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III A Chess Problem

The noble game has its depths

in which many a fine and gentle soul,

alas, has vanished.

An old German master

“I think,” said Cesar, “that we’re dealing here with a chess problem.”

They’d been discussing the painting for half an hour. Cesar was leaning against the wall, a glass of gin-and-lemon held delicately between thumb and forefinger, Menchu was poised languidly on the sofa and Julia was sitting on the carpet with the ashtray between her legs, chewing on a fingernail. All three of them were staring at the painting as if they were watching a television screen. The colours of the Van Huys were darkening before their eyes as the last glow of evening faded from the skylight.

“Do you think someone could put a light on?” suggested Menchu. “I feel as if I’m slowly going blind.”

Cesar flicked the switch behind him, and the indirect light, reflected from the walls, returned life and colour to Roger de Arras and the Duke and Duchess of Ostenburg. Almost simultaneously the clock on the wall struck eight in time to the swing of the long brass pendulum. Julia turned her head, listening for the noise of non-existent footsteps on the stairs.

“Alvaro’s late,” she said, and saw Cesar grimace.

“However late that philistine arrives,” he murmured, “it’ll never be late enough for me.”

Julia gave him a reproachful look.

“You promised to behave. Don’t forget.”

“I won’t, Princess. I’ll suppress my homicidal impulses, but only out of devotion for you.”

“I’d be eternally grateful.”

“I should hope so.” He looked at his wristwatch as if he didn’t trust the clock on the wall, an old present of his. “But the swine isn’t exactly punctual, is he?”

“Cesar.”

“All right, my dear. I won’t say another word.”

“No, go on talking.” Julia indicated the painting. “You were saying it was something to do with a chess problem.”

Cesar nodded. He made a theatrical pause to moisten his lips with a sip of gin, then dry them on an immaculate white handkerchief he drew from his pocket.

“Let me explain” – he looked at Menchu and gave a slight sigh – “to both of you. There’s a detail in the inscription we haven’t noticed until now, or at least I hadn’t. Quis necavit equitem can indeed be translated as ‘Who killed the knight?” And that, according to the facts at our disposal, can be interpreted as a riddle about the death or murder of Roger de Arras. However, that phrase could be translated in another way.“ He looked thoughtfully at the painting, assessing the soundness of his argument. ”Reformulated in chess terms, perhaps the question is not ’Who killed the knight‘ but ’Who captured, or took, the knight?“ ”

No one spoke. At last Menchu broke the silence, her face betraying her disappointment.

“So much for all our high hopes. We’ve based this whole story on a piece of nonsense.”

Julia, who was looking hard at Cesar, was shaking her head.

“Not at all; the mystery’s still there. Isn’t that right, Cesar? Roger de Arras was murdered before the picture was painted.” She got up and pointed to the corner of the painting. “See? The date the painting was finished is here: Petrus Van Huys fecit me, anno MCDLXXI. Two years after Roger de Arras was murdered, Van Huys chose to employ an ingenious play on words in order to paint a picture in which both victim and executioner appear.” She paused, because another idea had just occurred to her. “And, possibly, the motive for the crime: Beatrice of Burgundy.”

Menchu was puzzled, but excited. She’d shifted to the edge of the sofa and was looking at the Flemish painting as if she were seeing it for the first time.

“Go on. I’m on tenterhooks.”

“According to what we know, there are several reasons why Roger de Arras could have been killed, and one of them would have been the supposed romance between him and the Duchess Beatrice, the woman dressed in black, sitting by the window reading.”

“Are you trying to say that the Duke killed him out of jealousy?”

Julia made an evasive gesture.

“I’m not trying to say anything. I’m simply suggesting a possibility.” She indicated the pile of books, documents and photocopies on the table. “Perhaps the painter wanted to call attention to the crime. Maybe that’s what made him decide to paint the picture, or perhaps he was commissioned to do it.” She shrugged. “We’ll never know for certain, but one thing is clear: the picture contains the key to Roger de Arras’s murder. The inscription proves it.”

“The hidden inscription,” Cesar corrected her.

“That gives further support to my argument.”

“What if the painter was simply afraid he’d been too explicit?” Menchu asked. “Even in the fifteenth century you couldn’t go around accusing people just like that.”

