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XV Queen Ending

What I did originated a lot of sin,

as well as passion, dissension, vain words -

not to mention lies – in myself,

in my antagonist or in both. Chess drove me

to neglect my duties to God and to men.

The Harleyan Myscellany

When Cesar’s low voice stopped, he gave an absent smile and slowly turned his eyes from some indeterminate spot in the room to the ivory chess set on the table. Then he shrugged, as if to say, “Well, no one gets to choose his own past.”

“You never told me about that,” Julia said, and the sound of her voice seemed an absurd intrusion.

Cesar paused before replying. The light from the parchment lampshade lit only half his face, leaving the other half in shadow. The effect accentuated the lines around his eyes and mouth, emphasised his aristocratic profile, his fine nose and chin, like the effigy on an antique medal.

“I could hardly tell you about something that didn’t exist,” he murmured softly, and his eyes, or perhaps just the dull gleam of his eyes in the penumbra, rested on Julia’s. “For forty years I applied myself carefully to the task of believing that to be the case.” There was a mocking edge to his voice now, no doubt directed at himself. “I never played chess again, not even alone. Never.”

Julia shook her head, finding it all very hard to believe.

“You’re sick.”

He gave a short, humourless laugh.

“You disappoint me, Princess. I hoped that you at least would not resort to cliches.” He looked thoughtfully at his ivory cigarette holder. “I assure you I’m completely sane. How else could I have constructed with such meticulous detail this whole beautiful story?”

“Beautiful?” She looked at him in stupefaction. “We’re talking about Alvaro and about Menchu… Beautiful story?” She shuddered with horror and disgust. “For God’s sake! What the hell are you talking about?”

Cesar held her gaze, unmoved, and then turned to Munoz as if for support.

“There are… aesthetic aspects,” he said, “there are some extraordinarily original factors that can’t be dismissed in such a superficial way. The chessboard isn’t just black and white. There are higher planes, from which you can view events. Objective planes.” He gave them a look of sudden and apparently sincere pain. “I thought you’d both realised that.”

“I know what you mean,” remarked Munoz. He had not moved from his position, and his hands were still in the pockets of his crumpled raincoat. At one corner of his mouth, the vague smile had appeared again, indefinable and distant.

“You do, do you?” exclaimed Julia. “What do you know about it?”

She clenched her fists indignantly, holding in the breath that echoed in her ears like that of an animal at the end of a long run. But Munoz did not react, and Julia noticed that Cesar gave him a quiet look of gratitude.

“I was right to choose you,” he said. “And I’m glad I did.”

Munoz didn’t respond. He simply glanced around at the paintings, the furniture, the objects in the room and nodded slowly, as if he were drawing mysterious conclusions. After a few moments he indicated Julia with a lift of his chin.

“I think she deserves to know the whole story.”

“So do you, my dear,” added Cesar.

“Yes, I do. Although I’m here only in the role of witness.”

There was no note of censure or menace in his words. It was as if the chess player were maintaining some absurd neutrality. An impossible neutrality, thought Julia, because, sooner or later, there will come a point when words will run out and we’ll have to make a decision.

However, numbed by a sense of unreality she couldn’t shake off, she felt that that moment still seemed far off.

“Let’s begin, then,” she said, and when she heard herself speak, she found with unexpected relief that she was regaining her lost composure. She gave Cesar a hard look. “Tell us about Alvaro.”

Cesar nodded.

“Yes, Alvaro,” he repeated in a low voice. “But first I should mention the painting.” A look of sudden annoyance crossed his face, as if he’d neglected some point of elementary courtesy. “I haven’t asked if you’d like a drink or anything… Unforgivable of me. Would you like something?”

No one replied. Cesar went over to the old oak chest he used as a drinks cabinet.

“The first time I saw that painting was when I was in your apartment, Julia. Do you remember? They’d delivered it a few hours before, and you were like a child with a new toy. For almost an hour I watched while you studied it in minute detail, explaining to me the techniques you thought you’d use to make it, and I quote, the most beautiful piece of work you’d ever done.” As he spoke, Cesar selected a narrow tumbler of expensive cut glass and filled it with ice, gin and lemon juice. “I was surprised to see you so happy, and the truth is, Princess, I was happy too.” He turned round with the glass in his hand and, after a cautious taste, seemed satisfied with it. “But what I didn’t tell you then… Well, even now it’s hard to put into words. You were delighted with the beauty of the image, the balance of the composition, the colour and the light. I was too, but for different reasons. That chessboard, the players and the pieces, the lady reading by the window, aroused a dormant echo of my old passion. Believing it to be completely forgotten, I felt it return like a bolt from the blue. I was simultaneously feverish and terrified, as if I’d felt the breath of madness on my cheek.”

Cesar fell silent, and the half of his mouth lit by the lamp curved into a wickedly intimate smile, as if he now found special pleasure in savouring that memory.

“It wasn’t just a matter of chess,” he continued, “but a deep, personal sense of the game as a link between life and death, between reality and dream. And while you, Julia, were talking about pigments and varnishes, I was barely listening, surprised by the tremor of pleasure and exquisite anguish running through my body as I sat next to you on the sofa and looked not at what Pieter Van Huys had painted on that Flemish panel but at what that man, that genius, had in mind while he was painting.”

“And you decided that you had to have it.”

Cesar looked at Julia with an expression of ironic reproof.

“Don’t oversimplify things, Princess.” He took a brief sip of his drink and smiled at her as if begging her indulgence. “What I decided, very suddenly, was that it was absolutely vital that I give full rein to my passion. It’s not for nothing that one lives as long as I have. Doubtless that’s why I understood at once, not the message, which, as we discovered later, was in code, but the certain truth that the painting contained some fascinating and terrible enigma. Think of it: perhaps the enigma would, at last, prove me right.”

“Right?”

“Yes. The world is not as simple as people would have us believe. The outlines are vague; it’s the details that count. Nothing is black and white; evil can be a disguise for good or beauty and vice versa, without one thing necessarily excluding the other. A human being can both love and betray the object of that love without diminishing the reality of his or her feelings. You can be father, brother, son and lover all at the same time; victim and executioner… You can choose your own examples. Life is an uncertain adventure in a diffuse landscape, whose borders are continually shifting, where all frontiers are artificial, where at any moment everything can either end only to begin again or finish suddenly, for ever and ever, like an unexpected blow from an axe. Where the only absolute, coherent, indisputable and definitive reality is death. Where we are only a tiny lightning flash between two eternal nights, and where, Princess, we have very little time.”

“What has that got to do with Alvaro’s death?”

“Everything has to do with everything else.” Cesar raised a hand, asking for patience. “Besides, life is a succession of events that link with each other whether one wants them to or not.” He held his glass up to the light and peered at the contents as if the rest of his thought process might be found floating there. “Then -I mean that day, Julia -I decided to find out everything I could about the painting. And, like you, the first person I thought of was Alvaro. I never liked him, neither when you were together nor afterwards, with the important difference that I never forgave the wretch for having made you suffer the way he did…”

“That was my business,” Julia said, “not yours.”

