Saturday Snippet: Smoking is bad for you – demonic edition


In Cape Town, South Africa (where I was born), there’s a weather phenomenon known as “the tablecloth”, when a bank of clouds gathers at the top of the world-famous Table Mountain and spills over its sides as if a cloth were being laid on a big table.  A local legend says that it’s a reminder of a fabled Dutch pirate named Van Hunks, who entered a pipe-smoking contest with the devil and won, only to be snatched away to hell for his temerity in defeating the Father of Lies.  The part of the mountain where this is alleged to have happened is known as Devil’s Peak.  You can read a brief version of the story here (complete with a photograph of the “tablecloth”, and another here.

I grew up on such local folk tales, but didn’t know at the time that the story of Van Hunks came from a poem by Victorian-era English author Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Originally it had nothing to do with Cape Town or Table Mountain, but somehow it reached there and was transmuted by the residents into a local folk legend.  Nevertheless, the legend did retain something of the “morality play” of Rossetti’s poem.

Since most people have never heard of either Rossetti or Van Hunks, and don’t know the legend, I thought this morning I’d reproduce the original poem in full.  It’s very Victorian in its emphasis on “the wages of sin” for eternity.  In this day and age, perhaps it’s not a bad thing to be reminded of that reality . . .

The Ballad of Jan Van Hunks

Full of smoke was the quaint old room
And of pleasant winter-heat;
Whence you might hear the hall-door slap,
And the wary shuffling of feet
Which from the carpeted floor stepped out
Into the ice-paved street.

Van Hunks was laughing in his paunch;
Ten golden pieces rare
Lay in his hand; with neighbour Spratz
He had smoked for a wager there;
He laughed, and from his neighbour’s pipe
He looked to his neighbour’s chair.

Even as he laughed, the evening shades
Rose stealthily and spread,
Till the smoky clouds walled up the sun
And hid his shining old head,
As though he too had his evening pipe
Before he tumbled to bed.

Van Hunks still chuckled as he sat:
It caused him an inward grin,
When he heard the blast shake shutter and blind
With its teeth-chattering din,
To fancy the many who froze without
While he sat snug within.

His bowl restuffed, again he puffed:
No noise the stillness broke
Save the tread of feet here and there in the street,
And the church-bells hourly stroke;
While silver-white through the deepening dusk
Up leaped the rapid smoke.

“For thirty years,” the Dutchman said,
“I have smoked both night and day;
I’ve laid great wagers on my pipe
But never had once to pay,
For my vapouring foes long ere the close
Have all sneaked sickly away.

“Ah! would that I could find but one
Who knew me not too well
To try his chance against me
After the evening bell,
Even though he came to challenge me
From the smoking-crib of Hell!”

His breath still lingered on the air
And mingled with the smoke,
When he was aware of a little old man
In broidered hosen and tocque,
Who looked as though from a century’s sleep
That instant he had woke.

Small to scan was the little old man
Passing small and lean;
Yet a something lurked about him,
Felt strongly though unseen,
Which made you fear the hidden soul
Whose covering was so mean.

What thunder dwelt there, which had left
On his brow that lowering trace, ―
What lightning, which could kindle so
The fitful glare on his face, ―
Though the sneering smile coursed over his lips,
And the laughter rose apace.

With cap in hand the stranger bowed
Till the feather swept his shoe: ―
“A gallant wish was yours,” he said,
“And I come to pleasure you;
We’re goodly gossips, you and I,
Let us wager and fall to.”

The Dutchman stared. “How here you came
Is nothing to me,” he said;
“A stranger I sought to smoke withal,
And my wish is seconded;
But tell me, what shall the wager be,
By these our pipes assay’d?”

“Nay now,” the old man said, “what need
Have we for a golden stake
What more do we ask but honour’s spur
To keep our hopes awake?
And yet some bond ’twixt our goodwills
Must stand for the wager’s sake.

“This be our bond: ― two midnights hence
The term of our strife shall be;
And whichsoe’er to the other then
Shall yield the victory,
At the victor’s hest must needs accept
His hospitality.”

“Done, done!” the Dutchman cried; “your home,
I’d reach be it far or near;
But in my good pipe I set my trust,
And ’tis you shall sojourn here; ―
Here many a time we’ll meet again
For the smokers’ welcome cheer.”

With that, they lit their pipes and smoked,
And never a word they said;
The dense cloud gathered about them there
High over each smoke-crowned head,
As if with the mesh of some secret thing
They sat encompassed.

