Story type: Essay
True smokers are born and not made. I remember my grandfather with his snowy beard gloriously stained by nicotine; from my first years I never saw my father out of reach of his pipe, save when asleep. Of what avail for my mother to promise unheard bonuses if I did not smoke until I was twenty? By the time I was eight years old I had constructed a pipe of an acorn and a straw, and had experimented with excelsior as fuel. From that time I passed through the well-known stages of dried bean-pod cigars, hayseed, corn silk, tea leaves, and (first ascent of the true Olympus) Recruits Little Cigars smoked in a lumberyard during school recess. Thence it was but a step to the first bag of Bull Durham and a twenty-five-cent pipe with a curved bone stem.
I never knew the traditional pangs of Huck Finn and the other heroes of fiction. I never yet found a tobacco that cost me a moment’s unease–but stay, there was a cunning mixture devised by some comrades at college that harboured in its fragrant shreds neatly chopped sections of rubber bands. That was sheer poison, I grant you.
The weed needs no new acolyte to hymn her sanctities. Where Raleigh, Pepys, Tennyson, Kingsley, Calverley, Barrie, and the whimful Elia best of all–where these have spoken so greatly, the feeble voice may well shrink. But that is the joy of true worship: ranks and hierarchies are lost, all are brothers in the mystery, and amid approving puffs of rich Virginia the older saints of the mellow leaf genially greet the new freshman, be he never so humble.
What would one not have given to smoke a pipe out with the great ones of the empire! That wainscoted back parlour at the Salutation and Cat, for instance, where Lamb and Coleridge used to talk into the small hours “quaffing egg flip, devouring Welsh rabbits, and smoking pipes of Orinooko.” Or the back garden in Chelsea where Carlyle and Emerson counted the afternoon well spent, though neither one had said a hundred words–had they not smoked together? Or Piscator and Viator, as they trudged together to “prevent the sunrise” on Amwell Hill–did not the reek of their tobacco trail most bluely on the sweet morning air? Or old Fitz, walking on the Deben wall at Woodbridge, on his way to go sailing with Posh down to Bawdsey Ferry–what mixture did he fill and light? Something recommended by Will Thackeray, I’ll be sworn. Or, to come down to more recent days, think of Captain Joseph Conrad at his lodgings in Bessborough Gardens, lighting that apocalyptic pipe that preceded the first manuscript page of “Almayer’s Folly.” Could I only have been the privileged landlady’s daughter who cleared away the Captain’s breakfast dishes that morning! I wonder if she remembers the incident?[E]
[Footnote E: The reference here is to Chapter IV of Joseph Conrad’s “A Personal Record.” The author’s allusions are often sadly obscure.–EDITOR.]
It is the heart of fellowship, the core and pith and symbol of masculine friendship and good talk. Your cigar will do for drummers, your cigarettes for the dilettante smoker, but for the ripened, boneset votary nothing but a briar will suffice. Away with meerschaum, calabash, cob, and clay: they have their purpose in the inscrutable order of things, like crossing sweepers and presidents of women’s clubs; but when Damon and Pythias meet to talk things over, well-caked briars are in order. Cigars are all right in fiction: for Prince Florizel and Colonel Geraldine when they visit the famous Divan in Rupert Street. It was Leigh Hunt, in the immortal Wishing Cap Papers (so little read, alas!), who uttered the finest plea for cigars that this language affords, but I will wager not a director of the United Cigar Stores ever read it.
The fine art of smoking used, in older days, to have an etiquette, a usage, and traditions of its own, which a more hurried and hygienic age has discarded. It was the height of courtesy to ask your friend to let you taste his pipe, and draw therefrom three or four mouthfuls of smoke. This afforded opportunity for a gracious exchange of compliments. “Will it please you to impart your whiff?” was the accepted phrase. And then, having savored his mixture, you would have said: “In truth, a very excellent leaf,” offering your own with proper deprecations. This, and many other excellent things, we learn from Mr. Apperson’s noble book “The Social History of Smoking,” which should be prayer book and breviary to every smoker con amore.
But the pipe rises perhaps to its highest function as the solace and companion of lonely vigils. We all look back with tender affection on the joys of tobacco shared with a boon comrade on some walking trip, some high-hearted adventure, over the malt-stained counters of some remote alehouse. These are the memories that are bittersweet beyond the compass of halting words. Never again perhaps will we throw care over the hedge and stride with Mifflin down the Banbury Road, filling the air with laughter and the fumes of Murray’s Mellow. But even deeper is the tribute we pay to the sour old elbow of briar, the dented, blackened cutty that has been with us through a thousand soundless midnights and a hundred weary dawns when cocks were crowing in the bleak air and the pen faltered in the hand. Then is the pipe an angel and minister of grace. Clocks run down and pens grow rusty, but if your pouch be full your pipe will never fail you.
How great is the witching power of this sovereign rite! I cannot even read in a book of someone enjoying a pipe without my fingers itching to light up and puff with him. My mouth has been sore and baked a hundred times after an evening with Elia. The rogue simply can’t help talking about tobacco, and I strike a match for every essay. God bless him and his dear “Orinooko!” Or Parson Adams in “Joseph Andrews”–he lights a pipe on every page!
I cannot light up in a wind. It is too precious a rite to be consummated in a draught. I hide behind a tree, a wall, a hedge, or bury my head in my coat. People see me in the street, vainly seeking shelter. It is a weakness, though not a shameful one. But set me in a tavern corner, and fill the pouch with “Quiet Moments” (do you know that English mixture?) and I am yours to the last ash.
I wonder after all what was the sweetest pipe I ever smoked? I have a tender spot in memory for a fill of Murray’s Mellow that Mifflin and I had in the old smoking room of the Three Crowns Inn at Lichfield. We weren’t really thirsty, but we drank cider there in honour of Dr. Johnson, sitting in his chair and beneath his bust. Then there were those pipes we used to smoke at twilight sitting on the steps of 17 Heriot Row, the old home of R.L.S. in Edinburgh, as we waited for Leerie to come by and light the lamps. Oh, pipes of youth, that can never come again!
When George Fox was a young man, sorely troubled by visions of the devil, a preacher told him to smoke tobacco and sing hymns.
Not such bad advice.
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