The Last Pipe by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

The last smoker I recollect among those of the old school was a clergyman. He had seen the best society, and was a man of the most polished behaviour. This did not hinder him from taking his pipe every evening before he went to bed. He sat in his armchair, his back gently bending, his knees a little apart, his eyes placidly inclined toward the fire. The end of his recreation was announced by the tapping of the bowl of his pipe upon the hob, for the purpose of emptying it of its ashes. Ashes to ashes; head to bed.

–LEIGH HUNT.

The sensible man smokes (say) sixteen pipefuls a day, and all differ in value and satisfaction. In smoking there is, thank heaven, no law of diminishing returns. I may puff all day long until I nigresce with the fumes and soot, but the joy loses no savour by repetition. It is true that there is a peculiar blithe rich taste in the first morning puffs, inhaled after breakfast. (Let me posit here the ideal conditions for a morning pipe as I know them.) After your bath, breakfast must be spread in a chamber of eastern exposure; let there be hominy and cream, and if possible, brown sugar. There follow scrambled eggs, shirred to a lemon-yellow, with toast sliced in triangles, fresh, unsalted butter, and Scotch bitter marmalade. Let there be without fail a platter of hot bacon, curly, juicy, fried to the debatable point where softness is overlaid with the faintest crepitation of crackle, of crispyness. If hot Virginia corn pone is handy, so much the better. And coffee, two-thirds hot milk, also with brown sugar. It must be permissible to call for a second serving of the scrambled eggs; or, if this is beyond the budget, let there be a round of judiciously grilled kidneys, with mayhap a sprinkle of mushrooms, grown in chalky soil. That is the kind of breakfast they used to serve in Eden before the fall of man and the invention of innkeepers with their crass formulae.

After such a breakfast, if one may descend into a garden of plain turf, mured about by an occluding wall, with an alley of lime trees for sober pacing: then and there is the fit time and place for the first pipe of the day. Pack your mixture in the bowl; press it lovingly down with the cushion of the thumb; see that the draught is free–and then for your saeckerhets taendstickor! A day so begun is well begun, and sin will flee your precinct. Shog, vile care! The smoke is cool and blue and tasty on the tongue; the arch of the palate is receptive to the fume; the curling vapour ascends the chimneys of the nose. Fill your cheeks with the excellent cloudy reek, blow it forth in twists and twirls. The first pipe!

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But, as I was saying, joy ends not here. Granted that the after-breakfast smoke excels in savour, succeeding fumations grow in mental reaction. The first pipe is animal, physical, a matter of pure sensation. With later kindlings of the weed the brain quickens, begins to throw out tendrils of speculation, leaps to welcome problems for thought, burrows tingling into the unknowable. As the smoke drifts and shreds about your neb, your mind is surcharged with that imponderable energy of thought, which cannot be seen or measured, yet is the most potent force in existence. All the hot sunlight of Virginia that stirred the growing leaf in its odorous plantation now crackles in that glowing dottel in your briar bowl. The venomous juices of the stalk seep down the stem. The most precious things in the world are also vivid with poison.

Was Kant a smoker? I think he must have been. How else could he have written “The Critique of Pure Reason”? Tobacco is the handmaid of science, philosophy, and literature. Carlyle eased his indigestion and snappish temper by perpetual pipes. The generous use of the weed makes the enforced retirement of Sing Sing less irksome to forgers, second-story men, and fire bugs. Samuel Butler, who had little enough truck with churchmen, was once invited to stay a week-end by the Bishop of London. Distrusting the entertaining qualities of bishops, and rightly, his first impulse was to decline. But before answering the Bishop’s letter he passed it to his manservant for advice. The latter (the immortal Alfred Emery Cathie) said: “There is a crumb of tobacco in the fold of the paper, sir: I think you may safely go.” He went, and hugely enjoyed himself.

There is a Bible for smokers, a book of delightful information for all acolytes of this genial ritual, crammed with wit and wisdom upon the art and mystery we cherish. It is called “The Social History of Smoking,” by G.L. Apperson. Alas, a friend of mine, John Marshall (he lives somewhere in Montreal or Quebec), borrowed it from me, and obstinately declines to return it. If he should ever see this, may his heart be loosened and relent. Dear John, I wish you would return that book. (Canadian journals please copy!)

