The Fencing Master
By Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Translated by Margaret Full Costa
Much later, when Jaime Astarloa wanted to piece together the scattered fragments of the tragedy and tried to remember how it all began, the first image that came to his mind was of the marquis and of the gallery in the palace overlooking the Retiro Gardens, with the first heat of summer streaming in through the windows, accompanied by such brilliant sunlight that they had to squint against the dazzle on the polished guards of their foils.
The marquis was not in form; he was wheezing like a broken bellows, and beneath his plastron his shirt was drenched with sweat. He was doubtless paying for the excesses of the previous night, but, as was his custom, Don Jaime refrained from making any uncalled-for remarks. His client's private life was none of his business. He merely parried in fierce a feeble thrust that would have made even an apprentice blush, then lunged. The flexible Italian steel bent as the button struck his opponent's chest hard.
Luis de Ayala-Velate y Vallespín, the Marqués de los Alumbres, swore under his breath as he angrily removed the mask protecting his face. He was flushed with the heat and exertion. Large drops of sweat trickled down from his hairline into his eyebrows and mustache.
"Devil take it, Don Jaime," he said, with just a touch of humiliation in his voice. "How do you do it? That's the third time you've hit me in less than a quarter of an hour."
Jaime Astarloa gave a suitably modest shrug. When he took off his mask, there was the hint of a smile beneath his grizzled mustache.
"You're not at your best today, Excellency."
Luis de Ayala laughed jovially and strode off down the gallery, which was adorned with valuable Flemish tapestries and collections of antique swords, foils, and sabers. He had a mane of thick, curly hair, and he radiated exuberance and vitality. Strong and well built, he had a loud, deep voice and was much given to grand gestures, grand passions, and easy camaraderie. At forty, single, good-looking, andor so people saidpossessed of a large fortune, as well as being an inveterate gambler and womanizer, the Marqués de los Alumbres was the very model of the kind of rakish aristocrat in which nineteenth-century Spain abounded. He had never read a book in his life, but he could recite from memory the pedigree of any celebrated horse at the racetracks in London, Paris, or Vienna. As for women, the scandals with which he favored Madrid society from time to time were the talk of the salons, always avid for novelty and gossip. He carried his forty years extremely well, and the mere mention of his name in female company was enough to provoke quarrels and arouse stormy passions.
The truth is that the Marqués de los Alumbres was something of a legend in Her Catholic Majesty's pious court. It was said, amid much fluttering of fans, that during one particular drunken spree he had got involved in a knife fight in a cheap tavern in Cuatro Caminoswhich, however, was entirely falseand that on his estate in Málaga, he had taken in the son of a famous bandit, after the bandit was executedwhich was absolutely true. There was little gossip about his brief political career, but his love affairs were the talk of the city, for it was rumored that certain eminent husbands had ample reason to demand satisfaction from him; whether they did or not was another matter. Four or five had sent him their seconds, more because of what people might say than for anything else, and that gesture found them greeting the new day with their life's blood draining away into the grass of some meadow on the outskirts of Madrid. Certain malicious tongues claimed that among those who might have demanded redress was the royal consort himself. Everyone knew, though, that the last thing one would expect of Don Francisco de Asís was for him to feel jealous of his august wife. However, whether Isabel II had succumbed to the undoubted personal charms of the Marqués de los Alumbres was a secret known only to the alleged interested parties and to the queen's confessor. As for Luis de Ayala, he did not have a confessor, nor, in his own words, did he have any damn use for one.
In his shirtsleeves, having removed the protective plastron, the marquis put his foil down on a small table, where a silent servant had placed a silver tray bearing a bottle.
"That's enough for today, Don Jaime. I seem incapable of doing anything right, so I'd better just haul down the flag. How about a sherry?"
That drink of sherry, after their daily hour of fencing, had become a ritual. With his mask and foil under his arm, Don Jaime went over to his host and took the proffered glass in which the wine gleamed like liquid gold.
The marquis breathed in the bouquet. "You have to admit, maestro, that they certainly bottle things well in Andalusia," he said, taking a sip and giving a satisfied click of his tongue. "Look at it against the light: pure gold, Spanish sun. We have no reason to envy the insipid stuff they drink abroad."
