A Degenerate

WHEN a lady asked once to borrow my copy of Barrie’s My Lady Nicotine, I inwardly commended her taste and marveled at her catholicity. When she borrowed it again, and — under the plea of leading it to a friend — yet again, I appended the quality of persistency to my inward analysis of her. And when, at last, lending it to her once more, I discovered in her library a copy of the selfsame book, my wonderment became so great as to draw forth, as it were a magnet, a plenary confession from her. I discovered that my own copy was impregnated with the perfume of some Arcadian mixture, which gave to the writing a realistic charm which in her copy was, naturally, wanting. So completely did this coincide with my own appreciations, that I presented the book forthwith. It was accepted, on condition that I receive her copy in return and promise to continue the exchanges in perpetuo, so as to keep always one of the two volumes in a state of — let me say — smoky realism. And this may explain, perhaps, why I remained a degenerate. But to me, the history of my unregeneration ] was less tranquil.

For long I had been contemplating socialism, anarchy, anything that would promise, however vaguely, to remove the barrier of price between me and the many books I wanted. Books, cousins of those already overfilling my shelves; books heard of, dipped into, longed for, but never owned; books whose cost seemed so small beside the value received and so large beside my pocketbook; books—I wanted. Book and pipe spelled heaven on earth — the truest Nirvana. And one night, with a total of sixty-two dollars before me as the necessary equivalent for the latest group of my desire, I desperately decided that something must be done.

It was a simple problem, on the face of it, — get sixty-two dollars. Where ? And suddenly a great calm fell upon me. My Puritan ancestors asserted themselves, and melodrama melted into the homeliest consideration of personal ways and means. I turned to my cash account. Sixty-two dollars I must save, somehow. How or where — what sacrifice to make, in short — was now the problem. Thus it was that my eye fell on the yearly total for “cigars and tobacco” of seventyeight dollars. Thus it was that I, for the first time in my history as a smoker, a bachelor husband of the Goddess of Nicotine, meditated the surrender of tobacco to the purchase of books.

For a young bachelor whose salary came mainly in the pleasure of a chosen profession, the slight financial anhang being hardly more than sufficient to the equilibrium of a modest domestic economy, financial excesses in one direction meant financial restrictions in another. A worthy young man was I, — it was those ancestors, — and my one vice was tobacco. And now had come the crucial temptation for infidelity to my chosen worship. Pipe and pouch hung in the balance.

It was a clear-cut issue, I saw from the first. To smoke a pipe without, having also cigars was insufficient, — like free thought without free expression. No, I must smoke all, or not at all: and I squared myself to the fact that I was considering swearing off. In one flash, the argument for the plaintiff bore upon me, — the loss of a mere habit, the gain of library luxury. Virtue was at its full. Now, I felt, I was a gladiator for the contest, or never would I appear in the lists. The wide world of my understanding echoed with the challenge, “Shall I swear off ? ”

Yes, a thousand times yes, I thought wildly, hoping by bravado to force the issue. To smoke — what is it ? ,A sacrificial rite to god habit, — the slaughter of books at the pyre, or the pipe, — the auto-da-fé of realities, by dreams. It is a sacrifice too long maintained. It must go. To be sure, even that would be in its turn a sacrifice, — but a slight one — oh, very. Sometimes it would not even be realized; and even on the very fittest time, when the bitter, clouded out-doors is copied in the saddened, heavy self, to come in to the old chair, to confide one’s self to the old smoke, to caress the old, true goddess, and forget the new, traitorous troubles, even then it is an easy — well, not easy, but a — a — heroic — yes, mightily heroic — sacrifice.

And see the result. Books — books! I imagine this one, which I desire much, now in my hands. I lean back, open it, revel in its title-page, pass my fingers over its soft, responsive cover, light my pipe — no, not my pipe, of course, the gas — and read. The hours pass; the new land has received me; my pipe rejoices with me — on the shelf, of course, — and all is bliss. Page after page goes past, and no pause except to fill my pipe — no! no pause, I mean, even for that! — and then — I know; alas, I know — and then the old, old longing for that sympathetic companion — on the shelf. Ah, but I will get over that: surely, yes, but — but how ! Heaven only knows ! Alas, I was a poor gladiator, indeed, — unless I was fighting on the wrong side.

The true debater — I remembered — studied the opposition as carefully as the defense. Calming my conscience with this maxim, I relinquished myself to soft adherence to fair tobacco. I will argue now, quoth I to myself, for the defendant.

Argue ? What argument needs tobacco ? Tell me, continued I to myself, where words can even impinge upon the luxurious sphere of the smoker’s content. It was yesterday—no longer ago—that I entered my den with dark and evil thoughts — thoughts heavy with regrets, misgivings, and despondency. What was it that in twenty minutes turned me into a new man, refreshed for the contest, light of heart, sobered in judgment, confident for the future ? The answer was already upon my lips — nay, even within them — my pipe.

My pipe! And I was, even in its subtle embrace, plotting treason against it! Well I knew that without this companion I should at that minute be lost to all meditative serenity, pacing my room vacantly, incapable of an honest judgment upon anything, be it pipe, book, or salvation. I — give up smoking — sacrifice tobacco — I? Never.

The still, small voice said, “But — the books.” Conscience? The fiend it was! No conscience of mine would disharmonize the glory of that loyal resolve. Books — yes, I know. Books are like happiness—the real thing in life. But tobacco — ah, tobacco is life itself.

I must have both, even if my next winter’s suit must pay for it. This settled, I knocked the ashes from my briar, filled it again; and in the cordial flash of the match I saw my way clear before me.

Barrie was real — and the lady should know it!