Julia looked at the picture.

“It might be that Van Huys was frightened he’d depicted the situation too clearly.”

“Or else someone painted it over at a later date,” Menchu suggested.

“No. I thought of that too and, as well as looking at it under ultraviolet light, I prepared a cross section of a tiny sample to study under the microscope.” She picked up a piece of paper. “There you are, layer by layer: oak base, a very thin preparation made from calcium carbonate and animal glue, white lead and oil as imprimatura, and three layers containing white lead, vermilion and ivory black, white lead and copper resinate, varnish, and so on. All identical to the rest: the same mixtures, the same pigments. It was Van Huys himself who painted over the inscription, shortly after having written it. There’s no doubt about that.”

“So?”

“Bearing in mind that we’re walking a tightrope of five centuries, I agree with Cesar. It’s very likely that the key does lie in the chess game. As for ‘necavit’ meaning ‘took’ as well as ‘killed’, that never occurred to me.” She looked at Cesar. “What do you think?”

Cesar sat down at the other end of the sofa, and, after taking a small sip of gin, crossed his legs.

“I think the same as you, love. I think that by directing our attention from the human knight to the chess knight, the painter is giving us the first clue.” He delicately drank the contents of his glass and placed it, tinkling with ice, on the small table at his side. “By asking who took the knight, he forces us to study the game. That devious old man, Van Huys, who I’m beginning to think had a distinctly odd sense of humour, is inviting us to play chess.”

Julia’s eyes lit up.

“Let’s play, then,” she exclaimed, turning to the painting. Those words elicited another sigh from Cesar.

“I’d love to, but I’m afraid that’s beyond my capabilities.”

“Come on, Cesar, you must know how to play chess.”

“A frivolous supposition on your part, my dear. Have you ever actually seen me play?”

“Never. But everyone has a vague idea how to play.”

“In this case, you need something more than a vague idea about how to move the pieces. Have you had a good look at the board? The positions are very complicated.” He sat back melodramatically, as if exhausted. “Even I have certain rather irritating limitations, love. No one’s perfect.”

At that moment someone rang her bell.

“It must be Alvaro,” said Julia, and ran to the door.

It wasn’t Alvaro. She came back with an envelope delivered by a messenger. It contained several photocopies and a typed chronology.

“Look. It seems he’s decided not to come, but he’s sent us this.”

“As rude as ever,” mumbled Cesar, scornfully. “He could have phoned to make his excuses, the rat.” He shrugged. “Mind you, deep down, I’m glad. What’s the rotter sent us?”

“Don’t be nasty about him,” Julia said. “It took a lot of work to put this information together.”

And she started reading out loud.

Pieter Van Huys and the Characters Portrayed in “The Game of Chess”:


A BIOGRAPHICAL CHRONOLOGY


1415: Pieter Van Huys born in Bruges, Flanders, present-day Belgium.

1431: Roger de Arras born in the castle of Bellesang, in Ostenburg. His father, Fulk de Arras, is a vassal of the King of France and is related to the reigning dynasty of the Valois. His mother, whose name is not known, belonged to the ducal family of Ostenburg, the Altenhoffens.

1435: Burgundy and Ostenburg break their vassalage to France. Ferdinand Altenhoffen is born, future Duke of Ostenburg.

1437: Roger de Arras brought up at the Ostenburg court as companion in play and studies to the future Duke Ferdinand. When he turns seventeen, he accompanies his father, Fulk de Arras, to the war that Charles VII of France is waging against England.

1441: Beatrice, niece of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, is born.

1442: Around this time Pieter Van Huys painted his first works after having been apprenticed to the Van Eyck brothers in Bruges and Robert Campin in Tournai. No work by him from this period remains extant until…

1448: Van Huys paints Portrait of the Goldsmith Guillermo Walhuus.

1449: Roger de Arras distinguishes himself in battle against the English during the conquest of Normandy and Guyenne.

1450: Roger de Arras fights in the battle of Formigny.

1452: Van Huys paints The Family of Lucas Bremer. (His finest surviving work.)

1453: Roger de Arras fights in the battle of Castillon. The same year he publishes his Poem of the Rose and the Knight in Nuremberg. (A copy can be found in the Bibliotheque National in Paris.)

