II Lucinda, Octavio, Scaramouche
“I declare it’s marked out just like
a large chessboard!” Alice said at last.
The bell above the door tinkled as Julia went into the antiques shop. She had only to step inside to find herself immediately enveloped by a sense of warmth and familiar peace. Her first memories were suffused by the gentle golden light that fell on the antique furniture, the baroque carvings and columns, the heavy walnut cabinets, the ivories, tapestries, porcelain, and the paintings, grown dark with age, of grave-faced personages in permanent mourning, who, years before, had watched over her childhood games. Many objects had been sold since then and been replaced by others, but the effect of those motley rooms and of the light gleaming on the antique pieces arranged there in harmonious disorder remained unalterable. Like the colours of the delicate porcelain commedia dell’arte figures signed by Bustelli: a Lucinda, an Octavio and a Scaramouche, which, as well as being Julia’s favourite playthings when she was a child, were Cesar’s pride and joy. Perhaps that was why he never wanted to get rid of them and kept them in a glass case at the back, next to the stained-glass window that opened onto the inner courtyard of the shop, where he used to sit reading – Stendhal, Mann, Sabatini, Dumas, Conrad – waiting for the bell announcing the arrival of a customer.
Cesar was over fifty – Julia had never managed to extract a confession from him as to his exact age – and he had the smiling, mocking blue eyes of a mischievous child whose greatest pleasure lies in defying the world in which he has been forced to live. He had white, immaculately waved hair – she suspected he’d been dyeing it for years now – and he was still in excellent shape, apart from a slight thickening about the hips. He always wore beautifully cut suits, of which the only criticism might be that they were, strictly speaking, a little daring for a man his age. He never wore a tie, not even on the most select social occasions, opting instead for magnificent Italian cravats knotted at the open neck of a shirt, invariably silk, that bore his entwined initials embroidered in blue or white just below his heart. He had a breadth and degree of culture Julia had never met elsewhere and was the most perfect embodiment of the saying that amongst the upper classes extreme politeness is merely the most highly refined expression of one’s scorn for others. Within Cesar’s social milieu, a concept that might have been expanded to include Humanity as a whole, Julia was the only person who enjoyed that politeness, knowing that she was safe from his scorn. Ever since she’d been able to think for herself, Cesar had been for her an odd mixture of father, confidant, friend and confessor, without ever being exactly any of those things.
“I’ve got a problem, Cesar.”
“Excuse me, but in that case, we have a problem. Tell me all about it.”
And Julia told him, omitting nothing, not even the hidden inscription, a fact that Cesar acknowledged with a slight lift of his eyebrows. They were sitting by the stained-glass window, and Cesar was leaning slightly towards her, his right leg crossed over his left, one hand, on which gleamed a valuable topaz set in gold, draped nonchalantly over the Patek Philippe watch he wore on his other wrist. It was that distinguished pose of his, by no means calculated (although it may once have been), that so effortlessly captivated the troubled young men in search of exquisite sensations, the painters, sculptors, fledgling artists whom Cesar took under his wing with a devotion and constancy which, it must be said, lasted much longer than his sentimental relationships.
“Life is short and beauty transient, Princess.” Whenever Cesar adopted his confidential tone, dropping his voice almost to a whisper, the words were always touched with a wry melancholy. “And it would be wrong to possess it for ever. The beauty lies in teaching a young sparrow to fly, because implicit in his freedom is your relinquishment of him. Do you see the subtle point I’m making with this parable?”
As she’d openly acknowledged once before when Cesar, half-flattered and half-amused, had accused her of making a jealous scene, Julia felt inexplicably irritated by all those little sparrows fluttering around Cesar, and only her affection for him and her rational awareness that he had even‘ right to lead his own kind of life, prevented her giving voice to it. As Menchu used to say, with her usual lack of tact: “What you’ve got, dear, is an Electra complex dressed up as an Oedipus complex, or vice versa…” Menchu’s parables, unlike Cesar’s, tended to be all too explicit.
