The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow

Chapter IX. The Shadow of Bacchus, the Shadow of Thanatos, and the Shadow of Shame

NOTE: You can see where Ludlow reworked a portion of his earlier article “The Apocalypse of Hasheesh” to write this chapter.

Once more at the table I was seized by the hand of the hasheesh genie. Dinner was nearly over, and I escaped into the street without being suspected.

Street did I say? Ah no! That conventional synonym of all dust, heat, and garbage is unheard upon the sunny slopes of Mount Bermius, where I wandered Bacchus-smitten among the Mænades. Through the viny shades that embowered our dance of rapture, Haliacmon threw the gleam of his sky-bright waters, and the noon rays, sifted through leaves and clusters, fell on us softened like gold into the lap of Danae. Grapes above us, grapes around us, grapes every where, made the air fragrant as a censer. They dropped with the burden of their own sweetness; they shed volatile dews of ecstasy on every sense. Constellations of empurpled orbs, they dissolved the outer light of heaven by their own translucency; and from their hemispheres of silver down, which looked toward the sun, to those hemispheres which turned in upon our dance a gaze half of jet, half of sapphire, they transmitted the gentle radiance, until it bathed our cheeks and foreheads in the hue of autumn sunsets. Together with troops of Bacchantes I leaped madly among the clusters; I twirled my thyrsus, and cried Evoë Bacche with the loudest. On a delicious wind of fragrance the fawn-skin floated backward from my shoulders, and the viny leaves and tendrils of my garland caressed my temples lovingly. I drank the blood of grapes like nectar; I sang hymns to the son of Semele; I reeled under the possession of the divine afflatus. Around me in endless mazes circled beauteous shapes of men and women; with hands enclasped we danced and sang, and the Mænad houris overshadowed me with their luxuriant and disheveled hair.

Now, wandering from their throng in a rapture which, too high to be imparted, sought some solitude where it could shed itself forth unheard, I passed through the college gateway, and began traveling up the long walk which finally led into the woods toward the east — finally, I say, for I remember even now the measureless stretch of the journey.

At length, reaching the borders of the stream which had before come to me the Nile, and which, through my whole hasheesh life, witnessed many a delirium of joy and torture, I sat down upon a high, precipitous bank which overhung the water, and gave myself up to my fantasia. The stream broadened and grew glorified: it was the Amazon, and on a towering bluff I was gazing down the liquid sweep toward the sea. Now a great ship came gliding past, lifting its top-gallant far above my post of observation, and men ran up the shrouds to peer curiously at me. With her long pennant flying and every inch of her courses shaken out, she passed me majestically, and I climbed down to the brink of the river to catch the last look at her, and see it returned from another inquisitive gazer at the taffrail.

I wandered completely through the woods, and came out into a broad field upon the farther side. Before me rose the buildings of a grand square, in some city whose name, whose nation I could not even imagine, so utterly foreign did it appear to any thing in the world of modern days. In the centre of the square a mighty host had assembled to inaugurate the equestrian statue of a hero, which, exquisitely carved in a rose-tinted marble, rose on its colossal pedestal far above their heads. I was drawn toward them by an irresistible impulse, for sculpture and architecture had reached, in that city, the highest ideal of art. I thought of the hero, and seemed to share the glory of his triumph.

Then out of the borders of the dense wood from which I had just emerged came a hot and hissing whisper, “Kill thyself! kill thyself!” Shuddering, I turned to see who spoke. No one was visible. Again, with still intenser earnestness, the whisper was repeated; and now unseen tongues syllabled it on all sides and in the air above me. To these words soon arguments were added, until the atmosphere seemed all aglow with fierce breathings of “Thou shalt be immortal; thou shalt behold the hidden things of God. The Most High commands thee to kill thyself.” “My God!” I cried, “can this be true? I will obey thee, and drink in the eternities.”

