Where There Are Pipes, There May Be Smoke

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

‘WHY don’t you smoke a pipe? It ‘s so masculine, so homey.’ If you are married, you have almost certainly heard this. And I, for one, will admit that the idea is not without appeal. There is something undeniably homey, and settled, and carpet-slippery, about the picture of one’s self comfortably bogged in a deep chair, legs asprawl, and clouds of fragrant smoke drifting ceilingward through the mellow glow of the reading-lamp. And the Little Woman at hand, playing with the Mah Jongg tiles, or smiling at one over the Home Companion, ever and anon ecstatically sniffing the domestic incense — from a safe distance. So, straining for masculinity, I bought a pipe.

It cost more than I had expected to pay, but then, it was ‘genuine briarroot from the sun-baked plains of Algeria, seasoned for fifteen years, beautifully grained,’ as the crafty tobacconeer pointed out. It was a fine, rich, winey shade, one had to admit. And more wonders! With a deft twist he snitched out the stem and exposed a veritable maze of sanitary plumbing. Aluminum traps, odd cup-shaped catchalls, U joints to ensnare the insidious nicotine. My mechanical talents running solely to the withdrawal of balky nails or the pounding in of same, fingers and all, I contemplated the intricate piping with misgiving. ‘How about a man to run the thing?’ I inquired with a sickly attempt at humor. ‘Ridiculous,’ said the piper, ‘it runs itself. Look!’ A few twists, and inside of five minutes everything was back in place — and without the aid of a blueprint.

Tobacco presented the next difficulty. Something mild and fragrant, I decided. Something with the scent of new-mown hay, and the strength of a cubeb cigarette. There were some forty mixtures to choose from; it should have been easy. But unexpected difficulties arose — I should have one mixture for dry weather, another for damp, yet another for winter. When I finally shut the door behind me, I bulged with no less than five small tins, and had rushed forth in desperation lest he produce a special tobacco designed for use only on election days and school holidays.

The first filling and lighting was a momentous event, despite my effort to make it a casual one. After the last plate had been wiped and the checkered tea-towel pitched up over the stovepipe to dry, we sauntered into the livingroom, arm in arm. Assuming as nonchalant an air as possible, I sank into the large chair, and after the proper interval drew forth the new pipe and one of the mixtures. My wife’s eyes widened, her mouth flew open, hands clasped in ecstasy. ‘A pipe, a real pipe!’ she crowed, quite as if she were agreeably surprised not to discover it made of celluloid or rosin. ‘Where did you get it? ‘

‘Thought I ‘d try it,’ said I, in an offhand manner, quite as though the idea had been my own from the start. ‘It ‘s a man’s smoke — ought to help cutting down on the cigarettes too. Let ‘s have it, before you drop it.’ She finally relinquished the prize, perching on the arm of the chair like an inquisitive wren, bursting with suggestions and admiring comment. Clutching the bowl in my left hand, I sought to pour the tobacco into it from the round tin. I had seen this done in a most workmanlike fashion by a friend named Farrier — his long, bony forefinger went tap, tap, tap, like a methodical woodpecker on a dead limb, and just the proper amount of the fragrant granules popped out and into the bowl as though measured to fit. It looked simple. But with my first tap, nothing came out at all, and with the second tap half the contents of the tin cascaded forth. It filled the bowl, however, to say nothing of my lap and the cuffs of my trousers, and drew a peal of laughter from my wife.

"These new tins are slippery as the devil,’ said I, assuming what I imagined to be an experienced air. She laughed again. Louder, I thought, than such a trivial incident warranted.

Next the packing down. My friend Farrier always used the index finger of the right hand, I recalled. This operation, while attended with a certain delicacy and precision, had never appeared difficult. The question was, just how much pressure to apply. Enough to hold the tobacco firmly in place, surely — I tamped it down with lusty pokes. A typhoon could scarcely have rippled the topmost layer when I finished. I drew forth the packet of matches.

‘No, no! Me — let me light it! Me,’ pleaded the wren, snatching the matches from my hands. ‘All right,’ I granted, ‘but light the blame thing evenly, back and forth, and don’t burn the er — er briar. It ‘s from Bulgaria.’