“You’re wrong. It was mine too. Alvaro had occupied a position that I never could. In a way…” he hesitated for a moment and gave a bitter smile, “he was my rival. The only man capable of taking you away from me.”

“It was all over between him and me. It’s absurd to relate the two things.”

“Not that absurd. But let’s not discuss it further. I hated him, and that’s that. Naturally, that isn’t a reason to kill anyone. If it were, I can assure you I wouldn’t have waited so long before doing it. This world of ours, the world of art and antiquities, is a very small one. Alvaro and I had had professional contact now and then; it was inevitable. Our relationship could not be termed friendly, of course, but sometimes money and self-interest make strange bedfellows. The proof is that, when faced by the problem of the Van Huys, you yourself went straight to him. So I also went to see him and I asked him to write a report on the painting. I didn’t expect him to do it for the love of art, of course. I offered him a reasonable sum of money. Your ex, God rest him, was always an expensive boy. Very expensive.”

“Why didn’t you say anything to me about this?”

“For various reasons. The first was that I didn’t want to see you start a relationship with him again, not even professionally. You can never guarantee that there aren’t some embers still burning beneath the ashes. But there was something else. The painting had to do with very personal feelings.” He pointed to the ivory chess set on the card table. “It had to do with a part of me that I believed I had renounced for ever, a corner of myself to which no one was allowed access, not even you, Princess. That would have meant opening the door to matters that I would never have had the courage to discuss with you.” He looked at Munoz, who was holding himself aloof from the conversation. “I imagine our friend here could enlighten you on the subject. Isn’t that right? Chess as a projection of the ego, defeat as a frustration of libido and other such deliciously murky things. Those long, deep moves diagonally across the board that the bishops make.” He ran the tip of his tongue round the edge of his glass and shuddered slightly. “Oh, well. I’m sure old Sigmund would have had plenty to say on the subject.”

He sighed in homage to his own ghosts, then raised his glass slowly in Munoz’s direction.

“I still don’t understand,” insisted Julia, “what all this has to do with Alvaro.”

“Not very much, at first,” Cesar acknowledged. “I just wanted a simple little report on the history of the painting. Something for which, as I said, I was prepared to pay well. But things got complicated when you decided to consult him too. That wasn’t a serious problem in principle. For Alvaro, showing a praiseworthy professional discretion, refrained from telling you about my interest in the painting, since I’d specifically asked that it remain top secret.”

“But didn’t he find it odd that you were researching the painting behind my back?”

“Not at all. Or if he did, he didn’t say anything. Perhaps he thought I wanted to give you a surprise, by providing you with some new facts. Or perhaps he thought I was playing a trick on you.” Cesar pondered seriously. “Now I think of it, he would have deserved to be killed just for that.”

“He did try to warn me. He said something about the Van Huys being very fashionable lately.”

“A villain to the end,” remarked Cesar. “By giving you that simple warning, he covered himself as regards you, without upsetting me. He kept us both happy: he took the money and kept open the possibility of reviving tender scenes from yesteryear.” He arched one eyebrow and gave a short laugh. “But I was telling you what happened between Alvaro and mc.” He peered into his glass again. “Two days after my talk with him, you came and told me about the concealed inscription. I tried to hide it as best I could, but the effect on me was like an electric shock. It confirmed my feeling about the existence of some mystery. I knew that it would increase the value of the Van Huys, and I remember telling you as much. That, together with the history of the painting and its characters, would open possibilities that at the time I thought would be marvellous: you and I would share in the research and solve the enigma together. It would be like the old days, you see, like hunting for buried treasure, but a real treasure this time. And it would mean fame for you, Julia. Your name in specialist magazines, in art books. As for me… let’s just say that I was satisfied with that. But involving myself in the game also meant a complex personal challenge. One thing is certain, ambition had nothing to do with it at all. Do you believe me?”

“I believe you.”

“I’m glad. Because only then will you be able to understand what happened next.” Cesar clinked the ice in his glass, and the noise seemed to help him order his memories. “When you left, I phoned Alvaro, and we arranged that I would see him at midday. I went with no evil intentions, and I confess that I was trembling with pure excitement. Alvaro told me what he’d learned. I saw, with satisfaction, that he knew nothing about the hidden inscription. Everything went swimmingly until he started talking about you. Then, Princess, the whole atmosphere changed completely.”

“In what sense?”

“In every sense.”

“I mean what did Alvaro say about me?”

Cesar shifted in his chair, apparently embarrassed, before he gave his reluctant reply.

“Your visit had made a big impression on him. Or at least that’s what he implied. I saw that you’d stirred up old feelings in a most dangerous way, and that Alvaro wouldn’t mind at all if things were to go back to the way they were.” He paused and frowned. “Julia, you simply can’t imagine how that irritated me. Alvaro had ruined two years of your life, and there I was, sitting opposite him, listening to his brazen plans to erupt into your life again. I told him, in no uncertain terms, to leave you in peace. He looked at me as if I were an interfering old queen, and we began to argue. I’ll spare you the details, but it was most unpleasant. He accused me of sticking my nose in where it wasn’t wanted.”

“And he was right.”

“No, he wasn’t. You mattered to me, Julia. You matter to me more than anything in the world.”

“Don’t be absurd. I would never have got together again with Alvaro.”

“I’m not so sure about that. I know how much that wretch meant to you.” He smiled wryly into space, as if Alvaro’s ghost, rendered inoffensive now, were there. “While we were arguing, I felt my old hatred for him well up in me. It went to my head like one of your hot vodka toddies. It was, my dear, a hatred I don’t recall ever having felt before; a good, solid hatred, deliciously ‘Latin’. I stood up, and I think I lost control, because I hurled abuse at him, using the select vocabulary of a fishwife, which I reserve for very special occasions. At first, he seemed surprised by my outburst. Then he lit his pipe and laughed in my face. He said it was my fault that his relationship with you had ended. That I was to blame for your never having grown up. My presence in your life, which he described as unhealthy and obsessive, had clipped your wings. ”And the worst thing,“ he added with an insulting smile, ”is that, deep down, you’re the one Julia’s always been in love with, because you symbolise the father she never knew… And that’s why she’s in the mess she’s in now.“ Having said that, Alvaro put one hand in his pocket, gave a few puffs on his pipe and peered at me through the smoke. ”Your relationship,“ he concluded, ”is nothing more or less than a case of unconsummated incest. It’s just lucky you’re a homosexual.“”

Julia closed her eyes. Cesar left his final words floating in the air and had retreated into silence. When, ashamed and embarrassed, she’d gathered enough courage to look at him again, he gave a dismissive shrug, as if what he was about to say was not his responsibility.