When Julia had finished recounting the story of the painting, Cesar remained silent, pondering what she’d said. He didn’t seem surprised – in matters of art, especially at his age, very little surprised him – but the mocking gleam in his eyes had given way to a flicker of interest.
“Fascinating,” he said at last, and Julia knew at once that she would be able to count on him. Ever since she was a child that word had been an incitement to complicity and adventure on the trail of some secret: the pirate treasure hidden in the drawer of the Isabelline bureau – which he sold to the Museo Romantico – and the story he invented about the portrait of the lady in the lace dress, attributed to Ingres, whose lover, an officer in the hussars, died at Waterloo, calling out her name as the cavalry charged. With Cesar holding her hand, Julia had lived through a hundred such adventures in a hundred different lives, and, invariably, in each of them what she’d learned from him was to value beauty, self-denial and tenderness, as well as the delicate and intense pleasure to be gained from the contemplation of a work of art, from the translucent surface of a piece of porcelain to the humble reflection of a ray of sunlight on a wall broken up by a pure crystal into its whole exquisite spectrum of colours.
“The first thing I need to do,” Cesar was saying, “is to have a good look at the painting. I can be at your apartment tomorrow evening, at about half past seven.”
“Fine,” she said, eyeing him cautiously. “It’s just possible that Alvaro will be there too.”
If Cesar was surprised, he didn’t say so. He merely made a cruel face with pursed lips.
“How delightful. I haven’t seen the swine for ages, so I’d be thrilled to have an opportunity to send a few poisoned darts his way, wrapped up, of course, in delicate periphrases.”
“Don’t worry, my dear, I’ll be kind… given the circumstances. My hand may wound, but no blood will be spilled on your Persian carpet… which, incidentally, could do with a good cleaning.”
She looked at him tenderly, and put her hands over his.
“I love you, Cesar.”
“I know. It’s only natural. Almost everyone does.”
“Why do you hate Alvaro so much?”
It was a stupid question, and he gave her a look of mild censure.
“Because he made you suffer,” he replied gravely. “I would, with your permission, pluck out his eyes and feed diem to the dogs along the dusty roads of Thebes. All very classical. You could be the chorus. I can see you now, looking divine, raising your bare arms up to Olympus, where the gods would be snoring, drunk as lords.”
“Marry me, Cesar. Right now.”
Cesar took one of her hands and kissed it, brushed it with his lips.
“When you grow up, Princess.”
“But I have.”
“No, you haven’t. Not yet. But when you have, Your Highness, I will dare to tell you that I loved you. And that the gods, when they woke, did not take everything from me. Only my kingdom.” He seemed to ponder that before adding, “Which, after all, is a mere bagatelle.”
It was a very private dialogue, full of memories, of shared references, as old as their friendship. They sat in silence, accompanied by the ticking of the ancient clocks that continued to measure out the passage of time while they awaited a buyer.
“To sum up,” said Cesar, “if I’ve understood you correctly, it’s a question of solving a murder.”
Julia looked at him, surprised.
“It’s odd you should say that.”
“Why? That’s more or less what it is. The fact that it happened in the fifteenth century doesn’t change anything.”
“Right. But that word ‘murder’ throws a much more sinister light on it all.” She smiled anxiously at Cesar. “Maybe I was too tired last night to see it that way, but up till now I’ve treated it all as a game, like deciphering a hieroglyph… a personal matter, in a way. A matter of personal pride.”
“Well, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, you talk about solving a real murder, and I suddenly understand…” She stopped, her mouth open, feeling as if she were leaning over the edge of an abyss. “Do you see? On the sixth of January 1469, someone murdered Roger de Arras, or had him murdered, and the identity of the murderer lies in the painting.” She sat up straight, carried along by excitement. “We could solve a five-hundred-year-old enigma. Perhaps find the reason why one small event in European history happened one way and not another. Imagine the price The Game of Chess could reach at the auction if we managed to do that!”
