Originally published in Punch—July 13, 1907
It was the landlord who first called my attention to the cupboard; I should never have noticed it myself.
“A very useful cupboard you see there,” he said. “I should include that in the fixtures.”
“Indeed,” said I, not at all surprised; for the idea of his taking away the cupboard had not occurred to me.
“You won’t find many rooms in London with a cupboard like that.”
“I suppose not …” I said. “Well, I’ll let you have my decision in a few days. The rent with the cupboard, you say, is—” and I named the price.
“Yes, with the cupboard.”
So that settled the great cupboard question.
Settled it so far as it concerned him. For me it was only the beginning. In the year that followed my eyes were opened, so that I learned at last to put the right value upon a cupboard. I appreciate now the power of the mind which conceived this thing, the nobility of the great heart which included it among the fixtures. And I am not ungrateful.
You may tell a newly-married man by the way he talks of his garden. The pretence is that he grows things there—verbenas and hymantifilums and cinerarias, anything that sounds—but of course one knows that what he really uses it for is to bury in it things that he doesn’t want. Some day I shall have a garden of my own, in which to conduct funerals with the best of them; until that day I content myself with my cupboard.
It is marvelous how things lie about and accumulate. Until they are safely in the cupboard, we are never quite at ease’ they have so much to say outside, and they put themselves just where you want to step, and sometimes they fall on you. Yet even when I have them in the cupboard I am not without moments of regret. For later on I have to open it to introduce companions, and then the sign out some old friend saddens me with the thought of what might have been. “Oh, and I did mean to hang you up over the writing desk,” I say remorsefully.
I am thinking now of a certain picture—a large portrait of my old headmaster. It lay in a corner for months, waiting to be framed, getting more dingy and dirty every day. For the first few weeks I said to myself, “I must clean that before I send it to the shop. A piece of bread will do it.” Later, “It’s extraordinary how clever these picture people are. You’d think it was hopeless now, but I’ve no doubt, when I take it round tomorrow—”
A month after that somebody trod on it…
Now, then, I ask you—what could I do with it but put it in the cupboard? You cannot give a large photograph of a headmaster, bent across the waistcoat, to a housekeeper, and tell her that you have finished with it. Nor would a dustman make it his business to collect pedagogues along with the usual cabbage-stalk. A married man would have buried it under the begonia; but having no garden…
That is my difficulty. For a bachelor in chambers, who cannot bury, there should be some other consuming element than fire. In the winder I might possibly have burnt it in small quantities—Monday the head, Tuesday the watch chain—but in the summer, what does one do with it? And what does one do with the thousands of other things which have had there day—the old magazines, letters, papers, collars, chair-legs, broken cups? You may say that with the co-operation of my housekeeper, a firmer line could be adopted towards some of them. Perhaps so; but alas! she is a willing accessory to my weakness. I fancy that once, a long time ago, she must have thrown away a priceless MS. in an old waistcoat; now she takes no risks with either. In principle it is a virtue. In practice I think I would chance it.
It is a big cupboard; you wouldn’t find many rooms in London with a cupboard like that and it is included in the fixtures. Yet in the ordinary way, I suppose, I could not go on putting things in for ever. One day, however, I discovered that a family of mice had heard of it too. At first I was horrified. Then I saw that it was all for the best; they might help me to get rid of things. In a week they had eaten three pages of a Nautical Almanack; interesting pages which would be of real help to a married man at sea who wished to find the latitude by two fixed stars, but which, to a bachelor on the fourth floor, were valueless.
The housekeeper missed the point. She went so far as to buy me a mouse-trap. It was a silly trap, because none of the mice knew how to work it; although I baited it once with a cold poached egg. it is not for us to say what our humbler brethren should like and dislike; we can only discover by trial and error. It occurred to me that, if they did like cold poached eggs, I should be able to keep on good terms with them, for I generally had one over a morning. However, it turned out that they preferred a vegetable diet—almanacks and such.
The cupboard is nearly full. I don’t usually open it to visitors, but perhaps you would care to look inside for a moment?
That was my first top-hat. What do you do with your old top-hats? Ah yes, but then I only have a housekeeper… That is a really good pair of boots, only it’s too small…All that paper over there? Manuscript…. Well, you see, it might be valuable one day…
Broken batting glove. Brown-paper—I had always keep brown-paper, it’s useful if you’re sending off a parcel. Daily Mail War Map. Paint-pot—doesn’t belong to me really, but it was left behind, and I got tired of kicking it over. Old letters—all the same handwriting, bills probably …
Ah no, you mustn’t look at those. (I didn’t know they were there—I swear I didn’t. I thought I had burnt them.) Of course I see now that she was quite right … Yes, that was the very sweet one where she … well, I knew even then that … I mean I’m not complaining at all, we had a very jolly time …
Still, if it had been a little different—if that last letter … Well, I might by now have had a garden of my own in which to have buried all this rubbish.
Milne, A. A.. “The cupboard.” 1907. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 10 Nov 2007. 25 Apr 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/milne/cupboard/>.
We sit in our quiet rooms, feeling safe, serene, even chilly, yet everywhere about us, peacefully confined in all our furniture and belongings, is a mass of inflammability.
I have no hesitation whatever in saying that the most ignorant women I have known have been the worst housekeepers; and that the most learned women I have known have been among the best.