'Calomel, I Think'


I REMEMBER once rummaging through a certain old lady’s medicine closet and finding a box labeled, ‘Calomel, I Think.’ The little box had survived a quarter century of annual house cleanings, and with its equivocal label still occupied its sacred corner in the cupboard.

No doubt psychoanalysts would name this curious trait in human nature after some ancient hero. They might call it the Homeric Complex in honor of the celebrated Catalogue of the Ships in which that poet has embalmed for all time in the amber of his verse the swarms of insignificant warriors that beset the lofty towers of Ilium. But this complex reaches farther back into the realms of pre-history. It may be observed in certain animals like wood rats that pack off to their nests all sorts of articles none of which could be of any use to the colony.

A glance at the attics and basements of any long-established home will reveal how strong is this trait in the human animal. Only the other day I noticed in my own attic a ‘dress form’ on which the stylish dames of the fashionable nineties used to shape their quaint costumes. Stiff and uncompromising with papier-mâché bust and steel straps, it has stood in its corner for forty years or more looking in stern protest at the scandalous modern dresses hanging limply with not a button to their back or a stay to their ribs! But, who knows? Whalebone may return; hoops may come back. It may again be necessary to encase the female form in protective armor plate. Better not be in too great a hurry to send it to the city dump heap. ‘Calomel, I think.’

There is no use arguing with the victims of this malady. They can all give a dozen reasons, excellent ones, for their delusion. The collector of postage stamps will urge the æsthetic importance of his collection. But do not take his assurances too seriously. Here, for instance, is a dreadful little daub, smeared over with cancellation ink and nearly illegible. A very Thersites of stamps! The ugliest thing that ever found its way into the aristocratic company of royal Spaniards and Persians. You comment with some confidence on its vile appearance; its besmirched condition; its miserable colors; its lack of distinction. Alas, you have picked for censure the darling of the whole album! That is one of the really important stamps. It is valued at some fabulous amount. It was got with cunning and deceit from some poor wretch who did not know what a treasure it was. Imperfect? Its very imperfection gives it its value! Only seven sheets were struck off before the imperfection was discovered, and this is one of seven that went through the mails! You tremblingly make your obeisance to the ugly little daub and turn to some page where noble examples of the exquisite art of engraving are grouped in colorful array. ‘These? No, they are n’t much. Someday, maybe, but not now. They are just for trading. What was it you said? Calomel? No, they are from Colombia.’

I remember an astonishing outbreak of the wood-rat complex in my own family of small children some years ago. The pasteboard covers of milk bottles suddenly became the most important matter in the whole world. Every mail brought additions to the collection. There was one priceless one from Skowhegan, Maine, or some such place. The local ones were much more artistic, but they were only useful for trading purposes. ‘Don’t throw any of them away! Some day they will be worth a lot!’ (There is always a trace of the gambling instinct in this wood-rat complex.) There is a box of them now, after many years, in a corner of the attic. I guess we had better keep them for the grandchildren.

Naturally the victims of this malady are easily imposed upon. There was the case of the great French mathematician, Chasles, who wasted enormous sums collecting the private letters of famous women of old — Cleopatra, Sappho, and Helen of Troy. Everyone knows — except, of course, those who are bitten by the germ — that there are conscienceless fellows who make a profitable business of manufacturing antique furniture which has all the creaking joints and wormholes of the stuff that has been stored for a century in the attics of New England wood rats. Those of us who do not happen to have been bitten by this particular microbe can laugh heartily at the plots and counterplots of these poor wretches; but all the while we ourselves may have a furtive eye out for some shabby, dog-eared first edition, or perhaps we shall be sitting with reverent attention while some dreadful old woman in the Great Smoky Mountains whines through some execrable ballad, every note of which is an abomination to the ear, and every one of its hundred and sixteen verses the purest and most indefensible doggerel.

Often the victims of the wood-rat complex try to explain their activities with some plausible chatter about historical research. One would think they all were anthropologists, ethnologists, philologists, archæologists — any ologist whatever, rather than just plain collectors of milk-bottle tops. One should never take a walk just to see the landscape. One should take a gun or a fishing rod along so as to be able to give some intelligible explanation of his strange behavior to himself as well as to others. It has to be admitted that the uncovering of a laundry bill of Shakespeare, or of Dante, or even of Homer, might be of some historical importance. It might throw some vivid light on the social and industrial life of old times. But this can hardly be urged as a valid reason for preserving in sœcula sœculorum every scrap of paper that pertains to modern poets. Observe what damage has been done to the reputation of Shelley and Keats by these pickers-up of bones in the camps of the hunters. What end, save the satisfaction of the morbid craving of a wood rat, can be served by dragging forth the puerile efforts of callow youth? ‘Important historical document found! First draft of “Over the Hill to the Poor House”! Startling variations!’ The rough draft is framed and hung in some library for all the world to see that a poet sometimes rewrites his poems. Once hung, it remains forever on the wall. ‘Calomel, I think.’

But what a gift from the gods these junk piles in our libraries are for the young fellow who must write a doctor’s thesis! All you have to do is to burrow around till you find some thirdor fourth-rate author’s name whose books have been forgotten (and deservedly so) by all save a few confirmed wood rats; drag to light all his glorious imperfections; and lo, you will have another piece of junk to add to the garbage heap for some later candidate to dig up and add to his collection of milk-bottle tops! The discovery of the neglected author is as full of excitement as the discovery by the little girl of the ‘perfectly good cat’ in the alley. There is always the chance of finding some poem which the neglected poet (for very good reasons) was unable to get into print. This is called a ‘literary discovery,’ and entitles the finder to a doctor’s degree. Usually the disease abates after the publication of the thesis, and the victim appears to make a complete recovery. He is found, however, in most cases to be a carrier of the disease. He may no longer show symptoms himself, but he may be capable of inoculating others with it.

But whatever form the disease may take, it seems to have filled our libraries, our museums, our attics, our anthologies, our scientific journals, our educational institutions, and even our minds with a mass of undigested and undigestible material which calls for a strong dose of Calomel, I think.