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A Cigarette-Maker's Romance

Library of Alexandria
The inner room of a tobacconist’s shop is not perhaps the spot which a writer of fiction would naturally choose as the theatre of his play, nor does the inventor of pleasant romances, of stirring incident, or moving love-tales feel himself instinctively inclined to turn to Munich as to the city of his dreams. On the other hand, it is by no means certain that, if the choice of a stage for our performance were offered to the most contented among us, we should be satisfied to speak our parts and go through our actor’s business upon the boards of this world. Some would prefer to take their properties, their player’s crowns and robes, their aspiring expressions and their finely expressed aspirations before the audience of a larger planet; others, perhaps the majority, would choose, with more humility as well as with more common sense, the shadowy scenery, the softer footlights and the less exigent public of a modest asteroid, beyond the reach of our earthly haste, of our noisy and unclean high-roads to honour, of our furious chariot races round the goals of fame, and, especially, beyond the reach of competition. But we have no choice. We are in the world and, before we know where we are, we are on one of the paths which we must traverse in our few score years between birth and death. Moreover, each man’s path leads up to the theatre on the one side and down from it on the other. The inexorable manager, Fate, requires that each should go through with his comedy or his drama, if he be judged worthy of a leading part, with his scene or his act in another man’s piece, if he be fit only to play the walking gentleman, the dumb footman, or the mechanically trained supernumerary who does duty by turns as soldier, sailor, courtier, husbandman, conspirator or red-capped patriot. A few play well, many play badly, all must appear and the majority are feebly applauded and loudly hissed. He counts himself great who is received with such an uproar of clapping and shout of approval as may drown the voice of the discontented; he is called fortunate who, having missed his cue and broken down in his words, makes his exit in the triumphant train of the greater actor upon whom all eyes are turned; he is deemed happy who, having offended no man, is allowed to depart in peace upon his downward road. Yet none of these players need pride themselves much upon their success nor take to heart their failure. Long before most of them have slipped into the grave which waits at the foot of the hill, and have been wrapped comfortably in the pleasant earth, their names are forgotten by those who screamed with pleasure or hooted in disgust at their performance, their faces are no longer remembered, their great drama is become an old-fashioned mummery of the past. Why should they care? Their work is done, they have been rewarded or punished, paid with praise and gold or mulcted in the sum of their reputation and estate. Famous or infamous, in honour or in disrepute, in riches or in poverty, they have reached the end of their time, they are worn out, the world will have no more of them, they are worthless in the price-scale of men, they must be buried out of sight and they will be forgotten out of mind. The beginning is the same for all, and the end also, and as for the future, who shall tell us upon what basis of higher intelligence our brief passage across the stage is to be judged? Why then should the present trouble our vanity so greatly? And if our play is of so little importance, why should we care whether the scenery is romantic instead of commonplace, or why should we make furious efforts to shift a Gothic castle, a drawbridge, a moat and a waterfall into the slides occupied by the four walls of a Munich tobacconist’s shop? There is not even anything especial in the appearance of the place to recommend it to the ready pen of the word-painter. It is an establishment of very modest pretensions situated in one of the side streets leading to a great thoroughfare. As we are in Munich, however, the side street is broad and clean, the pavement is well swept and the adjoining houses have an air of solid respectability and wealth. At the point where the street widens to an irregular shape on the downward slope there is a neat little iron kiosque completely covered with brilliant advertisements, printed in black Gothic letters upon red and yellow paper. The point of vivid colour is not disagreeable, for it relieves the neutral tints of brick and brown stone, and arrests the eye, long wearied with the respectable parade of buildings. The tobacconist’s shop is, indeed, the most shabby, or, to speak more correctly, the least smartly new among its fellow-shops, wherein dwell, in consecutive order, a barber, a watchmaker, a pastry-cook, a shoemaker and a colour-man. In spite of its unattractive exterior, however, the establishment of Christian Fischelowitz, from South Russia, enjoys a very considerable reputation. Within the high, narrow shop there is good store of rare tobaccos, from the mild Kir to the Imperial Samson, the aromatic Dubec and the pungent Swary. The dusty window beside the narrow door exhibits, it is true, only a couple of tall, dried tobacco plants set in flower-pots, a carelessly arranged collection of cedar and pasteboard boxes for cigars and cigarettes, and a fantastically constructed Swiss cottage, built entirely of cigarettes and fine cut yellow leaf, with little pieces of glass set in for windows. This effort of architecture is in a decidedly ruinous condition, the little stuffed paper cylinders are ragged and torn, some of them show signs of detaching themselves from the cardboard frame upon which they are pasted, and the dust of years has accumulated upon the bit of painted