But now when a great blast shook the house,
The Dutchman paused and spoke: ―
“If ought this night could be devised
To sweeten our glorious smoke,
’Twere the thought of outcast loons who freeze
’Neath the winter’s bitter yoke.”

The stranger laughed: “I most have watched
The dire extremes of heat,
Ay, more than you, I have seen men quail,
And found their sufferings sweet
Fit gossips, you and I! But hark!
What sound comes from the street?”

To the street the chamber window stood,
With shutters strongly barred.
There came a timid knock without
And another afterward;
But both so low and faint and weak
That the casement never jarred.

And weak the voice that came with the knock:
“My father, lend your ear!
’Twas store of gold that you bade me wed,
But the wife I chose was dear;
And she and my babes crave only bread.
O father, pity and hear!”

Van Hunks looked after the feathered smoke:
“What thing so slight and vain
As pride whose plume is torn in the wind
And joy’s rash flight to pain?”
Then loud: “Thou mind’st when I bad thee hence,
Poor fool, go hence again!”

There came a moan to the lighted room,
A moan to the frosty sky: ―
“O father, my loves are dying now, ―
Father, you too must die.
Oh! on your soul, by God’s good grace
Let not this dread hour lie!”

“Gossip, well done!” quoth the little old man;
And in a silvery spire,
Like a spider’s web up leaped his smoke
Still twisting higher and higher;
And still through the veil his watchful eye
Burned with a fell desire.

A woman’s voice came next to the wall: ―
“Father, my mother’s died:
’Twas three months since that you drove her forth
At bitter Christmastide:
How could I care for your proffered gold
And quit my mother’s side?

“For two months now I have begged my bread;
Father, I can no more:
My mother’s deaf and blind in her grave,
But her soul is at Heaven’s door;
And though we’re parted on this side death,
We may meet on the further shore.”

Van Hunks laughed up at the scudding smoke:
“Ay, go what way you will!
Of folly and pride, in life or death,
Let a woman take her fill!
My girl, even choose this road or that,
So we be asunder still!”

“Gossip, well done!” the old man shrieked,
“And mark how the words come true!”
The smoke soared wildly around his head
In snakes of knotted blue;
And ever at heart of the inmost coil
Two fiery eyes shot through.

Above the hearth was a carven frame
Where seven small mirrors shone;
There six bright moon-shapes circled round
A centre rayed like a sun;
And ever the reflex image dwelt
Alike in every one.

No smokers’ faces appeared there now,
But lo! by magic art,
Seven times one squalid chamber showed
A dull graves’ counterpart;
For there two starving parents lay
With their starved babes heart to heart.

Then changed the scene. In the watered street,
’Twixt houses dim and tall,
Like shaggy dogs did the pollards shake
Above the dark canal;
And a girl’s thin form gleamed through the night
And sank; and that was all.

And there the smoker beheld once more
Seven times his own hard face;
Half-dazed it seemed with sudden sights,
But it showed no sign of grace;
And seven times flashed two fiery eyes
In the mirror’s narrow space.

The hours wore on, and still they sat
’Mid the vapour’s stifling cloud;
The one tow’rds sudden stupor sank,
While the other laughed aloud.
Alas for the shrinking blinking owl
The vulture over him bowed!

’Twas the second night of the wager now,
And the midnight hour was near.
That glance like a kindled cresset blazed: ―
“Ho! gossip of mine, what cheer?”
But the smoke from the Dutchman’s pipe arose
No longer swift and clear.

The door-bell rang: “Peace to this house!” ―
’Twas the Pastor’s voice that spoke.
Above Van Hunks’s head still curled
A fitful flickering smoke,
As the last half-hour ere full midnight
From the booming clock-tower broke.

The old man doffed his bonnet and cringed
As he oped the chamber-door;
The priest cast never a glance his way,
But crossed the polished floor
To where the Dutchman’s head on his breast
Lolled with a torpid snore.

“Mynheer, your servant sought me out;
He says that day and night
You have sat” ― he shook the smoker’s arm,
But shrank in sudden fright;
The arm dropped down like a weight of lead,
The face was dull and white.

And now the stranger stood astride,
And taller he seemed to grow:
The pipe sat firm in his sneering lips,
And with victorious glow
Like dancing figures around its bowl
Did the smoke-wreaths come and go.

