(God Must Make Men Fools)
by Rob Tierney
The North Atlantic, April, 1851
A following breeze filled the sails, pushing the large white ship ever closer to England. She sported three masts of canvas, bulging now as her captain maneuvered with the favorable wind. Her decks were lit by a strong sun shining through a cloudless sky, making the morning unusually warm for this time of year. A search of the sea to the horizon showed low swells, no crests to be seen, and her bow sliced through the calm waters easily, leaving a broad, white wake on the cobalt blue surface.
Dr. Erich Marchand loved the gentle rocking of the ship. He thought, seventy-four years old and I feel just like a baby in mother's arms. He regretted having to get out of bed. His wife Gerta, lying next to him, was still asleep. Mama, you must be feeling it, too. Old woman, you never sleep this late.
"Get up, my love. Are we going to waste this fine day, just laying in bed?"
She rolled over to him, her hand caressed his face; she smiled. "We can skip breakfast. Why should we leave, when It's so perfect right here?"
"Because at our age, liebchen, we shouldn't be wasting the sunlight."
They strolled along the main deck after breakfast, arm in arm, saying nothing, not needing to say anything, content with each other's company. Fifty years of close companionship had made talking unnecessary at times, and they simply enjoyed the warmth of the morning sun, the smell of the brisk, clean sea air. The calming effects of the sounds of the sea soothed them as well; the gentle snapping of the full sails, the shushing of the sea moving across the hull, the creaking of the long, wooden ship. They both loved being at sea.
They quickly came upon the deck chairs, already lain out with cushions and blankets, all facing the sun. Only one passenger was taking advantage of them, a tall, slender man, dressed in a dark, modest suit, his eyes closed. As they approached him, Gerta began peering closer, and said, "Papa, isn't that young Johann? You remember, the one who used to beat you at chess?"
Erich looked closer at him, thinking: this man has bushy muttonchops and a moustache, and his hair is receding, but it remains black with those short, tight curls, and his nose is still too big for his face. He is a little paler than I remember, but those eyes, I remember those eyes, he thought. Even after fifteen years, his closed eyes were familiar, for that was the way he thought on deep moves. "Yes, it is Johann. But what is he doing here? I had known he'd left Pesht, but not Europe."
"Well, go ask him, papa. Maybe he'd like some company."
They both approached his chair, careful not to block the sun. Erich smilingly asked, "Excuse me, but aren't you Herr Löwenthal, the Hungarian, a young, brilliant chess master?"
Löwenthal, forty years old and feeling the sea, stirred and looked up at him, his brown eyes flashing with recognition. "Dr. Marchand! Frau Gerta! This is quite a pleasant surprise. Come sit with me." His German was excellant. "It has been so long, but it looks like time has been kind to the both of you."
"I would say the same about you, but not about your hair, no?" He laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. "But what brings you here, Johann? How came you to leave the Continent?"
"It was not for the love of the sea, doctor. I'm afraid the motion is not agreeable to me." His gaze shifted to his boots, and he said, "There were some troubles over politics." He looked at them and smiled. "I placed my money on a bob-tailed nag, as they say in an American song. I was advised that the climate of some other country benefit my health and longevity, if you understand the meaning."
"None love upheaval so much as the poor and the young," said Gerta, laughing. "And yet you never took risks, not even in chess. You never sought the company of the brash, the opinionated. I thought that that woman had brought you around."
"And what brings you to this ship, may I ask?" said Lowenthal, deliberately changing the topic. "How is it that I've crossed Europe and the Atlantic to meet you here?"
"I've been doing a series of lectures in the New World, Johann. Remarkable people, these Americans. They are quick and eager to learn: bright, young faces with bold, new ideas. Barely out of contact with the savages, and they are challenging everything! Everything!" He emphasized with his finger. "Energetic; yes, and with a confidence that borders on arrogance. But they lack something. Despite their European ancestry, they lack the will of a nation." He leaned forward and continued to gesture with his hands. "They get more confused over slavery every year, they can't decide on tarriff or none, they won't even stand for a regular army, though there are so many atrocities committed on the frontier. Democracy will tear this nation apart, my friend. The two sections have different futures, mark these words. And though they have good minds for mathematics and engineering, they are not ready to compete with Europe, by no means."
"Herr Doctor, I agree with much of what you say. But I have been in the West, along the Mississippi, and there they are a simple but rugged sort of people, energetic enough, but lacking in the depth of culture of the Continent. They have overcome much quickly, it is true, and will soon be heard from. But, doctor, I'm afraid there is one place where they are ready to take their place amongst the best of Europe."
"And just what is that, Johann?"
"In chess, Herr Doctor."
"Come, come, Johann, you're joking. There is no one originally from this continent who can challenge the European masters. And other than Franklin, whom has North America produced as a player? I cannot believe this comes from you, one of the best players in Europe, ach! one of the best of all time."
Löwenthal stroked his chin thoughtfully and said, "You two have met Salieri and saw Mozart also, yes?" They both nodded. "Well, I believe I am now become the former, for I have recently met the latter."