A Tobacco Plant

Punch, November 11, 1941

I had done the second hole (from the vegetable-marrow frame to the mulberry-tree) in two, and was about to proceed to the third hole by the potting-shed when I thought I would go in and convey the glad news to Joan. I found her seated at the table in the breakfast-room with what appeared to be a heap of tea spread out upon a newspaper in front of her. Little slips of torn tissue-paper littered the floor, and on a chair by her side were several empty cardboard boxes. The sight was so novel that I forgot the object of my errand.

“What’s all that tea for, and what are you doing with it?” I asked.

“It isn’t tea; it’s tobacco,” Joan replied, “and I’m making cigarettes for the soldiers at the front.”

“Where on earth did you get that tobacco from, if it is tobacco?” I went on.

“Let me see now,” mused Joan, pausing to lick a cigarette-paper — “was it from the greengrocer’s or the butcher’s? Ah! I remember. It was from the tobacconist’s.”

Joan gets like that sometimes, but I do not encourage her.

“But what made you choose this Hottentot stuff?” I enquired.

“The soldiers like it strong,” Joan replied, “and this looked about the strongest he’d got.”

“What does it call itself?”

“It was anonymous when I bought it, but you’ll no doubt see its name on the bill when it comes in.”

“Thanks very much,” I said. “That’s what I should call forcible fleecing. Not that I mind in a good cause — ”

“Isn’t it ingenious?” interrupted Joan. “You just put the tobacco in between the rollers, and twiddle this button round until — until you’ve twiddled it round enough; then you slip in a cigarette-paper — like that — moisten the edge of it — twiddle the button round once more — open the lid — and shake out the finished article — comme ça!

An imperfect cylindrical object fell on to the floor. I stooped to pick it up and the inside fell out. I collected the débris in the palm of my hand.

“How many of these have you made?” I asked.

“Only three thoroughly reliable ones, including that one,” she replied. “I’ve rolled ever so many more, but the tobacco will fall out.”

“Here, let me give you a hand,” I suggested. “I’ll roll and you lick.”

“No,” said Joan kindly but firmly. “You don’t quite grasp the situation. I want to do something. I can’t make shirts or knit comforters. I’ve tried and failed. My shirts look like pillow-cases, and anything more comfortless than my comforters I couldn’t imagine. I wouldn’t ask a beggar to wear an article I had made, much less an Absent-Minded Beggar.”

“What about that tie you knitted for me last Christmas?” I said.

“Yes,” said Joan, “what about it? That’s what I want to know. You haven’t worn it once.”

It was true, I hadn’t. The tie in question was an attempt to hybridise the respective colour-schemes of a tartan plaid and a Neapolitan ice.

“That,” I explained, “is because I’ve never had a suit which would set it off as it deserves to be set off. However, if I can’t help I won’t hinder you. I only came in to say that I had done the second hole in two. I thought you would like to know I had beaten bogey.” And I retired, taking with me the little heap of tobacco and the hollow tube of paper.

When I reached the seclusion of the mulberry-tree I found that the paper had become ungummed, so I placed the tobacco in it and succeeded after a while in rolling it up. The result, though somewhat attenuated, was recognisably a cigarette. I lit it, and when I had finished coughing I came to the conclusion that if only I could induce Joan to present her gift to the German troops instead of to our Tommies it would precipitate our ultimate triumph. I had to eat several mulberries before I felt capable of proceeding to the third hole. When I got there (in two) I found it occupied by a squadron of wasps while reinforcements were rapidly coming up from a hole beneath the shed. Being hopelessly outnumbered I contented myself with a strategical movement necessitating several stiff rearguard actions.

Joan, growing a little more proficient, had in a couple of days made 500 cigarettes. I had undertaken to dispatch them, and one morning she came to me with a neatly-tied-up parcel.

“Here they are,” she said; “but you must ask at the Post Office how they should be addressed. I’ve stuck on a label.”

I went out, taking the parcel with me, and walked straight to the tobacconist’s.

“Please pack up 1,000 Hareems,” I said, “and post them to the British Expeditionary Force. Mark the label ‘Cigarettes for the use of the troops.’ And look here, I owe you for a pound of tobacco my wife bought the other day. I’ll square up for that at the same time. By-the-by, what tobacco was it?”

“Well, sir,” the man replied, “I hardly like to admit it in these times, but it was a tobacco grown in German East Africa. It really isn’t fit to smoke, and is only good for destroying wasps’ nests or fumigating greenhouses, which I thought your lady wanted it for, seeing as how she picked it out for herself. Some ladies nowadays know as much about tobacco as what we do.”

I left the shop hurriedly. The problem of the disposal of Joan’s well-meaning gift was now solved. I returned home and furtively stole up the side path into the garden. Under cover of the summer-house I undid the parcel and proceeded rapidly to strip the paper from those of the cigarettes that had not already become hollow mockeries. When I had collected all the tobacco I went in search of the gardener, and encountered him returning from one of his numerous meals.

“Wilkins,” I said, “there is a wasps’ nest on the third green, and here is some special wasp-eradicator. Will you conduct the fumigation?”

As Joan and I were walking round the garden that evening before dinner Joan said —

“I don’t want to blush to find it fame, but — do you know — I prefer doing good by stealth.”

A faint but unmistakable odour was borne on the air from the direction of the third green.

“So do I,” I said.

Punch, or “The London Charivari,” was a British humor (sorry, ‘humour’) magazine that ran from 1841 until 2002. It still has a Web site and cartoon library.

We were not able to find information about the authors of individual stories, so this author will have to remain anonymous. Project Gutenberg has the complete text of many Punch magazines, and you can find this issue here.