“Millions, my dear,” Cesar confirmed, with a sigh dragged from him by the sheer weight of evidence. “Many millions.” He considered the idea, convinced now. “With the right publicity, Claymore’s could increase the opening price three or four times. It’s a gold mine, that painting of yours.”
“We must go and see Menchu. Now.”
Cesar shook his head with an air of sulky reserve.
“Oh no. Anything but that. Out of the question. You’re not going to involve me in any of your friend Menchu’s shenanigans. Though I’m quite happy to stand behind the barriers, as bullfighter’s assistant.”
“Don’t be difficult. I need you.”
“I’m entirely at your disposal, my dear. But don’t force me to rub shoulders with that resprayed Nefertiti and her ever-changing crew of panders or, if you want it in the vernacular, pimps. That friend of yours gives me a migraine” – he pressed one temple – “right here. See?”
“All right, I give in. Vae victis. I’ll see Menchu.”
She planted a resounding kiss on his well-shaven cheek, conscious of the smell of myrrh. Cesar bought his perfume in Paris and his cravats in Rome.
“I love you, Cesar. Very much.”
“Don’t you soft-soap me. Fancy trying to get round me like that. At my age too.”
* * *
Menchu bought her perfume in Paris too, but it was rather less discreet than Cesar’s. She arrived, in a hurry and without Max, and in a cloud of Balenciaga’s Rumba, which preceded her, like an advance party, across the foyer of the Palace Hotel.
“I’ve got some news,” she said, tapping her nose with one finger and sniffing repeatedly before sitting down. She had obviously just made a pit stop in the Ladies, and a few tiny specks of white dust still clung to her upper lip. That, Julia thought, explained why she was so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
“Don Manuel is expecting us at his house to discuss the matter,” she said.
“The owner of the painting. Are you being dense? You know, my charming little old man.”
They ordered mild cocktails, and Julia brought her friend up to date on the results of her research. Menchu opened her eyes wide as she rapidly worked out percentages in her head.
“That really changes things.” On the linen cloth that covered the low table between them she was busily etching calculations with a blood-red fingernail. “My five per cent is far too little. So I’m going to suggest a deal with the people at Claymore’s: of the fifteen-per-cent commission on the price the painting reaches at auction, they get seven and a half and I get seven and a half.”
“They’ll never agree. It’s way below their usual profit margin.”
Menchu burst out laughing. It would be that or nothing. Sotheby’s and Christie’s were just around the corner, and they’d howl with pleasure at the prospect of making off with the Van Huys. It would be a question of take it or leave it.
“And the owner? Your little old man might have something to say about it. What if he decides to deal directly with Claymore’s? Or with someone else.”
Menchu gave her an astute look.
“He can’t. He signed a piece of paper.” She pointed to her short skirt, which revealed a generous amount of leg sheathed in dark stockings. “Besides, as you see, I’m dressed for battle. If my Don Manuel doesn’t fall into line, I’ll take the veil.” As if trying out the effect, she crossed and uncrossed her legs for the benefit of the male customers in the hotel. Satisfied with the results, she turned her attention back to her cocktail. “As for you…”
“I want one and a half of your seven and a half per cent.”
Menchu gave a pained yelp. That was a lot of money, she said, scandalised. Three or four times the fee they’d agreed on for the restoration work. Julia allowed her to protest while she took a pack of cigarettes from her bag and lit one.
“You don’t understand,” she explained, as she exhaled. “The fee for my work will be deducted directly from your Don Manuel, from the price the painting gets at auction. The other percentage is in addition to that, to be deducted from the profit that you make. If the painting sells for one hundred million pesetas, Claymore’s will get seven and a half, you’ll get six and I’ll get one and a half.”
“Who’d have thought it?” said Menchu, shaking her head in disbelief. “You seemed such a nice girl, with your little brushes and varnishes. So inoffensive.”
“Well, there you are. God said we should be kind to our fellow man, but he didn’t say anything about letting him rip us off.”