1455: Van Huys paints Virgin of the Chapel. (Undated, but experts place it at around this period.)

1457: Wilhelmus Altenhoffen, Duke of Ostenburg, dies. He is succeeded by his son Ferdinand, who has just turned twenty-two. One of his first acts would have been to call Roger de Arras to his side. The latter is probably still at the court of France, bound to King Charles VII by an oath of fealty.

1457: Van Huys paints The Money Changer of Louvain.

1458: Van Huys paints Portrait of the Merchant Matteo Conzini and His Wife.

1461: Death of Charles VII of France.

Presumably freed from his oath to the French monarch, Roger de Arras returns to Ostenburg. Around the same time, Pieter Van Huys finishes the Antwerp retable and settles in the Ostenburg court.

1462: Van Huys paints The Knight and the Devil. Photographs of the original (in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) suggest that the knight who posed for this portrait could have been Roger de Arras, although the resemblance between the character in this painting and that in The Game of Chess is not particularly marked.

1463: Official engagement of Ferdinand of Ostenburg to Beatrice of Burgundy. Amongst the embassy sent to the Burgundy court are Roger de Arras and Pieter Van Huys, the latter sent to paint Beatrice’s portrait, which he does this year. (The portrait, mentioned in the chronicle of the nuptials and in an inventory of 1474, has not survived.)

1464: The Duke’s wedding. Roger de Arras leads the party bringing the bride from Burgundy to Ostenburg.

1467: Philip the Good dies and his son, Charles the Bold, Beatrice’s cousin, takes over the duchy of Burgundy. French and Burgundian pressure intensifies the intrigues within the Ostenburg court. Ferdinand Altenhoffen tries to keep a difficult balance. The pro-French party back Roger de Arras, who has great influence over Duke Ferdinand. The Burgundian party relies on the influence of Duchess Beatrice.

1469: Roger de Arras is murdered. Unofficially, the blame is laid at the door of the Burgundy faction. Other rumours allude to an affair between Roger de Arras and Beatrice of Burgundy. There is no proof that Ferdinand of Ostenburg was involved.

1471: Two years after the murder of Roger de Arras, Van Huys paints The Game of Chess. It is not known whether the painter was still living in Ostenburg at this time.

1474: Ferdinand Altenhoffen dies without issue. Louis XI of France tries to exercise his dynasty’s former rights over the duchy. This only worsens the already tense relations between France and Burgundy. Charles the Bold invades the duchy, defeating the French at the battle of Looven. Burgundy annexes Ostenburg.

1477: Charles the Bold dies at the battle of Nancy. Maximilian I of Austria makes off with the Burgundian inheritance, which will pass to his nephew Charles (the future Emperor Charles V) and ultimately belong to the Spanish Habsburg monarchy.

1481: Pieter Van Huys dies in Ghent, whilst working on a triptych intended for the cathedral of St Bavon, depicting the Descent from the Cross.

1485: Beatrice of Ostenburg dies in a convent in Lieges.

For a long while, no one dared speak. They looked from one to the other and then at the painting. After a silence that seemed to last forever, Cesar shook his head and said in a low voice, “I must confess I’m impressed.”

“We all are,” added Menchu.

Julia put the documents down on the table and leaned on it.

“Van Huys obviously knew Roger de Arras well,” she said, pointing to the papers. “Perhaps they were friends.”

“And by painting that picture, he was settling a score with the murderer,” said Cesar. “All the pieces fit.”

Julia walked over to her library, consisting of two walls covered with wooden shelves buckling beneath the weight of untidy rows of books. She stood there for a moment, hands on hips, before selecting a fat illustrated tome, which she leafed through rapidly. Then she sat down between Menchu and Cesar with the book, The Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam, open on her knees. It wasn’t a very large reproduction, but a knight could clearly be seen, armour-clad, head bare, riding along the foot of a hill on top of which stood a walled city. Next to the knight, engaged in friendly conversation, rode the Devil, mounted on a scrawny black horse, pointing with his right hand at the city towards which they seemed to be travelling.

“It could be him,” said Menchu, comparing the features of the knight in the book with those of the chess player in the painting.

