VII Who Killed the Knight?
The white pieces and the black pieces seemed to represent Manichean divisions between light and dark, good and evil, in the very spirit of man himself.
“I couldn’t sleep for thinking about it… I suddenly realised that what I was analysing was the only possible move.” Munoz put his pocket chess set down on the table, smoothed out his original sketch, now crumpled and heavily annotated, and placed it beside the set. “Even then, I couldn’t believe it. It took me an hour to go over it all again, from start to finish.”
They were in an all-night bar-cum-supermarket, sitting by a large window that gave them a clear view of the broad, empty avenue. There was hardly anyone there, a few actors from a nearby theatre and half a dozen night birds, male and female. A security guard in paramilitary uniform was standing next to the electronic security gates at the entrance, yawning and looking at his watch.
“Now,” said the chess player, pointing first at the sketch and then at the small chessboard, “have a look at this. We managed to reconstruct the last move made by the black queen, from b2 to c2, but we didn’t know what the previous move by White was that forced her to do that… Remember? When we looked at the threat from the two white rooks, we decided that the rook on b5 could have come from any of the squares on 5; but that couldn’t explain why the black queen fled, since she would already be in check by another white rook, the one on b6. Maybe, we said, the rook had captured another black piece on b5. But which piece? That’s where we got stuck.”
“And which piece was it?” Julia was studying the board. Its geometrical black-and-white design was no longer unfamiliar, but one in which she could move about as if in familiar territory. “You said you could find out which it was by studying the pieces off the board.”
“And that’s what I did. I studied the pieces one by one, and I reached a surprising conclusion.
“Which piece could the rook on b5 have taken?” Munoz looked at the board with his insomniac eyes, as if he genuinely didn’t know the answer. “It wasn’t a black knight, since both are still on the board. It wasn’t the bishop either, because square b5 is white and the black bishop that can move along the white diagonal hasn’t as yet left its original position. It’s still there on c8 with its two escape routes blocked by pawns that have not yet come into play.”
“Perhaps it was a black pawn,” suggested Julia. Munoz shook his head.
“That took me longer to reject as a possibility, because the position of the pawns is the most confusing thing about this game. But it couldn’t have been any of the black pawns because the one on a5 came from c7. As you know, pawns capture by moving one square diagonally forwards, and that one presumably captured two white pieces on b6 and a5. As regards the other four black pawns, they were obviously miles away when they were captured. They would never have been anywhere near b5.”
“Then it must have been the black rook. The white rook must have taken it on b5.”
“No, that’s impossible. Given the arrangement of the pieces around a8, it’s obvious that the black rook was captured there, on its original square, without ever having moved. It was taken by a white knight -although in this case it doesn’t much matter which piece it was captured by.”
Julia looked up from the board, disoriented.
“I don’t get it. That discounts all the black pieces. Which piece did the white rook take on b5 then?”
Munoz gave a half-smile, which was not in the least bit smug; he merely seemed amused by Julia’s question, or perhaps by the answer he was about to give.
“The fact is it didn’t take any. Now don’t look at me like that. Your painter Van Huys was also a master when it came to laying false trails. It turns out that nothing was captured on square b5.” He crossed his arms and leaned over the small board, suddenly silent. Then he looked at Julia and laid one finger on the black queen. “If the last move by White wasn’t a threat to the black queen by the rook, that means that a white piece must have moved and thus discovered the check by the white rook on the black queen. I mean a white piece that was either on square b4 or b3. Van Huys must have had a good laugh, knowing that anyone trying to solve the riddle was bound to be fooled by that ruse with the two rooks.”
Julia nodded slowly. A few words from Munoz were all it took to make a corner of the board, apparently static and unimportant, suddenly fill with infinite possibilities. There was something truly magical about his ability to guide other people through the complex black-and-white labyrinth to which he possessed the hidden keys. It was as if he were able to orient himself by means of a network of connections flowing beneath the board and giving rise to impossible, unsuspected combinations which he had only to mention for them to come to life, to become so obvious that you were amazed not to have noticed them before.