“With those words, Princess, Alvaro signed his death warrant. He went on smoking in the chair opposite me but, in fact, he was already dead. Not because of what he’d said – after all, his opinion was as valid as anyone else’s – but because of what it revealed to me about myself. It was as if he’d pulled back a curtain which, for years, had separated me from reality. Perhaps because it confirmed ideas that I’d kept locked away in the darkest corner of my mind, never allowing myself to cast the light of reason and logic on them.”

He stopped, as if he’d lost the thread of what he was saying and looked hesitantly at Julia and at Munoz. At last, with an ambiguous smile, simultaneously perverse and shy, he raised his glass to his lips to take a sip of gin.

“I had a sudden inspiration. And then, wonder of wonders, a complete plan revealed itself, just the way it happens in fairy tales. Each and every one of the pieces that had been floating randomly about found its exact place, its precise meaning. Alvaro, you, me, the painting. It fitted in too with my shadow side, with all the distant echoes, the forgotten feelings, the dormant passions. In those few seconds everything was laid out before me, like a giant chessboard on which each person, each idea, each situation found its corresponding symbol in a chess piece, found its exact place in time and space. That was a Game with a capital G, the great game of my life. And of yours. Because it was all there, Princess: chess, adventure, love, life and death. And at the end of it, there you stood, free of everything and everyone, beautiful and perfect, reflected in the bright mirror of maturity. You had to play chess, Julia; that much was certain. You had to kill us all in order, at last, to be free.”

“Good God.”

Cesar shook his head.

“God has nothing to do with it. I can assure you that when I went over to Alvaro and struck him on the back of the neck with the obsidian ashtray that was on the table, I no longer hated him. That was nothing but a rather unsavoury part of the plan. Irritating but necessary.”

He studied his right hand with some curiosity. He seemed to be weighing the capacity to inflict death contained in his long, pale fingers with their manicured nails, which at that moment were holding, with elegant indolence, his glass of gin.

“He dropped like a stone,” he concluded in an objective tone, once he’d finished examining his hands. “He fell without even a groan, with his pipe still clenched between his teeth. Once he was on the floor, I made sure he was well and truly dead with another blow, rather better judged. After all, if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. The rest you know already: the shower and everything else were just artistic touches. Brouillez les pistes, Arsene Lupin used to say. Although Menchu, God rest her, would doubtless have attributed the saying to Coco Chanel. Poor thing.” He drank a sip of gin to Menchu’s memory. “Anyway, I wiped my fingerprints off with a handkerchief and took the ashtray with me, just in case, throwing it into a rubbish bin some miles away. I know I shouldn’t say so, Princess, but for a novice’s my mind worked in an admirably criminal way. Before leaving, I picked up the report on the painting that Alvaro had intended delivering to you, and I typed the address on an envelope.”

“You also picked up a handful of his white index cards.”

“No, I didn’t actually. That was an ingenious touch, but it only occurred to me later. There was no way I could go back for them, so I bought some identical cards in a stationer’s. But first I had to plan the game; each move had to be perfect. What I did do, was to make sure that you got the report. It was vital that you knew everything there was to know about the painting.”

“So you resorted to the woman in the raincoat.”

“Yes. And here I must make a confession. I’ve never gone in for cross-dressing, it doesn’t interest me in the least. Sometimes, especially when I was young, I used to dress up just for fun, as if it was Carnival time. But I always did it alone, in front of the mirror.” Cesar’s face wore the roguish, self-indulgent look of someone evoking pleasant memories. “When it came to getting the envelope to you, I thought it would be amusing to repeat the experience. A whim really, a sort of challenge, if you want to think of it in more heroic terms. To see if I was capable of deceiving people by playing at telling a kind of truth or a part of it. So I went shopping. A distinguished-looking gentleman buying a raincoat, a handbag, low-heeled shoes, a blond wig, stockings and a dress doesn’t arouse suspicion if he does it in the right way, in one of those big department stores full of people. The rest was achieved by a good shave and some make-up, which, I confess without embarrassment now, I did already have. Nothing over the top, of course. Just a discreet touch of colour. No one suspected a thing at the courier’s. And I must say I found it an amusing experience… instructive, too.”

He gave a long, studiedly melancholy sigh. Then his face clouded over.

“In fact,” he added, and his tone was less frivolous now, “that was what you could call the playful part of the affair.” He gave Julia an intense look, as if he were choosing his words carefully for the benefit of a more serious and invisible audience, on whom he believed it important to make a good impression. “The really difficult bit came next. I had to guide you both towards solving the mystery, that was the first part of the game, and towards the second part, which was much more dangerous and complicated. The problem lay in the fact that, officially, I didn’t play chess. We had to progress together in our investigation of the painting, but my hands were tied when it came to helping you. It was horrible. I couldn’t play against myself either; I needed an opponent, someone of stature. So I had no alternative but to find a Virgil to guide you on the adventure. He was the last piece I needed to place on the board.”

He finished his drink and put the glass on the table. Then he dabbed carefully at his lips with a silk handkerchief he drew from the sleeve of his dressing gown. At last he looked across at Munoz and gave him a friendly smile.

“That was when, after due consultation with my neighbour Senor Cifuentes, the director of the Capablanca Club, I decided to choose you, my friend.”

Munoz nodded, just once. If he had any thoughts on that dubious honour, he refrained from voicing them.

“You never doubted that I would win, did you?” he said in a low voice.

Cesar doffed an imaginary hat, in ironic salute.

“No, never,” he agreed. “Quite apart from your talent as a chess player, which was apparent the moment I saw you in front of the Van Huys, I was prepared, my dear, to provide you with a series of juicy clues, which, if correctly interpreted, would lead you to uncover the second enigma: the identity of the mystery player.” He gave a satisfied click of his tongue, as if savouring some delicious morsel. “I must admit you impressed me. To be honest, you still do. It’s that way you have, so peculiar to you, of analysing each and every move, of gradually discounting all the unlikely hypotheses. I can only describe it as masterly.”

“I’m overwhelmed,” remarked Munoz expressionlessly, and Julia couldn’t tell if his words were intended sincerely or ironically.

Cesar threw back his head and gave a silent, theatrical laugh of pleasure.

“I must say,” he added with an ambivalent, almost coquettish look on his face, “that the feeling of being gradually cornered by you became genuinely exciting, really. Something… almost physical, if you’ll allow me that word. Although, admittedly, you’re not exactly my type.” He remained absorbed in thought for a few moments, as if trying to decide exactly how best to categorise Munoz, but then appeared to abandon the attempt. “With the final moves I realised that I was becoming the only possible suspect. And you knew that I knew… I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying that it was from that moment that we began to draw closer to each other. Wouldn’t you agree? The night we spent sitting on a bench opposite Julia’s building, keeping watch with the aid of my flask of cognac, we had a long conversation about the psychological characteristics of the murderer. By then, you were almost sure I was your opponent. I listened with rapt attention as you explained, in response to my questions, the relationship of the known hypotheses on the pathology of chess. Except one, of course. One that you didn’t mention until today but which, nevertheless, you were perfectly aware of. You know which one I mean.”

Munoz nodded, a calm, affirmative gesture. Cesar pointed at Julia.