“And it could just as easily not be,” said Cesar. “Although, of course, there is a certain resemblance.” He turned to Julia. “What’s the date of this painting?”

“ 1462.”

“That’s nine years before The Game of Chess was painted. That could explain it. The horseman accompanied by the Devil is much younger.”

Julia said nothing. She was studying the reproduction.

“What’s wrong?” Cesar asked.

Julia shook her head slowly, as if afraid that any sudden move would frighten away elusive spirits that might prove difficult to summon up again.

“Yes,” she said, in the tone of one who has no alternative but to acknowledge the obvious. “It’s too much of a coincidence.” And she pointed at the page.

“I can’t see anything unusual,” said Menchu.

“No?” Julia was smiling. “Look at the knight’s shield. In the Middle Ages, every nobleman decorated his shield with his particular emblem. Tell me what you think, Cesar. What’s painted on that shield?”

Cesar sighed as he drew a hand across his forehead. He was as amazed as Julia.

“Squares,” he said unhesitatingly. “Black and white squares.” He looked up at the Flemish painting, and his voice seemed to tremble. “Like those on a chessboard.”

Leaving the book open on the sofa, Julia stood up.

“It’s no coincidence,” she said, picking up a powerful magnifying glass before going over to the painting. “If the knight Van Huys painted in 1462 accompanied by the Devil is Roger de Arras, that means that, nine years later, the artist chose the theme of his coat of arms as the main clue in a painting in which, supposedly, he represented his death, given the floor of the room in which he placed his subjects is chequered in black and white. That, as well as the symbolic nature of the painting, confirms that the chess player in the centre is Roger de Arras. And the whole plot does, indeed, revolve around chess.”

She knelt down in front of the painting and peered through the magnifying glass at the chess pieces on the board and on the table. She also looked carefully at the round convex mirror on the wall in the upper left-hand corner of the painting, which reflected the board and the foreshortened figures of both players, distorted by perspective.

“Cesar.”

“Yes, love.”

“How many pieces are there in a game of chess?”

“Urn… two times eight, so that’s sixteen of each colour, which, if I’m not mistaken, makes thirty-two.”

Julia counted with one finger.

“The thirty-two pieces are all there. You can see them really clearly: pawns, kings, queens and knights… Some on the board, others on the table.”

“Those will be the pieces that have already been taken.” Cesar had knelt down by her and was pointing to one of the pieces not on the board, the one Ferdinand of Ostenburg was holding between his fingers. “One knight’s been taken; only one. A white knight. The other three, one white and two black, are still in the game. So the Quis necavit equitem must refer to that one.”

“But who took it?”

Cesar frowned.

“That, my dear, is the crux of the matter,” he said, smiling exactly as he used to when she was a little girl sitting on his knee. “We’ve already found out a lot of things: who plucked the chicken and who cooked it. But we still don’t know who the villain was who ate it.”

“You haven’t answered my question.”

“I don’t always have brilliant answers to hand.”

“You used to.”

“Ah, but then I could lie.” He looked at her tenderly. “You’ve grown up now and are not so easily deceived.”

Julia put a hand on his shoulder, as she used to when, fifteen years before, she’d ask him to invent for her the story of a painting or a piece of porcelain. There was an echo of childish supplication in her voice.

“But I need to know, Cesar.”

“The auction’s in less than two months,” said Menchu. “There’s not much time.”

“To hell with the auction,” said Julia. She was looking at Cesar as if he held the solution in his hands. Cesar gave another slow sigh and brushed lightly at the carpet before sitting down on it, folding his hands on his knees. His brow was furrowed and he was biting the tip of his tongue, as he always did when he was thinking hard.

“We have some clues to begin with,” he said after a while. “But having the clues isn’t enough; what’s important is how we use them.” He looked at the convex mirror in the painting, in which both the players and the board were reflected. “We’re used to believing that any object and its mirror image contain the same reality, but it’s not true.” He pointed at the painted mirror. “See? We can tell at a glance that the image has been reversed. The meaning of the game on the chessboard is also reversed, and that’s how it appears in the mirror as well.”

“You’re giving me a terrible headache,” moaned Menchu. “This is all too complex for my feeble encephalogram. I’m going to get myself a drink.” She poured herself a generous measure of Julia’s vodka, but before picking up the glass, she took out of her pocket a smooth polished piece of onyx, a silver tube and a small box, and set about preparing a thin line of cocaine. “The pharmacy’s open. Anyone interested?”