“You shock me, you really do. I’ve been nurturing a serpent in my left bosom, like Aida. Or was it Cleopatra? I had no idea you knew about percentages.”
“Put yourself in my place. After all, I was the one who made the discovery.” She waggled her fingers in front of her friend’s nose. “With my own fair hands.”
“You’re taking advantage of my tender heart, you little snake.”
“Come off it. You’re as tough as old boots.”
Menchu heaved a melodramatic sigh. It was taking the bread out of her Max’s mouth, but she was sure they could come to some agreement. Friendship was friendship, after all. She glanced towards the door and put on a conspiratorial look. “Talk of the devil…”
“Do you mean Max?”
“Don’t be nasty. Max is no devil, he’s a sweetie.” She gave a sideways flick of her eyes, inviting Julia to sneak a look. “Paco Montegrifo, from Claymore’s, has just come in. And he’s seen us.”
Montegrifo was the director of the Madrid branch of Claymore’s. He was in his forties, tall and attractive, and he dressed with the strict elegance of an Italian prince. His hair parting was as immaculate as his tie, and when he smiled he revealed a lot of teeth, too perfect to be real.
“Good afternoon, ladies. What a happy coincidence!”
He remained standing while Menchu made the introductions.
“I’ve seen some of your work,” he said to Julia when he learned that it was she who would be working on the Van Huys, “and I have only one word for it: perfection.”
“I’m sure your work on The Game of Chess will be of the same high standard.” He showed his white teeth again in a professional smile. “We have great hopes for that painting.”
“So have we,” said Menchu. “More than you might think.”
Montegrifo must have noticed the edge she gave to that remark, because his brown eyes became suddenly alert. He’s no fool, thought Julia as he gestured towards an empty chair. Some people were expecting him, he said, but they wouldn’t mind waiting a few minutes.
He indicated to an approaching waiter that he didn’t want anything and sat down opposite Menchu. His cordiality remained undented, but there was a measure of cautious expectation, as if he were straining to hear a distant note of discord.
“Is there some problem?” he asked calmly.
Menchu shook her head. No problem, not really. Nothing to worry about. Montegrifo didn’t seem in the least worried, just politely interested.
“Perhaps,” Menchu suggested after a moment or two, “we should renegotiate the conditions of our agreement.”
There was an embarrassing silence. Montegrifo was looking at her as he might at a client unable to control his excitement in the heat of the bidding.
“My dear lady, Claymore’s is a serious establishment.”
“I don’t doubt it,” replied Menchu resolutely. “But research on the Van Huys has uncovered some important facts that alter the value of the painting.”
“Our appraisers did not find anything.”
“The research was carried out after your people’s examination. The findings…” – Menchu seemed to hesitate, and this did not go unremarked – “are not immediately apparent.”
Montegrifo turned to Julia, looking thoughtful. His eyes were cold as ice.
“What have you found?” he asked gently, like a confessor inviting someone to unburden their conscience.
Julia looked uncertainly at Menchu.
“I don’t think I…”
“We’re not authorised to say,” Menchu intervened, coming to her rescue. “At least not today. We have to await instructions from my client.”
Montegrifo shook his head pensively and, with the languid mien of a man of the world, rose slowly.
“I’ll see what I can do. Forgive me…”
He didn’t seem worried. He merely expressed a hope – without once taking his eyes off Julia, although his words were addressed to Menchu – that the “findings” would do nothing to alter their present agreement. With a cordial good-bye, he threaded his way amongst the tables and sat down at the other end of the room.
Menchu stared into her glass with a contrite look on her face.
“I put my foot in it.”
“What do you mean? He’d have to find out sooner or later.”
“Yes, but you don’t know Paco Montegrifo.” She studied the auctioneer over her glass. “You might not think so to look at him, with his nice manners and good looks, but if he knew Don Manuel, he’d be over there like a shot to find out what’s going on and to cut us out of the deal.”
“Do you think so?”
Menchu gave a sarcastic little laugh. Paco Montegrifo’s curriculum vitae held no secrets for her.