“You and I know, but she doesn’t. Or at least not everything. We should explain it to her.”

Julia looked at Cesar.

“Yes,” she said, feeling tired and irritated with both of them. “Perhaps you’d better explain what you’re talking about, because I’m beginning to get thoroughly fed up with all this bloody matiness.”

Munoz kept his eyes fixed on Cesar.

“The mathematical aspect of chess,” he replied, unaffected by Julia’s ill humour, “gives the game a very particular character, something that specialists would define as anal sadistic. You know what I mean: chess as a silent battle between two men, evocative of terms such as aggression, narcissism, masturbation… and homosexuality. Winning equals conquering the dominant father or mother, placing oneself above them. Losing equals defeat, submission.”

Cesar raised one finger, demanding attention.

“Unless, of course,” he pointed out politely, “that is the real victory.”

“Yes,” said Munoz. “Unless victory consists precisely in demonstrating the paradox: inflicting defeat upon oneself.” He looked at Julia for a moment. “You were right in what you said to Belmonte: the game, like the painting, was accusing itself.”

Cesar gave him a surprised, almost joyful, look.

“Bravo,” he said. “Immortalising oneself in one’s own defeat; isn’t that it? Like old Socrates when he drank the hemlock.” He turned towards Julia with a triumphant air. “Our dear friend Munoz knew all this days ago, Princess, but didn’t say a word to anyone, not even to you or me. Finding myself conspicuous by my absence in my opponent’s calculations, I modestly assumed that he must be on the right track. In fact, once he’d talked to the Belmontes and could finally discount them as suspects, he had no further doubts about the identity of the enemy. Am I right?”

“You are.”

“May I ask you a rather personal question?”

“Ask and you’ll find out.”

“What did you feel when you finally hit on the correct move, when you knew it was me?”

Munoz thought for a moment.

“Relief,” he said. “I would have been disappointed if it had been someone else.”

“Disappointed to have been wrong about the identity of the mystery player? I wouldn’t want to exaggerate my own merits, but it wasn’t that obvious, my friend. Several of the characters in this story weren’t even known to you, and we’ve been together only a couple of weeks. You had only your chessboard to work with.”

“You misunderstand me,” replied Munoz. “I wanted it to be you. I liked the idea.”

Julia was looking at them, incredulity written on her face.

“I’m so glad to see you two getting along so well,” she said sarcastically. “If you like, later on we can all go out for a drink, pat each other on the back and tell each other what a laugh we’ve all had over this.” She shook her head, as if trying to recover some sense of reality. “It’s incredible, but I feel as if I were in the way here.”

Cesar gave her a look of pained affection.

“There are some things you can’t understand, Princess.”

“Don’t call me Princess! Besides, you’re quite wrong. I understand it all perfectly. And now it’s my turn to ask you a question. What would you have done that morning in the Rastro, if I hadn’t noticed the spray can and the card and I’d just got into that car with its tyre made into a bomb and started the engine?”

“That’s ridiculous.” Cesar seemed offended. “I would never have let you.”

“Even at the risk of betraying yourself?”

“Of course. You know that. Munoz said so earlier. You were never in any danger. That morning everything was planned down to the last detail: the disguise ready in the poky little room with its two separate doors, which I’ve been renting as a storeroom, my appointment with the dealer, a real appointment that I dealt with in a matter of minutes… I got dressed as fast as I could, walked to the alleyway, fixed the tyre, left the card and put the empty spray can on the bonnet. Then I stopped by the woman selling images to make sure she’d remember me, returned to the storeroom and, after a change of clothes and make-up, went off to meet you at the cafe. You have to admit my timing was impeccable.”

“Sickeningly so.”

Cesar gave her a reproving look.

“Don’t be vulgar, Princess.” He looked at her with an ingenuousness that was remarkable for its utter sincerity. “Using ghastly adverbs like that will get us nowhere.”

“Why take such pains to terrify me?”

“It was an adventure, wasn’t it? There had to be a hint of menace in the air. Can you imagine an adventure from which fear is absent? I couldn’t tell you the stories that used to thrill you as a child, so I invented the most extraordinary adventure I could imagine. An adventure that you would never forget as long as you lived.”

“Of that you can be sure.”

“ Mission accomplished, then. The struggle between reason and mystery, the destruction of the ghosts ensnaring you. Not bad, eh? And add to that the discovery that Good and Evil are not clearly delimited like the black and white squares on a chessboard.” He looked at Munoz before giving an oblique smile, as if in reference to a secret to which both were privy. “All the squares, my dear, are grey, tinged by the awareness of Evil that we all acquire with experience, an awareness of how sterile and often abjectly unjust what we call Good can turn out to be. Do you remember Settembrini, the character I so admired in The Magic Mountain ” He used to say that Evil is the shining weapon of reason against the powers of darkness and ugliness.“

Julia was intently watching Cesar’s face. At certain moments it appeared that only half of his face was speaking, the visible half or the half in shadow, the other there only as witness. And she wondered which of the two was more real.

“That morning when we attacked the blue Ford I really loved you, Cesar.”

Instinctively, she addressed the illuminated half of his face, but the reply came from the half that was plunged in shadow:

“I know you did. And that justifies everything. I didn’t know what that car was doing there either. I was as intrigued by it as you were. Perhaps more so, for obvious reasons. No one, if you’ll forgive the rather lugubrious joke, had invited it to the funeral.” He shook his head gently at the memory. “I must say that those few yards, you with your pistol and me with my pathetic poker, and our attack on those two imbeciles, before we found out they were actually Inspector Feijoo’s henchmen” – he gestured as if he couldn’t find words to express his feelings – “were absolutely marvellous. I watched you walking straight at the enemy, brows furrowed, teeth clenched, as brave and terrible as an avenging fury. In addition to excitement, I felt genuine pride. There’s a woman with real character, I thought, admiringly. If you’d been a different kind of person, unstable or fragile, I would never have put you to such a test. But I was sure you would emerge from this a new woman, harder and stronger.”

“Don’t you think the price for that was rather high? Alvaro, Menchu… you yourself.”

Cesar seemed to search his memory, as if it were an effort to remember the person Julia was referring to. “Ah, yes, Menchu,” he said at last, and frowned. “Poor Menchu, caught up in a game that was much too complex for her. Though, if you’ll forgive the immodesty, her case was a brilliant bit of improvisation. When I phoned you first thing that morning, to see how everything had worked out, Menchu answered and said you weren’t there. She seemed in a hurry to hang up, and now we know why. She was waiting for Max to carry out their absurd plan to steal the painting. I knew nothing about it, of course. But as soon as I put the phone down, I knew what my next move should be: Menchu, the painting. Half an hour later I rang the bell, in the guise of the woman in the raincoat.”

At this point, Cesar looked amused, as if trying to get Julia to see the oddly funny side of the situation he was describing.

