“After visits to Maryborough and some other Australian towns, we presently took passage for New Zealand. If it would not look too much like showing off, I would tell the reader where New Zealand is, for he is as I was, he thinks he knows. And he thinks he knows where Hertzegovina is, and how to pronounce pariah, and how to use the word unique without exposing himself to the derision of the dictionary. But in truth, he knows none of these things. There are but four or five people in the world who possess this knowledge, and these make their living out of it. They travel from place to place, visiting literary assemblages, geographical societies, and seats of learning, and springing sudden bets that these people do not know these things. Since all people think they know them, they are an easy prey to these adventurers. Or rather they were an easy prey until the law interfered, three months ago, and a New York court decided that this kind of gambling is illegal, “because it traverses Article IV, Section 9, of the Constitution of the United States, which forbids betting on a sure thing.” This decision was rendered by the full Bench of the New York Supreme Court, after a test sprung upon the court by counsel for the prosecution, which showed that none of the nine Judges was able to answer any of the four questions.
All people think that New Zealand is close to Australia or Asia, or somewhere, and that you cross to it on a bridge. But that is not so. It is not close to anything, but lies by itself, out in the water. It is nearest to Australia, but still not near. The gap between is very wide. It will be a surprise to the reader, as it was to me, to learn that the distance from Australia to New Zealand is really twelve or thirteen hundred miles, and that there is no bridge. I learned this from Professor X., of Yale University, whom I met in the steamer on the great lakes when I was crossing the continent to sail across the Pacific. I asked him about New Zealand, in order to make conversation. I supposed he would generalize a little without compromising himself, and then turn the subject to something he was acquainted with, and my object would then be attained; the ice would be broken, and we could go smoothly on, and get acquainted, and have a pleasant time. But, to my surprise, he was not only not embarrassed by my question, but seemed to welcome it, and to take a distinct interest in it. He began to talk – fluently, confidently, comfortably; and as he talked, my admiration grew and grew; for as the subject developed under his hands, I saw that he not only knew where New Zealand was, but that he was minutely familiar with every detail of its history, politics, religions, and commerce, its fauna, flora., geology, products, and climatic peculiarities. When he was done, I was lost in wonder and admiration, and said to myself, he knows everything; in the domain of human knowledge he is king.
I wanted to see him do more miracles; and so, just for the pleasure of hearing him answer, I asked him about Hertzegovina, and pariah, and unique. But he began to generalize then, and show distress. I saw that with New Zealand gone, he was a Samson shorn of his locks; he was as other men. This was a curious and interesting mystery, and I was frank with him, and asked him to explain it.
He tried to avoid it at first; but then laughed and said that after all, the matter was not worth concealment, so he would let me into the secret. In substance, this is his story:
“Last autumn I was at work one morning at home, when a card came up – the card of a stranger. Under the name was printed a line which showed that this visitor was Professor of Theological Engineering in Wellington University, New Zealand. I was troubled – troubled, I mean, by the shortness of the notice. College etiquette required that he be at once invited to dinner by some member of the Faculty – invited to dine on that day – not, put off till a subsequent day. I did not quite know what to do. College etiquette requires, in the case of a foreign guest, that the dinner-talk shall begin with complimentary references to his country, its great men, its services to civilization, its seats of learning, and things like that; and of course the host is responsible, and must either begin this talk himself or see that it is done by some one else. I was in great difficulty; and the more I searched my memory, the more my trouble grew. I found that I knew nothing about New Zealand. I thought I knew where it was, and that was all. I had an impression that it was close to Australia, or Asia, or somewhere, and that one went over to it on a bridge. This might turn out to be incorrect; and even if correct, it would not furnish matter enough for the purpose at the dinner, and I should expose my College to shame before my guest; he would see that I, a member of the Faculty of the first University in America, was wholly ignorant of his country, and he would go away and tell this, and laugh at it. The thought of it made my face burn.
