The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow

IV. Cashmere and Cathay by Twilight

“You will never take it again, will you?”

“Oh no, I never expect to; I am satisfied with my one successful experiment.”

It was the fair lady of the crochet-needle who asked me the question as, a few days after my first practical acquaintance with hasheesh, I gave her the recital contained in the preceding pages. In my answer I spoke truly; I did suppose that I never should repeat my experiment. The glimpse which I had gained in that single night of revelation of hitherto unconceived modes and uncharted fields of spiritual being seemed enough to store the treasure-house of grand memories for a lifetime. Unutterably more, doubtless, still remained unveiled, but it contented me to say,

“In Nature’s infinite book of secrecy
 A little I can read,”

when that little swept a view whose faintest lineament outshone all the characters upon the scroll of daily existence. No, I never should take it again.

I did not know myself; I did not know hasheesh. There are temperaments, no doubt, upon which this drug produces, as a reactory result, physical and mental depression. With me, this was never the case. Opium and liquors fix themselves as a habit by becoming necessary to supply that nervous waste which they in the first place occasioned. The lassitude which succeeds their exaltation demands a renewed indulgence, and accordingly every gratification of the appetite is parent to the next. But no such element entered into the causes which attached me to hasheesh. I speak confidently, yet without exaggeration, when I say that I have spent many an hour in torture such as was never known by Cranmer at the stake, or Gaudentio di Lucca in the Inquisition, yet out of the depths of such experience I have always come without a trace of its effect in diminished strength or buoyancy.

Had the first experiment been followed by depression, I had probably never repeated it. At any rate, unstrung muscles and an enervated mind could have been resisted much more effectually when they pleaded for renewed indulgence than the form which the fascination actually took. For days I was even unusually strong; all the forces of life were in a state of pleasurable activity, but the memory of the wondrous glories which I had beheld wooed me continually like an irresistible sorceress. I could not shut my eyes for midday musing without beholding in that world, half dark, half light, beneath the eyelids, a steady procession of delicious images which the severest will could not banish nor dim. Now through an immense and serene sky floated luxurious argosies of clouds, continually changing form and tint through an infinite cycle of mutations.

Now, suddenly emerging from some deep embowerment of woods, I stood upon the banks of a broad river that curved far off into dreamy distance, and glided noiselessly past its jutting headlands, reflecting a light which was not of the sun nor of the moon, but midway between them, and here and there thrilling with subdued prismatic rays. Temples and gardens, fountains and vistas stretched continually through my waking or sleeping imagination, and mingled themselves with all I heard, or read, or saw. On the pages of Gibbon the palaces and lawns of Nicomedia were illustrated with a hasheesh tint and a hasheesh reality; and journeying with old Dan Chaucer, I drank in a delicious landscape of revery along all the road to Canterbury. The music of my vision was still heard in echo; as the bells of Bow of old time called to Whittington, so did it call to me — “Turn again, turn again.” And I turned.

Censure me not harshly, ye who have never known what fascination there is in the ecstasy of beauty; there are baser attractions than those which invited me. Perhaps ye yourselves have turned from the first simple-mindedness of life to be led by the power of a more sordid wooing. The hope of being one day able to sleep lazily in a literally golden sun, the lazzaroni of fortune; of securing a patient hearing for some influential and patriotic whisper in the ear of the “mobilium turba Quiritium;” of draining any cup which drugs the soul and leaves the body to rifle it of its prerogative — each and all of these are lower fascinations than that to which I yielded.

And ye better, wiser, and therefore gentler ones, who decry not another’s weakness because it is not your own, who are free from all bondage, be it of the sordid or the beautiful, be kindly in your judgement. Wherein I was wrong I was invited as by a mother’s voice, and the blandishments which lulled me were full of such spiritual sweetness as we hear only twice in a lifetime — once at its opening, once at its close; the first time in the cradle-hymn that lulls innocence to slumber, the last in that music of attendant angels through which the soul begins to float upward in its euthanasia toward the restoration of primeval purity and peace. I yielded to no sensual gratification. The motives for the hasheesh-indulgence were of the most exalted ideal nature, for of this nature are all its ecstasies and its revelations — yes, and a thousand-fold more terrible, for this very reason, its unutterable pangs. I yielded, moreover, without realizing to what. Within a circle of one hundred miles’ radius there was not a living soul who knew or could warn me of my danger. Finally, I yielded without knowing that I yielded, for I ascribed my next indulgence to a desire of research.