Don Jaime nodded, pleased. He liked Luis de Ayala, and he liked the fact that he called him maestro, although the marquis was not exactly one of his pupils. In fact, he was one of the best swordsmen in Madrid, and it was many years, since he had needed to take lessions from anyone. His relationship with Jaime Astarloa was of a different kind. The marquis loved fencing with the same passion with which he devoted himself to gambling, women, and horses. To that end he spent an hour a day engaged in the healthy exercise of fencing with a foil, an activity that, given his character and interests, was also extremely useful to him when it came to settling debts of honor. Five years earlier, in order to find an opponent as good as himself, Luis de Ayala had gone to the best fencing master in Madrid, for that was Don Jaime's reputation, although the more fashionable fencers considered his style to be too classical and antiquated. And so, at ten o'clock each morning, excepting Saturdays and Sundays, the fencing master would arrive punctually at the Palacio de Villaflores, the marquis's home. There, in the large fencing gallery, designed and equipped according to the most demanding standards of the art, the marquis brought a fierce determination to their fencing bouts, although, generally speaking, his teacher's ability and talent won out. Though a hardened gambler, Luis de Ayala was also a good loser, and he admired the old fencer's remarkable skill.
The marquis prodded his own chest with a pained look on his face and, sighing, said, "You certainly put me through the mill, maestro. I'm going to need a good rubdown with alcohol after this."
Don Jaime smiled humbly. "As I said, Excellency, you were not at your best today."
"You're right. It's just as well that these foils have buttons on their tips, though; if not, I'd be six feet under by now. I'm afraid I've been a less than worthy opponent."
"That's the price you pay for these late nights."
"Don't I know it. At my age too. I'm no spring chicken, dammit, but what can I do, Don Jaime ... You will never guess what's happened to me."
"I imagine that Your Excellency has fallen in love."
"Exactly," sighed the marquis, pouring himself another sherry. "I have fallen in love like some young dandy. Head over heels."
The fencing master cleared his throat and smoothed his mustache. "If I'm not mistaken," he said, "it is the third time this month."
"So? The important thing is that whenever I do fall in love, I really do fall in love. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly. Even allowing for poetic license, Excellency."
"It's odd, but with the passing years I seem to fall in love more and more frequently. There's nothing I can do about it. My arm is strong but my heart is weak, as the great writers of old might have put it. If I were to tell you ..."
At that point, the Marqués de los Alumbres launched into a description, laden with hints and eloquent innuendos, of the wild passion that had left him drained and exhausted as dawn was breaking. She was a lady, of course. And her husband was none the wiser.
"In short"and here the marquis gave a cynical smile"I have only my sins to blame for the state I'm in today."
Don Jaime shook his head, ironic and indulgent. "Fencing is like holy communion," he said with a smile. "You must come to it in a fit state of body and soul. If you break that supreme law, then punishment is bound to follow."
"Dammit, maestro, I must write that down."
Don Jaime raised his glass to his lips. His appearance was in marked contrast to the vigorous physicality of his client. The fencing master was well over fifty. He was of medium height, and his extreme thinness suggested fragility, but that was contradicted by the firmness of his limbs, which were as hard and knotty as vine stems. The slightly aquiline nose, the smooth, noble brow, his white but still abundant hair, his fine, well-manicured hands gave him an air of serene dignity, which was only accentuated by the grave expression in his gray eyes, eyes that became friendly and alive when the innumerable tiny lines surrounding them crinkled into a smile. He had a neatly trimmed mustache, in the old style, but that was not the only anachronistic feature about him. His modest resources meant that he could dress no more than reasonably well, but he did so with a kind of faded elegance that ignored the dictates of fashion; even the most recent of his suits were cut according to patterns dating back twenty yearsand were, in fact, at his age, in excellent taste. The overall effect was of someone frozen in time, indifferent to the new fashions of the agitated age he was living through. The truth is that he took pleasure in this, for obscure reasons that perhaps even he could not have explained.
The servants brought them towels and a basin of water so that both teacher and pupil could wash. Luis de Ayala took off his shirt; his powerful torso, still gleaming with sweat, was covered with the red marks left by the foil.
"Good grief, maestro, these look like the welts of a penitent. And to think that I pay you for this."
Don Jaime dried his face and looked benevolently at the marquis.
Luis de Ayala was splashing his chest with water, puffing and blowing. "Of course," he added, "politics is even more bruising. Did I tell you that Luis González Bravo has suggested I take up my seat again? With a view to a new post, he says. He must be in deep trouble if he has to stoop to asking a libertine like me."
The fencing master adopted a look of friendly interest. In fact, he did not care about politics in the slightest. "And what will you do, Excellency?"
The marquis shrugged disdainfully. "Do? Absolutely nothing. I have told my illustrious namesake that he can go shove his post, not in those exact words, of course. My forte is dissipation, a table at a casino and with a pair of beautiful eyes close by. I've had enough of politics."
