The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow

Chapter XV. “Then Seeva opened on the Accursed One his Eye of Anger”

In the agonies of hasheesh, which now became more and more frequent, a new element began to develop itself toward a terrible symmetry, which afterward made it effective for the direst spiritual evil. This was the appearance of Deity upon the stage of my visionary life, now sublimely grand in very person, and now through the intermediation of some messenger or sign, yet always menacing, wrathful, or avenging, in whatever form or manner the visitation might be made. The myriad voices which, earlier in my enchanted life, I had heard from Nature through all her mysterious passages of communication, now died down forever, or, rather, became absorbed into one colossal and central voice, which spoke with the force of a fiat, and silenced my own faint replies like the sentence of inevitable doom.

At first I was calmly warned. Repeatedly, as I sat in an elysium of rosy languor, banqueting upon all that could exalt the inner sense into the serenest ecstasy, the hand that wrote upon the wall has invaded the sanctity of my feast, and its dread tracery has made me suddenly afraid. In characters of light I have seen it written, “Beware how thou triflest with a mysterious power of the Most High!” and an audible voice, whose divinity at the moment I no more doubted than my own humanity, has added its injunction, “Beware! beware!” Anticipating nothing but an uninterrupted procession of sublime images and the choral music which had so often ravished me out of the walls of sense, I have in an instant shuddered with unutterable terror as I felt the unlooked-for finger of some awful presence marking out downward channels for my upwelling thought, and solemnly forcing its streams into them with a power which bore no doubtful tokens of irresistibleness, but commanded even my own assent to the impossibility of escape.

At length the reasons of my punishment were shown me. Here again, as audibly as man talks with man, I was told, “Thou hast lifted thyself above humanity to peer into the speechless secrets before thy time; and thou shalt be smitten — smitten — smitten.” As the last echo of the sentence died away, it always began its execution in Promethean pangs. At last even the faintest suggestion of the presence of Deity possessed a power to work me ill which hardly the haunting of demons had been able to produce before. At one time I well remember beholding a colossal veiled figure part the drapery of sombre clouds which hung over the horizon, and appear upon a platform which I supposed to be the stage of the universe. No sound, no radiance issued from behind the veil, yet when the mysterious figure lifted his hands, I cried, “It is the Day of Judgment, and my doom is being pronounced!” Then I fled for my soul, and cowered in the darkest spot that I could find.

One tremendous vision occurred to me during the progress of one of these peculiar states, which, while it filled me with the agony of despair for my own fate, still gave me an inconceivable pain for another being. In the heavens I heard a voice of weeping; no plaintive wail like that of woman in affliction, no passionate cry like that of a strong man riven by distress, but some nameless agony, foreshadowed by a solemn voice of woe, which spoke of universal creation suffering fearfully at its centre, life drying up at its fountain-head of being. “Who weeps?” I cried in terror. And the answer was returned to me out of the viewless air, “The Mighty One, who was of old held supreme, hath discovered that his supremacy is void. Fate, blind Fate, that hath no ear for thy yearnings, sits mover of the spring of all things, and He to whom thou prayest is a discrowned King.” Ah! well might there be such weeping in the heavens! After all, we had no Lord, no God but Destiny. And I saw dynasties rush down in aimless ruin; good and evil met in eternal shock; there should be no prevalence to Right; the souls of all humanity were but atoms hurled onward through an infinite, lawless Chaos. In my own spirit there sounded an echo to the celestial groaning, and with tearless horror I went straying through the rayless abyss of accident, a tortured creature without a goal. “My God,” I whispered, “annihilate me!” Words of accursed folly! God no longer lived.

I threw myself upon the earth, and clutched its dead, ungoverned dust in my writhing fingers. I called no longer upon God, and was dumb because Fate was deaf. I cursed the day that I was born — meaningless, still meaningless, since there was no power who could authenticate the curse. I lay balancing the chances of being blotted out. Somewhere in the eternities a crash might end me. Forever? What if my disrupted being should float together in cycles measurelessly on? Reunited, I should wander once more a godless wretch!