One day, about the hour of noon, a little more than a week after my first experiment, I rolled twenty grains of hasheesh into a pill and swallowed it, saying as I did so, “Here is the final test for the sake of science.” The afternoon lay before me unoccupied by any especial appointment, and, after dining, I threw myself down upon a lounge to await the result of the dose. The day was soft and hazy, and its influence lay so nepenthe-like upon my eyelids, that before long, without knowing it, I fell asleep. It was tea-time when I awoke, and I had not experienced any visions. A friend of mine joined me at the table, and when we pushed back our chairs, he proposed that we should take a walk. Every thing above, below, around us united in the invitation. It was one of those evenings when the universal sense of balminess makes all outdoors as homelike and delicious as the cheeriest winter fireside can be, with its enlivenment of ruddy blaze, and its charm of sheltered privacy. The very soul seems turned inside out for an airing, and we are almost ashamed of ourselves for ever preferring rafters to the sky, and fleeing from the presence of Nature to find a home.

Through all the streets that ran toward the west the sun was sending a thrill of light from his good-by place on the horizon, and the pavements were a mosaic of dancing leaf-shadows and golden polygons, forever shifting as the trees quivered over us in the gentlest of southern winds. Arm-in-arm with Dan, I strolled down the checkered avenue, and more and more luxuriant grew the sunset as we came gradually out of the environment of houses and breathed the air of the open country. The suburbs of P—— are very beautiful. If the stranger knows it and remarks it, it is not because he is smitten with the mere novelty of his view. There are few landscapes which will bear so frequent beholding — few whose admirers so soon and lastingly become their lovers. Were there any jealousy in my love for that, my own home-scenery, I know no season which would ever have given me more pangs for fear of a rival than the one of which I speak, for the earth and sky were fair around us, even with a human fascination. Of my companion let me say that which any man of varying moods will realize to be one of the highest eulogies that can be passed upon a friend. Dan was one of those choice spirits whom you are always glad to have beside you, whatever may be your feeling. He belonged to that rare and sensitive order of beings who can never become uncongenial to one who has once been in sympathy with them. How many a time, most valued and longed-for one, have I tested this in thee! How often, in this very intuitive perception of our accordance, have I felt the proof that friendship is as inborn a principle in hearts as the quality of their harmony in tones of a chord.

There is a road running south from the suburbs of P—— which in many respects affords one of the most delightful walks which can be imagined. On the one hand, for a long distance, a terraced embankment rises luxuriantly green through all the days of summer, and crowned with picturesque rusurban cottages. On the other, a broad table-land stretches away to the abrupt banks of the Hudson, dotted over all its surface with clumps of healthful trees and embowered villas. Here and there, through the fringes of shade which skirt the brink, delicious views of the river break upon the eye, with a background of mountains, still unsubdued by labor, rising in primeval freshness from the other side. Under the tutelar protection of their evening shadows the farther water lay, at the season of which I speak, like a divine child asleep, watched by an eternal nurse.

Along this road we traveled arm-in-arm, so filled and overcome with the beauty of the view that we read each other’s feelings and went silently. Perhaps we had come half a mile from the town when, without the smallest premonition, I was smitten by the hasheesh thrill as by a thunderbolt. Though I had felt it but once in a life before, its sign was as unmistakable as the most familiar thing of daily life. I have often been asked to explain the nature of this thrill, and have as often tried to do it, but no analogue exists which will represent it perfectly, hardly even approximately. The nearest resemblance to the feeling is that contained in our idea of the instantaneous separation of soul and body. Very few in the world have ever known before absolute death what state accompanies this separation, yet we all of us have an idea more or less distinct of that which it must be when it arrives. Even on this vague conception I throw myself for the sake of being understood with more confidence than I would dare to give to the most thorough description that I could elaborate.

The road along which we walked began slowly to lengthen. The hill over which it disappeared, at the distance of half a mile from me, soon came to be perceived as the boundary of the continent itself. But for the infinite loveliness of the sky, and waters, and fields, I should have been as greatly terrified with the increasing mystery of my state as I had been at the commencement of my first experience. But a most beautiful sunset was dying in the west, the river was tinged by it, the very zenith clouds were bathed in it, and the world beneath seemed to be floating in a dream of rosy tranquility. My awakened perceptions drank in this beauty until all sense of fear was banished, and every vein ran flooded with the very wine of delight. Mystery enwrapped me still, but it was the mystery of one who walks in Paradise for the first time.

