The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow

VII. The Night of Apotheosis

It may be thought strange that, after that experience of infinite agony which I have last related, I should ever take hasheesh again. “Surely,” it will be said, “another experiment with the drug would be a daring venture into the realms of insanity and death. The gentlest name that could be applied to it is foolhardiness.”

The morning immediately succeeding my night of horror found me as vigorous and buoyant as I ever was in my life. No pain, no feeling of lassitude remained, and on my face there was not the faintest record of the tortures through which I had passed. In the midst of the very astonishment with which I noted this fact, I felt assured that I had done myself no injury. Yet, mentally, I had the conception of being older by many years than on the night previous; all past experiences in life seemed separated from me by a measureless gulf of duration, and when the demon faces or hellish songs of my vision flashed up into memory, I shuddered and turned my head as if they were close at hand. Quietly I made a resolve that I would experiment with the drug of sorcery no more, for I dreaded another plunge into the abyss of terror as I dreaded hell itself.

Slowly passed away from my mind the image of my sufferings. The elastic force of thought threw off the weight of all direful remembrances, and whenever I recalled my last night of vision it was only to dwell with tenderness upon the roses of my valley, and exult in the echo of the pæans which had glorified my march. So beautiful did such memories make the inner world, that I wearied of the outer till it became utterly distasteful, like a heavy tragedy seen for the fortieth time. I tried in vain to detect in the landscape that ever-welling freshness of life which hasheesh unveils; trees were meaningless wood, the clouds a vapory sham. I thirsted for insight, adventure, strange surprises, and mystical discoveries. I took hasheesh again.

I was sitting at the tea-table when the thrill smote me. I had handed my cup to Miss M’Ilvaine to be replenished for the first time, and she was about restoring it to me brimming with that draught “which cheers but not inebriates.” I should be loth to calculate the arc through which her hand appeared to me to travel on its way to the side of my plate. The wall grew populous with dancing satyrs; Chinese mandarins nodded idiotically in all the corners, and I felt strongly the necessity of leaving the table before I betrayed myself.

I rose and hurried from the room. A friend of mine, thinking that I had been taken suddenly ill, immediately followed me. The look of wild delight with which I greeted him would have revealed my secret, even had I not spontaneously imparted it to him.

In the first stages of his singular life, the hasheesh-eater finds so much that is strange, beautiful, or appalling, that he can restrain neither his outbursts of enthusiasm nor of pain. He is big with infinite arcana, which he feels he must disclose or perish. Gradually self-control becomes with him more of a possibility, and finally it is stereotyped into a habit. In my earlier experience I found it beyond my power, even with the most agonizing efforts, to keep back the wonders which I saw, and accordingly, the moment that I found my brain expanding into the hasheesh-dome, I made it my wont to rush from the presence of all who ought not to share my secret. When many days had taught me lessons of self-retention, I sat frequently for hours charred in demoniac flames, or lifted into the seventh heaven of ecstasy, with a throng around me who could not have gained the faintest intimation from my manner of the processes which were going on within.

When Sam joined me I was on the eve of another journey through vast territories. I say “Sam,” for I shall take the liberty of calling all my friends by those familiar names which imbody to me all that is loving, genial, and belonging to idiosyncrasy in my remembrance of them. Doubtless such a practice is discordant with courtly style in the most eminent degree. It would be much more polite to say Villiers where I meant Joe, and Cholmondeley instead of Harry; for in this way I should much more readily and thoroughly conciliate those minds which, enervated by the spicy feasts of high-life literature, are unable to find the least sapidity in the vocabulary of daily affections.

Southey, discoursing of the Doctor, has made that mirror of true-heartedness, as well as true courtesy, remark (I quote from memory), that among the most painful, though quiet and unnoticed losses which a man sustains in his passage from the infant to the gray-beard, is the gradual divestment of his right to be called by the name which he heard in the nursery and on the play-ground. “Now,” saith Daniel Dove, with a gentle sigh, “even my wife speaks of me as ‘the Doctor.’” Most genial men have felt the same thing with sorrow as the “toga virilis” slowly wrapped them closer and closer into the reserve of middle life, hiding those earlier insignia of frankness and good-fellowship which no longer give them a claim to be hailed with affectionate intimacy, yet which every true man will still bear with lively remembrance upon his heart of hearts.

