Roger Raids the Ice-Box
[Note: This is taken from Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop.]
Roger had just put Carlyle’s Cromwell back in its proper place in the History alcove when Helen and Titania returned from the movies. Bock, who had been dozing under his master’s chair, rose politely and wagged a deferential tail.
“I do think Bock has the darlingest manners,” said Titania.
“Yes,” said Helen, “it’s really a marvel that his wagging muscles aren’t all worn out, he has abused them so.”
“Well,” said Roger, “did you have a good time?”
“An adorable time!” cried Titania, with a face and voice so sparkling that two musty habitués of the shop popped their heads out of the alcoves marked ESSAYS and THEOLOGY and peered in amazement. One of these even went so far as to purchase the copy of Leigh Hunt’s Wishing Cap Papers he had been munching through, in order to have an excuse to approach the group and satisfy his bewildered eyes. When Miss Chapman took the book and wrapped it up for him, his astonishment was made complete.
Unconscious that she was actually creating business, Titania resumed.
“We met your friend Mr. Gilbert on the street,” she said, “and he went to the movies with us. He says he’s coming in on Monday to fix the furnace while you’re away.”
“Well,” said Roger, “these advertising agencies are certainly enterprising, aren’t they? Think of sending a man over to attend to my furnace, just on the slim chance of getting my advertising account.”
“Did you have a quiet evening?” said Helen.
“I spent most of the time writing to Andrew,” said Roger. “One amusing thing happened, though. I actually sold that copy of Philip Dru.”
“No!” cried Helen.
“A fact,” said Roger. “A man was looking at it, and I told him it was supposed to be written by Colonel House. He insisted on buying it. But what a sell when he tries to read it!”
“Did Colonel House really write it?” asked Titania.
“I don’t know,” said Roger. “I hope not, because I find in myself a secret tendency to believe that Mr. House is an able man. If he did write it, I devoutly hope none of the foreign statesmen in Paris will learn of that fact.”
While Helen and Titania took off their wraps, Roger was busy closing up the shop. He went down to the corner with Bock to mail his letter, and when he returned to the den Helen had prepared a large jug of cocoa. They sat down by the fire to enjoy it.
“Chesterton has written a very savage poem against cocoa,” said Roger, “which you will find in The Flying Inn; but for my part I find it the ideal evening drink. It lets the mind down gently, and paves the way for slumber. I have often noticed that the most terrific philosophical agonies can be allayed by three cups of Mrs. Mifflin’s cocoa. A man can safely read Schopenhauer all evening if he has a tablespoonful of cocoa and a tin of condensed milk available. Of course it should be made with condensed milk, which is the only way.”
“I had no idea anything could be so good,” said Titania. “Of course, Daddy makes condensed milk in one of his factories, but I never dreamed of trying it. I thought it was only used by explorers, people at the North Pole, you know.”
“How stupid of me!” exclaimed Roger. “I quite forgot to tell you! Your father called up just after you had gone out this evening, and wanted to know how you were getting on.”
“Oh, dear,” said Titania. “He must have been delighted to hear I was at the movies, on the second day of my first job! He probably said it was just like me.”
“I explained that I had insisted on your going with Mrs. Mifflin, because I felt she needed the change.”
“I do hope,” said Titania, “you won’t let Daddy poison your mind about me. He thinks I’m dreadfully frivolous, just because I LOOK frivolous. But I’m so keen to make good in this job. I’ve been practicing doing up parcels all afternoon, so as to learn how to tie the string nicely and not cut it until after the knot’s tied. I found that when you cut it beforehand either you get it too short and it won’t go round, or else too long and you waste some. Also I’ve learned how to make wrapping paper cuffs to keep my sleeves clean.”
“Well, I haven’t finished yet,” continued Roger. “Your father wants us all to spend tomorrow out at your home. He wants to show us some books he has just bought, and besides he thinks maybe you’re feeling homesick.”
“What, with all these lovely books to read? Nonsense! I don’t want to go home for six months!”
“He wouldn’t take No for an answer. He’s going to send Edwards round with the car the first thing to-morrow morning.”
“What fun!” said Helen. “It’ll be delightful.”
“Goodness,” said Titania. “Imagine leaving this adorable bookshop to spend Sunday in Larchmont. Well, I’ll be able to get that georgette blouse I forgot.”
“What time will the car be here?” asked Helen.
“Mr. Chapman said about nine o’clock. He begs us to get out there as early as possible, as he wants to spend the day showing us his books.”
As they sat round the fading bed of coals, Roger began hunting along his private shelves. “Have you ever read any Gissing?” he said.
Titania made a pathetic gesture to Mrs. Mifflin. “It’s awfully embarrassing to be asked these things! No, I never heard of him.”
“Well, as the street we live on is named after him, I think you ought to,” he said. He pulled down his copy of The House of Cobwebs. “I’m going to read you one of the most delightful short stories I know. It’s called ‘A Charming Family.’”
“No, Roger,” said Mrs. Mifflin firmly. “Not to-night. It’s eleven o’clock, and I can see Titania’s tired. Even Bock has left us and gone in to his kennel. He’s got more sense than you have.”
“All right,” said the bookseller amiably. “Miss Chapman, you take the book up with you and read it in bed if you want to. Are you a librocubicularist?”
Titania looked a little scandalized.