Could I keep it from Dan? No, not for a moment. I had no remembrance of having taken hasheesh. The past was the property of another life, and I supposed that all the world was reveling in the same ecstasy as myself. I cast off all restraint; I leaped into the air; I clapped my hands, and shouted for joy. An involuntary exclamation raised the mustache of the poet beside me. “What in the world,” he cried, “is the matter with you?” I could only answer, “Bliss! bliss! unimagined bliss!” In an instant he saw all, for he knew my former experience, and as quickly formed the resolution of humoring me to the utmost in all my vagaries.

I glowed like a new-born soul. The well-known landscape lost all of its familiarity, and I was setting out upon a journey of years through heavenly territories, which it had been the longing of my previous lifetime to behold. “My dear friend,” I said, “we are about to realize all our youthful dreams of travel. Together you and I will wander on foot at our will through strange and beauteous countries; our life spreads before us henceforward unoccupied by cares, and the riches of all nature stretch onward through the immense domain we see in exultant expectancy to become the food for our thought and the fountains of our delight. To think that we should have been spared until this day — spared to each other, spared for such glorious scenes! My friend, we shall travel together, linked soul to soul, and gaining ecstasy by impartition. At night, beneath the shade of zephyr-fanned mimosas, we shall lay ourselves down to sleep on the banks of primeval Asian rivers, and Bulbul shall sing us to sleep with his most delicious madrigals. When the first auroral tinges are glassed back from the peaks of Himmaleh, we will arise, and, bathing ourselves in rock-o’ershadowed fountains, will start again upon our immortal way. Sleep shall repeat the echoes of the day to another and unfatigued inner sense of dreams, and awaking shall bear repetition of birth into newer and still more enchanting life. On! on!”

“I will go,” said my friend, “with delight.” Not a shadow of incredulousness or inappreciation passed over his face, and, drawing his arm still closer through my own, I hastened onward, as delighted with his consent as I was thoroughly convinced of the reality of the presence of grand old Asia.

The peculiar time of hasheesh, already so frequently mentioned, added one more rapturous element to my enjoyment. Through leagues of travel the shadows did not deepen around us, but the same unutterable sunset peace and beauty transfused the earth unchangeably. In watching the glories of the west at sunset in our ordinary state, they pass away from us so soon that they dying lustres have become to us almost the synonym for transition and decay. The golden masses become ruddy, the ruddy fall away to purple, the purple speedily grow black, and all this transmutation occupies no longer time than we may lean our foreheads, unfatigued, against a window-pane. In my present state of enlarged perception, Time had no kaleidoscope for me; nothing grew faint, nothing shifted, nothing changed except my ecstasy, which heightened through interminable degrees to behold the same rose-radiance lighting us up along all our immense journey. I might style my present chapter “Notes of Travel through the Champaigns of perpetual Sunset.”

From the road along which we traveled another leads back into P——, across a more precipitous hill than any we had already ascended. Into this second road we turned. Yet, from the absence of all familiar appearances in the world around me, I did not suppose that we were returning to the town, but merely that we were continuing our journey through a new and less frequented by-path. Presently we struck a plank walk, and began mounting the hill of which I have spoken.

The moment that the planks began to resound beneath our feet I realized in what part of Asia we were journeying. We were on the great wall of China. Below us stretched into grand distances the plains of Thibet. Multitudinous were the flocks that covered them; countless groups of goats and goatherds were dispersed over the landscape as far as the eye could reach. The banks of innumerable streams were dotted with picturesque tents, and every minutest detail of the view in all respects harmonized with the idea of Asiatic life. Beyond Thibet, as with clairvoyant eyes, I looked straight through and over Hindoo Koosh, and beheld Cashmere sleeping in grand shadows. The fountains of the Punjaub were unveiled, and among their spicy outflowings there gamboled, in Old-world freshness of heart, children of a primitive race whom prodigal nature had put beyond the necessity of labor. Through greenest valleys roved pairs of Oriental lovers, while above them flashed golden light from the fruit that hung in a Vallambrosa of citron-branches. Distance did not dim either scenery or countenances; every living thing was audible and visible in its rejoicing through leagues of light and shadow stretched between us. Again I leaped into the air and shouted for joy.