I have always entertained a deep grudge against the cold and courtly Cicero for that unworthy sneer launched at the friendship between Catiline and Tongilius, “Quem amare in prætexta cœperat.” It was in the style of Cicero, indeed, yet not in the style of the truly noble man, nor of one who holds in fitting reverence the bond of our earlier humanities. It seems impossible to conceive how any one dignified with the better and deeper feelings of our nature should become aware, with any other sentiment than pain, that he is surviving the days when a more intimate confidence and unworldly simplicity gave genial friends a right to address him and treat him as a brother.

I shall therefore, without any apology, unless this digression may be styled so, call all the nearer and dearer companions of my youth by those names which sound as the sweetest echoes of the Past in the chambers of my memory, since the strings with which they vibrate in unison can not too long be kept thrilling in any heart that would not neglect all music beyond that with which the march of our dusty life in the exterior keeps step.

I have said that when Sam joined me I was once more filled with the phrensy of travel. I besought him to go with me, painting in the most glowing tints the treasures which such a gigantic tour as I had laid out would add to his acquaintance with the grand Kosmos. He consented to become my compagnon de voyage for a few hundred miles, at any rate, and directly we set out. Our way led through a broad meadow, at that season beautifully green, and before my gaze it grew into a tremendous Asiatic plateau thronged with innumerable Tartars. As if assembling for a foray, they rushed past me in mad haste, their oblique eyes snapping with a ferocious light, and plumes of horse-hair streaming from their tufted caps. It is not possible to convey to a mind in its ordinary state the effect produced by beholding a field which one has been accustomed to see vacant suddenly bristling with weird and foreign forms, which by perfect distinctness of outline equal in reality, while they surpass in impressiveness the most usual objects of daily sight.

Sam was a man unexcelled by any of his age that I have ever met for the breadth of his historic, geographical, and political knowledge. Mention a fact in the Saracen annals, and straightway he would give you its date, and run its parallel of chronological latitude through all the empires and dynastics of the world. The name of the most inconsiderable place suggested to him every thing of note that had ever been transacted in its neighborhood, and on the factious efforts of an Athenian demagogue he would build you in an instant the intricate fabric of all the coups d’ état, revolutions, and strokes of diplomacy up to the present day. It is not to be wondered at, such being the case, that some incongruous remark of my own, which confounded two utterly distinct tribes of Tartary, should grate on his historic taste to such a degree as to force from him a mild correction.

“It is impossible,” said Sam, “that the tribe of which you speak should occupy this territory through whose boundaries you inform me we are traveling.”

The instantaneous thrill of pain which this slight contradiction darted through me can not be imagined by any one who does not know the intense sensitiveness of the hasheesh state. In a tone of deepest reproach I said, “Alas! my friends, I see you do not sympathize with me. Let us travel apart.”

So saying, I wandered from his side and walked alone, feeling hurt in the very centre of my pride and self-respect. But Sam, who now saw that he must humor my hallucination, followed me, and appeasing my indignation upon the delicate subject of the Ukraine Tartars, took my arm, and we walked together as before.

With all the delicious ecstasy of a traveler who looks for the first time upon the gorgeous piles of mediæval architecture, I saw far in the distant east a palace rise sublimely above its emerald terraces. We walked for hours and through leagues, yet it grew no nearer, and I enjoyed the luxury of anticipation indefinitely prolonged, yet growing sweeter by delay. The wind came to me freighted with spicy odors; it whispered of dalliance with citron blossoms, and reeled in playful circles; new-flown from its deep draught among the vines of Muscat. In my ears it sang promises of immortal youth, and added its own wings to my already superhuman lightness.

What mattered it that my far-off battlements were the walls of college, my mighty plain a field, and my wind of balm but an ordinary sunset breeze? To me all joys were real — yes, even with a reality which utterly surpasses the hardest facts of the ordinary world.