No one answered. Cesar seemed absorbed in the painting, indifferent to everything else, and Julia merely gave a disapproving frown. With a shrug, Menchu bent over and took two short, sharp sniffs. She was smiling when she stood up, and the blue of her eyes seemed more luminous and absent.

Cesar moved closer to the Van Huys, taking Julia by the arm, as if advising her to ignore Menchu.

“We’ve already fallen into the trap,” he said, as if only he and Julia were in the room, “of thinking that one thing in the picture could be real, whereas another might not be. The people and the board appear in the picture twice, once in a way that is somehow less real than the other. Do you understand? Accepting that fact forces us to place ourselves inside the room, to blur the boundaries between what is real and what is painted. The only way of avoiding that would be to distance ourselves enough to see only areas of colour and chessmen. But there are too many inversions in between.”

Julia looked at the painting and then, turning round, pointed to the Venetian mirror hanging on the wall on the other side of the studio.

“Not necessarily,” she replied. “If we use another mirror to look at the painting, perhaps we can reconstruct the original image.”

Cesar gave her a long look, silently considering her suggestion.

“That’s very true,” he said at last, and his approval was translated into a smile of relief. “But I fear, Princess, that both paintings and mirrors create worlds that contain too many inconsistencies. They’re amusing perhaps to look at from the outside, but not at all comfortable to inhabit. For that we need a specialist; someone capable of seeing the picture differently from us. And I think I know where to find him.”

The following morning, Julia telephoned Alvaro, but there was no answer. She had no luck when she tried to phone him at home either, so she put on a Lester Bowie record, started the coffee, stood under the shower for a long time and then smoked a couple of cigarettes. With her hair still wet and wearing only an old sweater, she drank the coffee and set to work on the painting.

The first phase of restoration involved removing the original layer of varnish. The painter, no doubt anxious to protect his work from the damp of cold northern winters, had used a greasy varnish, dissolved in linseed oil. It was the correct solution, but over a period of five hundred years no one, not even a master like Pieter Van Huys, could have prevented it from yellowing and thereby dimming the brilliance of the original colours.

Julia, who had tested several solvents in one corner of the painting, prepared a mixture and concentrated on the task of softening the varnish by using saturated plugs of cotton wool held between tweezers. With great care, she began working where the paint was thickest, leaving until last the lighter and more delicate areas. She paused frequently to check for traces of colour on the cotton wool, to make sure that she wasn’t removing any of the painted surface beneath the varnish. She worked all morning without a break, stopping for a few moments every now and then to look at the painting through half-closed eyes to judge how things were progressing. Gradually, as the old varnish disappeared, the painting began to recover the magic of its original pigments, most of which were almost exactly like those the old Flemish master had mixed on his palette: sienna, copper green, white lead, ultramarine… With reverential respect, as if the most intimate mystery of art and life were being revealed to her, Julia watched as the marvellous work came to life again beneath her fingers.

At midday, she phoned Cesar, and they arranged to meet that evening. Julia took advantage of the interruption to heat a pizza. She made more coffee and ate sitting on the sofa, looking closely at the craqueiure that the ageing process, exposure to light and movement of the wooden support had inevitably inflicted on the painted surface. It was particularly noticeable in the flesh tints and in the white-lead colours, less obvious in the darker tones and the blacks. That was especially true of Beatrice of Burgundy’s dress, which seemed so real Julia felt that, if she ran her finger over it, it would have the softness of velvet.

It was odd, she thought, how quickly modern paintings became crisscrossed with cracks, often soon after they were finished, the craqueiure and blistering being caused by the use of modern materials or artificial drying methods, whereas the work of the old masters, who took almost obsessive care, using skilled techniques of preservation, resisted the passage of the centuries with far greater dignity and beauty. At that moment, Julia felt intense sympathy for old, conscientious Pieter Van Huys, whom she imagined in his medieval studio, mixing clays and experimenting with oils, in search of the exact shade he needed for a glaze, driven by the desire to set the seal of eternity on his work, beyond his own death and the death of those he depicted on that modest oak panel.