Along the road that skirted the outside of my Chinese wall a carriage came, drawn by a span of richly-caparisoned white horses. In it a young man and a maiden were sitting, and as they drew nearer they bowed to myself and my fellow-traveler. “Who are those?” asked Dan. “An eminent mandarin of the interior,” I replied, “of the order of the Blue Button, and by name Fuh-chieng, who, with his sister, at this season every year takes the tour of the provinces, dispensing justice and examining into the state of the public works. Verily, an estimable youth. Having known him during the summer we spent together at Pekin, I feel constrained to speak with him.” With a choice compliment on my lips, worded in the most courtly Chinese with which I as conversant, I was about to rush up the carriage and make my kow-tow, when my friend, grasping my arm, entreated me to desist, begging to know whether I were not aware that, since the year 580 B.C., when Ching-Chong was assassinated in his palanquin, it had been a criminal offense to approach within ten paces of a mandarin on his travels. “My dearest friend,” I replied, “you have saved me! I am astonished at your knowledge of Chinese law, this title of which had entirely escaped my mind. With thankfulness I yield to your suggestion, and will suffer the young man to pass on.” It was well that I did so, as my acquaintances in the carriage might otherwise have been terrified beyond measure by the singularity, if not by the sublimity of the dialect in which I should have addressed them.

It is possible for a man of imaginative mind, by mere suggestions of rich veins of thought, to lead a companion in the hasheesh state through visions of incomparable delight. This fact Dan had discovered in the good grace with which I instantly received his advice as to the mandarin. In our journeying we came to a tall gate-post of granite, which stood at the entrance to a lawn in front of one of the suburban residences of which I have spoken. Making his manner Oriental, to suit our supposed surroundings, he said to me, “Seest thou that tower that rises into the rosy air?” In an instant I beheld the tower with such conviction of reality that I did not even think of it as a metamorphose from something else. From the battlements flaunted yellow flags gorgeous with crimson dragons, and over each corner of the turret glared a rampant hippogriff, flaming, from his forked tongue even to his anomalous tail, with scales of dazzling gold. There was revelry within; its ecstasy worded in Shemitic monosyllables, and accompanied by the mellifluous flights of gong and tom-tom. We passed on through Asia.

We now reached the summit of the hill. The broadest scope of vision which was possible was now ours. My ecstasy became so great that I seemed to cast off all shackles of flesh. The lover of beauty who should, for the first time, drink in the richness of this exalted view through the channels of the soul which are ordinarily opened, might well burst forth into singing were not reverence the stronger feeling. But when, with me, that flow of loveliness broke in through doors in the spiritual nature to which no open sesame had ever before been granted, I felt, I cried out, “Why need we, in our journey, touch the earth at all? Let us sweep through air above this expanse of beauty, and read it like the birds.”

I was about to fly heavenward, chanting a triumphant hymn, when I turned and looked at Dan. He was standing sorrowfully, without means of flight. I was filled with contrition. “Dear brother of my pilgrimage,” I said, “did I speak of tempting the air, forgetful that thou wast not like unto myself? Forgive me — I will not leave thee; yet, oh that thou couldst also fly! through what abysses of sublimity would we float!” Restoring myself to contentment with the airy tread of feet which hardly seemed to touch the ground, and my wish to oblivion, I again took his arm, and we voyaged as before.

Now we went singing, and I question whether Mozart ever rejoiced in his own musical creations as I did in that symphony we sang together. The tune and the words were extemporaneous, yet, by a close sympathy, he sang an accordant base to my air, and I heard delicious echoes thrown back from the dome of heaven. We sang the primal simplicity of Asia, the cradle of the nations, the grand expectancy of the younger continents, looking eastward to their mysterious mother for the gift of races still treasured in her womb. On our pæan were borne the praises of the golden days of Foh and the serene prophecies of Confucius; we spoke of the rivers that for numberless centuries bore down to the eternal ocean no freight but the sere leaves of uninhabited wildernesses, whose shadows they glassed, and of fountains upon whose face no smile had rested save that of Hesper and the rising sun. I lived in what we sang: our music seemed a wondrous epic, whose pages we illustrated, not with pictures, but with living groups; the ancient days were restored before my eyes and to my ears, and I exulted in the perception with such conviction of reality that I ascribed it to no power of my own, but knew it as an exterior and universal fact.