Feeling myself as mightily pressed on to do the deed as by a direct behest of Deity; daring not, for my soul’s sake, to resist the utterances; and immeasurably exalted with the prelibation of the glories that, in a moment, were to flow in upon me, in frantic fury I drew forth my knife, opened it, and placed it at my throat. Another heart-throb, and all would have been over.

It was just then that I felt the blow of some invisible hand strike my arm; my hand flew back, and, with the force of the shock, the knife went spinning away into the bushes. The whispers ceased. I looked up into heaven, and lo! from zenith to horizon, an awful angel of midnight blackness floated, with poised wings, on the sky. His face looked unutterable terrors into me, and his dreadful hand, half clenched, was hollowed above my head, as if waiting to take me by the hair. Across the firmament a chariot came like lightning; its wheels were rainbow-suns that rolled in tremendous music; no charioteer was there, but in his place flashed the glory of an intense brightness. At its approach the sable angel turned and rushed downward into the horizon, that seemed to smoke as he slid through it; and, thank God! from Azrael I was saved.

How many a temptation, which the ordinary grossness of the ear prevents us from ascribing to its true external source, and which we would fain persuade ourselves is nothing but our own thought, would come to us thus in a real demon-voice were the bands of the body but a little loosened! In how many attractions toward good and repulsions from evil would we then feel the touch of angel hands! The world at present is, to a great degree, Sadducee; it scoffs at the Spiritual, which for blindness it can not discern, and lives in meat and bone. The best men conservatively go half way to shake hands with the most unspiritual skeptic, and acknowledge with him that the most reasonable way to account for our wooings and our warnings is the reaction of soul upon itself. What these poor lovers of the earthy will do when they arrive among the realities of another world, it is hard to say. When this poor, mouldy, moth-eaten, time-tattered cloak of the corporeal, which for years has flapped about their heads in the gusts of worldly fortune, or tangled in its wet rags the feet of the soul that were trying to climb higher — when this poor cloak falls off, and they stand transformed into that most dreaded bugbear of their previous lives, spirit — we may, perhaps, hear them cry out in agony, “Oh, my beloved garment! my best suit! what will become of thee?” and see them diving headlong off the battlements of light to recover the only part of their human wardrobe in which they can feel comfortable.

After my escape from death I returned to the border of the brook, and began pacing back and forth upon a long flat stone around which the shelve of the bank curved. My surroundings instantly became theatrical; the woods behind me changed into a back scene, and on a grand stage I was holding entranced a great audience, whom I beheld before me rising in colossal tiers from earth to sky. The part I was acting was that of a victorious soldier in some tragedy whose words I improvised, and, growing rapidly into the interest of my speech, I poured forth words — now in prose and now in verse — which swayed the hearers like a whirlwind. As my manner increased in earnestness, I saw a strange and dreadful look of suspicion overshadowing every face of the thousands in my audience. From the searching stare of the pit I sought relief in turning my face toward the boxes. The same stony glance from under eyebrows met me still, and when I raised my despairing countenance to the galleries, the same quenchless scrutiny poured down upon me. “Can it be?” I asked myself. “Oh! they know my secret!” and at that instant one maddening chorus broke from the whole theatre: “Hasheesh! hasheesh! he has eaten hasheesh!” Then, with one tumultuous uprising, the concourse fled. From the stage I crept away, consumed by an unutterable shame. I sought a place upon the bank of the stream still lower down, where a large hazel-bush leaned over the water, and beneath its branches I crouched. The helmet and corslet were gone. I looked at my garments, and beheld them foul and ragged as a beggar’s. From head to foot I was an incarnation of the genius of squalidity.

Alas! even here I could not hide. I had chosen my asylum on the very pavement of a great city’s principal thoroughfare. Children went by to school, and pointed at me in derision; loungers stood still, and searched me with inquisitive scorn. The multitude of man and beast all eyed me; the very stones of the street mocked me with a human raillery as I cowered against a side wall in my bemired rags.