“Princess,” he continued, arching one eyebrow, “I always told you that you should get one of those spy holes in your door – very useful if you want to know who’s calling. Menchu might not have opened the door to a blonde woman in dark glasses. But all she heard was Cesar’s voice telling her he had an urgent message from you. She had no alternative but to open the door, and she did.” He turned his hands palm up, as if in posthumous apology for Menchu’s mistake. “I imagine that at that moment she thought her plan with Max was about to be ruined, but her concern turned to surprise when she saw a strange woman standing on the doorstep. I just had time to see the startled look in her eyes before giving her a punch in the throat. She died without knowing who her killer was, I’m sure. I shut the door and set about preparing everything. Then – and this I didn’t expect – I heard the sound of a key turning in the lock.”

“Max,” said Julia unnecessarily.

“Indeed. It was the handsome pimp, who, as I learned later, when he told you the whole story at the police station, was making his second call of the morning, in order to take the painting away before Menchu set fire to your apartment. An absolutely ridiculous plan, by the way, but typical of Menchu and that fool.”

“It could have been me at the door. Did you think of that?”

“I must confess that when I heard the key in the lock, I thought it was you.”

“And what would you have done? Punched me in the throat too?”

He looked at her again with the pained expression of one unjustly used.

“Such a question,” he said, looking for an appropriate response, “is both cruel and monstrous.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. I don’t know exactly how I would have reacted. But the fact is, I felt lost, and all I could think of was to hide. I ran into the bathroom and held my breath, trying to come up with a way of getting out of there. But nothing would have happened to you. The game would simply have ended halfway through. That’s all.”

Julia stuck out her lower lip, feeling words burning in her mouth.

“I don’t believe you, Cesar. Not any more.”

“Whether you believe me or not, my dear, doesn’t change a thing.” He made a resigned gesture, as if the conversation were beginning to weary him. “At this stage it really doesn’t matter. What counts is that it wasn’t you, but Max. I heard him saying: ‘Menchu, Menchu’. He was terrified, but he didn’t dare cry out, the villain. I’d calmed down by then. I had a dagger in my pocket, the Cellini you’ve often seen. And if Max had begun sniffing round the rooms, he would have encountered that knife in the most stupid way possible, right in his heart, suddenly, before he could say a word. Luckily for him, and for me, he didn’t have the courage but chose instead to run off. Such a hero.”

He paused and sighed, but not boastfully.

“He owes his life to that, the cretin,” he added, getting up from his chair. Once on his feet, he looked at Julia and Munoz, both of whom were watching him, and wandered round the room, the carpets muffling his footsteps.

“I should have done what Max did and run away as fast as I could, since, for all I knew, the police could have been about to arrive. But what we might call my artistic honour got the better of me, and I dragged Menchu into the bedroom and… well, you know what happened. I rearranged the decor a bit, certain that Max would get the blame. It took five minutes.”

“Why did you have to do that with the bottle? It was completely unnecessary. Disgusting and horrible.”

Cesar tutted. He’d paused before one of the paintings hanging on the waif, Man by Luca Giordano, and was looking at it as if he expected the god, encased in the gleaming metal of his anachronistic medieval armour, to provide an answer.

“The bottle,” he murmured without turning to face them, “was a complementary detail. A final inspirational touch.”

“It had nothing to do with chess,” Julia pointed out, and her voice had the cutting edge of a razor. “More of a settling of accounts… with all women.”

Cesar turned slowly round to her. His eyes this time neither begged indulgence nor hinted at irony; they were, instead, distant, inscrutable.

“Then,” he said at last, in an absent tone and as if he hadn’t heard what Julia had said, “I used your typewriter to type out the next move, picked up the painting wrapped up by Max and left with it under my arm. And that was that.”

He’d been speaking in a neutral voice, as if the conversation was no longer of any interest to him. But Julia was far from considering the matter closed.

“But why kill Menchu? You could come and go in my apartment whenever you wanted. There were a thousand other ways of stealing the painting.”

That comment brought a spark of life back into Cesar’s eyes.

“I see, Princess, that you’re determined to give the theft of the Van Huys an exaggerated importance. In fact, it was just another detail. Throughout this whole affair I did some things simply because they complemented others. The icing on the cake, if you like,” he said, struggling to find the right words. “There were several reasons Menchu had to die: some are irrelevant now and others aren’t. Let’s say they go from the purely aesthetic, and that’s how our friend Munoz made his astonishing discovery of the link between Menchu’s surname and the rook that was taken, to other deeper reasons. I’d organised everything to free you from pernicious ties and influences, to cut your links with the past. Unfortunately for her, Menchu, with her innate stupidity and vulgarity, was one of those links, as was Alvaro.”

“And who gave you the power over life and death?”

Cesar gave a Mephistophelian smile.

“I did, all on my own. And forgive me if that sounds impertinent.” He seemed suddenly to recall the presence of Munoz. “As regards the rest of the game, I didn’t have much time. Munoz was like a bloodhound sniffing out my trail. A few more moves and he would point the finger at me. But I knew our dear friend wouldn’t intervene until he was absolutely certain. On the other hand, he was sure by then that you weren’t in any danger. He’s an artist too, in his way. That’s why he let me continue, while he looked for proofs that would confirm his analytical conclusions. Am I right, friend Munoz?”

Munoz’s only reply was to nod slowly. Cesar had gone over to the small table on which the chess set stood. After observing the pieces for a while, he delicately picked up the white queen, as if it were made of fragile glass, and looked at it for a long time.

“Yesterday evening,” he said, “while you were working in the studio at the Prado, I got to the museum ten minutes before it closed. I hung about in the rooms on the ground floor and planted the card on the Brueghel painting. Then I went to have a coffee to while away the time before I could phone you. That was all. The only thing I couldn’t foresee was that Munoz would dust off that old chess magazine in the club library. I had forgotten its existence.”

“There’s something that doesn’t make sense,” Munoz said suddenly, and Julia turned to him, surprised. He was staring at Cesar with his head on one side, an inquisitive light shining in his eyes; it was the way he looked when he was concentrating on the chessboard, tracking a move that didn’t quite satisfy him. “You’re a brilliant chess player; on that we agree. Or, rather, you have the ability to be one. Nevertheless, I don’t believe you have the ability to play this game the way you did. The combinations were too perfect, inconceivable for someone who hasn’t been near a chessboard in thirty-five years. In chess, what counts is practice and experience. That’s why I’m sure you’ve been lying to us. Either you’ve played a lot during these years, alone, or someone helped you. I hate to wound your vanity, Cesar, but I’m sure you had an accomplice.”

A long dense silence followed these words. Julia was looking at them both, disconcerted, unable to believe what Munoz had said. But just when she was about to shout that it was all utter nonsense, she saw that Cesar, whose face had frozen into an impenetrable mask, had finally arched one ironic eyebrow. The smile that then appeared was a grimace of recognition and admiration. He sighed deeply, crossed his arms and nodded.

