take the white queen, which would have decided the game in his favour. At first I thought he was just playing cat and mouse, or that Julia was so necessary to the game that she couldn’t be taken or murdered until later. But when our enemy, you, chose bishop to pawn instead of queen to pawn d5, a move that would inevitably have meant an exchange of queens, I realised that the mystery player had never had any intention of taking the white queen, that he was even prepared to lose the game rather than take that step. And the link between that move and the spray can left on Julia’s car in the Rastro, that presumptuous ‘I could kill you but I won’t, was so obvious that I no longer had any doubts: the threats to the white queen were all a bluff.” He looked at Julia. “Because, throughout this whole episode, you were never in any real danger.”
Cesar nodded as if what was being considered were not his actions but those of a third party about whose fate he cared nothing.
“You also realised,” he said, “that the enemy was not the king but the black queen.”
“That wasn’t difficult. The connection with the murders was obvious: only those pieces taken by the black queen symbolised real murders. I applied myself to studying the moves of that one piece and I drew some interesting conclusions. For example, her protective role as regards Black’s play in general, which extended even to the white queen, her main enemy, and which she nevertheless respected as if the latter were sacred. The proximity of the white knight, myself, the two pieces on adjacent squares, almost like good neighbours, yet the black queen chose not to use her poisonous sting on him until later, when there would be no alternative.” He was looking at Cesar with opaque eyes. “At least I have the consolation of knowing that you would have killed me without hatred, even with a certain finesse and fellow feeling, with an apology on your lips, asking for my understanding. That you were driven purely by the demands of the game.”
Cesar made a theatrical, eighteenth-century gesture with his hand and bowed his head, grateful for the apparent precision of Munoz’s analysis.
“You’re absolutely right,” he said. “But tell me, how did you know you were the knight and not the bishop?”
“Thanks to a series of clues, some minor and others more important. The decisive one was the symbolic role of the bishop, which, as I mentioned before, is the piece that enjoys the trust of both king and queen. You, Cesar, played an extraordinary role in all this: white bishop disguised as black queen, acting on both sides of the board. And that very condition is what brought about your downfall, in a game which, curiously enough, you started precisely for that reason, to be beaten. And you received the coup de grace from your own hand: the white bishop takes the black queen, Julia’s antiquarian friend betrays the identity of the invisible player with his own game, like the scorpion stinging itself with its own tail. I can assure you that it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever witnessed a suicide on the chessboard carried out to such perfection.”
“Brilliant,” said Cesar, and Julia couldn’t tell if he was referring to Munoz’s analysis or to his own game. “But tell me something. In your judgment, how would you interpret that identification of mine with both the black queen and the white bishop?”
“I imagine that a detailed explanation would take us all night and the ensuing discussion several weeks. I can only speak now of what I saw revealed on the chessboard, and that was a split personality: evil, Cesar, in all its blackness. Your feminine side, do you remember? You asked me once for an analysis: someone hemmed in and oppressed by his surroundings, defiant in the face of authority, hostile and homosexual impulses. All of that was embodied beneath the black dress of Beatrice of Burgundy, in other words, the queen of chess. And in opposition to that, as different as day from night, was your love for Julia. Your other side which is just as painful to you: the masculine side, with certain modifications; the aesthetic side embodied in your chivalrous attitudes; what you wanted to be and were not. Roger de Arras embodied not in the knight but in the elegant white bishop. What do you think?”
Cesar was pale and motionless, for the first time in her life, Julia saw him paralysed by surprise. Then, after a few moments that seemed an eternity, filled only by the ticking of a wall clock marking the passing of that silence, Cesar finally managed a faint smile, at one corner of his bloodless lips. But it was mechanical, a way of confronting the implacable dissection of his personality that Munoz had cast into his face, like someone throwing down a gauntlet.
“Tell me about the bishop,” he said in a hoarse voice.