This will be realized, perhaps, by very few who read my recital. The word for every strange phenomenon with all the world is “only imagination.” Truly, this was imagination; but to me, with eyes and ears wide open in the daylight, an imagination as real as the soberest fact.

It will be remembered that the hasheesh states of ecstasy always alternate with less intense conditions, in which the prevailing phenomena are those of mirth or tranquility. In accordance with this law, in the present instance, Dan, to whom I had told my former experience, was not surprised to hear me break forth at the final cadence of our song into a peal of unextinguishable laughter, but begged to know what was its cause, that he might laugh too. I could only cry out that my right leg was a tin case filled with stair-rods, and as I limped along, keeping that member perfectly rigid, both from fear of cracking the metal and the difficulty of bending it, I heard he rattle of the brazen contents shaken from side to side with feelings of the most supreme absurdity possible to the human soul. Presently the leg was restored to its former state, but in the interim its mate had grown to a size which would have made it a very respectable trotter for Brian Borru or one of the Titans. Elevated some few hundred feet into the firmament, I was compelled to hop upon my giant pedestal in a way very ungraceful in a world where two legs were the fashion, and eminently disagreeable to the slighted member, which sought in vain to reach the earth with struggles amusing from their very insignificance. This ludicrous affliction being gradually removed, I went on my way quietly until we again began to be surrounded by the houses of the town.

Here the phenomenon of the dual existence once more presented itself. One part of me awoke, while the other continued in perfect hallucination. The awakened portion felt the necessity of keeping in side streets on the way home, lest some untimely burst of ecstasy should startle more frequented thoroughfares. I mentioned this to Dan, who drew me into a quiet lane, by the side of which we sat down together to rest on a broad stone. By this time the sunset had nearly faded, while my attention was directed to other things, and its regency of all the beauties of the sky was replaced by that of the full moon, now at the zenith. A broad and clearly-defined halo surrounded her, and refracted her rays in such a manner as to shower them from its edge in a prismatic fringe. That vision of loveliness was the only possible one which could have recompensed me for the loss of my sunset. I gazed heavenward, as one fascinated by mystical eyes. And now the broad luminous belt began to be peopled with myriads of shining ones from the realm of Faëry who plunged into the translucent lake of ether as into a sea, and dashing back its silvery spray from their breasts, swam to the moon and ascended its gleaming beach.

Between this moon-island and the shore of halo now growing multitudes endlessly passed and repassed, and I could hear, tinkling down through the vacant spaces, the thrill of their gnome-laughter. I could have kept that stony seat all night, and looked speechlessly into heaven, unmoved though an armed host had passed by me on the earth, but unconsciously I closed my eyes, and was in a moment whirling on through a visionary dance, like that in which I had been borne as soon as I lay down at the time of my first experiment. Temples and gardens, pyramids and unearthly rivers, began to float along before the windows of my sense, when Dan, looking around, saw that I would become unconscious, and aroused me. Again we walked on.

And now that unutterable thirst which characterizes hasheesh came upon me. I could have lain me down and lapped dew from the grass. I must drink, wheresoever, howsoever. We soon reached home — soon, because it was not five squares off from where we sat down, yet ages, from the thirst which consumed me and the expansion of time in which I lived. I came into the house as one would approach a fountain in the desert, with a wild bound of exultation, and gazed with miserly eyes at the draught which my friend poured out for me until the glass was brimming. I clutched it — I put it to my lips. Ha! a surprise! It was not water, but the most delicious metheglin in which ever bard of the Cymri drank the health of Howell Dda. It danced and sparkled like some liquid metempsychosis of amber; it gleamed with the spiritual fire of a thousand chrysolites. To sight, to taste it was metheglin, such as never mantled in the cups of Valhalla.

The remainder of the evening I spent in a delirium which, unlike all that had preceded it, was one of unutterable calm. Not the heavy sleep of a debauch, not the voluntary musing of the visionary, but a clarifying of all thought, and the lowing in of the richest influences from the world around me, without the toil of selecting them. I looked at the stars, and felt kindred with them; I spoke to them, and they answered me. I dwelt in an inner communion with heaven — a communion where every language is understood, rather where all speak the same language, and deeply did I realize a voice which seemed to say, as in my waking dreams I had faintly heard in murmur upon earth,

Πολλαὶ μὲν θνητοίς γλῶτται, μια δἀθάνατοισιν

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