Luis de Ayala had been a deputy in congress and had briefly occupied an important post in the Ministry of the Interior in one of Narváez's last cabinets. His dismissal, after three months in the post, coincided with the death of the minister, his maternal uncle Vallespín Andreu. Shortly afterward, Ayala resigned, this time voluntarily, from his seat in congress and abandoned the ranks of the Moderate Party to which he had always given rather lukewarm support anyway. The phrase "I've had enough," uttered by the marquis at a gathering at the Athenaeum, had caught on and passed into political vocabulary to be used by anyone wishing to express his deep disgust with the state the nation was in. From then on, the Marqués de los Alumbres had remained on the sidelines of public life, refusing to participate in the deals between civilians and the military that went on under various cabinets during the monarchy, merely observing, with the smile of a dilettante, the unfolding of the present political turmoil. He lived life at a hectic pace and lost huge sums at the card table without batting an eye. According to the gossipmongers, he was permanently on the brink of ruin, but Luis de Ayala always managed to recover his fortune, which seemed bottomless.
"How's your search for the Holy Grail going, Don Jaime?"
The fencing master paused in buttoning up his shirt and gave his companion a sad look. "Not too well. Indeed, I think "badly" would be the right word. I often wonder if the task isn't perhaps beyond my abilities. To be honest, there are moments when I would gladly give it up."
Luis de Ayala finished his ablutions, dried his chest with the towel, and picked up the sherry glass which he had left on the table. Flicking the glass with one of his fingers, he then held it to his ear with a look of satisfaction, listening to the ringing.
"Nonsense, maestro, nonsense. You are more than capable of such an ambitious enterprise."
A melancholy smile flickered across the fencing master's lips. "I wish I shared your faith, Excellency, but at my age so many things begin to break down, even inside. I'm beginning to think that my Holy Grail doesn't even exist."
For years now, Jaime Astarloa had been working on a Treatise on the Art of Fencing, which, according to those who knew his extraordinary gifts and his experience, would doubtless constitute one of the major works on the subject when it was finally published, comparable only to the studies written by great teachers like Gomard, Grisier, and Lafaugère. Lately, though, he had begun to have serious doubts about his ability to set down on paper the thing to which he had dedicated his whole life. There was another factor that added to his unease. If the work was to be the non plus ultra on the subject he hoped it would be, it was essential that it deliver a masterstroke, the perfect, unstoppable thrust, the purest creation of human talent, a model of inspiration and efficacy. Don Jaime had devoted himself to this search from the first day he crossed foils with an opponent. His pursuit of the Grail, as he himself called it, had proved fruitless, and now, on the slippery slope of physical and intellectual decline, the old teacher felt the vigor of his arms beginning to ebb, and the talent that had inspired each movement beginning to disappear beneath the weight of years. Almost daily, in the solitude of his modest studio, and hunched beneath the light of an oil lamp over pages that time had already yellowed, Don Jaime tried vainly to excavate from the crannies of his brain the key move that some stubborn intuition told him was hidden somewhere, though it refused to reveal itself. He spent many nights like that, awake until dawn. On other nights, dragged from sleep by a sudden inspiration, he would rise in his nightshirt in order to snatch up one of his foils with a violence bordering on desperation and stand in front of the mirrors that lined the walls of his small fencing gallery. There, trying to make real what only minutes before had been a lucid flash in his sleeping brain, he would immerse himself in that painful, pointless pursuit, measuring his movements and intelligence in a silent duel with his own image, whose reflection seemed to smile sarcastically back at him from the shadows.
Don Jaime went out into the street with the case containing his foils under his arm. It was a very hot day. Madrid languished beneath an unforgiving sun. When people met, they spoke only of the heat or of politics. They would begin by talking about the unusually high temperatures and then begin enumerating, one by one, the current conspiracies, many of which were public knowledge. In that summer of 1868, everyone was plotting. Old Narváez had died in March, but González Bravo believed himself strong enough to govern with a firm hand. In the Palacio de Oriente, the queen cast ardent glances at the young officers in her guard and fervently said the rosary, already preparing for her next summer holiday in the north. Others had no option but to spend their summer away; most of the really important figures, like Prim, Serrano, Sagasta, and Ruiz Zorrilla were in exile abroad, either confined or under discreet surveillance, while they put all their efforts into the great clandestine movement known as Spain with Honor. They all agreed that Isabel II's days were numbered, and, while the more moderate sector speculated about the queen's abdicating in favor of her son, Alfonso, the radicals openly nurtured the republican dream. It was said that Don Juan Prim could arrive from London at any moment, but the legendary hero of the Battle of Castillejos had already done so on a couple of previous occasions, only to be forced to take to his heels. As a popular song of the time put it, the fig was not yet ripe. Others, however, opined that the fig, after hanging so long on the branch, was beginning to rot. It was all a matter of opinion.
