THE faculty of memory sits in a compact chamber of the brain, where, at. the pressure of suggestion, person or date, apt line or verse, springs automatically from its neatly ticketed drawer. One speaks of that walk across the meadows from Winchester to St. Cross, and out pop data regarding early editions of the Angler. A grove of birches whispers the schedule of its botanical variety, — betula lento, lutea, populifolia, nigra.
This is as it should be; yet some of us, alas, are served by no such methodical workman. Our memory is, rather, an enchanter who hands us the key of a playground vast and vague, wherein Richard Cœur-de-Lion may swing Scheherazade to his saddle-bow, and Petrarch pass the time of day with Beatrice. In the distance, fair dim ladies of the past melt into the misty lowland, and out here in the sun a conjuror keeps his six balls whirling in the air, while no word of his limerick reaches our ear. We may envy other minds their careful accountant, yet we would not take him for the magician who knows the open sesame to our garden of delight. For here, when we will, we find all the familiar dears, from Alice in her ankle-ties to sweet white Milly Thaw, judging exquisitely the best part of love. We may not recall what they said then, and then; but we have lived with them so long that we guess what they may be t hinking.
Or, again, it is as if we recalled a delightful person we may have met last year, whose estate and place have gone from us: we have him, not his appurtenances. Then, as the throng passes and dissolves, we know that we have walked with friends. What was that name? Where did we meet? How long since, — this year, or centuries ago? Who shall say! But we see them, and the picture of their lives: the dear women who have been companions of many an hour, the adorable children one would play sedately with through a summer afternoon, the man who wins us to a delightful stage of half-in-love which invites no disillusionment, the villain one can safely cheer behind the barrier of printed page. We have known them as intimates, — their individual repellence of charm, the fragrance of their personality. Their talk or precise adventure? Not a vestige remains. We can only say what such a one might do at any given moment. He is thus and so, therefore will he so think and act.
And so our pictures come and go. What pale girl is that who makes votive offering to her star shining dimly through the London night? All her life was she swept back and forth on the restless sea of temperament, dragging anchor in every port, until, the worn slave of warring passions, she was cast upon the shore. And then we look through the twilight of virginal New England springs, when the smell of fresh-turned earth summons elemental life, and man and maid melt to love in a purity as moving as the latent savagery of wild English moors. There, clear above all, stands the great Wizard who fashions men and women, low, high, bad, good, humorous, demure, real as if they were living in the next county, and then turns to make such sweet music of the fields that the melody must flow forever in all hearing ears. And beyond, the immortal Spirit of Greek verse chants of unconquerable fate, or sings of the love of shepherd lads at dawn in soft upland meadows, and of the beauty of blue Ægean seas.
For we are divided into two camps: those who remember with precision, against those who treasure pictures and the cadence of a verse. And what dismay smites the second company when, in their dim recalling as of a dream, a quick sensation as of something lived before, they are pulled up short by the incisive, apt quotation, the easy allusion to character or scene, of the facile men of the first camp. Then the pleasure of meeting an acquaintance stiffens into the apprehension which waits upon his darting memory; and as he neatly caps the moment with its counterpart in some book which has been the friend of years, we meet his word with a blank demeanor shrieking ignorance. We recognize the person, the familiar chime of the sentence, the setting of the scene. But who, and when, and where? What players walk upon the stage we know so well? And while our wits are wool-gathering, that sheep is clipped, and other business is in hand; yet the hesitating smile which had accompanied the performance was not the pretension it had seemed: it meant only that we saw the affair by another light.
But let that ready quoter beware, for he stands in peril of the pitfall digged by his own prideful memory, and he may quote too much. Then it is that the thud of the expected makes us wince, and a commonplace person who merely chats about his day may give us more genuine pleasure and even variety; for his babble is spontaneous, his day is real and human and fits into a general scheme of things more convincing than a simile; and his gift, of relaxation is more precious than the neat parcel delivered by the man who presents us with an analogue in exchange for some light word and rouses in us only a dull resentment at his readiness. Our living must be richer than our learning or the pattern of such culture will be out of focus, as if we drew too much without the model; and a ‘prehensile memory,’ as it has been called, may be only the development following upon feats of conscientious agility, when we may have wondered at a display which called for no originality, but only an amazing cleverness in swinging from other people’s trees. As his muscles decline in strength, such a one may even fall upon a middleaged degeneration of ‘Well, what’s the good word?’ or ‘The sun is pleasant; it is pleasant to see the sun.’
may be our sad estate, envy may point the finger of our scorn; yet it is a question not so much of the cultivation as of the texture of the mind, and we hug our memory that can hold a picture and personality, that can recall the pace of clever talk and the flow of verse, even though word or circumstance evade us: for ours is a joy made for no practical use under heaven, a luxury, a largess of delight; and not for any orderly inclosure would we exchange the dear secret playground which is all our own. Here we remember just for fun, and here we shall find the precious charm of a character, a thought, the shifting lights of many a lovely day.