From horizon to horizon there flashed a quick glory; heaven rang through all its dome with a multitude of tremendous bands, and a sound of chanting joined in the symphony. “Ah! what is this?” I said, and started up. “I hear a harmony, and Fate knows only discords.” Again the aerial voice responded, but now in a triumphant song, “After all, there is a Supreme; he rules whose right it is; there is no destiny but God, and he is over all forever.” I leaped into the air — I shouted for joy. The hope of the ages was sure — there was a God!

Yet few of my visions of the Divine, as bitterly I tested in many a trial of fire, were to have an issue so blessed as this.

Through the watches of a long and lonely night I had been sitting, with no other companion than my crusted lamp, and the shapes of strange men and things passed by me ceaselessly in tides of pain and pleasure. At length I found myself in the highest story of an unknown and desolate house, surrounded by blank walls, and lighted by a single narrow window. “This room,” spoke the hasheesh voice, “is that which thou callest Time. Outside the whirl the resistless, the unbounded winds of Eternity.”

I went to the window, and, looking out, saw nothing; but the heavy roar of a storm-lashed atmosphere shook the panes. A strange fascination tempted me to draw nearer to the tempest. I threw up the sash; in one moment the wind of eternity came rushing in; the foundations of my building shook, and straightway, by those stormy wings, every atom of it was winnowed out of sight, and, houseless, I found myself alone among the infinitudes. For a while I was blown hither and thither unconsciously. Then, coming to myself, I found that I had been wafted to the door of a certain friend of mine, who doubtless would care for me in my bewilderment of suffering.

It was now four o’clock of a midsummer morning, and the western hills, that I could see through a hall window, began to be impurpled by reflection from the opposite horizon of the dawn. My friend was an early riser, and he would, perhaps, be willing to walk with me, for I could not endure to sit still for a moment. “Baldwin!” I cried; “Baldwin, it is necessary that I should speak with you,” at the same time knocking stoutly until I aroused him from sleep.

It was at first very difficult for me to persuade him how intensely I was suffering, for my habit of self-control subdued even my face. At last we were in the open air, and I walked clinging to Baldwin’s arm. I said little, for I had no power to speak above a whisper, and in disjointed sentences. Coming to the steps which led from my own entry, we sat down for a few moments’ rest. All familiarity of appearance was utterly dissipated from the place, and the buildings in view had become to me the temples and pylons of disentombed Memphis. Awful Egyptian gateways frowned down upon me with a wrathful meaning, which they had not lost in all their centuries of sepulchral dust since the Pharaohs, and the grisly stare of Sphinx and Caryatid appalled me, on all sides shutting out relief through change of view. But, worse horror yet, beneath pedestal and foundation, under the lowest stone of the deepest-based temple of all the adamantine group, supporting its weight, bursting with a torture in which it could not writhe, lay my own, my living heart, unreached and never to be reached by the instrument of the resurrectionist of ages!

It was the wrath of God which had whelmed that city; my heart, therefore, lay under that wrath. Yet I would appeal submissively to the Supreme, that he might perchance have mercy on me. I looked heavenward, but what a vision there unveiled itself! In the most intimate recess of a sable, cloudy cavern flamed vengefully two burning, soul-penetrating eyes. Their gaze dissolved me, and, turning away, I hid my face in my friend’s lap.

When he sought the cause of my pain, I could not tell him. At that moment I would not have embodied in words the infinity of wrathful menace which I had seen on high for the endowment of coined words.

When at length I dared to look out from my lurking-place, my sight chanced to fall upon the vapory banks which skirted the gleaming western horizon. In mercy my vision was here changed to one of peace. As if to heal the pangs of my spirit, I saw, flowing down to me through a rift in the clouds, a silvery river of unutterable balm. Unknown trees drooped, prodigal of wondrous fruit and odors, over its enameled margin; and rare beings floated, with their beaming girdles streaming on the breeze, above the crystal waters, or stooped to drink of them along the edge; and the hasheesh voice whispered me, “The River of the Water of Life.” If heaven be like that, the stake and the rack are worth while to bear on the way to it!