Don Jaime's modest income did not allow him any luxuries, so he shook his head when a coachman offered him the services of a dilapidated carriage. He walked down the Paseo del Prado among idle passersby seeking shade beneath the trees. From time to time, he would see a familiar face and make a courteous greeting, according to his custom, doffing his gray top hat. There were small groups of uniformed nannies sitting on the wooden benches, chatting and keeping a distant eye on the sailor-suited children playing near the fountains. Some ladies rode by in open carriages, holding lace-edged parasols to protect them from the sun.
Although he was wearing a light summer jacket, Don Jaime was sweltering. He had another two students that morning, in their respective homes. They were young men of good families, whose parents considered fencing a healthy form of exercise, one of the few that a gentleman could indulge in without doing any great harm to the family dignity. With the fees he earned from them and from the other three or four clients who visited him in his gallery in the afternoons, the fencing master got by reasonably well. After all, his personal expenses were minimal: the rent for his apartment on Calle Bordadores, lunch and supper at a nearby inn, coffee and toast at the Café Progreso. It was the check signed by the Marqués de los Alumbres, punctually received on the first of each month, that enabled him to enjoy a few extra comforts as well as to save a small sum, the interest from which meant he would not have to end his days in a convent-run home for the aged when he was too old to continue working. This, as he often sadly reflected, would not be too long in coming.
The Conde de Sueca, a deputy in Parliament, whose eldest son was one of Don Jaime's few remaining students, came riding by on a horse; he was wearing a magnificent pair of English riding boots.
"Good morning, maestro." The count had been one of his pupils six or seven years before. He had become involved in some matter of honor and had been obliged to enlist Don Jaime's services in order to perfect his style in the days immediately prior to the duel. The result had been satisfactory, his opponent ending up with an inch of steel in him, and since then Don Jaime had had a cordial relationship with the count, which now extended to the count's son.
"I see you have the tools of your trade under your arm. You're on your usual morning route, I imagine."
Don Jaime smiled, affectionately patting the case containing his foils. The count had greeted him by touching his hat, in friendly fashion, but without dismounting. Don Jaime thought again that, apart from rare exceptions like Luis de Ayah, the way his clients treated him was always the same: they were polite, but careful to keep proper distance. After all, they were paying him for his services. The fencing master, though, was old enough not to feel mortified by this.
"As you see, Don Manuel, you find me in the midst of my morning rounds, a prisoner in this suffocating Madrid of ours. But work is work."
The Conde de Sueca, who had never done a day's work in his life, nodded understandingly, while he checked a sudden impatient movement from his horse, a splendid mare. He looked distractedly about him, smoothing his beard with his little finger and watching some ladies who were strolling near the railings by the Botanical Gardens.
"How's Manolito getting on? Making progress, I hope."
"He is, he is. The boy has talent. He's still a bit of a hothead, but at seventeen that can be considered a virtue. Time and discipline will temper him."
"Well, I leave that in your hands, maestro."
"I'm most honored, Excellency."
"Have a pleasant day."
"The same to you. And give my respects to the countess."
The count continued on his way and Don Jaime on his. He walked up Calle de las Huertas, stopping for a few moments outside a bookshop. Buying books was one of his passions, but it was also a luxury that he could allow himself only rarely. He looked lovingly at the gold lettering on the leather binding and gave a melancholy sigh, remembering better days when he did not have to worry constantly about his precarious domestic finances. Resolving to bring himself firmly back to the present, he took his watch out of his jacket pocket, a watch on a long gold chain, dating from more prosperous times. He had fifteen minutes before he was due at the house of Don Matías Soldevillaof Soldevilla & Co., Purveyors to the Royal Household and to the Troops Overseaswhere he would spend an hour trying to drum some notion of fencing into young Salvador's stupid head.
"Parry, engage, break, come to close quarters ... One, two, Salvador, one, two, distance, feint, good, avoid flourishes, withdraw, that's it, parry, bad, very bad, dreadful, again, covering yourself, one, two, parry, engage, break, come to close quarters ... The lad's making progress, Don Matías, real progress. He's still inexperienced, but he has a feel for it, he has talent. Time and discipline, that's all he needs." For sixty reales a month, everything included.
The sun was beating down, making the figures walking over the cobbles shimmer. A waterseller came down the street, crying his refreshing wares. Next to a basket of fruit and vegetables, a woman sat panting in the shade, mechanically brushing away the swarm of flies buzzing about her. Don Jaime removed his hat to wipe away the sweat with an old handkerchief he drew from his sleeve. He looked briefly at the coat of arms embroidered on the worn silk in blue threadfaded now by time and frequent washingsand then continued on up the road, his shoulders bent beneath the implacable sun. His shadow was just a small dark stain beneath his feet.
© 1988 Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
Translation copyright © 1998 Margaret Jull Costa.
All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-15-100181-2. Harcourt Brace & Company