“My friend,” he said slowly, dragging out the words, “you deserve to be something more than an obscure weekend chess player in a local club.” He threw out his right hand as if to indicate the presence of someone who’d been there with them all the time, in a shadowy corner of the room. “I do, in fact, have an accomplice, although in this case he can consider himself quite safe from any reprisals on the part of Justice. Would you like to know his name?”

“I was hoping you’d tell me.”

“Of course I will, since I don’t believe my betrayal will harm him much.” He smiled, more broadly. “I hope you won’t feel offended, my esteemed friend, that I kept this small source of satisfaction to myself. Believe me, it affords me great pleasure to know that you didn’t find out absolutely everything. Can’t you guess who he is?”

“I can’t, and I’m sure it’s no one I know.”

“You’re right. His name is Alfa PC-1212. He’s a personal computer with a complex chess programme with twenty levels of play. I bought it the day after killing Alvaro.”

For only the second time since she’d known him, Julia saw a look of amazement on Munoz’s face. The light in his eyes had gone out and his mouth hung open in astonishment.

“Haven’t you got anything to say?” asked Cesar, observing him with amused curiosity.

Munoz gave him a long look but didn’t answer. After a while, he looked across at Julia.

“Give me a cigarette, will you,” he said in a dull voice.

She offered him the pack, and he turned it around in his fingers before taking out a cigarette and putting it to his lips. Julia proffered a lit match, and he inhaled the smoke slowly, deeply, filling his lungs. He seemed to be a million miles from there.

“It’s hard to take, isn’t it?” said Cesar, laughing softly. “All this time you’ve been playing against a simple computer, a machine with no emotions or feelings. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that it’s a delicious paradox, a perfect symbol of the times we live in. Maelzel’s prodigious player had a man hidden inside, according to Poe. Do you remember? But times change, my friend. Now it’s the automaton that hides inside the man.” He held up the yellowing ivory queen he had in his hand and showed it, mockingly. “And all your talent, imagination and extraordinary capacity for mathematical analysis, dear Senor Munoz, have their equivalent on a simple plastic diskette that fits in the palm of a hand, like the ironic reflection in a mirror that shows us only a caricature of what we are. I’m very much afraid that, like Julia, you will never be the same after this. Although in your case,” he acknowledged with a reflective smile, “I doubt if you will gain much from the change.”

Munoz still said nothing. He merely stood with his hands in his raincoat pockets again, the cigarette hanging from his lips, his inexpressive eyes half closed against the smoke. He looked like a parody of a shabby detective in a black-and-white movie.

“I’m sorry,” said Cesar, and he seemed sincere. He returned the queen to the board with the air of someone about to draw a pleasant evening to a close and looked at Julia.

“To finish,” he said, “I’m going to show you something.”

He went over to a mahogany escritoire, opened one of its drawers and took out a fat sealed envelope and the three porcelain figurines by Bustelli.

“You win the prize, Princess.” He smiled at her with a glint of mischief in his eyes. “Once again you’ve managed to find the buried treasure. Now you can do with it what you like.”

Julia regarded the figurines and the envelope suspiciously.

“I don’t understand.”

“You will in a minute. During these last few weeks I’ve also had time to concern myself with your interests. At this moment, The Game of Chess is in the best possible place: a safe-deposit box in a Swiss bank, rented by a limited company that exists only on paper and has its headquarters in Panama. Swiss lawyers and bankers are rather boring people but very proper, and they ask no questions as long as you respect the laws of their country and pay their fees.” He placed the envelope on the table, near Julia. “You own seventy-five per cent of the shares in that limited company, the deeds of which are in the envelope. Demetrius Ziegler, a Swiss lawyer and an old friend you’ve heard me mention before, has been in charge of this. No one, apart from us and a third person, of whom we will speak later, knows that for some time the Pieter Van Huys painting will remain where it is, out of sight in that safe-deposit box. Meanwhile, the story of The Game of Chess will have become a major event in the art world. The media and specialist magazines will exploit the scandal for all it’s worth. We foresee, at a rough estimate, a value on the international market of several million… dollars, of course.”

Julia looked at the envelope and then at Cesar, perplexed and incredulous.

“It doesn’t matter what value it reaches,” she murmured, pronouncing the words with some difficulty. “You can’t sell a stolen painting, not even abroad.”

“That depends to whom and how,” replied Cesar. “When everything’s ready – let’s say in a few months – the painting will come out of its hiding place in order to appear, not at public auction, but on the black market for works of art. It will end up hanging, in secret, in the luxurious mansion of one of the many millionaire collectors in Brazil, Greece or Japan, who hurl themselves like sharks on such valuable works, either in order to resell them or to satisfy private passions to do with luxury, power and beauty. It’s also a good long-term investment, since in certain countries there’s a twenty-year amnesty on stolen works of art. And you’re still so deliciously young. Isn’t that marvellous? Anyway, you won’t have to worry about that. What matters now is that, in the next few months, while the Van Huys embarks on its secret journey, the bank account of your brand-new Panamanian company, opened two days ago in another worthy Zurich bank, will be richer to the tune of some millions of dollars. You won’t have to do anything, because someone will have taken care of all those worrying transactions for you. I’ve made quite sure of that, Princess, especially as regards the vital loyalty of that person. A loyal mercenary, it must be said. But as good as any other; perhaps even better. Never trust disinterested loyalties.”

“Who is it? Your Swiss friend?”

“No. Ziegler is an efficient, methodical lawyer but he doesn’t know much about art. That’s why I went to someone with the right contacts, with no scruples whatsoever and expert enough to move easily in that complicated subterranean world. Paco Montegrifo.”

“You’re joking.”

“I don’t joke about money. Montegrifo is a strange character, who, it should be said, is a little in love with you, although that has nothing to do with the matter. What counts is that he is simultaneously an utter villain and an extraordinarily gifted individual, and he’ll never do anything to harm you.”

“I don’t see why not. If he’s got the painting, he’ll be off like a shot. Montegrifo would sell his own mother for a watercolour.”

“Undoubtedly, but he can’t do that to you. In the first place, because Demetrius Ziegler and I have made him sign a quantity of documents that have no legal value if made public, since the whole matter constitutes a flagrant breach of the law, but which are enough to show that you have nothing whatsoever to do with all this. They’ll also serve to implicate him if he talks too much or plays dirty, enough for him to have every police force in the world after him for the rest of his life. I’m also in possession of certain secrets whose publication would damage his reputation and create serious problems for him with the law. To my knowledge, Montegrifo has, amongst other things, on at least two occasions undertaken to remove from the country and sell illegally objects that are designated part of our national heritage, objects that came into my hands and which I placed in his as intermediary: a fifteenth-century reredos attributed to Pere Oller and stolen from Santa Maria de Cascalls in 1978 and that famous Juan de Flandes that disappeared four years ago from the Olivares collection. Do you remember?”

“Yes, I do. But I never imagined that you…”

Cesar shrugged indifferently.

