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- An Adventure With A Genius - 5/21 -
probably knew it better than I did, but with my presentation of it, because it showed some ability to compress narrative without destroying its character and also gave some proof of a good memory.
When I reached the scene in which Caesar replies to Britannus's protest against the recognition of Cleopatra's marriage to her brother, Ptolemy, by saying, "Pardon him, Theodotus; he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature," Mr. Pulitzer burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
I was about to continue, and try to make good better, when Mr. Pulitzer raised his hands above his head in remonstrance.
"Stop! Stop! For God's sake! You're hurting me," very much as a person with a cracked lip begs for mercy when you are in the middle of your most humorous story.
I found out later that, in order to keep in Mr. Pulitzer's good graces, it was as necessary to avoid being too funny as it was to avoid being too dull, for, while the latter fault hurt his intellectual sensitiveness, the former involved, through the excessive laughter it produced, a degree of involuntary exertion which, in his disordered physical condition, caused him acute pain.
Mr. Pulitzer's constant use of the exclamations "My God!" and "For God's sake!" had no relation whatever to swearing, as the term is usually understood; they were employed exactly as a French lady employs the exclamation Mon Dieu! or a German the expression Ach, du liebe Gott! As a matter of fact, although Mr. Pulitzer was a man of strong and, at times, violent emotions, and, from his deplorable nervous state, excessively irritable, I do not think that in the eight months I was with him, during the greater part of which time he was not under any restraining influence, such as might be exerted by the presence of ladies, I heard him use any oath except occasionally a "damn," which appealed to him, I think, as a suitable if not a necessary qualification of the word "fool." For Mr. Pulitzer there were no fools except damned fools.
After the excitement about Caesar and Cleopatra had subsided, Mr. Pulitzer asked me if I had a good memory. I hesitated before replying, because I had seen enough of Mr. Pulitzer in an hour to realize that a constant exercise of caution would be necessary if I wished to avoid offending his prejudices or wounding his susceptibilities; and whereas on the one hand I did not wish to set a standard for myself which I would find it impossible to live up to, on the other hand I was anxious to avoid giving any description of my abilities which would be followed later by a polite intimation from the major-domo that Mr. Pulitzer had enjoyed my visit immensely but that I was not just the man for the place.
So I compromised and said that I had a fairly good memory.
"Well, everybody thinks he's got a good memory," replied Mr. Pulitzer.
"I only claimed a fairly good one," I protested.
"Oh! that's just an affectation; as a matter of fact you think you've got a splendid memory, don't you? Now, be frank about it; I love people to be frank with me."
My valor got the better of my discretion, and I replied that if he really wished me to be frank I was willing to admit that I had no particular desire to lay claim to a good memory, for I was inclined to accept the view which I had once heard expressed by a very wise man of my acquaintance that the human mind was not intended to remember with but to think with, and that one of the greatest benefits which had been conferred on mankind by the discovery of printing was that thousands of things could be recorded for reference which former generations had been compelled to learn by rote.
"Your wise friend," he cried, "was a damned fool! If you will give the matter a moment's thought you'll see that memory is the highest faculty of the human mind. What becomes of all your reading, all your observation, your experience, study, investigations, discussions--in a rushing crescendo--if you have no memory?"
"I might reply," I said, "by asking what use it is to lumber up your mind with a mass of information of which you are only going to make an occasional use when you can have it filed away in encyclopedias and other works of reference, and in card indexes, instantly available when you want it."
I spoke in a light and rather humorous tone in order to take the edge off my dissent from his opinion, reflecting that even between friends and equals a demand for frankness is most safely to be regarded as a danger signal to impulsiveness; but it was too late, I had evidently overstepped the mark, for Mr. Pulitzer turned abruptly from me without replying, and began to talk to the gentleman on his left.
This had the twofold advantage of giving me time to reconsider my strategy, and to eat some dinner, which one of the footmen, evidently the kind with a memory for former experiences, had set on one side and kept warm against the moment when I would be free to enjoy it.
As I ate I listened to the conversation. It made my heart sink. The gentleman to whom Mr. Pulitzer had transferred his attentions was a Scotchman, Mr. William Romaine Paterson. I discovered later that he was the nearest possible approach to a walking encyclopedia. His range of information was--well, I am tempted to say, infamous. He appeared to have an exhaustive knowledge of French, German, Italian, and English literature, of European history in its most complicated ramifications, and of general biography in such a measure that, in regard to people as well known as Goethe, Voltaire, Kossuth, Napoleon, Garibaldi, Bismarck, and a score of others, he could fix a precise day on which any event or conversation had taken place, and recall it in its minutest details.