“Since you ask me to, I will.” Munoz’s eyes were lit now by the decisive brilliance of his moves. He was repaying his opponent for all the doubts and uncertainties the latter had put him through at the board; it was his professional revenge. And when she realised this, Julia knew that at some point in the game Munoz must have thought he was going to lose. “The bishop, with its deep, diagonal movement,” he said, “is the chess piece that best embodies homosexuality. Yes, you gave yourself another magnificent part as the bishop protecting the helpless white queen, the bishop who, in the end, in a moment of sublime resolution planned right at the start, deals a mortal blow to his own obscure condition and offers up to his adored white queen a masterly and terrifying lesson. I saw all that only gradually, as I slowly put my ideas together. But you didn’t play chess. At first that prevented my suspicions from centering on you. And even when I was almost certain, that was what disconcerted me. The game plan was too perfect for a normal player, and inconceivable even in a keen amateur. In fact, that still troubles me.”
“There’s an explanation for everything,” replied Cesar. “But I didn’t mean to interrupt you, my dear. Go on.”
“There’s nor much more to say. At least not here, tonight. Alvaro Ortega was killed by someone he perhaps knew, but I wasn’t completely sure about that. However, Menchu Roch would never have opened the door to a stranger, especially in the circumstances described by Max. In the cafe the other night, you said there were almost no suspects left, and you were right. I tried to approach it analytically, in successive stages. Lola Belmonte wasn’t my opponent; I knew that as soon as I met her. Nor was her husband. As for Don Manuel Belmonte, his odd musical paradoxes gave me plenty of food for thought… But the suspect was someone unbalanced. His chess-playing side, if I may put it like that, was not up to it. Besides, he was an invalid, which ruled out the violent actions perpetrated against Alvaro and Menchu. A possible combination of uncle and niece, bearing in mind the blonde woman in the raincoat, didn’t stand up to detailed analysis either: why would they steal something that was theirs already? As for Montegrifo, I made some enquiries, and I know that he has no links with chess whatsoever. Besides, Menchu would never have opened the door to him either that morning.”
“So that left only me.”
“As you know, when one has eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
“Of course I remember, my dear. And I congratulate you. I’m glad to see that I did not misjudge you.”
“That’s why you chose me, isn’t it? You knew that I would win the game. You wanted to be beaten.”
With an obliging little smile, Cesar indicated that it was now a matter of no importance.
“I did indeed expect to be beaten. I called on your good offices because Julia needed a guide in her descent into hell… Because this time I had to concentrate on playing the role of the Devil. She needed a companion. So I gave her one.”
Julia’s eyes flashed when she heard that. Her voice sounded metallic.
“You weren’t playing at being the Devil, but at being God. Dealing out good and evil, life and death.”
“It was your game, Julia.”
“You’re lying. It was yours. I was just a pretext.”
Cesar gave her a reproving look.
“You haven’t understood anything, my dear. But that doesn’t matter any more. Look in any mirror; perhaps you’ll agree with me then.”
“You can keep your mirrors, Cesar.”
He was genuinely hurt, like a dog or a child unjustly treated. The dumb reproach, overflowing with absurd loyalty, gradually faded from his eyes, and all that remained was an absorbed, almost tearful gaze, staring into space. Slowly he moved his head and looked again at Munoz.
“You haven’t yet told me,” he said, and he seemed to have difficulty recovering the tone he had used before when talking to Munoz, “how you set the trap that finally made your inductive theories fit the facts. Why have you come to see me with Julia tonight, and not yesterday, for example?”
“Because yesterday you hadn’t declined for the second time to take the white queen. Also because until this afternoon I hadn’t found what I was looking for: a bound volume of chess magazines for the fourth quarter of 1945. There’s a photograph of the finalists in a junior chess tournament in it, and you’re there, Cesar, your name and surname are on the following page. What surprises me is that you weren’t a winner. It also puzzles me that after that there’s no mention of you as a chess player. You never played in public again.”