Slowly the celestial aspect of the vision passed away. The river still remained, but on its banks a great city lifted her walls, and I knew that the river was Simois, and the city Troy. As yet the inner citadel rose fair and vase, and the broad gates stood firm.

Upon the bank of the stream I saw a dead face turned up toward the morning sky. The agony of the death-struggle had plowed no furrows upon brow or cheek, and a mysterious, matchless loveliness slept in the features chiseled without fault. More than I had ever been with life I was ravished with death — nay, I had given my own life to print a kiss upon the serene lips of the sleeper, or to pluck a lock from the wavy wealth which flowed out of his helmet, whose clasps, now unbound, hung idly to the earth beside him.

A warrior still living came into my view. With shield thrown on the ground and spear trailing through his arm in all the negligence of grief, with bowed crest and hands intensely clasped, he stood silently gazing upon the dead, and his look was so instinct with a superhuman grief that I wept in sympathy with him.

Again the hasheesh voice spoke to me, “This is Achilles standing over the slain Patroclus,” and my grief was changed into a sublime awe of mystery as I beheld that some unknown power had borne me over the bridgeless abyss of three thousand years to sorrow in the sorrowing of one of the grandest children of the epic Past.

I have sometimes lamented that in my hasheesh experience visions of ecstasy almost always followed those of pain, and, indeed, generally concluded the trance, whether I walked or slept. With opium-eaters or drinkers of liquor the case is ordinarily different. Their happiness comes first, and the depression that follows brings with it shame, repentance, and at least a feeble aim at some new life. When they have become satiated with their pleasure, they have to pay for it, and of all things which it is odious to pay for, a luxury enjoyed in the past is the most so. If, in my own experience, such a disgust and loathing, such reaction of body and spirit, had succeeded the hasheesh indulgence, I had possessed much stronger motives for renouncing it. But with me ecstasy had always the last word, and, on returning to the natural state, I remembered great tortures to be sure, but only as the unnecessary adjuncts to a happiness which I fondly persuaded myself was the legitimate effect of the drug. I said, I have suffered, but only because certain unfortunate circumstances came in to pervert my condition, and I will, in the future, avoid them. In the instance just related this fact fully obtained. For days afterward I never looked toward a certain quarter of the heavens without shuddering, as I remembered that it was there I met the gaze of the burning eyes, and my hand involuntarily went to my heart as I saw the site of the disentombed city, in imagination, once more occupied by its ponderous and cruel piles of granite. But from such memories as these my mind glanced with an elasticity as yet undiminished by its many shocks to the healing waters of the celestial river, or the face of mortal loveliness which has never, even now, passed thoroughly from my dreams.

After this, therefore, I took hasheesh many times; nay, more, life became with me one prolonged state of hasheesh exaltation — a very network, singularly varied, of golden and iron strands, and throughout this life I ever and anon bore hours of wretchedness from superhuman threatenings such as I would not, if I could, transcribe entire, unless called by most imperative duty to hand down a legacy of admonition to all who may seek by other than the appointed means to mount into a life above the utterly material. I shall not, therefore, detail in their order of time all the visitations of horror which afflicted me, but will endeavor here and there to cull those which may most graphically foreshadow that “last state of a man which is worse than the first.”

Repeatedly, as I have said, was I menaced by voices. Yet the threatening sometimes took other forms, and none of them were more terrific than the exhibition to me, as frequently occurred, of all nature abominating me, sometimes for the reason clearly set forth that I had tampered with a mystery which encroached on the prerogative of God, and sometimes for the sake of a nameless crime — nameless because too horrible to be named — whose nature or aggravation I did not know, but which lurked for me in some covert by the wayside, ready to spring upon me with the sword of Nemesis as I came by.