After lunch, she continued removing the varnish from the lower portion of the painting, the part concealing the inscription. She worked with enormous care, trying not to damage the copper green, which was mixed with resin to prevent darkening with age. Van Huys had used it to paint the cloth covering the table, the cloth whose folds he’d later extended, using the same colour, to hide the Latin inscription. As Julia well knew, quite apart from any normal technical difficulties, this posed an ethical problem too. If one wanted to respect the spirit of the painting, was it legitimate to uncover an inscription that the painter himself had decided to cover up? To what extent should a restorer be allowed to betray the desires of an artist, desires made evident in his work with the formality of a last will and testament? And then there was the value of the painting; once the existence of the inscription had been established by X-ray and the fact made public, would the price be higher with the words covered or uncovered?

Fortunately, she concluded, she was only a hireling. The decision lay with the owner, with Menchu and the man from Claymore’s, Paco Montegrifo. She would do whatever they decided. Although, when she thought about it, given the choice, she would prefer to leave things as they were. The inscription existed, they knew what it said, and it was therefore unnecessary to reveal it. After all, the layer of paint that had covered it for five centuries was part of the painting’s history too.

The notes from Lester Bowie’s saxophone filled the studio, cutting her off from everything else. Gently she ran the solvent-soaked cotton wool along Roger de Arras’s profile, near his nose and mouth, and once more she immersed herself in her scrutiny of those lowered eyelids, the fine lines betraying slight wrinkles near his eyes, their gaze intent on the game. She gave her imagination free rein to pursue the echo of the ill-fated knight’s thoughts. The scent of love and death hung over them, the way the steps of Fate hovered over the mysterious ballet performed by the black and white pieces on the squares of the chessboard, on his own coat of arms, pierced by an arrow from a crossbow. And in the half-light a tear glinted, a tear shed by a woman apparently absorbed in reading a book of hours (or was it the Poem of the Rose and the Knight?), a tear shed by a silent shadow next to the window, recollecting days of sunlight and youth, of burnished metal and tapestries, recalling the firm footsteps on the flagstones of the Burgundy court of the noble-browed warrior, with his helmet under his arm, at the height of his strength and fame, the haughty ambassador from that other man, whom she was advised, for reasons of state, to marry. And the murmur of court ladies and the grave faces of courtiers, her own face blushing when his calm eyes met hers and when she heard his voice, tempered in many battles, full of that singular assurance found only in those who know what it is to cry out the name of God, their king or their lady as they ride into battle against an enemy. And the secret that lay in her heart in the years that followed. And the Silent Friend, her Final Companion, patiently sharpening his scythe, standing near the moat by the East Gate preparing to fire his crossbow.

The colours, the painting, the studio, the sombre music of the saxophone filling the room seemed to circle her. She stopped working and sat with her eyes closed, feeling dizzy, trying to breathe deeply, steadily, to shake off the momentary panic that had run through her when, confused by the perspective in the picture, she began to feel that she was actually inside the painting. It was as if the table and the players had suddenly shifted to her left and she had been thrust forward across the room reproduced in the painting, towards the window next to which Beatrice of Burgundy sat reading; as if she had only to lean out a little over the window ledge to see what lay below, at the bottom of the wall: the moat at the East Gate, where Roger de Arras had been shot in the back by an arrow.

It took her a while to regain her composure, and she only really did so when she lit a match and held it to the cigarette she had in her mouth. She found it hard to hold the match steady, for her hand was trembling as if she’d just touched the face of Death.

“It’s a chess club,” Cesar said as they went up the steps. “The Capablanca Club.”

“Capablanca?” Julia looked warily through the open door. She could see tables inside with men leaning over and spectators grouped around them.

“Jose Raul Capablanca,” Cesar said, by way of explanation, clasping his walking stick beneath one arm as he removed his hat and gloves. “Some people say he was the best player ever. There are clubs and tournaments named after him all over the world.”

They went in. The club consisted of three large rooms, filled by a dozen tables, at almost every one of which a game was in progress. There was an odd buzz, neither noise nor silence, but a sort of gentle, contained murmur, slightly solemn, like the sound of people filling a church. A few players and spectators looked at Julia with incredulity or disapproval. The membership was exclusively male. The place smelled of cigarette smoke and old wood.