“I see,” she said, after a few seconds. “That white piece was protecting the black queen from the rook. And, by moving away, it left the black queen in check.”
“And which piece was it?”
“Perhaps you can work it out for yourself.”
“A white pawn?”
“No. One was captured on a5 or b6 and the other one is too far away. It couldn’t have been any of the others either.”
“Well, frankly, I haven’t got a clue then.”
“Have a good look at the board. I could have told you right at the start, but that would deprive you of a pleasure which, I suppose, you deserve. Take your time.” He made a gesture encompassing the bar, the deserted street and the coffee cups on the table. “We’re in no hurry.”
Julia concentrated on the board. Soon, without taking her eyes off the game, she got out a cigarette, and a slight, indefinable smile appeared on her face.
“I think I may have got it,” she said cautiously.
“OK, what do you think?”
“The bishop that can move diagonally along the white squares is on fl, intact, and hasn’t had time to move there from his only possible original position, b3, since b4 is a black square.” She looked at Munoz for confirmation before going on. “I mean, it would have taken at least” – she counted with her finger on the board – “three moves to get from b3 to its present position. That means that it wasn’t a move by the bishop that left the black queen in check to the rook. Am I right?”
“Absolutely. Go on.”
“It couldn’t have been the white queen, now on el, that discovered the check either. Nor the white king. As for the white bishop that can move on the black squares, and is now off the board because it was taken, that could never have been on b3.”
“Very good,” said Munoz. “Why not?”
“Because b3 is a white square. Anyway, if that bishop had moved diagonally along the black squares from b4, it would still be there on the board, and it isn’t. I imagine it was taken some time before, during an earlier stage of the game.”
“Correct. So what are we left with then?”
Julia looked at the board and a slight shiver crept down her spine and down her arms, as if someone had just run the blade of a knife over her skin. There was only one piece they had not yet mentioned.
“The only piece left is the knight,” she said, swallowing hard, her voice involuntarily low. “The white knight.”
Munoz leaned towards her gravely.
“That’s right, the white knight.” He remained silent for a while, not looking at the board now but at Julia. “It was the white knight that moved from b4 to c2, thus uncovering the black queen and placing her in danger. And it was there, on c2, that the queen, in order both to protect herself from the rook and to gain another piece, took the knight.” Munoz fell silent again, checking that he hadn’t left out anything of importance. Then the gleam in his eyes went out, as abruptly as if someone had switched it off. He looked away from Julia as he picked up the pieces in one hand and folded the board with the other, apparently signalling the end of his intervention in the matter.
“The black queen,” she repeated in astonishment, feeling, indeed almost hearing, the rapid workings of her mind.
“Yes,” said Munoz with a shrug, “it was the black queen who took or killed the knight. Whatever that means.”
“It means,” she murmured, still stunned by the revelation, “that Ferdinand Altenhoffen was innocent.” She gave a short laugh, reached out her hand to the sketch and placed her forefinger on square c2, the moat at the East Gate of the citadel of Ostenburg, where Roger de Arras had been murdered. “It means,” she added, trembling, “that it was Beatrice of Burgundy who had the knight killed.”
“Beatrice of Burgundy?”
Julia nodded. It seemed so clear to her now, so obvious, that she could kick herself for not having realised it before. Everything was there in the game and in the painting, crying out to be seen. Van Huys had recorded it all so carefully, down to the tiniest detail.
“Who else could it have been?” she said. “The black queen, of course: Beatrice, Duchess of Ostenburg.” She hesitated, searching for the right word. “The bitch.”
She saw it now with perfect clarity: the untidy studio smelling of oil and turpentine, the painter moving about amongst the shadows, by the light of tallow candles placed near the painting. He was mixing copper pigment with resin to produce a stable green that would withstand the passage of time. He applied it slowly, in successive layers, filling in the folds of the cloth on the table until he’d covered the inscription Quis necavit equitem, which he’d painted a few weeks before, in orpiment. It was done in beautiful Gothic lettering and it pained him to have to cover it, doubtless for ever. But Duke Ferdinand was right: “It’s too obvious, Master Van Huys.”