Through the whole of one breezy summer afternoon I had been wandering through the woods which I have so often mentioned, happy to delirious excess, and sustained by the arm and the conversation of a congenial friend, whom I now found it wisest to take with me as a precaution against wild vagaries, whenever I walked in the hasheesh state. Our pathway led over a thick carpet of fallen pine leaves, and my delight was heightened by the aromatic odors which exhaled from them in the warm winds which fanned us as we went. In this perfume was luxuriant suggestion of Indian spice-groves, and nothing more marked than such a mere suggestion does the hasheesh-eater need to build up for him the fabric of a most amazing and odorous dream. Straightway a grand procession of Burmese priests wound down the slope of a distant hill; solemnly, yet joyously, they approached me with music, and the air was loaded with the breath of their swinging censers. At a vast distance above me I could catch glimpses through the tree-tops of a radiant sapphire sky, and rose-tinged clouds floated dreamily therein, yet the incense vapors reached and blended with them even at that grand height. I stopped the foremost of the sacerdotal train, and spoke with him in his own language. He answered me, and we understood each other through a prolonged conversation, while my friend stood waiting by my side, in speechless marvel at an exhibition of my delirium for which he could not see even as much cause as usually explains conduct in the hasheesh state.

Our conversation over, the procession passed on. I now felt, as suddenly as if it had fallen upon me from heaven, and as assuredly as if Heaven had spoken it, that that priestly multitude were the last of human kind that should ever endure my presence. My companion abhorred me, and nothing but his sense of duty forced him to accede to my request that he should lead me to my room. On the way back we passed a radiant and balmy knoll, whereon, amid a tropical excess of flowers and foliage, a group of Burmese children were dancing to stringed instrument. They saw me, and instantly rushed out of sight in precipitate agony of loathing.

Reaching home, I entered my room. Wherever, upon tables or chairs, on the bed or on the floor, there was any possible space, stood a coffin, with lid let down, disclosing the face of some one among the well-remembered dead. Though I never feared death, I always knew well the feeling of our ancient sire, who prayed the sons of Heth, saying “Give me a burying-place with you, that I may bury the dead out of my sight.” Yet at this moment I crouched between the coffins as in an asylum, a demon, indeed, in nature, yet exulting in the security of possessing a hiding-place among the ruins which had once held holy souls. My God! could the dead still know me and my dreadful state? Over every one of those cold faces passed a ripple of dire agony! They feared me, after having been lifeless for many years! Distinctly I saw them convulsed with a tremendous shudder. One by one they turned upon their faces, and eagerly snatched with their hands behind them to close the lids which let in my accursed sight.

And now the two most loving friends who remained to me alive came walking toward me with tears streaming from their eyes. They had come on foot from a far city to fall upon their knees and beseech me, by all that I held sacred in the dearness of our relation, by the most precious future of my soul, to abandon hasheesh. The moment that their faces met my own, with a piercing cry of pain they fled out of my sight.

I ran out of my room and came to the house of an old and intimate companion. In a work-shop which he had fitted up as the place for his recreation he was busily engaged, as I came in, upon some mechanical contrivance, commenced when I had last seen him. His back was turned, and, to attract his attention, I called him by name, “Edward!”

Suddenly he faced me, smiling to recognize my voice; but, as the change of horror came over his features, he flung the hammer which he held in his hand at my head. It just missed its aim, and I saw that he had delivered the weapon, not in anger, but as the last boon he could give me to deprive me of my infernal life. The next moment he leaped through the lofty window of the room, and fathoms below I heard him crushed upon the pavement.

In a former agony I had suddenly obtained relief from the view of a certain name written in soft tints upon the sky. It was the name of a beautiful, good, and beloved girl; and as I saw it, it represented to me such lovely qualities of innocence, that beneath it I took sweet refuge as under an ægis. In an instant I grew calm, and the devil-voices that boomed after me died away.

Remembering this, I now bethought me to image that protectress’ name in the same way as before, and therefrom promised myself speedy comfort. I sought to picture it before me, a name as simple as it was beautiful both in itself and its associations. It was “Mary,” and I fled to it as never hunted murderer fled to grasp the skirts of Our Lady, the holy namesake of this most pure child.

