The Voice in the Cellarage

‘You hear this fellow in the cellarage,’ Hamlet remarked with a trace of exasperation to his friends Horatio and Marcellus. He added significantly, ‘Consent to swear.’ They swore. Alone in the house, at work, one becomes gradually aware of the first voice, plaintive, intermittent but insistent, as of a soul in pain, a spirit tortured yet bravely trying to suppress its screams with tightly compressed lips. At first bewildered, then more attentive, one finds it growing more plaintive, almost whining in fretful peevishness. Investigation reveals it to be the chronic complaint of the gas meter going its costly rounds.

These lines by the Great Bard show a richer reading of life than Mr. Shaw gives him credit for. They assume, in the mouth of an Elizabethan, a prophetic insight, a connotation, not made the subject of a note in Dr. Furness’s Variorum. The full meaning of these lines is most appreciated by those who, accustomed to apartment life, move into a house in the country. Shakespeare’s personal experience here found significant expression, for, though he had an apartment in the city, he also had a country house upstate. Writing for all time, as the critics say, we find Mr. Shakespeare up-to-date even in his attitude toward cellars.

With a bad cold in the head, need for solitude, or some other cause for spending the day quietly at home and possibly at work, there comes a proper appreciation for the articulate cosmos of the spirits of a good lusty cellar. Ordinarily, we are aware of our cellar only when something goes violently amiss with the furnace or a pool of water appears after a heavy rain. As for having enlightened appreciation of its articulate cosmic consciousness, we are, like the cellar, in the dark.

During a day’s vigil in a modern house, especially in the peaceful country, it seems as fully alive with haunts and voices as any ancient dungeoned castle. The very walls of our latter-day dungeons have tongues as well as ears, barking from time to time the sharp staccato notes of drying plaster.

The water meter, though only an occasional voice in the cellarly choir, has a different timbre. Its crescendo is robust, brusque, assertive, as though it felt the possibilities behind it of Niagara and the tidal wave.

The spirit of the cellar quickens as the afternoon wears on and tea time approaches. Those accustomed to working at home, like the literary man Shakespeare was, are startled by a muffled snarl in the regions below. This quickly subsides into the harmless, garrulous chatter of the electric refrigerator. Perhaps if one had the gift of tongues for inanimate things, this busy helpmate would prove good company over — or rather under — a cup of tea, with interesting gossip of an exciting episode concerning the milkman and the maid.

Toward twilight on a raw and dark spring day, the lights are turned on early in the house. The sun sets, and the air grows chill. Suddenly the lights falter, and sounds of furious rebellion surge underfoot with a roar that might have attended the first day of Creation. Transfixed, one waits an elastic moment, expecting to be lifted into the air and hurled through space. But above the frightened pulse-beats in our ears we hear the roar subside into a surly growl, rumbling sulkily in the cellarage. There is, after all, nothing to be feared from that blustering but really warm-hearted fellow, the oil burner.

A faint, dry twitter is awakened by the warmth, and with grating insistence strikes now faintly, now more loudly, on the attention. With a rising bicker of triumph, the parched chatter breaks out into a senseless repetition, an empty, silly, endless theme without variations. Beyond doubt, a cricket.

The wretched little fellow somewhere beneath the living-room hearth seems in the room. A vain search of corners and crannies makes him momentarily silent, but he soon returns to the business of keeping up telegraphic communication with another cricket lodged somewhere under the pantry flooring. They raise their voices, perhaps to drown out some insectivorous static.

These two are coy, they are at odds, they stand on ceremony, — heavens knows what, — but something keeps them apart, apart but still on speaking terms. Regardless of the superstition that they are good luck, there is an irresistible gesture toward the exterminator. The gesture becomes action.

Under the stifling fumes of a violent spraying their voices fade. Fade, yet neither die nor sleep. Could it be that the words of the advertisement were incorrect? Surely the cellar is plentifully douched with the stuff, driving those merely mortal into the upper air. But the crickets raise their voices in Oriental indignation against our policy of exclusion.

Suddenly a human note is added to the voices in the cellar. It becomes coherent. It appears, one culls the impression, that some of the exterminator fell on a few silken things hung out below to dry. There is but one safe course— to rise and flee.

For comparative peace, perhaps desk space above a boiler factory, or near the city desk in a newspaper office, might give better opportunities for concentration, work, or reverie. There, among the virile noises of a real and workaday world, one could think pleasantly of the privacy and seclusion of one’s own home, as did Shakespeare from his London alehouse, and, with an inward ear half harkening toward the flooring, smile at the deep understanding revealed in Hamlet’s final injunction toward the cellarage: ‘Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!’