“That’s life, Princess. In my business, as in all businesses, unimpeachable honesty is the surest route to death from starvation. But we weren’t talking about me, we were talking about Montegrifo. Of course, he’ll try to keep as much money for himself as he can; that’s inevitable. But he’ll remain within certain limits that won’t impinge upon the minimum profit guaranteed by your Panamanian company, whose interests Ziegler will guard like a Dobermann. Once the business is finished, Ziegler will automatically transfer the money from the limited company’s bank account to another private account, whose number only you will have. He will then close the former in order to cover our tracks, and destroy all other documents apart from those referring to Montegrifo’s murky past. Those he will keep in order to guarantee you the loyalty of our friend the auctioneer. Though I’m sure that, by then, such a precaution will be unnecessary… By the way, Ziegler has express instructions to divert a third of your profits into various types of safe, profitable investments in order both to launder that money and to guarantee you financial security for the rest of your life, even if you decide to go on the most lavish of spending sprees. Take any advice he gives you, because Ziegler is a good man whom I’ve known for more than twenty years: honest, Calvinist and homosexual. He will, of course, be equally scrupulous about deducting his commission plus expenses.”

Julia, who had listened without moving a muscle, shuddered. Everything fit perfectly, like the pieces of some incredible jigsaw puzzle. Cesar had left no loose ends. She gave him a long look, and walked about the room, trying to take it in. It was too much for one night, she thought as she stopped in front of Munoz, who was watching her impassively. It was perhaps too much even for one lifetime.

“I see,” she said, turning back to Cesar, “that you’ve thought of everything. Or almost everything. Have you also considered Don Manuel Belmonte? You may think it a trifling detail, but he is the owner of the painting.”

“I have considered that. Needless to say, you could always suffer a praiseworthy crisis of conscience and decide not to accept my plan. In that case, you have only to inform Ziegler and the painting will turn up in some suitable place. It will upset Montegrifo but he’ll just have to put up with it. Then, everything will remain as before: the scandal will have increased the painting’s value, and Claymore’s will retain the right to auction it. But should you take the sensible path, there are plenty of arguments to salve your conscience: Belmonte gets rid of the painting for money, so, once you’ve excluded the painting’s sentimental value, there remains its economic worth. And that’s covered by the insurance. Besides, there’s nothing to stop you from anonymously donating whatever compensation you consider appropriate. You’ll have more than enough money to do so. As for Munoz…”

“Yes,” said Munoz, “I’m curious to know what you have in store for me.

Cesar gave him a wry look.

“You, my dear, have won the lottery.”

“You don’t say.”

“Oh, but I do. Foreseeing that the second white knight would survive the game, I took the liberty of linking you, on paper, with the company, with twenty-five per cent of the shares, which will, amongst other things, permit you to buy yourself some new shirts and to play chess in the Bahamas if you fancy it.”

Munoz raised a hand to his mouth and what remained of his cigarette. He looked at it briefly and very deliberately dropped it on the carpet.

“That’s very generous of you,” he said.

Cesar looked at the dead stub on the floor and then at Munoz.

“It’s the least I can do. I have to buy your silence in some way, and, besides, you’ve more than earned it. Let’s just say it’s my way of making up for the nasty trick I played on you with the computer.”

“Has it occurred to you that I might refuse to participate in all this?”

“Of course. You are, after all, an odd sort. But that’s not my affair any more. You and Julia are now associates, so you can sort it out between you. I have other things to think about.”

“That leaves you, Cesar,” said Julia.

“Me?” He smiled – painfully, Julia thought. “My dear Princess, I have many sins to purge and little time to do it in.” He indicated the sealed envelope on the table. “There you have a detailed confession, explaining the whole story from start to finish, apart, of course, from our Swiss arrangement. You, Munoz and, for the moment, Montegrifo, come out of it clean. As for the painting, I explain its destruction in great detail, along with the personal and sentimental reasons that drove me to it. I’m sure that after a learned examination of my confession, the police psychiatrists will happily label me a dangerous schizophrenic.”

“Do you intend going abroad?”

“Certainly not. The only thing that makes having a place to go to desirable is that it gives you an excuse to make a journey. But I’m too old for that. On the other hand, I don’t much fancy prison or a lunatic asylum. It must be rather awkward with all those well-built, attractive nurses giving you cold showers. I’m afraid not, my dear. I’m fifty years old and no longer up to such excitement. Besides, there is one other tiny detail.”

Julia looked at him gravely.

“What’s that?”

“Have you heard” – Cesar gave an ironic smile – “of something called acquired something or other syndrome, which seems to be horribly fashionable these days? Well, I am a terminal case. Or so they say.”

“You’re lying.”

“Not at all. That’s what they called it: terminal, like some gloomy Underground station.”

Julia closed her eyes. Everything around her seemed to fade away, and in her mind all that remained was a dull, muffled sound, like that of a stone falling into a pool. When she opened them again, her eyes were full of tears.

“You’re lying, Cesar. Not you. Tell me you’re lying.”

“I’d love to, Princess. I assure you I’d like nothing better than to tell you that it’s all been a joke in the worst possible taste. But life is quite capable of playing such tricks on one.”

“How long have you known?”

Cesar brushed the question aside with a languid gesture of his hand, as if time had ceased to matter to him.

“Two months, more or less,” he said. “It began with the appearance of a small tumour in my rectum. Rather unpleasant.”

“You never said anything to me.”

“Why should I have? If you’ll forgive the indelicacy, my dear, I’ve always felt my rectum was strictly my business.”

“How much longer have you got?”

“Not much. Six or seven months, I think. And they say the weight simply falls off you.”

“They’ll send you to a hospital then. You won’t go to prison. Nor even to a lunatic asylum, as you put it.”

Cesar shook his head calmly.

“I won’t go to any of those places, my dear. Can you imagine anything more horrible when dying of something so vulgar? Oh, no. Definitely not. I refuse. I at least claim the right to give my exit a personal touch. It must be dreadful to take with you as your last image of this world an intravenous drip hanging over your head, with your visitors tripping over your oxygen tank.” He looked at the furniture, the tapestries and the paintings in the room. “I prefer to give myself a Florentine death, amongst all the objects that I love. A discreet, gentle exit is better suited to my tastes and my character.”

“When?”

“In a while. Whenever you two are kind enough to leave me alone.”

Munoz was waiting in the street, leaning against the wall with his raincoat collar turned up. He seemed absorbed in secret thoughts, and when Julia appeared at the door and came over to him, he didn’t at first look up.

“How’s he going to do it?” he asked.

“Prussic acid. He’s got a flask of it that he’s had for ages.” She smiled bitterly. “He says a bullet would be more heroic, but it would leave him with an unpleasantly surprised look on his face. He prefers to the looking his best.”

“I understand.”

“There’s a telephone box near here, around the corner.” She looked at Munoz absently. “He asked us to give him ten minutes before calling the police.”

They set off along the pavement side by side, beneath the yellow light of the street lamps. At the end of the deserted street, the traffic lights were changing from green to amber to red. The light illuminated Julia’s face, marking it with deep, fantastic shadows.

