Morphy-Lowenthal story, part eight



The North Atlantic, April, 1851

 They had returned to the promenade deck, back out into the sun, and they squinted as the light hit their eyes, waiting a moment for them to adjust.  The lookout in the crow's nest on top of the main mast called out a ship's sighting, aft and to port, and distant some twenty miles they saw a frigate, the warship flying American colors.  Signals flags, the colorful little squares and pennants that allow ships to exchange messages while at sea, were run up by both vessals, and the captain barked some orders to the crew in the rigging.  They scampered about on the high spars of the sails, scaring the seagulls into a frightened, raucous protest, and quickly trimmed the canvas to reduce speed somewhat and allow the warship to catch them, which she was doing rapidly.

Gerta looked toward Löwenthal and saw he had a distant, wistful look on his face.  "What is it, Johann?  You seem to have something troubling you."

"Fraulien, I was only thinking that life would be so simple to be on that ship.  You have a set duty, a job that you are assigned to, which only you and maybe one or two others do.  You search the sea, find your enemies, kill them or render them somehow inactive, as unpleasant as that process is, then seize the plunder and return home a hero.  Simple, uncomplicated, profitable.  What is not to like about it?"

Gerta laughed.  "With your constitution, I seriously doubt you have the makings of an adventuring sailor, bravely challenging the huge oceans and all their storms with nothing but a hammock."  She playfully hugged him.  "We know from your wounds that you have the heart, but we know from your breakfast that you don't have the stomach."

Löwenthal smiled.  "Yes, I admit to the charges; I confess.  A month at sea and I would weigh less than those birds.  But the simplicity of the life is attractive."  He looked at them, saw they were concerned; they had never been good at hiding their feelings.  He said, "Do you know why I went to the West, near the frontier, doctor?  I had thoughts of becoming a farmer; the idea of raising all I need, of living off the sweat of my brow, as they say there, was very appealing to me.  I wanted no more responsibilities than to provide for myself.  I had found in life that politics is not my forte, but the profession of a chess player is nothing so much as degrading, playing rook players and worse for stakes, quite often unsavory characters in disruputable places; that is not what I believe the game is for.  I would prefer a life in the dirt."  He smiled again, but his fingers were tapping, tapping in a way that disturbed the Marchands.

"You may rest assured I will play my best at the London tournament, and if the movement grows to continuously pit the best players from Europe together in a manner conducive to an honorable profession, then I will certainly support that with my presence in the events.  We see that once again, art suffers or prospers at the whims of the powers that be.  I, myself, will be attending the London tounament only through the generousity of some friends from Louisville.  And while I feel I hold claim to some of the laurals in the chess world today, I fear I am to be forgotten in my lifetime.  Like Salieri, this child will surpass everything I do."  His hands stopped tapping, his eyes looked off in the distance, remembering.  "The speed of his play, the accuracy, the depth, the quality; already, I think he could best all the masters of Europe.  When he played his rook to a1 in the Russian Game, you should have seen how easily he worked it out.  He thought for no more than ten minutes on g3, playing his next four moves after only moments of thought--and these, the best moves of all the games!  Szén would not have seen them in the amount of time this child took on them.  And to see the draw--I had to be shown this.  He found it over-the-board, taking no more than two or three minutes per move.  Astonishing."

Erich said, "But are you so astonished by him that you are unsettled by him, also?  There is something else, Johann, something more.  This boy troubles you on a deeper level.  What is it?"

Löwenthal looked first at him, then at her, then back to the horizon.  "I had the fortune of being educated, through lessons and through play, by some fine players, and my rise to my present strength is largely the privilege of the knowledge one gets in Hungary or Germany.  It took long years to achieve this level, suffering, as you know, many defeats along the way.  But it is through defeat that the true player emerges.  The player must re-think his approach to the game, and learn about himself, where his talents and weaknesses are.  One must be ready to admit that one will be wrong from time to time, and that someone else may have a better understanding of the position, and you must be able to accurately defend as well as attack.  Playing against masters will teach you this, all this and more."

He looked at them again.  "But who does this boy have?  Rousseau is not an odds-player, but not a master of the first rank, either.  The same could be said about his uncle.  So from where does this come?  Who is to test him there, that he achieves such insight?  And he was not yet even a teen when I met him."

He looked back out to sea.  "There were some other bad days in New Orleans before I left, when I again could not leave my room.  Rousseau dropped by one day and left me the scores of several games, the variations of King' Gambit and Spanish Games I'd been running across, the games this boy played that had inspired the others to imitation.  A game against Ernest Morphy that was decided in less than fifteen moves, and a King's Gambit against a Mr. McConnell that was just masterful, and that game was played two years ago.  Barely out of diapers, it seems, and this boy is capable of beating masters."

He looked down into the ocean, his head drooped a little, his shoulders sagged just slightly.  When he spoke, it was in a low voice.  "Could God be so capricious with His blessings that He would create a child that needed no test to achieve greatness, no age to achieve wisdom, no suffering to achieve art?  Could this be so?  That this must be God's doing?  And if so, wouldn't the opposite apply: that God must make men fools, as well?"

Gerta reached out and tenderly caressed his shoulder, her words that of a soothing mother.  "Of all the things I've known you to undertake, Johann, trying to understand the will of God is both the most ambitious and the most foolish.  If you ever think you can understand His will, you're wrong.  No man could possibly do that.  You realize that, don't you?"

"Then how is it there are Alexanders and Newtons and daVinci's and Mozarts?  How else can you explain this child?"

Erich said, "Young man, you will never be able to understand or explain the will of the Creator.  It is not important to the universe that it be comprehended by man; it would exist in our ignorance, also.  God will be, whether we are aware of Him or not; and He will do, whether we agree with Him or not.  I am surprised, Johann, that someone with your scientific approach to thought could ever lose his faith."

"It's not lost, just shaken, my good friend.  Doubts have crept in about how much play in my games is mine; I seem to wonder these days if I'm a small, supporting character in a book somewhere."  He looked at them, smiling sadly, almost apologetic for their concern.  "It's sounds crazy, I know, but that's how I feel sometimes.  There are times when I feel that I am but a caricature of myself, going through the motions that someone else has imagined, doing things for the amusement of others.  I don't feel that I am coming apart, just displaced, like I have become a spy in my own body.  I have questioned the wisdom of God, and am afraid I now question myself."

The three of them stood there in silence, the awkward aftermath of another's honesty.  Löwenthal took a long moment to look at the American ship, then turned his gaze past the bow, beyond the horizon, across the ocean, looking toward England.