The Pope’s Game of Chess by Gertrude Landa 1921
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Nearly a thousand years ago in the town of Mayence, on the bank of the Rhine, there dwelt a pious Jew of the name of Simon ben Isaac. Of a most charitable disposition, learned and ever ready to assist the poor with money and wise counsel, he was reverenced by all, and it was believed he was a direct descendant of King David. Everybody was proud to do him honor.
Simon ben Isaac had one little son, a bright boy of the name of Elkanan, who he intended should be trained as a rabbi. Little Elkanan was very diligent in his studies and gave early promise of developing into an exceptionally clever student. Even the servants in the household loved him for his keen intelligence. One of them, indeed, was unduly interested in him.
She was the Sabbath-fire woman who only came into the house on the Sabbath day to attend to the fires, because, as you know, the Jewish servants could not perform this duty. The Sabbath-fire woman was a devoted Catholic and she spoke of Elkanan to a priest. The latter was considerably impressed.
“What a pity,” he remarked, “that so talented a boy should be a Jew. If he were a Christian, now,” he added, winningly, “he could enter the Holy Church and become famous.”
The Sabbath-fire woman knew exactly what the priest meant.
“Do you think he could rise to be a bishop?” she asked.
“He might rise even higher—to be the Pope himself,” replied the priest.
“It would be a great thing to give a bishop to the Church, would it not?” said the woman.
“It is a great thing to give anyone to the Church of Rome,” the priest assured her.
Then they spoke in whispers. The woman appeared a little troubled, but the priest promised her that all would be well, that she would be rewarded, and that nobody would dare to accuse her of doing anything wrong.
Convinced that she was performing a righteous action, she agreed to do what the priest suggested.
Accordingly, the following Friday night when the household of Simon ben Isaac was wrapped in slumber, she crept stealthily and silently into the boy’s bedroom. Taking him gently in her arms, she stole silently out of the house and carried him to the priest who was waiting. Elkanan was well wrapped up in blankets, and so cautiously did the woman move that he did not waken.
The priest said not a word. He just nodded to the woman, and then placed Elkanan in a carriage which he had in waiting.
Elkanan slept peacefully, totally unaware of his adventure, and when he opened his eyes he thought he must be dreaming. He was not in his own room, but a much smaller one which seemed to be jolting and moving, like a carriage, and opposite to him was a priest.
“Where am I?” he asked in alarm.
“Lie still, Andreas,” was the reply.
“But my name is not Andreas,” he answered. "That is not a Jewish name. I am Elkanan, the son of Simon.”
To his amazement, however, the priest looked at him pityingly and shook his head.
“You have had a nasty accident,” he said, “and it has affected your head. You must not speak.” Not another word would he say in response to all the boy’s eager queries. He simply ignored Elkanan who puzzled his head over the matter until he really began to feel ill and to wonder whether he was Elkanan after all. Tired out, he fell asleep again, and next time he awoke he was lying on a bed in a bare room. A bell was tolling, and he heard a chanting chorus. By his side stood a priest.
Elkanan looked at the priest like one dazed. Before he could utter a word, the priest said: “Rise, Andreas, and follow me.”
The boy had no alternative but to obey. To his horror he was taken into a chapel and made to kneel. The priests sprinkled water on him. He did not understand what the service meant, and when it was over he began to cry for his father and mother. For days nobody took the slightest notice of his continual questionings until a priest, with a harsh, cruel face, spoke to him severely one day.
“I perceive, Andreas,” he said, “thou hast a stubborn spirit. It shall be curbed. Thy father and mother are dead—all the world is dead to thee. Thou hast strange notions in thy head. We shall rid thee of them.”
Elkanan cried so much on hearing these terrible words that he made himself seriously ill. How long he was kept in bed he knew not, but when he recovered, he found himself a prisoner in a monastery. All the priests called him Andreas, they were kind to him, and in time he began to doubt himself whether he was Elkanan, the son of Simon, the pious Jew of Mayence.
To put an end to the unrest in his mind, he devoted himself earnestly to his lessons. His tutors never had so brilliant a pupil, nor so intelligent a companion. He was a remarkable chess player.
“Where did you learn?” they asked him.
“My father, Simon ben Isaac, of Mayence, taught me,” he replied, with a sob in his voice.
“It is well,” they replied, having received their instructions what to say in answer to such remarks, “thou art blessed from Heaven, Andreas. Not only dost thou absorb learning in the hours of daylight, but angels and dead sages visit thee in thy sleep and impart knowledge unto thee.”
He could obtain no more satisfactory words from his tutors, and in time he made no mention whatever of the past, and his tutors and companions refrained from touching upon the subject either. Once or twice he formed the idea of endeavoring to escape, but he soon discovered the project impossible. He was never allowed to be alone for a moment; he was virtually a prisoner, although all men began to do him honor because of his amazing knowledge and learning.
In due time, he became a priest and a tutor and was even called to Rome and was created a cardinal. He wore a red cap and cloak, people kneeled to him and sought his blessing, and all spoke of him as the wisest, kindliest and most scholarly man in the Church.