Hasheesh is indeed an accursed drug, and the soul at last pays a most bitter price for all its ecstasies; moreover, the use of it is not the proper means of gaining any insight, yet who shall say that at that season of exaltation I did not know things as they are more truly than ever in the ordinary state? Let us not assert that the half-careless and uninterested way in which we generally look on nature is the normal mode of the soul’s power of vision. There is a fathomless meaning, an intensity of delight in all our surroundings, which our eyes must be unsealed to see. In the jubilance of hasheesh, we have only arrived by an improper pathway at the secret of that infinity of beauty which shall be beheld in heaven and earth when the veil of the corporeal drops off, and we know as we are known. Then from the muddy waters of our life, defiled by the centuries of degeneracy through which they have flowed, we shall ascend to the old-time original fount, and grow rapturous with its apocalyptic draught.

But for this reflection I had never abandoned hasheesh. Yet through all the long agonies which attended its abjurement, I consoled myself with the knowledge that the infinite glories of the past should beam on me again. I had caught a glimpse through the chinks of my earthly prison of the immeasurable sky which should one day overarch me with an unconceived sublimity of view, and resound in my ear with unutterable music. Then I stayed myself upon the hope, and grew into calm endurance.

We may depend upon it, we have not read the world within or the world without. Some mystic wind, like that of hasheesh, now and then just flutters the leaves of those shut books as it passes by, and the gleam of the divine characters for an instant ravishes us. As from children too young to bear them, they are kept against that day when, grown into perfect men, the props, and helps, and screens of the earthly shall be removed from us, and “the books shall be opened.”

Presently we reached the doors of college. I do not remember whether I have yet mentioned that in the hasheesh state an occasional awaking occurs, perhaps as often as twice in an hour (though I have no way of judging accurately, from the singular properties of the hasheesh time), when the mind returns for an exceedingly brief space to perfect consciousness, and views all objects in their familiar light. Such an awaking occurred to me as we drew near the steps of the building, and I took advantage of it to request Sam that he would conduct me to the room of another friend of mine, if he were unable to remain longer with me himself. He answered that he was obliged to leave me, and accordingly led me to the place I had mentioned. The hasheesh fantasia having returned directly after I had made my request, I might never have been able to find it alone.

Repeatedly have I wandered past doors and houses which, in my ordinary condition, were as well known as my own, and have at last given up the search for them in utter hopelessness, recognizing not the faintest familiar trace in their aspect. Certainly, a hasheesh eater should never be alone.

I found Sidney in his room: in his charge Sam left me, after apprising him of my state, and I easily persuaded him to go with me on my travels. Back of the buildings a very large domain of woods and fields extends toward the east. From the door of one of the entries a continuous path leads to the further extent of these grounds, and into this path we struck. The evening shadows were deepening, yet the woods had not yet become so sombre as to wear that terrible air of mystery which, among them, in my after hasheesh-life, oppressed me to an unbearable degree, even in the daylight. Our way skirted the banks of a little stream, which, tinkling over its rocky bed, makes music through all those shades from boundary to boundary. Coming to a convenient place, we crossed it on broad stepping-stones a pebble’s throw from a low waterfall, which, higher up the bed, was now swolen by recent rains. An instantaneous dart of exultation shot through me. Could it be possible? Yes, true, beyond doubt! I clapped my hands and cried, “The Nile! the Nile! the eternal Nile!” Lo, now I was Bruce, and beside me walked Clapperton. “Companion of my journey,” I exclaimed, “see you yonder cataract? Above it lie the sources. Out of that gleaming chasm which you behold toward the east, this mystery-veiled river has poured his floods since God first awakened the years. I drink in the ecstasy of his material fount now for the second time. Through lonely pilgrimages I toiled, foot-sore, in the desert; my life hung, many a night of sleeplessness and many a day of famine, upon the mood of ferocious men; I did all things, I suffered all things; and one day, at even, the sources broke upon me. Oh, that unshared view was glory enough for a lifetime!” “But why,” asked Clapperton, “has the world never known this discovery of yours? In all my wanderings (and, as you are aware, they have been only exceeded by your own), I have never heard of your visit to this fountain before.”

“I died in the desert on my way homeward. As I felt the unmistakable signs of death come upon me, I gathered strength to trace upon a small piece of paper a few words, simply stating the fact of the discovery, and the bearings of the sources. This I committed to my guide, extorting from him a reluctant promise never to part with it until he had carried it to my friends at Alexandria.”