“What do you think you’ll do now?” asked Munoz. He spoke without looking at her, keeping his gaze fixed on the ground ahead of him. She shrugged.

“That depends on you.”

Then Julia heard Munoz laugh. It was a profound, gentle laugh, slightly nasal, that seemed to bubble up from deep inside him. For a fraction of a second, she had the impression that it was one of the characters in the painting, and not Munoz, who was laughing at her side.

“Your friend Cesar is right,” Munoz said. “I do need some new shirts.”

Julia ran her fingers over the three porcelain figurines – Octavio, Lucinda and Scaramouche – that she was carrying in her raincoat pocket, along with the sealed envelope. The cold night air dried her lips and froze the tears in her eyes.

“Did he say anything else before you left him alone?” asked Munoz.

‘Nec sum adeo informis… I’m not so very ugly. I saw myself recently, reflected in the waters along the shore, when the sea was calm.”“ It was just like Cesar to quote Virgil when she turned at the door to take in at a glance the chiaroscuro drawing room, the dark tones of the old paintings on the walls, the faint gleam, filtered by the parchment lampshade, on the surface of the furniture, the yellowing ivory, the gold on the spines of the books. And Cesar standing against the light in the middle of the room, his features impossible to make out; a clear, slim silhouette like the effigy on a medal or an antique cameo, his shadow falling, almost brushing Julia’s feet, on the red and ochre arabesques of the carpet. And the chimes that sounded at the same instant she closed the door, as if it were the stone slab of a tomb. It was as if everything had been foreseen long before, and each of them had conscientiously performed the role assigned in the play that had finished on the chessboard at that exact hour, five centuries after the first act, with the mathematical precision of the black queen’s final move.

“No,” she murmured in a low voice, feeling the image moving slowly off, sinking into the depths of her memory. “No, he didn’t really say much else.”

Munoz looked up, like a thin, ungainly dog sniffing the dark sky above their heads, and he smiled with wry affection. “It’s a pity,” he said. “He’d have made an excellent chess player.”

The sound of her footsteps echoes in the empty cloister, beneath the vaulted roof already plunged in shadow. The final rays of the setting sun fall almost horizontally, filtered through the stone shutters, staining red the convent walls, the empty niches, the ivy leaves turned yellow by the autumn curling about the capitals of the columns, the monsters, warriors, saints, mythological beasts that support the grave, Gothic arches surrounding the garden invaded by weeds. The wind howls outside, warning of the cold northern weather that always precedes winter, whirling up the side of the hill, where it shakes the branches of the trees and draws from the gargoyles and the eaves of the roof the boom of centuries-old stone; it sets the bronze bells in the tower swaying and, above them, a creaking, rusty weathervane points obstinately south, a south that is perhaps luminous, distant and inaccessible.

The woman dressed in mourning stops by a mural eaten away by time and damp. Only a few fragments of the original colours remain: the blue of a tunic, the ochre outline of a figure; a hand cut off at the wrist, one index finger pointing up at a nonexistent sky, a Christ whose features meld into the crumbling plaster of the wall; a ray of sun or of divine light, with no origin or destination, suspended between heaven and earth, a segment of yellow light absurdly frozen in time and space, which the years and the weather have gradually worn away, until one day it will be extinguished or erased, as if it had never even been there. And an angel with no mouth and a frown like that of a judge or an executioner, of whom one can only make out, amongst what remains of the paint, a pair of wings stained with lime, a fragment of tunic and the vague shape of a sword.

The woman dressed in mourning lifts the black veils that cover her face and looks for a long time into the eyes of the angel. For eighteen years she has stopped here every day at the same hour and she sees the ravages of time gnawing away at what remains of that painting. She has watched it disappear little by little, as if afflicted by a leprosy that tears off lumps of flesh, that blurs the figure of the angel, so that it blends with the dirty plaster of the wall, with the damp that causes the colours to blister, that cracks and fragments the images. Where she lives there are no mirrors. They are forbidden by the order she entered, or that perhaps she was obliged to enter. Like the painting on the wall, her memory contains more and more blanks. She has not seen her own face for eighteen years, and for her that angel, who doubtless once possessed a beautiful face, is the only external reference to the effect of passing time on her own features: peeling paint instead of wrinkles, blurred outlines instead of ageing skin. In the occasional moments of lucidity that arrive like waves licking the sands of a beach, moments to which she clings, desperately trying to fix them in her confused, ghost-ridden memory, she seems to recall that she is fifty-four years old.

From the chapel comes a chorus of voices, the sound muffled by the thickness of the walls, voices singing the praises of God before going to the refectory. The woman dressed in mourning has permission not to attend certain services and at that hour they allow her to walk alone, like a dark, silent shadow, in the deserted cloister. A long rosary of dark wooden beads hangs from her belt, a rosary she has not touched for some time. The distant religious singing becomes confused with the whistling of the wind.

When she starts walking again and reaches the window, the dying sun is just a bright smudge of red in the distance, beneath leaden clouds coming from the north. At the foot of the hill there is a broad grey lake that glitters like steel. The woman rests her thin, bony hands on the ledge of a lancet window – again, as on every evening, her memories pitilessly return – and she feels how the cold from the stone rises up her arms and approaches, slowly, dangerously, her worn-out heart. She is seized by a terrible fit of coughing that shakes her fragile body undermined by the damp of so many winters, tortured by seclusion, solitude and intermittent memories. She no longer hears the songs from the chapel or the sound of the wind. Now it is the sad, monotonous music of a mandolin that emerges from the mists of time, and the harsh autumnal horizon vanishes before her eyes to form, as if in a painting, another landscape: a gentle undulating plain and in the distance, silhouetted against the blue sky as if painted by a fine brush, the slender outline of a belfry. And suddenly she seems to hear the voices of two men sitting at a table, the echo of laughter. And she thinks that if she turns round, she will see herself sitting on a stool with a book in her lap, and that when she looks up, she will see the gleam of a steel gorget and an insigne representing the Golden Fleece. And an old man with a grey beard will smile at her while, brush in hand, he paints on an oak panel, with the quiet skill of his profession, the eternal image of that scene.

For an instant, the wind rips asunder the covering of clouds, and a final gleam of light, reverberating across the waters of the lake, illuminates the woman’s ageing face, dazzles her eyes, which are clear and cold and almost lifeless. Then, as the light dies, the wind seems to howl louder still, stirring the black veils that flap about her like the wings of a crow. She feels again that sharp pain gnawing at her, inside, near her heart, a pain that paralyses half her body and that nothing can alleviate. It freezes her limbs, her breath.

The lake is nothing but a dull smudge in the shadows. And the woman dressed in mourning, whom the world knew as Beatrice of Burgundy, knows that the winter advancing from the north will be her last. And she wonders if, in the dark place to which she is heading, there will be enough mercy to erase from her mind the final shreds of memory.


La Navata, April 1990


XIV Drawing-room Conversation | The Flanders Panel | About the author



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