“It’s all right, my dear,” said Helen. “He only means are you fond of reading in bed. I’ve been waiting to hear him work that word into the conversation. He made it up, and he’s immensely proud of it.”
“Reading in bed?” said Titania. “What a quaint idea! Does any one do it? It never occurred to me. I’m sure when I go to bed I’m far too sleepy to think of such a thing.”
“Run along then, both of you,” said Roger. “Get your beauty sleep. I shan’t be very late.”
He meant it when he said it, but returning to his desk at the back of the shop his eye fell upon his private shelf of books which he kept there “to rectify perturbations” as Burton puts it. On this shelf there stood Pilgrim’s Progress, Shakespeare, The Anatomy of Melancholy, The Home Book of Verse, George Herbert’s Poems, The Notebooks of Samuel Butler, and Leaves of Grass. He took down The Anatomy of Melancholy, that most delightful of all books for midnight browsing. Turning to one of his favourite passages—“A Consolatory Digression, Containing the Remedies of All Manner of Discontents”—he was happily lost to all ticking of the clock, retaining only such bodily consciousness as was needful to dump, fill, and relight his pipe from time to time. Solitude is a dear jewel for men whose days are spent in the tedious this-and-that of trade. Roger was a glutton for his midnight musings. To such tried companions as Robert Burton and George Herbert he was wont to exonerate his spirit. It used to amuse him to think of Burton, the lonely Oxford scholar, writing that vast book to “rectify” his own melancholy.
By and by, turning over the musty old pages, he came to the following, on Sleep—
In that case, thought Roger, it’s time for me to be turning in.
He looked at his watch, and found it was half-past twelve. He switched off his light and went back to the kitchen quarters to tend the furnace.
I hesitate to touch upon a topic of domestic bitterness, but candor compels me to say that Roger’s evening vigils invariably ended at the ice-box. There are two theories as to this subject of ice-box plundering, one of the husband and the other of the wife. Husbands are prone to think (in their simplicity) that if they take a little of everything palatable they find in the refrigerator, but thus distributing their forage over the viands the general effect of the depradation will be almost unnoticeable. Whereas wives say (and Mrs. Mifflin had often explained to Roger) that it is far better to take all of any one dish than a little of each; for the latter course is likely to diminish each item below the bulk at which it is still useful as a left-over. Roger, however, had the obstinate viciousness of all good husbands, and he knew the delights of cold provender by heart. Many a stewed prune, many a mess of string beans or naked cold boiled potato, many a chicken leg, half apple pie, or sector of rice pudding, had perished in these midnight festivals. He made it a point of honour never to eat quite all of the dish in question, but would pass with unabated zest from one to another. This habit he had sternly repressed during the War, but Mrs. Mifflin had noticed that since the armistice he had resumed it with hearty violence. This is a custom which causes the housewife to be confronted the next morning with a tragical vista of pathetic scraps. Two slices of beet in a little earthenware cup, a sliver of apple pie one inch wide, three prunes lowly nestling in a mere trickle of their own syrup, and a tablespoonful of stewed rhubarb where had been one of those yellow basins nearly full—what can the most resourceful kitcheneer do with these oddments? This atrocious practice cannot be too bitterly condemned.
But we are what we are, and Roger was even more so. The Anatomy of Melancholy always made him hungry, and he dipped discreetly into various vessels of refreshment, sharing a few scraps with Bock whose pleading brown eye at these secret suppers always showed a comical realization of their shameful and furtive nature. Bock knew very well that Roger had no business at the ice-box, for the larger outlines of social law upon which every home depends are clearly understood by dogs. But Bock’s face always showed his tremulous eagerness to participate in the sin, and rather than have him stand by as a silent and damning critic, Roger used to give him most of the cold potato. The censure of a dog is something no man can stand. But I rove, as Burton would say.
After the ice-box, the cellar. Like all true householders, Roger was fond of his cellar. It was something mouldy of smell, but it harboured a well-stocked little bin of liquors, and the florid glow of the furnace mouth upon the concrete floor was a great pleasure to the bookseller. He loved to peer in at the dancing flicker of small blue flames that played above the ruddy mound of coals in the firebox—tenuous, airy little flames that were as blue as violets and hovered up and down in the ascending gases. Before blackening the fire with a stoking of coal he pulled up a wooden Bushmills box, turned off the electric bulb overhead, and sat there for a final pipe, watching the rosy shine of the grate. The tobacco smoke, drawn inward by the hot inhaling fire, seemed dry and gray in the golden brightness. Bock, who had pattered down the steps after him, nosed and snooped about the cellar. Roger was thinking of Burton’s words on the immortal weed—
Bock was standing on his hind legs, looking up at the front wall of the cellar, in which two small iron-grated windows opened onto the sunken area by the front door of the shop. He gave a low growl, and seemed uneasy.
“What is it, Bock?” said Roger placidly, finishing his pipe.
Bock gave a short, sharp bark, with a curious note of protest in it.
But Roger’s mind was still with Burton.
“Rats?” he said. “Aye, very likely! This is Ratisbon, old man, but don’t bark about it. Incident of the French Camp: 'Smiling, the rat fell dead.’”
Bock paid no heed to this persiflage, but prowled the front end of the cellar, looking upward in curious agitation. He growled again, softly.
“Shhh,” said Roger gently. “Never mind the rats, Bock. Come on, we’ll stoke up the fire and go to bed. Lord, it’s one o’clock.”