He had not spoken of his boyhood for years, but he never ceased to think of those happy days. And although he tried hard, he could not believe that it was all a dream. Whenever he played a game of chess, which was his one pastime, he seemed to see himself in his old room at Mayence, and he sighed. His fellow priests wondered why he did this, and he laughingly told them it was because he had no idea how to lose a game.
Then a great event happened. The Pope died and Andreas was elected his successor. He was placed on a throne, a crown was put upon his head, and he was called Holy Father. The power of life and death over millions of people in many countries was vested in him; kings, princes and nobles visited him in his great palace to do him homage, and his fame spread far and wide. But he himself grew more thoughtful and silent and sought only to exercise his great powers for the people’s good.
This, however, did not altogether please some of his counselors.
“The Church needs money,” they told him. “We must squeeze it out of the Jews.”
But Andreas steadfastly refused to countenance any persecutions. Many edicts were placed before him for his signature, giving permission to bishops in certain districts to threaten the Jews unless they paid huge sums of money in tribute, but Andreas declined to assent to any one of them.
One day a document was submitted to him from the archbishop of the Rhine district, craving permission to drive the Jews from the city of Mayence. The Pope’s face hardened when he read the iniquitous letter. He gave instant orders that the archbishop should be summoned to Rome, and to the utter amazement of his cardinals he also commanded them to bring before him three leading Jews from Mayence, to state their case.
“It shall not be said,” he declared, “that the Pope issued a decree of punishment without giving the people condemned an opportunity of defending themselves.”
When the news reached Mayence there was great wailing and sorrow among the Jews, for, alas! bitter experience had taught them to expect no mercy from Rome. Delegates were selected, and when they arrived at the Vatican they were asked for their names. These were given and communicated to the Pope.
“The delegates of the Jews of the city of Mayence,” announced a secretary, “humbly crave audience of Your Holiness.”
“Their names?” demanded the Pope.
“Simon ben Isaac, Abraham ben Moses, and Issachar, the priest.”
“Let them enter,” said the Pope, in a quiet, firm voice. He had heard but one name; his plan had proved successful, for he had counted upon Simon being one of the chosen delegates.
The three men entered the audience chamber and stood expectant before the Pope. His Holiness appeared to be lost in deep thought. Suddenly he aroused himself from his reverie and looked keenly at the aged leader of the party.
“Simon of Mayence, stand forth,” he said, “and give voice to thy plea. We give thee attention.”
The old man approached a few paces nearer, and in simple, but eloquent language, pleaded that the Jews should be permitted to remain unmolested in Mayence in which city their community had been long established.
“Thy prayer” said the Pope, when he had finished, “shall have full consideration, and my answer shall be made known to thee without delay. Now tell me, Simon of Mayence, something of thyself and thy co-delegates. Who are ye in the city?”
Simon gave the information.
“Have ye come hither alone?” asked the Pope. “Or have ye been escorted by members of your families—your sons?”
The Pope’s voice was scarcely steady, but none noticed.
“I have no son,” said Simon, with a weary sigh.
“Hast thou never been blessed with offspring?”
Simon looked sharply at the Pope before answering. Then, with bowed head and broken voice, he said: “God blessed me with one son, but he was stolen from me in childhood. That has been the sorrow of my life.’
The old man’s voice was choked with sobs.
“I have heard,” said the Pope, after a while, “that thou art famed as a chess-player. I, too, am credited with some skill in the game. I would fain pit it against thine. Hearken! If thou prove the victor in the game, then shall thy appeal prevail.”
“I consent,” said the old man, proudly. “It is many years since I have sustained defeat.”
It was arranged that the game should be played that evening. Naturally, the strange contest aroused the keenest interest. The game was followed closely by the papal secretaries and the Jewish delegates. It was a wonderful trial of subtle play. The two players seemed about evenly matched. First one and then the other made a daring move which appeared to place his opponent in difficulties, but each time disaster was ingeniously evaded. A draw seemed the likeliest result until, suddenly, the Pope made a brilliant move which startled the onlookers. It was considered impossible now for Simon to avoid defeat.
No one was more astounded at the Pope’s move than the old Jew. He rose trembingly from his chair, gazed with piercing eyes into the face of the Pope and said huskily, “Where didst thou learn that move? I taught it to but one other.”
“Who?” demanded the Pope, eagerly.
“I will tell thee alone,” said Simon.
The Pope made a sign, and the others left the room in great surprise.
Then Simon exclaimed excitedly, “Unless thou art the devil himself, thou canst only be my long lost son, Elkanan.”
“Father!” cried the Pope, and the old man clasped him in his arms.
When the others re-entered the room, the Pope said quietly, “We have decided to call the game a draw, and in thankfulness for the rare pleasure of a game of chess with so skilled a player as Simon of Mayence, I grant the prayer of the delegates of that city. It is my will that the Jews shall live in peace.”
Shortly afterward, a new Pope was elected. Various rumors gained currency. One was that Andreas had thrown himself into the flames; another that he had mysteriously disappeared. And at the same time a stranger arrived in Mayence and was welcomed by Simon joyfully as his son, Elkanan.
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