“I sent for my wife and told her how I was situated, and asked for her help, and she thought of a thing which I might have thought of myself, if I had not been excited and worried. She said she would go and tell the visitor that I was out but would be in in a few minutes; and she would talk, and keep him busy while I got out the back way and hurried over and make Professor Lawson give the dinner. For Lawson knew everything, and could meet the guest in a creditable way and save the reputation of the University. I ran to Lawson, but was disappointed. He did not know anything about New Zealand. He said that, as far as his recollection went it was close to Australia, or Asia, or somewhere, and you go over to it on a bridge; but that was all he knew. It was too bad. Lawson was a perfect encyclopedia of abstruse learning; but now in this hour of our need, it turned out that he did not know any useful thing.
“We consulted. He saw that the reputation of the University was in very real peril, and he walked the floor in anxiety, talking, and trying to think out some way to meet the difficulty. Presently he decided that we must try the rest of the Faculty – some of them might know about New Zealand. So we went to the telephone and called up the professor of astronomy and asked him, and he said that all he knew was, that it was close to Australia, or Asia, or somewhere, and you went over to it on – –
“We shut him off and called up the professor of biology, and he said that all he knew was that it was close to Aus – – .
“We shut him off, and sat down, worried and disheartened, to see if we could think up some other scheme. We shortly hit upon one which promised well, and this one we adopted, and set its machinery going at once. It was this. Lawson must give the dinner. The Faculty must be notified by telephone to prepare. We must all get to work diligently, and at the end of eight hours and a half we must come to dinner acquainted with New Zealand; at least well enough informed to appear without discredit before this native. To seem properly intelligent we should have to know about New Zealand’s population, and politics, and form of government, and commerce, and taxes, and products, and ancient history, and modern history, and varieties of religion, and nature of the laws, and their codification, and amount of revenue, and whence drawn, and methods of collection, and percentage of loss, and character of climate, and – well, a lot of things like that; we must suck the maps and cyclopedias dry. And while we posted up in this way, the Faculty’s wives must flock over, one after the other, in a studiedly casual way, and help my wife keep the New Zealander quiet, and not let him get out and come interfering with our studies. The scheme worked admirably; but it stopped business, stopped it entirely.
“It is in the official log-book of Yale, to be read and wondered at by future generations – the account of the Great Blank Day – the memorable Blank Day – the day wherein the wheels of culture were stopped, a Sunday silence prevailed all about, and the whole University stood still while the Faculty read-up and qualified itself to sit at meat, “without shame, in the presence of the Professor of Theological Engineering from New Zealand:
“When we assembled at the dinner we were miserably tired and worn – but we were posted. Yes, it is fair to claim that. In fact, erudition is a pale name for it. New Zealand was the only subject; and it was just beautiful to hear us ripple it out. And with such an air of unembarrassed ease, and unostentatious familiarity with detail, and trained and seasoned mastery of the subject-and oh, the grace and fluency of it!
“Well, finally somebody happened to notice that the guest was looking dazed, and wasn’t saying anything. So they stirred him up, of course. Then that man came out with a good, honest, eloquent compliment that made the Faculty blush. He said be was not worthy to sit in the company of men like these; that he had been silent from admiration; that he had been silent from another cause also – silent from shame – silent from ignorance! ‘For,’ said he, ‘I, who have lived eighteen years in New Zealand and have served five in a professorship, and ought to know much about that country, perceive, now, that I know almost nothing about it. I say it with shame, that I have learned fifty times, yes, a hundred times more about New Zealand in these two hours at this table than I ever knew before in all the eighteen years put together. I was silent because I could not help myself. What I knew about taxes, and policies, and laws, and revenue, and products, and history, and all that multitude of things, was but general, and ordinary, and vague-unscientific, in a word – and it would have been insanity to expose it here to the searching glare of your amazingly accurate and all-comprehensive knowledge of those matters, gentlemen. I beg you to let me sit silent – as becomes me. But do not change the subject; I can at least follow you, in this one; whereas if you change to one which shall call out the full strength of your mighty erudition, I shall be as one lost. If you know all this about a remote little inconsequent patch like New Zealand, ah, what wouldn’t you know about any other Subject!”.”