That must have been what happened, more or less, and no doubt the old man muttered to himself as he wielded the brush, applying slow swathes of green to the painting, whose colours, newly painted in oils, gleamed in the candlelight. Perhaps he rubbed his weary eyes and shook his head. His eyesight wasn’t what it was, and hadn’t been for some time now; the years did not pass unnoticed. They even gnawed away at his powers of concentration, which he needed for the only pleasure that could take his mind off painting during the enforced leisure of winter, when the days were short and there was little light to paint by. That pleasure was chess, a passion he shared with the much-mourned Master Roger, who, when alive, was his protector and his friend, and who, despite his status and position, never minded getting paint on his clothes when he visited the studio for a game amongst the oils, clays, brushes and half-finished paintings. He was quite unlike anyone else, as happy doing battle on the chessboard as he was indulging in long conversations about art, love and war, and about that strange idea of his, so often repeated, that now seemed like a terrible premonition: the idea of chess as a game for those who take an insolent pleasure in walking perilously close to the Devil’s maw.
The painting was finished. When he was younger, Pieter Van Huys used to say a brief prayer as he applied the last brush stroke, thanking God for bringing a new work to a happy conclusion; but the years had closed his lips, just as it had made his eyes dry and his hair grey. He simply gave a short affirmative nod, placed the brush in an earthenware pot of solvent and wiped his fingers on his worn leather apron. Picking up a candlestick, he stepped back. God forgive him but it was impossible not to feel a sense of pride. The Game of Chess went far beyond the commission given him by his master, the Duke. Because it was all there: life, beauty, love, death, betrayal. The painting was a work of art that would survive him and all the people represented in it. The old Flemish master felt in his heart the warm breath of immortality.
She saw Beatrice of Burgundy, Duchess of Ostenburg, sitting by the window, reading the Poem of the Rose and the Knight, a ray of sunlight falling obliquely over her shoulder, lighting up the illuminated pages. She saw Beatrice’s hand, pale as ivory, the light glinting on the gold ring. She saw the hand tremble slightly, like a leaf on a tree in the gentlest of breezes. Perhaps she had been in love and was unhappy because her pride could not bear rejection by that man who had dared to deny her what even Lancelot had not denied Queen Guinevere. Perhaps the hired crossbowman was merely revenge for her despair after the death of an old passion, a final kiss and a cruel farewell. Clouds drifted over the countryside in the background, across the blue sky of Flanders, and the lady remained immersed in reading the book on her lap. No, that was impossible. Ferdinand Altenhoffen would never have paid homage to a betrayal, nor would Pieter Van Huys have poured all his art and skill into such a painting. Julia preferred to believe that Beatrice’s eyes remained lowered because they hid a tear, that the black velvet was a symbol of mourning for her own heart, pierced by the same crossbow arrow that had whistled over the moat; a heart that had bowed to reasons of state, to the coded message from her cousin, Duke Charles of Burgundy: the many-folded sheet of parchment with its broken seal, which, dumb with grief, she had crumpled in her hands before burning it in the flame of a candle. A confidential message, delivered by secret agents. Intrigues and spider’s webs woven about the duchy and its future, which was also Europe ’s future. The French faction and the Burgundy faction. A secret war between ministers, as pitiless as the bloodiest battle, with no heroes, only executioners who wore clothes trimmed with lace and whose chosen weapons were the dagger, poison and the crossbow. The voice of blood ties, the duty demanded by family, required nothing of her that could not be eased afterwards by a good confession. All that was needed was her presence, on a particular day and at a particular time, at the window of the tower above the East Gate, where every evening she sat to have her hair brushed by her maid, the window beneath which Roger de Arras walked alone each day at the same hour, meditating upon his impossible love and his regrets.
Yes, perhaps the lady in black kept her eyes lowered, fixed on the book in her lap, not because she was reading but because she was crying. But it might also have been because she dared not meet the painter’s eye, which, after all, embodied the lucid gaze of Eternity and History.