Never was temple fire attended with more rapt or devout ceremony. Never did two human beings approach a religious rite with more veneration. And never, I venture to state, were more surprising results returned. The steady yellow flame moved slowly across the tiny altar, the incense awaited its caress, and I leaned back and drew in a vast and tremendous pull on the stem. But no balmy cloud of soothing smoke rewarded; in fact, nothing came out. I pulled until my eyes crossed briskly, the veins in my forehead swelled ominously. I recalled the doctor’s words, ‘Your blood pressure is higher than I like to see it.’ I stopped suddenly, slowly deflating to normal dimensions.

‘Try once more; one more ‘ll do it,’ urged the wren, too absorbed in the mechanics of the business to note my apoplectic hue. Again the flame swept the bowl; again I inflated and sucked in mightily. This time, things happened. From the depths of the pipe came first a subdued squeaking, a noise such as you hear on unearthing a newborn family of field mice. Then a low moan, and finally, a shrill, reedy peep, culminating in a veritable blast of tobacco into my mouth and throat. But no smoke. Subsequent examination revealed that I had not, as I feared, inhaled the sanitary plumbing system along with half of the bowl’s contents. But it felt like it.

Nothing less than a woman’s scorn could have brought me up to the starting-line again. Under alternate waves of pity and poorly concealed merriment, I packed the bowl for the second attempt — packed it loosely, and with misgiving. Corkscrewing my feet tightly around the chair legs, I shut my eyes and pulled gingerly, ready to hurl the entire works through the open window at the first sign of treachery. But lo, a mellow warmth filled my mouth; a cautious sniff revealed smoke in the air. Taking heart from the encouraging signs, I sucked strongly, and was rewarded by a rich billow which eddied into my throat. A live, breathing coal pulsated in that pipe, attuned to my very spirit.

‘Wonderful,’ cried my wife. ‘Now, you look like a man!’ Overlooking the obvious inference of the remark, I swelled with pride at the tone in which it was uttered, and blew forth a great gust which curled and writhed in a quiet atmosphere.

This was more like it, I thought. One bold puff succeeded another, the wren marveling at the blue clouds which issued from my mouth like the exhaust from a motor boat. The plumbing worked well, only an occasional cinder or a drop of some peculiarly pungent and biting liquid sifting through to dampen my enthusiasm momentarily.

Sitting far down in the deep upholstery, I endeavored to assume the beneficent, far-away expression which every right-thinking pipe-smoker seems to acquire. A new difficulty arose, however. After ten minutes of steady puffing, I became aware that my expectoratory powers had suddenly developed to an amazing degree. The hundred tiny unseen glands — which the tooth paste advertisements tell us must function twenty-four hours a day if we would avoid dental damnation — all began to work at once. Swallowing fiercely, I did my best to retain my dignity. Somehow, this exercise did not go with the calm, benign composure which a true lover of the pipe should exhibit. I recalled that my friend Farrier seldom expectorated, and that when he did, it was not from pressure within, but rather to confirm his skillful and deadly aim on a knot in the flooring, or on the person of some luckless beetle which happened to cross his path. Yet there it was. And with it came a faint but disturbing hint of light-headedness — a vague feeling that all within was not exactly as it should be — a slight unsteadiness upon arising suddenly—

4You know,’ my wife’s voice broke in on me as I was making a conscious effort to focus on a landscape which waggled oddly on the farther wall, ‘every real home-man I know of smokes a pipe. You have no idea how kind of contented you look now — almost a part of the chair. A pipe ‘s so much more manly-looking than a cigarette, somehow. Why, what ‘s the matter — ‘ as I rose, wild-eyed, and floundered from the room.

That was eight months ago. Since that fateful day, my pipe and I have become nodding acquaintances, if not warm friends. He sits enshrined on a holder of hammered brass, on top of a fumed-oak cabinet, such as all regular homey smokers are presented with, if they live long enough. And I sit in my armchair across the room; I nod brightly at him, and sometimes, if the light catches him just right, and he ‘s in the proper humor, he winks back — a brief, understanding wink from his silver band. Which leads me to conclude that there are pipes and pipes, and that he, apparently, is not a homey sort of pipe at all!