“Don’t women ever play chess?” asked Julia.

Cesar offered her his arm before they went in.

“I hadn’t really thought about it, to be honest,” he said. “But they obviously don’t play here. Perhaps they play at home, between the darning and the cooking.”

“Male chauvinist!”

“Hardly an appropriate epithet in my case, my dear. Anyway, don’t be horrid.”

They were welcomed in the hallway by a friendly, talkative gentleman of a certain age, with a bald, domed head and a carefully trimmed moustache. Cesar introduced him to Julia as Senor Cifuentes, the director of the Jose Raul Capablanca Recreational Club.

“We have five hundred members on our books,” he told them proudly, pointing out the trophies, certificates and photographs adorning the walls. “We also sponsor a nationwide tournament.” He paused before a glass case containing a display of various chess sets, old rather than antique. “Nice, eh? Although here, of course, we use only the Staunton set.”

He had turned to Cesar as if expecting his approval, and the latter felt obliged to adopt an appropriately serious expression.

“Of course,” he said, and Cifuentes rewarded him with a friendly smile.

“Wood, you know,” he added. “No plastic.”

“I should hope not.”

Cifuentes turned to Julia.

“You should see it here on a Saturday afternoon.” He looked around contentedly, like a mother hen inspecting her chicks. “It’s a fairly average day today: keen players who leave work early, pensioners who spend the whole afternoon playing. And, as you’ve no doubt noticed, there’s a pleasant atmosphere here. Very…”

“Edifying,” said Julia, without thinking. But Cifuentes seemed to find the adjective appropriate.

“Yes, that’s it, edifying. As you can see, there are a number of younger men. That one over there, for example, is quite remarkable. He’s only nineteen but he’s already written a hundred-page study on the four lines of the Nimzo-Indian Defence.”

“Really? Nimzo-Indian? It sounds very…” – Julia searched desperately for the right word – “definitive.”

“Well, I don’t know about definitive,” Cifuentes replied honestly. “But it’s certainly significant.”

Julia looked to Cesar for help, but he merely arched an eyebrow, as if expressing a polite interest in the conversation. He was leaning towards Cifuentes, his hands behind his back holding both stick and hat, apparently enjoying himself hugely.

“Some years ago,” added Cifuentes, pointing at the top button of his waistcoat with his thumb, “I added my own little grain of sand.”

“Really?” said Cesar, and Julia gave him a worried look.

“Yes, believe it or not,” Cifuentes said, with false modesty. “A subvariant of the Caro-Kann Defence, using two knights. You know the one: knight three bishop queen. The Cifuentes variant, it’s called,” he added, looking hopefully at Cesar. “Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”

“Naturally,” replied Cesar with great aplomb.

Cifuentes smiled gratefully.

“I can assure you it would be no exaggeration to say that in this club, or recreational society, as I prefer to call it, you’ll find the best players in Madrid, and possibly in all Spain.” Then he seemed to remember something. “By the way, I’ve found the man you need.” He scanned the room, and his face lit up. “Ah, there he is. Come with me, please.”

They followed him through one of the rooms, towards the rear.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Cifuentes as they approached. “I’ve spent all day turning it over in my mind. But then,” he half-turned towards Cesar with an apologetic gesture, “you did ask me to recommend our best player.”

They stopped a short distance from a table at which two men were playing, watched by half a dozen others. One of the players was softly drumming his fingers at the side of the board over which he was leaning with, thought Julia, the same serious expression Van Huys had given to the chess players in the painting. Opposite him, apparently untroubled by his opponent’s drumming, the other player sat utterly still, leaning slightly back in his wooden chair, his hands in his trouser pockets, his chin sunk on his chest. It was impossible to tell whether his eyes, fixed on the board, were concentrating on that or were absorbed on something else entirely.

The spectators maintained a reverential silence, as if what was being decided was a matter of life and death. There were only a few pieces left on the board, so intermingled that it was impossible, at least for new arrivals, to work out who was White and who was Black. After a couple of minutes, the man drumming his fingers used the same hand to move a white bishop, placing it between his king and a black rook. Having done that, he glanced briefly at his opponent and returned to his contemplation of the board and to his gentle drumming.