She saw the unfortunate prince, Ferdinand Altenhoffen, besieged by winds from east and west, in a Europe that was changing much too fast for his taste. She saw him resigned and impotent, a prisoner of his own self and of his century, slapping at his silken breeches with his soft leather gloves, trembling with rage and grief, unable to punish the murderer of the only friend he had ever had in his life. She saw him leaning against a pillar in the room hung with tapestries and flags, recalling the years of their youth, their shared dreams, his admiration for the young nobleman who went off to war and returned scarred but glorious. His laughter, his calm, wise voice, his grave remarks, his graceful compliments to the court ladies, his prompt advice, the very sound and warmth of his friendship still echoed round the room. But he was no longer there. He had gone to some darker place.
And the worst thing, Master Van Huys, the worst, old friend, old painter, you who loved him almost as much as I did, the worst is that there is no room for vengeance. For she, like me and even he himself, was just the plaything of more powerful people, of those who, because they have the money and the might, can simply decide that the centuries will erase Ostenburg from the maps drawn up by the cartographers. There is no one person I can have beheaded upon my friend’s tomb – and even if there was, I wouldn’t do it. She alone knew and chose to remain silent. She killed him with her silence, letting him appear, as he did every evening – oh, yes, I too have my spies – near the moat at the East Gate, drawn by the silent siren song that drags all men to their fate, a fate that seems asleep or even blind until the day it opens its eyes and looks directly at us.
As you see, Master Van Huys, there is no possible vengeance. I put my faith in your hands and in your genius, and no one will ever pay you the price I will pay you for this painting. I want justice, even if it is only for me, even if it is only so that she knows that I know, and so that when we too are gone to ashes, like Roger de Arras, someone else other than God might also know it. So paint the picture, Master Van Huys, for God’s sake, paint it. I want you to leave out nothing, and let it be your best, your most terrible work. Paint it, and then may the Devil, whom you once painted riding at his side, carry us off.
And finally, she saw the knight. Both his slashed tunic and his hose were the colour of amaranth; he wore a gold chain round his neck and a useless dagger hanging from his belt. He was walking through the twilight along the moat at the East Gate, alone, no page with him to interrupt his thoughts. She saw him raise his eyes to the lancet window and saw him smile. It was barely the suggestion of a smile, distant and melancholy, the sort of smile that speaks of memories, of past loves and dangers, and seems to have some inkling of its own fate. And perhaps Roger de Arras senses, on the other side of the crumbling battlements, from between whose stones gnarled bushes spring, the presence of the hidden crossbowman, who pulls the string of his bow taut and aims at his victim. Suddenly he understands that his whole life, the long road walked, the battles he fought, hoarse and sweating, in creaking armour, the women’s bodies he has known, the thirty-eight years he carries on his back like a heavy burden, all will end here, in this precise place and at this precise moment, and that after he feels the blow there will be nothing more. He is filled by a profound sense of grief, because it seems to him unjust that he should die like this at twilight, pierced by an arrow like a wild boar. And he raises one delicate, beautiful hand, a manly hand, the kind of hand that immediately brings to mind the sword it must once have wielded, the reins it held, the skin it caressed, the quill it dipped into an inkwell before scratching words on parchment, he raises that hand by way of protest, though he knows it is in vain, for, amongst other things, he is not even sure to whom he should protest. He wants to shout out, but remembers the decorum he owes himself. So he reaches with his other hand for his dagger, thinking that at least with a steel blade in his hand, even if it is only that dagger, his death will be one more suited to a knight. He hears the thump of the crossbow and thinks fleetingly that he should move out of the path of the arrow, but he knows that an arrow moves faster than any man. He feels his soul slowly dissolving in a bitter lament for itself, whilst he searches desperately in his memory for a God to whom to offer up his repentance. And he discovers with surprise that he repents of nothing, although it is not clear either, as night closes in, that there is any God prepared to hear him. Then he feels the blow. He has suffered other blows, where now he bears the scars, but he knows that this will leave no scars. It does not even hurt, his soul seems simply to slip out of his mouth. Endless night falls, but before finally plunging into it, he understands that this time it will be for ever. And when Roger de Arras cries out, he can longer hear his own voice.