“He’s got the gift of the gab and he has class. Moreover, he’s got no scruples and he can smell a deal thirty miles away.” She clicked her tongue in admiration. “They also say that he’s involved in illegally exporting works of art and that he’s a real artist when it comes to bribing country priests.”
“Even so, he makes a good impression.”
“That’s how he makes his living.”
“What I don’t understand is why, if he’s got such a bad track record, you didn’t go to another auctioneer.”
Menchu shrugged. The life and works of Paco Montegrifo had nothing to do with it. Claymore’s itself was an impeccable organisation.
“Have you been to bed with him?”
“With Montegrifo?” Menchu roared with laughter. “No, dear. He’s not my type at all.”
“I think he’s attractive.”
“It’s your age, dear. I prefer them a bit rougher, like Max, the sort that always look as if they’re about to thump you one. They’re better in bed and they work out much cheaper in the long run.”
“Naturally, you’re both too young to remember.”
They were sitting drinking coffee round a small Chinese lacquer table next to a balcony full of leafy green plants. Bach’s Musical Offering was playing on an old record player. Occasionally Don Manuel Belmonte would break off as if certain passages had caught his attention. After listening for a while, he would drum a light accompaniment with his fingers on the metal arm of his wheelchair. His forehead and hands were flecked with the brown stains of old age. Plump veins, blue and knotted, stood out along his wrists and neck.
“It must have been about 1940,” he continued, and his dry, cracked lips curved into a sad smile. “Times were hard, and we sold off nearly all the paintings. I particularly remember a Munoz Degrain and a Murillo. My poor Ana, God rest her soul, never got over losing the Murillo. It was a lovely little virgin, very like the ones in the Prado.” He half-closed his eyes, as if trying to conjure up that painting from his memory. “An army officer who later became a minister bought it. Garcia Pontejos, his name was, I think. He really took advantage of our situation, the scoundrel. He paid us a pittance.”
“It must have been painful losing all that.” Menchu adopted a suitably understanding tone of voice. She was sitting opposite Belmonte, affording him a generous view of her legs. The invalid gave a resigned nod, a gesture that dated from years back, the gesture of those who only learn at the expense of their own illusions.
“There was no alternative. Even friends and my wife’s family turned their backs on us after the war, when I was sacked as conductor of the Madrid orchestra. At that time, if you weren’t for them, you were against them. And I certainly wasn’t for them.”
He paused for a moment and his attention seemed to drift back to the music playing in one corner of the room, amongst the piles of old records that were presided over by engravings, in matching frames, of the heads of Schubert, Verdi, Beethoven and Mozart. A moment later, he was looking once again at Julia and Menchu with a blink of surprise, as if he were returning from somewhere far off and had not expected to find them still there.
“Then I had a stroke, and things got even more complicated. Luckily we still had my wife’s inheritance, which no one could take away from her. And we managed to keep this house, a few pieces of furniture and two or three good paintings, amongst them The Game of Chess.” He looked sadly at the space on the wall, at the bare nail, the rectangular mark left on the wallpaper, and he stroked his chin, on which a few white hairs had escaped his razor. “That painting was always my favourite.”
“Who did you inherit the painting from?”
“From another branch of the family, the Moncadas. A great-uncle. Moncada was Ana’s second family name. One of her ancestors, Luis Moncada, was a quartermaster general under Alejandro Farnesio, around 1500 or so… He must have been something of an art enthusiast.”
Julia consulted the documentation that was lying on the table.
“ ‘Acquired in 1585’, it says here, ”possibly in Antwerp, at the time of the surrender of Flanders and Brabant…‘ “
The old man nodded, almost as if he’d been witness to the event himself.
“Yes, that’s right. It may have been part of the spoils of war from the sacking of the city. The troops of the regiment my wife’s ancestor was in charge of were not the kind of people to knock at the door and sign a receipt.”
Julia was leafing through the documents.
“There are no references to the painting before that,” she remarked. “Do you remember any family stories about it, any oral tradition? Any information you have would help us.”