“Nay, nay,” he said, “our gossip sits
On contemplation bent;
On son and daughter after, his mind
Is doubtless all intent;
Haply his silence breathes a prayer
Ere the midnight hour be spent.”

“And who art thou?” the Pastor cried
With a quaking countenance.
“A smoke-dried crony of our good friend
Here rapt in pious trance.”
And his chuckle shook the vaporous sprites
To a madder, merrier dance.

“Hence, mocking Fiend, for I know thee now!”
The Pastor signed the cross,
But the old man laughed and shrieked at once,
As over turret and fosse
The midnight hour in the sleeping town
From bell to bell did toss.

“Too late, poor priest!” In the Pastor’s ear
So rang the scornful croak.
With that, a swoon fell over his sense;
And when at length he woke,
Two pipes lay shattered upon the floor,
The room was black with smoke.

That hour a direful Monster sped
Home to his fiery place;
A shrieking wretch hung over his back
As he sank through nether space.
Of such a rider on such a steed
What tongue the flight shall trace?

The bearer shook his burden off
As he reached his retinue:
He’s flung him into a knot of fiends,
Red, yellow, green and blue: ―
“I’ve brought a pipe for my private use, ―
Go trim it, some of you!”

They’ve sliced the very crown from his head, ―
Worse tonsure than a monk’s, ―
Lopped arms and legs, ― stuck a red-hot tube
In his wretchedest of trunks;
And when the Devil wants his pipe,
They bring him Jan Van Hunks.

It’s strange how many times I’ve met people who declare themselves atheists or agnostics, and who scoff at religious folk:  but they have no doubt whatsoever that evil exists, even going so far as to acknowledge that Satan is a real person, not just a figment of ancient imagination.  When I try to point out that if the devil is real, it’s a pretty good indication that God is real, too, they scoff again . . . but I hope it makes them think.

All I can say is, go work inside the walls of a high-security penitentiary for a few days.  You’ll come out believing in the devil all right – because you’ll have run into all too many of his unrepentant, incorrigible servants!  Sometimes their evil seems to hang like a miasma over the walls of such places, so strong it’s almost tangible.  I wish I was joking about that . . . but I’m not.  One feels it in other places, too, where unspeakable evils have been perpetrated.  If you “have ears to hear”, go to where the gas chambers at Auschwitz concentration camp used to stand, and the crematoria.  I swear you can still hear the screams of the dying.  It’s the most uncanny, ghastly sensation.



  1. I used to travel north west New Mexico. I've felt evil up there, several times. I was told there were human sacrifices there around Ship Rock. One of the first blogs I read was a photographer that took pictures there. He felt it, and told several stories about it.

    I also felt it near Roswell, NM. Working at night, far from anyone, and then have a wave of dread? horror? something wash over you. I took my gut instinct for fact out there. Only a few places I've felt that way. The Biblical passages about spiritual war are easily believable to me.

  2. Atheist, but do not scoff at religious folks. At least not for their religion. (Maybe for some of their behavior which they attribute to their religion. E.g., really am repulsed by door-to-door proselytizors of any faith.) And I have no doubt that there is great Evil in the world, but see no reason to infer that that means that God exists.

  3. More or less ditto ruralcounsel. Nonbeliever (not disbeliever, as such), but I've come to see the benefits of the more conventional sorts of religion for those who do believe, and for society at large.
    There certainly is an abundance of evil in the world, but I don't see signs of it being driven by a Power. There are enough morally-broken people around to account for it, especially when they're above the law (the transnational ruling class and whatever mobs seem useful at the moment). Then there are those with a need for faith, but who have been led astray by, e.g., the Church of Marx, and serve evil causes while believing themselves good.
    Sure, some of the evil people do believe in evil Powers, and will attempt to bargain with them for personal gain of one sort or another, but such attempts (to me, at least) do not indicate the actual existence of such Powers.

  4. I worked the intake center of a mail in a large Southern City as a young man. I have seen evil and I swear I've dealt with some who were antagonized by demonic powers. My mental health improved greatly after meeting my wife and moving here to a different profession.

  5. The separate deity is a convenient concept, and because it deals with the Divine, it works. More difficult to grok is the Self of all selves, which can be realized by shedding one's individuality (nirvana), a prospect terrifying to many and well-nigh impossible to most. There there is neither "God" nor anything that is "non-God". And since the Divine is not lumpy, there is nothing there that is sacred or otherwise. And for the realized it is here and now.

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