“There’s something I don’t understand,” said Julia. “Or, to be exact, there’s something else, apart from all the many things I don’t understand in all this madness. I’ve known you for as long as I can remember, Cesar. I grew up with you, and I thought I knew every corner of your life. But you never once mentioned chess. Never. Why?”
“That’s a long story.”
“We’ve got time,” said Munoz.
It was the last game in the tournament, with only a few pieces left on the board. Opposite the platform on which the finalists were playing, a few spectators were following the moves as a judge wrote on a panel on the wall, between a portrait of General Franco and a calendar -the date was 12 October 1945 – above the table on which stood the gleaming silver cup intended for the winner.
The young boy in the grey jacket fiddled nervously with the knot of his tie and looked despairingly at the black pieces on the board. The last few moves of his opponent’s methodical, implacable game had manoeuvred him relentlessly into a corner. It wasn’t that White had a brilliant game plan, it was simply a question of slow progress starting with a solid initial defence – the King’s Indian defence – and getting the upper hand purely and simply by waiting patiently and exploiting his opponent’s mistakes. An unimaginative game that risked nothing had, for precisely that reason, sabotaged every attempt at an attack on his king by Black, whose forces were now scattered, incapable of helping each other, or even of providing obstacles to the advance of the two white pawns, which, taking turns to move, were about to be promoted.
The eyes of the boy in the grey jacket were dull with weariness and shame. The knowledge that his game was superior, more daring and brilliant than that of his opponent, could not console him for his inevitable defeat. His fifteen-year-old’s imagination, extravagant and fiery, the extreme sensitivity of his spirit and the lucidity of his thought, even the almost physical pleasure he felt when he moved the varnished wooden chessmen elegantly across the board, creating on the black and white squares a delicate network that he considered to be of almost perfect beauty and harmony, all seemed sterile now, sullied by the crude satisfaction and disdain evident on his opponent’s face: a sallow-skinned lout with small eyes and coarse features whose only strategy had been to wait prudently, like a spider in the centre of his web, a strategy of unspeakable cowardice.
So this too was chess, thought the boy playing Black. In the final analysis, it was the humiliation of undeserved defeat, with the prize going to those who risk nothing. That was what he felt at that moment, seated for a game that was not merely a foolish set of moves, but a mirror of life itself, of flesh and blood, life and death, heroism and sacrifice. Like the proud knights of France at Crecy, undone in the midst of empty victory by the Welsh archers of the King of England, he had seen the attacks made by his knights and bishops, moves that were daring and deep, like the splendid, glittering blows of a sword, one crash after the other, like heroic but futile waves, against the phlegmatic immobility of his opponent. And that hated piece, the white king, on the other side of his insurmountable barrier of plebeian pawns, observed from a safe distance, with as much scorn as that reflected on the face of the White player, the discomfort and impotence of the solitary black king, incapable of helping his remaining faithful pawns, who were engaged in a hopeless battle, an agonising free-for-all.
On that pitiless battleground of cold black and white squares there was no room for honour in defeat. Defeat wiped out everything, destroying not only the loser but also his imagination, his dreams, his self-esteem. The boy in the grey jacket leaned his elbow on the table, cradled his forehead in the palm of his hand and closed his eyes, listening as the sound of clashing weapons died slowly away in the valley flooded with shadows. Never again, he said to himself. Just as the Gauls conquered by Rome refused ever to speak of their defeat, he too, for the rest of his life, would refuse to remember his, and sterility of victory. He would never again play chess. And, with luck, he would be able to wipe it from his memory, just as the names of dead Pharaohs were removed from all the monuments.
Opponent, judge and spectators were awaiting his next move with ill-disguised irritation, for the game had gone on for far too long. The boy took one last look at his besieged king and, with a sad feeling of shared solitude, decided that all that remained for him to do was to commit one last merciful act and give him a worthy death at his own hand, thus avoiding the humiliation of being boxed in like a fugitive dog. He reached out his hand and, in a gesture of infinite tenderness, slowly upended the defeated king and laid him lovingly down on the empty square.