Belmonte shook his head.
“No, I don’t know of anything else. My wife’s family always referred to the painting as the Flanders or Farnesio Panel, doubtless so as not to remember the manner of its acquisition. It appeared under those names for the twenty-odd years it was on loan to the Prado, until my wife’s father recovered it in 1923, thanks to Primo de Rivera, who was a friend of the family. My father-in-law always held the Van Huys in great esteem, because he was a keen chess player. That’s why, when it passed into his daughter’s hands, she didn’t want to sell it.”
“And now?” asked Menchu.
The old man remained silent for a while, staring into his coffee cup as if he hadn’t heard the question.
“Now, things are different,” he said at last. He seemed almost to be making fun of himself. “I’m a real old crock now; that much is obvious.” And he slapped his half-useless legs. “My niece Lola and her husband take care of me, and I should repay them in some way, don’t you think?”
Menchu mumbled an apology. She hadn’t meant to be indiscreet. That was a matter for the family, naturally.
“There’s no reason to apologise,” said Belmonte, raising his hand, as if offering absolution. “It’s perfectly natural. That picture is worth a lot of money and it serves no real purpose just hanging in the house. My niece and her husband say that they could do with some help. Lola has her father’s pension, but her husband, Alfonso…” He looked at Menchu as if appealing for her understanding. “Well, you know what he’s like: he’s never worked in his life. As for me…” The sardonic smile returned to his lips. “If I told you how much I have to pay in taxes every year just to hang on to this house and live in it, you’d be horrified.”
“It’s a good area,” Julia said. “And a good house.”
“Yes, but my pension is tiny. That’s why I’ve gradually been selling off little souvenirs. The painting will give me a breathing space.”
He remained thoughtful, nodding slowly, although he didn’t seem particularly downcast. On the contrary, he seemed to find the whole thing amusing, as if there were humorous aspects to it that only he could appreciate. Perhaps what at first sight seemed only vulgar pillaging on the part of an unscrupulous niece and her husband was, for him, an odd kind of experiment in family greed: it’s always “uncle this and uncle that”, here we are at your beck and call, and your pension only just covers the costs; you’d be better off in a home with people the same age as you; it’s a shame, all these pictures hanging on the walls for no purpose. Now, with the Van Huys as bait, Belmonte must have felt safe. He could regain the initiative after long years of humiliation. Thanks to the painting, he could finally settle his account with his niece and her husband.
Julia offered him a cigarette, and he gave a grateful smile but hesitated.
“I shouldn’t really,” he said. “Lola allows me only one milky coffee and one cigarette a day.”
“Forget Lola,” Julia replied, with a spontaneity that surprised her. Menchu looked startled, but the old man didn’t seem bothered in the least. He gave Julia a look in which she thought she caught a glimmer of complicity, instantly extinguished, and reached out his thin fingers. Leaning over the table to light the cigarette, Julia said: “About the painting… Something unexpected has come up.”
The old man took a pleasurable gulp of smoke, held it in his lungs as long as possible and half closed his eyes.
“Unexpected in a good way or a bad way?”
“In a good way. We’ve discovered an original inscription underneath the paint. Uncovering it would increase the value of the painting.” She sat back in her chair, smiling. “It’s up to you what we do.”
Belmonte looked at Menchu and then at Julia, as if making some private comparison or as if torn between two loyalties. At last he seemed to decide. Taking another long pull on his cigarette, he rested his hands on his knees with a look of satisfaction.
“You’re not only pretty, but you’re obviously bright as well,” he said to Julia. “I bet you even like Bach.”
“I love Bach.”
“Please, tell me what the inscription says.”
And Julia told him.
“Who’d have thought it!” Belmonte, incredulous, was still shaking his head after a long silence. “All those years of looking at that picture and I never once imagined…” He glanced briefly at the empty space left by the Van Huys, and his eyes half-closed in a contented smile. “So the painter was fond of riddles.”
“So it would seem,” Julia said.