board which serves as a foundation for the chalet. In one corner of the window an object more gaudy but not more useful attracts the eye. It is the popular doll figure commonly known in Germany as the Wiener Gigerl or Vienna fop. It is doubtful whether any person could appear in the public places of Vienna in such a costume without being stoned or otherwise painfully put to a shameful death. The doll is arrayed in black shorts and silk stockings, a wide white waistcoat, a scarlet evening coat, an enormous collar and a white tall hat with a broad brim. He stands upon one foot, raising the other as though in the act of beginning a minuet; he holds in one hand a stick and in the other a cigarette, a relatively monstrous eye-glass magnifies one of his painted eyes and upon his face is such an expression of combined insolence, vulgarity, dishonesty and conceit as would insure his being shot at sight in any Western American village making the least pretence to self-respect. On high days and holidays Christian Fischelowitz inserts a key into the square black pedestal whereon the doll has its being, and the thing lives and moves, turns about and cocks its impertinent head at the passers-by, while a feeble tune of uncertain rhythm is heard grating itself out upon the teeth of the metal comb in the concealed mechanism. Fischelowitz delights in this monstrosity, and is never weary of watching its detestable antics. It is doubtful whether in the simplicity of his good-natured heart he does not really believe that the Wiener Gigerl may attract a stray customer to his counter and, in the long-run, pay for itself. For it cost him money, and in itself, as a thing of beauty, it hardly covers the bad debt contracted with him by a poor fellow-countryman to whom he kindly lent fifty marks last year. He accepted the doll without a murmur, however, in full discharge of the obligation, and with an odd philosophy peculiar to himself, he does his best to get what amusement he can out of the little red-coated figure without complaining and without bitterness. Christian’s wife, his larger if not his better half, is less complacent. In the publicity of the shop her small black eyes cast glances full of hate upon the innocent Gigerl, her full flat face reddens with anger when she remembers the money, and her fat hands would dash the insolent little figure into the street, if her mercantile understanding did not suggest the possibility of ultimately selling it for something. In view of such a fortunate contingency, and whenever she is alone, she carefully dusts the thing and puts it away in the cupboard in the corner, well knowing that Fischelowitz will return in an hour, will take it out, set it in its place, wind it up and watch its performance with his everlasting, good-humoured, satisfied smile. In public she ventures only to abuse the doll. In the silent watches of the night she directs her sharp speeches at Christian himself. Not that she is altogether miserly, nor by any means an ill-disposed person. Had she been of such a disposition her husband would not have married her, for he is a very good man of business and a keen judge of other wares besides tobacco. She is a good mother and a good housewife, energetic, thrifty, and of fairly even temper; but that particular piece of generosity which resulted in the acquisition of a red-coated puppet in exchange for fifty marks fills her heart with anger and her plump brown fingers with an itching desire to scratch and tear something or somebody as a means of satisfying her vengeance. For the poor fellow-countryman was one of the Count’s friends, and Akulina Fischelowitz abhors the Count and loathes him, and the Wiener Gigerl was the beginning of the end. While Christian is watching his doll, and Akulina is seated behind the counter, her hands folded upon her lap, and her eyes darting unquiet glances at her husband, the Count is busily occupied in making cigarettes in the dingy back shop among a group of persons, both young and old, all similarly occupied. It is not to be expected that the workroom should be cleaner or more tastefully decorated than the counting-house, and in such a business as the manufacture of cigarettes by hand litter of all sorts accumulates rapidly. The Famous Cigarette Manufactory of Christian Fischelowitz from South Russia is about as dingy, as unhealthy, as untidy, as dusty a place as can be found within the limits of tidy, well-to-do Munich. The room is lighted by a window and a half-glazed door, both opening upon a dark court. The walls, originally whitewashed, are of a deep rich brown, attributable partly to the constant fumes and exhalations of tobacco, partly to the fine brown dust of the dried refuse cuttings, and partly to the admirable smoke-giving qualities of the rickety iron stove which stands in one corner, and in which a fire is daily attempted during more than half the year. There are many shelves upon the walls too, and the white wood of these has also received into itself the warm, deep colour. Upon two of these shelves there are accumulations of useless articles, a cracked glass vase, once the pride of the show window, when it was filled to overflowing with fine cut leaf, a broken-down samovar which has seen tea-service in many cities, from Kiew to Moscow, from Moscow to Vilna, from Vilna to Berlin, from Berlin to Munich; there are fragments of Russian lacquered wooden bowls, wrecked cigar-boxes, piles of dingy handbills left over from the last half-yearly advertisement, a crazy Turkish narghile, the broken stem of a chibouque, an old hat and an odd boot, besides irregularly shaped parcels, wrapped in crumpled brown paper and half buried in dust. Upon the other shelves are arranged more neatly rows of tin boxes with locks, and reams of still uncut cigarette paper, some white, some straw-coloured