“Why reluctant?”

“Because he declared that it was sacrilege to unveil the forehead of the Nile, and that he dreaded some fearful recompense for his impiety.”

“Where is that paper now? Did he fulfill his promise?”

“No. He carried the writing as far as Alexandria, and there, being overcome by the terrors of his superstition, burned it, and forever deprived me of the triumph of my labors. Yet with you, Clapperton — you, who so well know my toils — I rejoice as if the world were applauding me. Glory, glory in the highest, that I behold again — that I behold with you — the Nile, the eternal Nile!”

My eyes ran tears of ecstasy. I clasped Clapperton to my bosom in speechless joy. I heard the river in its upper caverns hymning such invitations as float down to the seer, entranced, from the lips of angels. Bruce revisiting earth felt such exultation as can only be excelled by that of Bruce first freed from earth.

Leaving the banks of the Nile, we struck deeper into the dense shade of pines and chestnuts, which, to my sense, were spice-trees of the African wilderness. On a stile over which our way led sat two students repeating Shakspeare to each other. To avoid their beholding my rejoicing, Sid gently took me into another path, yet we came near enough to hear one sentence:

“With this, farewell; I’m on my way to Padua.”

(Not exactly Shakspeare, but they meant it to be, and I was not in a mood to cavil.)

In an instant, like the shifting of a scene, all the thoughts and images of Africa vanished. Italy, the glad, the sunny, took its place, and the wood grew dense with palaces and fountains. In a broad piazza we sauntered up and down, transfused with a dreamy summer languor, or strolled from portico to portico, on all sides surrounded by the most beautiful creations of Art.

At first I had a dim conception of the unreality of this vision, for I saw its groundwork in certain material things, remembered as once existing in other forms. For instance, I sometimes perceived the development of an arch in its transition state from two curved branches which locked over us, and now and then a new column grew up gradually from the vacant light-spaces between two trunks of trees. But in a very short time, of course, much shorter than I supposed, every suspicion of the imaginary utterly vanished from my mind, and I no more doubted our being in some fair Italian city than I doubted my own existence.

The effect of the hasheesh increased, as it always does, with the excitement of the visions and the exercise of walking. I began to be lifted into that tremendous pride which is so often a characteristic of the fantasia. My powers became superhuman; my knowledge covered the universe; my scope of sight was infinite. I was invested with a grand mission to humanity, and slowly it dawned upon me that I was the Christ, come in the power and radiance of his millennial descent, and bearing to the world the restoration of perfect peace. I spoke, and it was done: with a single sentence I regenerated the Creation. A smile of exultation beamed from the awakened earth. I could hear her low music of rejoicing as she perceived that the fullness of the times with which, for centuries, she had travailed in woe, had at length been brought forth. All men once more lived in love to God and their neighbor, and, secure in an eternal compact, began marching on harmoniously to the sublime end of spiritual greatness. The nature of all beasts grew mild; the satyr walked down from his mountain fastness, and led his young fearlessly into the presence of his old foe, the leopard; the kite and the dove imped their wings upon the same branch; out of the depths of the jungle the tiger stepped forth and gently drew near to fawn upon his king. The terrible lustre of his eyes was dissolved into the serene light of love, and as I caressed his spotted hide, he returned the kindness with a thankful purr.

My mission being accomplished, we passed on. Returning to the college, a most singular phenomenon presented itself. The faces of all that I met were metamorphosed into appearances which symbolized some inner attribute, or some speciality of manners and habits. One of my friends was an admirable whist-player, noted for his accurate observance and employment of the times and seasons for returning leads, finessing, and crying privilege. His face was changed to a fan-like display of cards, which winked at me with a quiet and balmy air of exultation, as in the consciousness of being

         “Quite irresistible,
Like a man with eight trumps in his hand at a whist-table.”

Another, famous for his studently habits, a great reader, and fond of research, looked at me for a moment, and his visage immediately turned into a book-case bristling with encyclopædias. I stretched forth my hand to take one from its shelf, and, by a sudden outcry, became aware that I had performed that amiable office known among mortals as pulling one’s nose.

