The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow

Chapter XII. To-day, Zeus; to-morrow, Prometheus.

At what precise time in my experience I began to doubt the drug being, with me, so much a mere experiment as a fascinating indulgence, I do not now recollect. It may be that the fact of its ascendency gradually dawned upon me; but, at any rate, whenever the suspicion became definite, I dismissed it by so varying the manner of the enjoyment as to persuade myself that it was experimental still.

I had walked, talked, and dreamed under the hasheesh influence; I would now listen to music and see acting, that, under such circumstances, I might note the varying phenomena, if any occurred.

To reach New York for the purpose I would go by water, sailing down the glorious Hudson under the full moon; and this would still be another opportunity for experimenting.

Upon one of the largest and most beautiful of the steamers which ever glided down the shining pathway of the river upon a moonlight night of summer, I stepped, at eight o’clock in the evening, accompanied by several of my friends, and carrying in my pocket a box of boluses. The gang-plank was drawn in, and we were on our way.

In the few moments which elapsed before the steward appeared, brandishing his noisy harbinger of things edible, I managed to swallow, unseen, a number of the spheroids contained in my box.

On regaining the deck from that savory, subaqueous cavern where, amid sepulchral lights, five hundred Americans of us had, for the incredible space of fifteen minutes, been fiercely elbowing each other in insane haste to secure that grand national end, indigestion, we found the broad disk of the moon just above the horizon, and, on arm-chairs taken forward, sat down, with our toes thrust into the bulwark-netting, for our post-cœnatial smoke. Cigars and studently habits of thinking impelled us toward song, and for two hours, at least, the low rocks which skirt the upper channel echoed with “There is music in the air,” “Co-ca-che-lunk,” and other collegiate harmonies.

The Opera, with its glory of lights, passionate song, orchestral crashes, and scenery, whirls the soul on with it, indeed, in a bewildering dance of delight; the ballad we love, sung feelingly by the woman we love, at that hour when to lift the curtains would only let in more twilight, is a calm rapture which is good for the heart; if it be not too near, the bugle discourses rich melody and spirit-stirring among the mountains of its birth; yet, beyond all other music, grant me a song trolled from manly throats, which keep good chord and time, and first learned within those homely walls which, to the true American collegian, are dearer than all the towers of Oxford.

Reverend Union! it is not thine to deck thyself in the outworn trappings of feudal pomp; not even is it thine to bear upon thy brow the wrinkles of unnumbered years, though long before thou lackest such prestige its sign shall come upon thee. Thou hast no high places for lineage nor fat tables for gold; thou art beautiful neither in marble nor carved workmanship. Yet art thou the mother of thinkers and workers — high souls and brave hearts, which make their throb felt in the giant pulses of a great nation. To these Gracchi of thine dost thou point and say, “Behold my jewels.” With the love of thy sons thou art crowned more royally than turrets might crown thee; and better than all the remembrance of coronets upon thy calendar and ermine in thy halls is the thought that, grasping thy protectress hand, merit hath so often struggled up to fame out of the oblivion of namelessness and the clutch of poverty.

It is in the American college, with its freedom from fictitious distinctions, its rejection of all odious badges, which set genealogy and money over mind and heart; its inculcation of manly self-government rather than the fear of tyrannic espionage; its unrestrained intercourse between congenial souls, and its grouping of congenialities by society bonds, that the most perfect development of the social and individual man takes place. Here it is that, by attrition of minds, unworthy eccentricities are rubbed off, while the personal and characteristic nature of the man is solidified and polished into higher symmetry. And here, last, though far from least, among all the true purposes of education, the heart gets its due in the attainment of those unworldly associations which, many a year after the actual presences which they symbolize have dropped down into the “long ago,” send up the hallowed savor of friendship and disinterestedness through the dust and cobwebs which choke well-nigh every other memory.

It is not wonderful that, out of such free and intimate converse among young men as we find in our colleges, song should spring up as a most legitimate and accredited progeny. He who should collect the college carols of our country, or, at least, those of them whose spice would not be wholly lost in the transplantation from their original time and place, would be adding no mean department to the national literature. Piquant, fresh-imaged, outwelling, and sitting snug to their airs, they are frequently both excellent poetry and music. Whether they ring through the free air of a balmy summer evening from a row of sitters on a terrace or a green, who snatch fragrant puffs of old Virginia between staves, or gladden a college room through the long evenings of winter, they are always inspiriting, always heart-blending, and always, I may add, well sung.

I have rambled round the complete circle of my digression to the place where I left my friends seated upon the forward deck and singing in the incipient moonlight. By the time that we had grown tired of singing, the river was very beautiful with the clear reflection of the sky, turning the spray of our prow to silver beads, and giving still snowier lustre to our wake. The excitement of music had put off that of hasheesh, but I was not surprised to feel the well-known thrill as our voices died away.

In a moment I became the fairy monarch. Etherealized and beautified, I was gliding upon my will-borne pleasure-vessel through the moonlit kingdom over which I was supreme. Now whippoorwills chanted me a plaintive welcome from the dreamy, wooded shores; fire-flies illuminated, with triumphal lights, their palace fronts among the shadowy elms; and the little moon-glorified islands, that caught our waves upon their foreheads, sent back a delicious voice of laud and joy.