In the first place, I tried to set the whole word before my eyes. This I found impossible. Then my endeavor was, letter by letter, to behold it in succession. I tried to get the first letter. And now came the inexplicable affliction of a perfect capability to think of the one which I wanted without being able to represent its form even to my inner sight. Backward and forward I boxed the whole alphabet. With inconceivable rapidity, every character beginning with A flew past me, but when the flight came to L there was one inevitable void between it and N. At Z I took the trail of the alphabetic whirl; in the same way, from N the letters leaped to L. At length, after a countless multitude of trials, I madly dashed myself upon the ground before that rushing demon font of type, and cried to Heaven, “An M! an M! for the love of my soul, grant me an M!”

My prayer was not heard, but without warning I was lifted from the earth, and on a burning wind wafted like a dry leaf into the sky. Whither and wherefore I was going I knew not until a dreadful voice hissed close beside my ear, “On earth thou didst triumph in superhuman joys — now shalt thou ring their knell. It is thine to toll the summons to the Judgment.”

I looked, and lo! all the celestial hemisphere was one terrific brazen bell, which rocked upon some invisible adamantine pivot in the infinitudes above. When I came it was voiceless, but I soon knew how it was to sound. My feet were quickly chained fast to the top of heaven, and, swinging with my head downward, I became its tongue. Still more mightily swayed that frightful bell, and now, tremendously crashing, my head smote against its side. It was not the pain of the blow, though that was inconceivable, but the colossal roar that filled the universe, and rent my brain also, which blotted out in one instant all sense, thought, and being. In an instant I felt my life extinguished, but knew that it was by annihilation, not by death.

When I awoke out of the hasheesh state I was as overwhelmed to find myself still in existence as a dead man of the last century could be were he now suddenly restored to earth. For a while, even in perfect consciousness, I believed I was still dreaming, and to this day I have so little lost the memory of that one demoniac toll, that, while writing these lines, I have put my hand to my forehead, hearing and feeling something, through the mere imagination, which was an echo of the original pang. It is this persistency of impressions which explains the fact of the hasheesh state, after a certain time, growing more and more every day a thing of agony. It is not because the body becomes worn out by repeated nervous shocks; with some constitutions, indeed, this wearing may occur; it never did with me, as I have said, even to the extent of producing muscular weakness, yet the universal law of constantly accelerating diabolization of visions held good as much in my case as in any others. But a thing of horror once experienced became a “κτήμα ἔς ἀεί,” an inalienable dower of hell; it was certain to reproduce itself in some — to God be the thanks if not in all — future visions. I had seen, for instance, in one of my states of ecstasy, a luminous spot on the firmament, a prismatic parhelion. In the midst of my delight in gazing on it, it had transferred itself mysteriously to my own heart, and there became a circle of fire, which gradually ate its way until the whole writhing organ was in a torturous blaze. That spot, seen again in an after vision, through the memory of its former pain instantly wrought out for me the same accursed result. The number of such remembered fagots of fuel for dire suggestion of course increased proportionally to the prolonging of the hasheesh life, until at length there was hardly a visible or tangible object, hardly a phrase which could be spoken, that had not some such infernal potency as connected with an earlier effect of suffering.

Slowly thus does midnight close over the hasheesh-eater’s heaven. One by one, upon its pall thrice dyed in Acheron, do the baleful lustres appear, until he walks under a hemisphere flaming with demon lamps, and upon a ground paved with tiles of hell. Out of this awful domain there are but three ways. Thank God that over its alluring gate way is not written,

“Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate!”

The first of these exits is insanity, the second death, the third abandonment. The first is doubtless oftenest trodden, yet it may be long ere it reaches the final escape in oblivion, and it is as frightful as the domain it leaves behind. The second but rarely opens to the wretch unless he pries it open with his knife; ordinarily its hinges turn lingeringly. Toward the last let him struggle, though a nightmare torpor petrify his limbs — though on either side of the road be a phalanx of monstrous Afreets with drawn swords of flame — though demon cries peal before him, and unimaginable houris beckon him back — over thorns, through furnaces, but into — Life!

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