But this vision of the ludicrous was soon dissipated by the return of the former ecstasy of pride. Now braced for its exaltation by the few moments of jocose refreshment, I towered into all the sublimity of self-adulation. Pacing the floor, which, for my display, had been changed into that of the Senate, as Webster revivified, I rolled a thunder-cloud of colossal argument over the head of a mythical opponent, and brought all time to the witness-stand with testimony against the direful results of some intemperate measure.

And now, the hallucination changing, I was exhaustlessly rich, and as exhaustlessly benevolent. Through long avenues I walked between kneeling files of poor, and scattered handfuls of gold into their bosoms. “Be comfortable, be opulent, be luxurious,” I cried; and as the metallic rain dripped from my thrilling fingers, again the plaudits of my march poured in upon me, and the famine-stricken shouted, “Our savior!” I rejoiced in the measureless pride of bounteousness.

Awaking on the morrow after a succession of vague and delicious dreams, I had not yet returned to the perfectly natural state. I now began to experience a law of hasheesh which developed its effects more and more through all the future months of its use. With the progress of the hasheesh life, the effect of every successive indulgence grows more perduring until the hitherto isolated experiences become tangent to each other; then the links of the delirium intersect, and at last so blend that the chain has become a continuous band, now resting with joyous lightness as a chaplet, and now mightily pressing in upon the soul like the glowing hoop of iron which holds martyrs to the stake. The final months of this spell-bound existence, be it terminated by mental annihilation or by a return into the quiet and mingled facts of humanity, are passed in one unbroken yet checkered dream.

In the morning the ludicrous side of the hasheesh sphere alone was turned toward me. I was whirled through the progress of an infinite number of strange transmutations. Now, as a powerful saw in some mill of a northern lumber region, I darted up and down at the imperative instigation of an overshot wheel, and on either side of me the planks flew off in the utmost completeness of manufacture. Now changed to a bottle of soda-water, I ran hither and thither with intricate and rapid involutions, pursued by an army of publicans, who, with awl in hand, were trying to break the wires which kept in my vital effervescence. Weak with laughter, for I was strangely reckless of the peril which my life sustained, I sat down to rest, having distanced the whole troop of my persecutors. Suddenly the sentiment of an intense mortification overcame me. “Is it possible,” I soliloquized, “that thou, the descendant of an ancient and glorious line, canst be so utterly dishonored as to merge thy being in one of society’s grossest and basest potables? Child worthy of a better destiny, I will implore the gods for thee, that in their condescension they may elevate thee to some more spiritual essence.” No sooner said than done. My neck grew longer, my head was night-capped with snowy kid, ethereal odors of delight streamed through my brain, and, exultant with apotheosis, I beheld by patent of nobility stamped on my crystal breast in these golden characters:


A lordly hippopotamus, I wandered in from the wilderness, and with my fore-foot knocked at the door of a friend of mine celebrated for wasting the midnight burning-fluid in the pursuit of classical and mathematical researches. “Tidings!” I cried; “tidings from the interior of Africa!” With a look of astonishment and half terror, for he had never seen me in the hasheesh state before, the lover of books opened unto me, and I passed in.

An unceremonious hippopotamus, I sat down, with the most incongruous disregard of the breadth of beam proper to my species, in the nearest chair, without explanation or apology. A poetical hippopotamus, I soared into a sublime description of equatorial crags, medio-terrene lakes, and marshy jungles. I expatiated upon the delights of an Ethiopian existence; I grew rapturous over the remembered ecstasy of mud-baths and lunches upon succulent lotus-stems by riversides where Nature kept free restaurant for pachydermatous gentlemen forever.

Ed was a man of strong social impulses, most kindly heart, and high appreciation of the beautiful. Yet at that moment, being ensconced in a tremendous munition of tomes, and supplied with stores of reading which might sustain the most protracted siege, pleaded preoccupation, and begged me to defer my lecture on the African far niente. I consented, with some indignation, however, at his lack of taste. I opened the door to leave his room for the sake of finding a more respectful auditor, when lo! to my shame, I had altogether mistaken my species, for I was the tallest giraffe that ever dallied amorously with a palm-bud. Abasing my exalted head to suit the dimensions of the door, I passed out, and was again restored to the human semblance.

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