Belmonte pointed to the record player in the corner.
“He’s not the only one,” he said. “Works of art containing games and hidden clues used to be commonplace. Take Bach, for example. The ten canons that make up his Musical Offering are the most perfect thing he composed, and yet not one of them was written out in full, from start to finish. He did that deliberately, as if the piece were a series of riddles he was setting Frederick of Prussia. It was a common musical stratagem of the day. It consisted in writing a theme, accompanied by more or less enigmatic instructions, and leaving the canon based on that theme to be discovered by another musician or interpreter; or by another player, since it was in fact a game.”
“How interesting!” said Menchu.
“You don’t know just how interesting. Like many artists, Bach was a joker. He was always coming up with devices to fool the audience. He used tricks employing notes and letters, ingenious variations, bizarre fugues. For example, into one of his compositions for six voices, he slyly slipped his own name, shared between two of the highest voices. And such things didn’t happen only in music. Lewis Carroll, who was a mathematician and a keen chess player as well as a writer, used to introduce acrostics into his poems. There are some very clever ways of hiding things in music, in poems and in paintings.”
“Absolutely,” said Julia. “Symbols and hidden clues often appear in art. Even in modern art. The problem is that we don’t always have the right keys to decipher those messages, especially the more ancient ones.” Now it was her turn to stare pensively at the space on the wall. “But with The Game of Chess we at least have something to go on. We can make an attempt at a solution.”
Belmonte leaned back in his wheelchair, his mocking eyes fixed on Julia.
“Well, keep me informed,” he said. “I can assure you that nothing would give me greater pleasure.”
They were saying good-bye in the hallway when the niece and her husband arrived. Lola was a scrawny woman, well over thirty, with reddish hair and small rapacious eyes. Her right arm, encased in the sleeve of her fur coat, was firmly gripping her husband’s left arm. He was dark and slim, slightly younger, his premature baldness mitigated by a deep tan. Even without the old man’s remark about him, Julia would have guessed that he had won a place in the ranks of those who prefer to do as little as possible to earn their living. His features, to which the slight puffiness under his eyes lent an air of dissipation, wore a sullen, rather cynical look, which his large, almost vulpine mouth did nothing to belie. He was wearing a gold-buttoned blue blazer and no tie, and he had the unmistakable look of someone who divides his considerable leisure time between drinking aperitifs in expensive bars and frequenting fashionable nightclubs, although he was clearly no stranger either to roulette and card games.
“My niece, Lola, and her husband, Alfonso,” said Belmonte, and they exchanged greetings, unenthusiastically on the part of the niece, but with evident interest on the part of Alfonso, who held on to Julia’s hand rather longer than necessary, looking her up and down with an expert eye. Then he turned to Menchu, whom he greeted by name, as if they were old acquaintances.
“They’ve come about the painting,” Belmonte explained.
Alfonso clicked his tongue.
“Of course, the painting. Your famous painting.”
Belmonte brought them up to date on the new situation. Alfonso stood with his hands in his pockets, smiling and looking at Julia.
“If it means the value of the painting will go up,” he said, “it strikes me as excellent news. You can come back whenever you like if you’re going to bring us surprises like that. We love surprises.”
The niece didn’t immediately share her husband’s satisfaction.
“We’ll have to discuss it,” she said. “What guarantee is there that they won’t just ruin the painting?”
“That would be unforgivable,” chimed in Alfonso. “But I can’t imagine that this young lady would be capable of doing such a thing.”
Lola gave her husband an impatient look.
“You keep out of this. This is my business.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, darling.” Alfonso’s smile grew broader. “We share everything.”
“I’ve told you: keep out of it.”
Alfonso turned slowly towards her. His features grew harder and more obviously foxlike, and his smile seemed like the blade of a knife.
Julia thought that he was not perhaps as inoffensive as he at first sight seemed. It would be unwise to have any unsettled business with a man capable of a smile like that.
“Don’t be ridiculous… darling.”