The move was accompanied by a lot of murmuring amongst the spectators. Julia went closer and saw that the other player, who hadn’t changed his posture at all when his opponent made his move, was staring intently at the intervening white bishop. He stayed like that for a while, when, with a gesture so slow it was impossible to tell until the last moment which piece he was reaching for, he moved a black knight.

“Check,” he said and returned to his former state of immobility, indifferent to the buzz of approval that rose about him.

Though no one said anything, Julia knew that he was the man Cifuentes had recommended to Cesar. She therefore watched him closely. He must have been just over forty, he was very thin and most likely of medium height. His hair was brushed straight back, with no parting, and was receding at the temples. He had large ears, a slightly aquiline nose, and his dark eyes were set deep in their sockets, as if viewing the world with distrust. He completely lacked the air of intelligence Julia now believed essential in a chess player; instead, his expression was one of indolent apathy, a kind of deep-seated weariness that left him utterly indifferent to his surroundings. Julia, disappointed, thought he had the look of a man who expects very little from himself, apart from making the correct moves on a chessboard.

Nevertheless – or perhaps precisely because of that, because of the look of infinite tedium written on his impassive features – when his opponent moved his king one square back and he then slowly stretched out his right hand towards the remaining pieces, the silence in that corner of the room became absolute. Julia, perhaps because she didn’t understand what was going on, realised that the spectators did not like him, that they felt not the least warmth towards him. She read in their faces a grudging acceptance of his superiority at the chessboard, for, as enthusiasts of the game, they could not help but see the slow, precise, implacable advance of the pieces he was moving.

“Check,” he said again. He’d made an apparently simple move, merely advancing a modest pawn one square. But his opponent stopped his drumming and rested his fingers instead on his temples, as if to calm a troublesome throbbing. Then he moved the white king diagonally back another square. He seemed to have three squares on which he would be safe, but, for some reason that escaped Julia, he chose that one. An admiring whisper round him seemed to suggest that the move had been an opportune one, but his opponent did not react.

“That would have been checkmate,” he said, and there wasn’t the slightest hint of triumph in his voice; he was merely informing his opponent of an objective fact. There was no pity there either. He pronounced those words before making another move, as if he felt it unnecessary to accompany them with a practical demonstration. And then, almost reluctantly, without appearing in the least affected by the incredulous look on the face of his opponent and on the faces of a good many spectators, he made a diagonal move with his bishop right across the board, bringing it, as it were, from some far distant place, and setting it down near the enemy king, but not near enough to constitute any immediate threat. Amidst the rumble of remarks that burst out around the table, Julia looked at the board in some bewilderment. She didn’t know much about chess, but enough to know that checkmate involved a direct threat to the king. And the white king appeared to be safe. Hoping for clarification, she looked first at Cesar and then at Cifuentes. The latter was smiling good-naturedly, shaking his head in admiration.

“It would, in fact, have been mate in three,” he told Julia. “Whatever he did, the white king had no escape.”

“Then I don’t understand,” said Julia. “What happened?”

Cifuentes gave a short laugh.

“That black bishop was the piece that could have delivered the coup de grace, although, until he moved it, none of us could see that. What happened, though, was that this gentleman, despite knowing exactly which move to make, chose to take it no further. He moved the bishop to show us what would have been the correct move, but he deliberately placed it on the wrong square, thus rendering it completely harmless.”

“I still don’t understand,” said Julia. “Doesn’t he want to win the game?”

“That’s the odd thing. He’s been coming here for five years now, and he’s the best chess player I know, but I’ve never once seen him win.”

At that moment, the chess player looked up, and his eyes met Julia’s. All his poise, all the confidence he’d shown during the game, seemed to have vanished. It was as if, when the game was over and he once more looked at the world around him, he found himself stripped of the gifts that ensured him the envy and respect of others. Only then did Julia notice his cheap tie, the brown jacket creased at the back and baggy at the elbows, the stubbly chin that had been shaved at five or six in the morning before catching the metro or the bus to go to work. Even the light in his eyes had gone out, leaving them grey, opaque.

Cifuentes said: “May I introduce Senor Munoz, chess player.”


II Lucinda, Octavio, Scaramouche | The Flanders Panel | IV The Third Player



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