Stealing away from the ones at home, who would be sad when they found out about it; stealing away from honor, purity, cleanliness, goodness, and manliness, the minister’s boy and the boy next door were preparing to smoke their first cigarettes. They had skulked across the back pasture, and were nearing the stone wall that separated Mr. Meadow’s corn-field from the road; and here, screened by the wall on one side and by corn on the other, they intended to roll the little “coffin nails,” and smoke them unseen.
The minister’s boy, whose name was Johnny Brighton, and who was an innocent, unsuspicious child, agreed that it would be a fine, manly thing to smoke. So the lads waited and planned, and now their opportunity had come. The boy next door, whose name was Albert Beecher, saw old Jerry Grimes, the worst character in Roseland, drop a small bag of tobacco and some cigarette-papers. The lad, being unobserved, transferred the stuff from the sidewalk to his pocket, then hid it in the wood-shed.
At last their plan seemed about to be carried out. Albert’s mother was nursing a sick friend, and the minister, secure in his study, was preparing a sermon. Johnny’s mother was dead. His aunt Priscilla was his father’s housekeeper, and she was usually so busy that she had little time for small boys. Today, as she began her sewing, Johnny slipped quietly from the house and joined his chum.
The boys reached the stone wall and sat down, with the tobacco between them, to enjoy (?) what they considered a manly deed. After considerable talk and a few blunders, each succeeded in rolling a cigarette, and was about to pass it to his lips, when a strange voice, almost directly above their heads, said, pleasantly, “Trying to kill yourselves, boys?”
With a guilty start, Johnny and Albert turned instantly, and beheld the strangest specimen of humanity that either had ever seen. An unmistakable tramp, with a pale, sickly face, covered partly with grime and partly with stubby black beard, stood leaning with his arms on top of the wall, looking down at them. Although it was summer, he wore a greasy winter cap, and his coat, too, spoke of many rough journeys through dirt and bad weather. His lips were screwed into something resembling a smile; but as he spoke, his haunted, sunken eyes roved restlessly from one upturned face to the other.
As the only answer the boys gave him was an astonished, frightened stare, the man continued: “I would not do it, boys. It is an awful thing—awful! I was trying to get a little sleep over here,” he continued, “when I heard your voices, and thought I would see what was going on. Did not any one ever tell you about cigarettes? Why, each one contains enough poison to kill a cat; if it was fixed right, I mean.” He passed a thin, shaking hand over his face, and went on: “Do you want to fool with such things?—Not if you are wise. You see, the cigarette habit will kill you sometime, by inches, if not right away, or else drive you crazy; and no sane person wants to kill himself or spoil his health. That is what I am doing, though,” he admitted, with a bitter smile and a sad shake of his head. “But I cannot stop it now. I have gone too far, and I cannot help myself. I am a wreck, a blot on the face of the earth.”
Both lads had thrown their cigarettes to the ground, scrambled to their feet. Johnny, sober-faced and round-eyed, was gazing intently up at the man; but Albert, feigning indifference, stood digging his toe into the earth. He was listening, however.
“It is this way with me,” the stranger went on, seeing he had an audience: “I have gone from bad to worse till I cannot stop, no matter how hard I try. Why, I was once a clean little chap like you, but I got to reading trash, and then I began to smoke, and pretty soon I had drifted so far into evil ways that I had no control over myself.”
Here Johnny and Albert exchanged a painful glance.
“The worst thing about cigarettes,” the man continued, “is that they usually lead to something worse. I am a drunkard and a thief, because of evil associations. Tramps never have any ready money; so when I have to have cigarettes, which is all the time, I either steal them or steal the money to buy them with. Besides,” with another sad shake of the head, “I am what is known as a drug fiend, and—yes, I guess I am everything bad. If your folks knew who was talking to you, their blood would run cold.
“And it is all principally due to cigarettes!” he broke forth, savagely, emphasizing his words with his fist and speaking more excitedly. “Just look at me and behold a splendid example of the cigarette curse. Why, I was naturally bright; I might have been a man to honor. But a bad habit, uncontrolled, soon ruins one. My nerves are gone. I am only a fit companion for jailbirds and criminals. I cannot even look an honest man in the face, yet I am not naturally bad at heart. The best way is never to begin; then you will never have to suffer. Cigarettes will surely hurt you some day, though you may not be able to see the effects at first.”
The speaker’s manner had changed greatly during the past few moments. At first he had spoken calmly, but he was now more than agitated. His eyes rolled and flashed in their dark caverns, and he spoke vehemently, with excited gestures. Johnny and Albert stood close together, regarding him with frightened eyes.
“I wish I could reform,” he exclaimed, “but I cannot! The poison is in my veins. A thousand devils seem dragging me down. I wish I could make every boy stop smoking those things. I wish I could warn them of the horrible end.”
With a sudden shriek, the man threw up his hands, fell backward, and disappeared. After a second’s hesitation, both lads ran to the wall, climbed up, and looked over. In an unmistakable fit, the man was writhing on the ground. Johnny and Albert ran quickly across lots and into Rev. Paul Brighton’s study. After learning that the boys had found a man in a fit, Johnny’s father hailed two passing neighbors, and the little party of rescuers followed the lads to the scene of the strange experience.
It was a sorry spectacle that greeted them. The poor fellow’s paroxysm had passed, and he lay still and apparently lifeless, covered with dust and grime. The minister bent over him, and, ascertaining that he was alive and conscious, lifted him up; then, with the help of the two men, took the outcast to the parsonage.
That evening, before the minister had asked his boy three questions, Johnny broke into convulsive sobs, and made a clean breast of the matter from the beginning. Blaming himself for not having won the child’s heart securely long before this, the minister did not censure him severely. He knew that after such an example, the sensitive lad would never go wrong as far as cigarettes were concerned.
Aunt Priscilla took her nephew in her arms, and, kissing the lips that were yet sweet and pure, said, “If I have neglected you, Johnny, I am sorry; and after this I am going to spend considerable time being good to my precious laddie.”
Johnny slipped an arm around Aunt Priscilla’s neck. “That is just what I want,” he said, happily.
“I hope this will teach you a lesson, Albert,” said Mrs. Beecher to her son, when he, with the help and advice of the minister, had made a full confession of his share in the matter. “After such an example, I should think you would never want to see another cigarette.”
“I do not,” said Albert, soberly, “and if I can help it, I am not going to; I will fight them. Cigarettes certainly did not make a man of that fellow. They unmade him.”
For several days, during which the minister thought of what could be done for him, the outcast stayed at the parsonage. He was invited to try the gospel cure. “If you will put yourself unreservedly in the hands of God, and remain steadfast,” said Mr. Brighton, “there is hope for you. Besides, I know of some medical missionaries who can help doctor the poison out of your system, if you will let them.”
At last the poor fellow yielded. And after a hard, bitter struggle, during which a higher power helped him, he won the victory. He joined a band of religious people whose work is to help rebuild wrecked lives; and although weak at first and never robust, he was still able to point the right way to many an erring mortal. He did much good; and Johnny and Albert, at least, never forgot the practical example he gave them of what the cigarette can accomplish for its slaves.