That “darling” was anything but tender, and Lola seemed more aware of that than anyone. They watched her struggle to conceal her humiliation and her rancour. Menchu took a step forward, determined to enter the fray.
“We’ve already talked to Don Manuel about it,” she announced. “And he’s agreed.”
The invalid, his hands folded in his lap, had observed the skirmish from his wheelchair like a spectator who has chosen to remain on the sidelines but watches with malicious fascination.
What strange people! thought Julia.
“That’s right,” confirmed the old man to no one in particular. “I have agreed. In principle.”
The niece was wringing her hands, and the bracelets on her wrists jingled loudly. She seemed to be in a state of anguish – either that or just plain furious. Perhaps she was both things at once.
“Uncle, this is something that has to be discussed. I don’t doubt the good will of these two ladies…”
“Young ladies,” put in her husband, smiling at Julia.
“Young ladies then.” Lola was having difficulty getting her words out, hampered by her own irritation. “But they should have consulted us too.”
“As far as I’m concerned,” said her husband, “they have my blessing.”
Menchu was studying Alfonso quite openly and seemed about to say something. But she chose not to and looked at the niece.
“You heard what your husband said.”
“I don’t care. I’m the legal heir.”
Belmonte raised one thin hand in an ironic gesture, as if asking permission to intervene.
“I am still alive, Lola. You’ll receive your inheritance in due course.”
“Amen,” said Alfonso.
The niece pointed her bony chin, in the most venomous fashion, straight at Menchu, and for a moment Julia thought she was about to hurl herself on them. With her long nails and that predatory, birdlike quality, there was something dangerous about her. Julia prepared herself for a confrontation, her heart pumping. When she was a child, Cesar had taught her a few dirty tricks, useful when it came to killing pirates. Fortunately, the niece’s violence found expression only in her glance and in the way she turned on her heel and flounced out of the room.
“You’ll be hearing from me,” she said. And the furious tapping of her heels disappeared down the corridor.
Hands in his pockets, Alfonso wore a quietly serene smile.
“Don’t mind her,” he said, and turned to Belmonte. “Right, Uncle? You’d never think it, but Lolita has a heart of gold really. She’s a real sweetie.”
Belmonte nodded, distracted. He was clearly thinking about something else. His gaze seemed drawn to the empty rectangle on the wall as if it contained mysterious signs that only he, with his weary eyes, was capable of reading.
“So you’ve met Alfonso before,” said Julia as soon as they were out in the street.
Menchu, who was looking in a shop window, nodded.
“Yes, some time ago,” she said, bending down to see the price of some shoes. “Three or four years ago, I think.”
“Now I understand about the painting. It wasn’t the old man who approached you; it was Alfonso.”
Menchu gave a crooked smile.
“First prize for guessing, dear. You’re quite right. We had what you would demurely call an ‘affair’. That was ages ago, but when the Van Huys thing came up, he was kind enough to think of me.”
“Why didn’t he choose to deal directly?”
“Because no one trusts him, including Don Manuel.” She burst out laughing. “Alfonsito Lapena, the well-known gambler and playboy, owes money even to the bootblack. A few months back he narrowly escaped going to prison. Something to do with bad cheques.”
“So how does he live?”
“Off his wife, by scrounging off the unwary, and off his complete and utter lack of shame.”
“And he’s relying on the Van Huys to get him out of trouble?”
“Right. He can’t wait to convert it into little piles of chips on smooth green baize.”
“He strikes me as a nasty piece of work.”
“Oh, he is. But I have a soft spot for low-lifers, and I like Alfonso.” She remained thoughtful for a moment. “Although, as I recall, his technique certainly wouldn’t have won him any medals. He’s… how can I put it…?” She groped for the right word. “Rather unimaginative. No comparison with Max. Monotonous, you know: the wham, bang and thank-you-ma’am type. But you can have a good laugh with him. He knows some really filthy jokes.”
“Does his wife know about you and him?”
“I imagine she senses something, because she’s certainly not stupid. That’s why she gave me that look, the rotten cow.”