* * * * *

I was contending that the joy of smoking increases harmonically with the weight of tobacco consumed, within reasonable limits. Of course the incessant smoker who is puffing all day long sears his tongue and grows callous to the true delicacy of the flavour. For that reason it is best not to smoke during office hours. This may be a hard saying to some, but a proper respect for the art impels it. Not even the highest ecclesiast can be at his devotions always. It is not those who are horny with genuflection who are nearest the Throne of Grace. Even the Pope (I speak in all reverence) must play billiards or trip a coranto now and then!

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This is the schedule I vouch for:

After breakfast: 2 pipes

At luncheon: 2 pipes

Before dinner: 2 pipes

Between dinner and bed: 10 to 12 pipes

(Cigars and cigarettes as occasion may require.)

The matter of smoking after dinner requires consideration. If your meal is a heavy, stupefying anodyne, retracting all the humane energies from the skull in a forced abdominal mobilization to quell a plethora of food into subjection and assimilation, there is no power of speculation left in the top storeys. You sink brutishly into an armchair, warm your legs at the fire, and let the leucocytes and phagocytes fight it out. At such times smoking becomes purely mechanical. You imbibe and exhale the fumes automatically. The choicest aromatic blends are mere fuel. Your eyes see, but your brain responds not. The vital juices, generous currents, or whatever they are that animate the intelligence, are down below hatches fighting furiously to annex and drill into submission the alien and distracting mass of food that you have taken on board. They are like stevedores, stowing the cargo for portability. A little later, however, when this excellent work is accomplished, the bosun may trill his whistle, and the deck hands can be summoned back to the navigating bridge. The mind casts off its corporeal hawsers and puts out to sea. You begin once more to live as a rational composition of reason, emotion, and will. The heavy dinner postpones and stultifies this desirable state. Let it then be said that light dining is best: a little fish or cutlets, white wine, macaroni and cheese, ice cream and coffee. Such a regime restores the animal health, and puts you in vein for a continuance of intellect.

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Smoking is properly an intellectual exercise. It calls forth the choicest qualities of mind and soul. It can only be properly conducted by a being in full possession of the five wits. For those who are in pain, sorrow, or grievous perplexity it operates as a sovereign consoler, a balm and balsam to the harassed spirit; it calms the fretful, makes jovial the peevish. Better than any ginseng in the herbal, does it combat fatigue and old age. Well did Stevenson exhort virgins not to marry men who do not smoke.

Now we approach the crux and pinnacle of this inquirendo into the art and mystery of smoking. That is to say, the last pipe of all before the so-long indomitable intellect abdicates, and the body succumbs to weariness.

No man of my acquaintance has ever given me a satisfactory definition of living. An alternating systole and diastole, says physiology. Chlorophyl becoming xanthophyl, says botany. These stir me not. I define life as a process of the Will-to-Smoke: recurring periods of consciousness in which the enjoyability of smoking is manifest, interrupted by intervals of recuperation.

Now if I represent the course of this process by a graph (the co-ordinates being Time and the Sense-of-by-the-Smoker-enjoyed-Satisfaction) the curve ascends from its origin in a steep slant, then drops away abruptly at the recuperation interval. This is merely a teutonic and pedantic mode of saying that the best pipe of all is the last one smoked at night. It is the penultimate moment that is always the happiest. The sweetest pipe ever enjoyed by the skipper of the Hesperus was the one he whiffed just before he was tirpitzed by the poet on that angry reef.

The best smoking I ever do is about half past midnight, just before “my eyelids drop their shade,” to remind you again of your primary school poets. After the toils, rebuffs, and exhilarations of the day, after piaffing busily on the lethal typewriter or schreibmaschine for some hours, a drowsy languor begins to numb the sense. In dressing gown and slippers I seek my couch; Ho, Lucius, a taper! and some solid, invigorating book for consideration. My favourite is the General Catalogue of the Oxford University Press: a work so excellently full of learning; printed and bound with such eminence of skill; so noble a repository or Thesaurus of the accumulated treasures of human learning, that it sets the mind in a glow of wonder. This is the choicest garland for the brain fatigued with the insignificant and trifling tricks by which we earn our daily bread. There is no recreation so lovely as that afforded by books rich in wisdom and ribbed with ripe and sober research. This catalogue (nearly 600 pages) is a marvellous precis of the works of the human spirit. And here and there, buried in a scholarly paragraph, one meets a topical echo: “THE OXFORD SHAKESPEARE GLOSSARY: by C.T. ONIONS: Mr. Onions’ glossary, offered at an insignificant price, relieves English scholarship of the necessity of recourse to the lexicon of Schmidt.” Lo, how do even professors and privat-docents belabour one another!