It was not simply from the standpoint of my own ignorance that Paterson's store of knowledge assumed such vast proportions, for it was seldom opened except in the presence of Mr. Pulitzer, in whom were combined a tenacious memory, a profound acquaintance with the subjects which Paterson had taken for his province, an analytic mind, and a zest for contradiction. Everything Paterson said was immediately pounced upon by a vigorous, astute, and well-informed critic who derived peculiar satisfaction from the rare instances in which he could detect him in an inaccuracy.
The conversation between Mr. Pulitzer and Paterson, or, rather, Paterson's frequently interrupted monologue, lasted until we had all finished dinner, and the butler had lighted Mr. Pulitzer's cigar. In the middle of an eloquent passage from Paterson, Mr. Pulitzer rose, turned abruptly toward me, held out his hand, and said, "I'm very glad to have met you, Mr. Ireland; you have entertained me very much. Please come here to-morrow at eleven o'clock, and I'll take you out for a drive. Good-night." He took Paterson's arm and left the room.
The door, like all the doors in Mr. Pulitzer's various residences, shut automatically and silently; and after one of the secretaries had drawn a heavy velvet curtain across the doorway, so that not the faintest sound could escape from the room, I was chaffed good-naturedly about my debut as a candidate. To my great surprise I was congratulated on having done very well.
"You made a great hit," said one, "with your account of Shaw's play."
"I nearly burst out laughing," said another, "when you gave your views about memory. I think you're dead right about it; but J. P.--Mr. Pulitzer was always referred to as J. P.--is crazy about people having good memories, so if you've really got a good memory you'd better let him find it out."
I was told that, so far as we were concerned, the day's work, or at least that portion of it which involved being with J. P., was to be considered over as soon as he retired to the library after dinner. His object then was to be left alone with one secretary, who read to him until about ten o'clock, when the major-domo came and took him to his rooms for the night. As a rule, J. P. made no further demand on the bodily presence of his secretaries after he had gone to bed, but occasionally, when he could not sleep, one of them would be called, perhaps at three in the morning, to read to him.
This meant in practice that, when we were ashore, one, or more usually two of us, would remain in the house in case of emergency. This did not by any means imply that we were always free from work after ten o'clock at night, in fact the very opposite was true, for it was J. P.'s custom to say, during dinner, that on the following day he would ride, drive, or walk with such a one or such a one, naming him; and the victim--a term frequently used with a good deal of surprisingly frank enjoyment by J. P. himself--had often to work well into the night preparing material for conversation.
I saw something of what this preparation meant before I left the villa after my first meeting with J. P. Two of the secretaries said they would go over to Monte Carlo, and they asked me to go with them; but I declined, preferring to remain behind for a chat with one of the secretaries, Mr. Norman G. Thwaites, an Englishman, who was secretary in a more technical sense than any of the rest of us, for he was a shorthand writer and did most of J. P.'s correspondence.
After the others had gone he showed me a table in the entrance hall of the villa, on which was a big pile of mail just arrived from London. It included a great number of newspapers and weeklies, several copies of each. There were The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Morning Post, The Daily News, The Westminster Gazette, Truth, The Spectator, The Saturday Review, The Nation, The Outlook, and some other London publications, as well as the Paris editions of the New York Herald and The Daily Mail.
Thwaites selected a copy of each and then led the way to his bedroom, a large room on the top floor, from which we could see across the bay the brilliant lights of Monte Carlo.
He then explained to me that he had been selected to read to J. P. whilst the latter had his breakfast and his after-breakfast cigar the next morning. In order to do this satisfactorily he had to go over the papers and read carefully whatever he could find that was suited to J. P.'s taste at that particular time of the day. During the breakfast hour J. P. would not have anything read to him which was of an exciting nature. This preference excluded political news, crime, disaster, and war correspondence, and left practically nothing but book reviews, criticisms of plays, operas, and art exhibitions, and publishers' announcements.
The principal sources of information on these topics were the literary supplement of the London Times, the Literary Digest, and the literary, dramatic, and musical columns of the Athenaeum, The Spectator, and the Saturday Review.
These had to be "prepared," to use J. P.'s phrase, which meant that they were read over rapidly once and then gone over again with some concentration so that the more important articles could be marked for
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