In this ecstasy I sat reviewing my domain until the moon stood at the zenith, and then pacing through the long saloons, I reveled in the ownership of gorgeous tapestry and panelings, and from the galleries looked proudly upon my retinue of beautiful women and brave men who sat or walked below.

When I shut my eyes I dwelt in a delicious land of dreams. Charging at the head of ever-victorious legions, I drove millions of laughing foes in playful rout through an illimitable field of roses. Down the mountains of Congo a whole universe of lithe and shapely negro children ran leaping, with their arms full of elephants’ tusks, boxes of gold-dust, and fresh cocoanuts, to be the purveyors of my palace. On the wings of a speechless music I floated through the air, and in the cloud-valleys played hide-and-seek with meteors.

A little after midnight I felt the hasheesh effects decreasing, and not having yet recognized that law of the drug which forbids prolonging its dreams by a second dose (nor, indeed, did I recognize it until several bitter experiences had taught me), I took five grains more.

Gradually more and more the hasheesh influence wore off. I went to my state-room, and now, perfectly restored to the natural state, lay down, and all night slept quietly.

Upon awaking with the early sunlight I found that we were midway past the Palisades. Upon the eastern bank of the river the signs of suburban life had become visible in terraces, lawns, and verandas, and bells were audible down the bay.

It was not until we reached the pier that I felt the effect of my last bolus. I stepped ashore, and, for the first time, separated for a season from my fellow-voyagers. The morning already gave most earnest promise of a day which was to be one of the hottest of summer, and as I walked up that unsheltered quay alone, and with the sun streaming full upon me, I suddenly felt my heart catch fire. There was no premonitory, no mystery, no thrill; and this gave a more terrible tone to my suffering, for I burned among acknowledged and familiar realities without the possibility of remembering any former state of a calmer nature upon which to steady myself.

Most fully did I then realize the hell of Eblis and its inextinguishable pangs, as, walking through the thronged streets of the great city, I laid my hand upon my heart to hide its writhings, and saw in every face of the vast multitude who hurried past tokens of something despairing and diabolic. The well-known long rows of palatial shops and gaudy windows swept by me as I paced along. The hurrying crowds of men upon the pavement who went to their businesses, and the fluctuating stream of carriages and omnibuses which rolled down the street, seemed, in their mere matter, nothing unusual to me. Yet the spirit which pervaded all things was that of the infernal. I wandered through a colossal city of hell, where all men were pursuing their earthly tendencies amid pomp and affluence as great as ever, yet stamped upon their foreheads with the dreadful sign of all hope of better things forever lost.

At all times the thoroughfare of a large town is a wilderness to me. In desert loneliness, on mountain tops, or by the side of an unfrequented stream, there is no such hermit conceivable as the hermit of a crowd. The study of character in faces, of universal human nature in its elbowings and windings toward its aim, may be pursued upon a city’s pave to the greatest advantage; yet overtopping all the external aspects of society found there is the solitude which inspheres the wanderer within himself, as he perceives not one being within the distance of miles to whom he is bound by any dearer interest than our common humanity.

But at this time how singularly, how especially was I a hermit! Still conscious of retaining some of the attributes of a man, I was surrounded by infernal forms and features, shaped, indeed, like my own, but with the good-will, the hope, the confidence of our common life forever evaporated from them. Every one of the beings that hastened by me in hum and tumult looked under his eyebrows, with dreadful superstition, at his neighbor and at me. The ideal of hell, where all faith hath perished, and in endless mutation of couples the wretched sneer and glare at each other continually, was realized in that scene.

I could not bear the pavement, and so stepped into an omnibus, that I might behold less of that terrible ebb and flow of Life in Death. As we rolled heavily over the stones of the street, I felt my heart transferred to some flinty road-bed, a fathom below the surface, where it writhed beneath the jar of wheels, and the puncture of the cruel rock-fragments yet communicated all its sufferings to me by slender cords of conduction, whose elastic fibre stretched more and more as we rode on, and grew tenser with an unutterable pain. At the same time, all my fellow-passengers in the omnibus seemed staring at me with hot and searching eyes; in one corner I cowered from their glance, and sat with my hand upon my face. They whispered; it was myself of whom they talked, and I distinctly heard them use the word “hasheesh.”

I got out of the omnibus and again took the pavement, realizing that there was nowhere any relief for my pangs. It would be vain to detail all the horrors through which I passed before I took shelter in the house of a friend. Among them not the least were a heart on fire, a brain pierced by a multitude of revolving augers, and the return, amid dim inner flames, of the fearful symbolization and the demon-songs of former visions.

Arriving at my friend’s, I pleaded fatigue, and lay down. Hours were wretchedly passed in falling asleep, and then darting up in terror at some ideal danger. Sometimes a gnashing maniac looked at me, face to face, out of the darkness; sometimes into rayless caverns I fell from the very heavens; sometimes the lofty houses of an unknown city were toppling over my head in the agonies of an earthquake. Agonies, I say, for their throes seemed like human sufferings.

Out of this woe I emerged entirely by noon, but began to be aware that I should never again, in the hasheesh state, be secure in the certainty of unclouded visions. The cup had been so often mingled, that its savor of bitterness would never wholly pass away. Yet ascribing all the pain which, in this instance, I had endured, to some unfavorable state of the body (I had not yet realized the law of a second dose), I supposed that, by preserving a general healthy tone of the system, hasheesh might be used harmlessly.

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