Now, mixing with the throng of passers-by, and no more real than they, two of my college friends came strolling along the brook. They saw and knew me, and my shame reached its unbearable height when I saw them approach me with looks which I thought also of sarcasm. But, as they drew nearer, they spoke to me kindly, and asked what was the matter with me, and why I sat hiding behind the hazel-branches. I hesitated for a moment, but, on their promise of secrecy, told them my latest experience. They sat down beside me, and in the diversion of talking the hallucination passed by.

Suddenly an unconquerable apprehension possessed me. There were certain secrets which for my right arm I would not have betrayed, and yet I felt imperatively called upon to speak them. I struggled against the impulse with the thews of a spiritual Titan. I was determined to conquer it, yet, that I might provide against a failure, I conceived this expedient. Picking up a withered leaf from the bank of the stream, I called the two to hold it, each by a portion of the rim, while I grasped it by the stem. In this way we raised the leaf toward heaven, and with our other hands clasped in each other, I solemnly repeated this adjuration: “As this leaf shall be withered in the fiery breath of the final day, so may we be withered in the vengeance of the Eternal if aught that may be said here pass our lips without the consent of us all three.” Here we all said “Amen,” and once more I was at ease. I did not betray my own secrecy.

When I became calm the two left me and returned to their rooms. I wandered back to my old station on the high ledge, where I had seen the ship sweep by me, and sat down. When I looked into the sky between the tree-tops, the sun seemed reeling from his place, and the clouds danced around him like a chorus. I turned my eyes downward, and found that I was surrounded by warriors, who had come to bear me an invitation to the coronation of Charlemagne. “In a moment I will go with you,” was my reply, “but first I must drink; I am dreadfully athirst.” The stream was rattling away directly below me; my distance from it by the most easy roundabout descent was not more than fifty feet, yet I must relate, even at the risk of saying too much of the hasheesh expansion of distance, that in going to it I seemed passing down the league-long ridge of a mountain. I walked, I roamed, I traveled before reaching it, and at last, lying down upon the water’s brim. I drank such streams of refreshment as appeared to lower the flood. On my return, after toiling up the weary steep, my escort had gone, and I certainly could not blame them, if the length of my unceremonious absence seemed to them half as great as it did to me.

Wandering through jungle, heather, brake, and fern — through savanna, oak-opening, and prairie — through all imagined and unimaginable countries — now despairing of my ability ever to find my way, and now plucking heart to press on — through many a day, or rather through one boundless perpetual day of journeying, I went until I reached home.

Throwing myself down upon a bed, I was immediately compensated for all past sufferings. In the middle of a vast unpeopled plain I stood alone. With one quick ravishment I was borne upward, as on superhuman wings, until, standing on the very cope of heaven, I looked down and saw beneath me all the worlds that God has made, not wheeling upon their beamy paths through ether, nor yet standing without significance like orbed clods.

By an instantaneous revealing I became aware of a mighty harp which lay athwart the celestial hemisphere, and filled the while sweep of vision before me. The lambent flame of myriad stars was burning in the azure spaces between its strings, and glorious suns gemmed with unimaginable lustre all its colossal framework. While I stood overwhelmed by the vision, a voice spoke clearly from the depth of the surrounding ether: “Behold the harp of the universe.”

In an instant I realized the typification of the grand harmony of God’s infinite creation, for every influence, from that which nerves the wing of Ithuriel down to the humblest force of growth, had there its beautiful and peculiar representative string.

As yet the music slept, when the voice spake to me again, “Stretch forth thine hand and wake the harmonies.” Trembling, yet daring, I swept the harp, and straightway all heaven thrilled with an unutterable music. My arm strangely lengthened, I grew bolder, and my hand took a wider range. The symphony grew more intense; overpowered, I ceased, and heard tremendous echoes coming back from the infinitudes. Again I smote the chords, but, unable to endure the sublimity of the sound, I sank into an ecstatic trance, and was thus borne off unconsciously to the portals of some new vision.

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