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With due care I fill, pack, and light the last pipe of the day, to be smoked reverently and solemnly in bed. The thousand brain-murdering interruptions are over. The gentle sibilance of air drawn through the glowing nest of tobacco is the only sound. With reposeful heart I turn to some favourite entry in my well-loved catalogue.

“HENRY PEACHAM’S COMPLEAT GENTLEMAN. Fashioning him absolut in the most necessary and Commendable Qualities concerning Minde, or Body, that may be required in a Noble Gentleman. Wherunto is annexed a Description of the order of a Maine Battaile or Pitched Field, eight severall wayes, with the Art of Limming and other Additions newly Enlarged. Printed from the edition of 1634; first edition, 1622, with an introduction by G. S. Gordon. 1906. Pp xxiv + 16 unpaged + 262. 7s. 6d. net. At the Clarendon Press.”

Or this:

“H. HIS DEVISES, for his owne exercise, and his Friends pleasure. Printed from the edition of 1581, with an introduction. 1906. Pp xviii + 104. 5s. net.”

O excellent H! Little did he dream that his devises (with an introduction by Professor Sir Walter Raleigh) would be still giving his Friends pleasure over three hundred years later. The compiler of the catalogue says here with modest and pardonable pride “strongly bound in exceptionally tough paper and more than once described by reviewers as leather. Some of the books are here printed for the first time, the rest are reproductions of the original editions, many having prefaces by good hands.”

One o’clock is about to chime in the near-by steeple, but my pipe and curiosity are now both going strong.

“THE CURES OF THE DISEASED in remote Regions, preventing Mortalitie incident in Forraine Attempts of the English Nation. 1598. The earliest English treatise on tropical diseases. 1915. 1s. 6d. net.”

Is that not the most interesting comment on the English colonial enterprises in Elizabeth’s reign? And there is no limit to the joys of this marvellous catalogue. How one dreams of the unknown delights of “Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books,” or “Dan Michel’s Ayenbite of Inwyt, 1340” (which means, as I figure it, the “Backbite of Conscience”), or “Origenis Hexaplorum quae supersunt sive Veterum Interpretum Graecorum in totum Vetus Testamentum Fragmenta, edidit F. Field. 1865. Two volumes L6 6s. net” or “Shuckford’s Sacred and Profane History of the World, from the Creation of the World to the Dissolution of the Assyrian Empire at the death of Sardanapalus, and to the Declension of The Kingdom of Judah and Israel under the Reigns of Ahaz and Pekah, with the Creation and Fall of Man. 1728, reprinted 1848. Pp 550. 10s. net.”

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But I dare not force my hobbies on you further. One man’s meat is another’s caviar. I dare not even tell you what my favourite tobaccos are, for recently when I sold to a magazine a very worthy and excellent poem entitled “My Pipe,” mentioning the brands I delight to honour, the editor made me substitute fictitious names for my dearly loved blends. He said that sound editorial policy forbids mentioning commercial products in the text of the magazine.

But tobacco, thank heaven, is not merely a “commercial product.” Let us call on Salvation Yeo for his immortal testimony:

“When all things were made none was made better than this; to be a lone man’s companion, a bachelor’s friend, a hungry man’s food, a sad man’s cordial, a wakeful man’s sleep, and a chilly man’s fire, sir; while for stanching of wounds, purging of rheum, and settling of the stomach, there’s no herb like unto it under the canopy of heaven.”

And by this time the bowl is naught but ash. Even my dear General Catalogue begins to blur before me. Slip it under the pillow; gently and kindly lay the pipe in the candlestick, and blow out the flame. The window is open wide: the night rushes in. I see a glimpse of stars … a distant chime … and fall asleep with the faint pungence of the Indian herb about me.

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