The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow

Chapter XVI. An Oath in the Forum of Madness

Having been threatened many times with an utter isolation from human kind, it now became my practice, the moment that I began to feel the hasheesh change come over me, to run for sympathy to some congenial friend, and thus assure myself that the sentence had not yet been carried out. I entered his room. I told him of my state; and, before increasing delirium had any power to pervert my thoughts, pledged him to care for me, never to leave me, always to interest himself in my welfare to the end. Frequently this step prevented any under-current of horror from breaking up through my delightful tides of vision. Frequently, when I beheld the fearful Afreet invade the sanctity of my rejoicing with drawn cimeter, was that remembered pledge to me as the ring of Abdaldar, and straightway

“There ceased his power; his lifted arm,
 Suspended by the spell,
 Hung impotent to strike.”

The penal renunciation of me by God and man was the grand prevailing shadow which now lowered about the horizon of my visions, and thrice happy was I when, in this way, I could keep it from blackening the whole sky. I mean more by this word “blackening” than mere metaphor, for, fully awake and at unclouded noonday, I have seen both heavens and air grow sable suddenly with a supernatural eclipse, and I walked by no beacon save that of fiery eyes which “glared upon me through the darkness.”

Yet the spell was not always powerful. There occurred seasons when I was beyond the power of man, and, as I thought, also an outcast from man’s league with God. Man could not, God would not, keep faith with me.

In the ecstasy of a serene uplifting I came one afternoon to the room of an acquaintance who had often expressed a wish to witness the hasheesh state in some walk with me while I was under the influence of the drug. By the pledge of sympathy I bound him, and felt assured — doubly assured; for, as he prepared to accompany me out, without premonition there flashed into my mind that grand line of Festus,

“’Tis not my will that evil be immortal.”

Not only did this line suggest to me a great future of good and happiness throughout my hasheesh eternity, but I saw the triumphant reign of right established forever among men. A sublime emancipation from the thraldom of the ages had been declared to earth, and in visible and audible joy Creation leaped and sang. Should I not, then, be happy, since God had pronounced it? I had no fears. Taking the arm of my friend, I passed into the open air.

We had hardly gone fifty feet when I heard the dreadful voice distinctly speak to me: “This is an imaginative man; if you are happy, he will powerfully sympathize with you; he will be fascinated, he will become like yourself a hasheesh-eater. To save him from this, it is necessary that you should become an exemplar of agony. Are you content?” Knowing well what should ensue, aware of the tortures that lay prepared in the intimate abyss of the hasheesh hell, could I, as aught less than a God, say “Yes?” Unable to bring myself to this height of superhuman heroism, I only forced my lips to murmur, “The will of God be done.”

Then the voice answered, “Horribly shalt thou suffer, suffer, suffer, more than tongue can tell, more than thou hast dreamed.”

I clenched my fists, I shut my teeth, I nerved my whole being for the flood of agony which was about to pour upward on me from the depths. I felt within me the prophecy of such pangs as would bring me to the very portals of nothingness.

The sentence began to be fulfilled. From the fence beside which we walked came hot blasts, as from a furnace, and, looking at its base, I saw fiery rifts in the ground whence the tornado issued. I withered to a parchment sack, which bound in my heart as the sensitive fuel for more torments.

And now through that heart glided a delicate saw, of innumerable blades, each sharpened to the ultimate thinness of steel, and each glowing with a red heat. Slowly as a marble-saw the dreadful engine passed back and forth, hissing through the writhing muscle, and, as I pressed my hand upon my breast, it was scorched by the intense heat of the laminæ. From the walls of houses, black talons darted forth to clutch my skirts; they left a scar like the touch of moxa. And still I burned unquenchably.

For a while I kept silence, shutting my mouth with Promethean self-control. Not only did my acquired habit of suffering speechlessly restrain me, but my pride could not endure the thought of acknowledging to him who walked by my side the vengeful infliction which had fallen upon me, in place of the mantle of rapture which my promise had prepared him to see.

The voice then said, “Confess! confess!” In desperation, I set my lips like a vice, and in my soul replied, “No! I will not!”

“Wilt thou not confess?” wrathfully the voice returned.

“Thou shalt then know bitterer agonies.”

Now in my brain, moved by the same hellish machinery which was driving the saws through my heart, a murderous red-hot auger began turning round. Its speed increased, and with it a tremendous roar that shook my being. In every nerve I was agonized with an agony such as no martyr can ever have known. Head and heart both flaming, both riven by steel, the heavens looking wrathfully down, the earth opening up dreadful views of her demon-peopled deeps. Oh, here was a hell in which how could I live!

To the man at my side I whispered my confession. I told him all. I revealed to him the reasons of my punishment. I adjured him by all my own immortal tortures never to tamper with the insane spell.

And then, in piteous accents, I besought him to put out my fire.

To the first restaurant at hand we hastened. Passing in, I called for that only material relief which I have ever found for these spiritual sufferings — something strongly acid. In the East the form in use is sherbet; mine was very sour lemonade. A glass of it was made ready, and with a small glass tube I drew it up, not being able to bear the shock of a large swallow. Relief came but very slightly — very slowly. Before the first glass was exhausted I called most imperatively for another one to be prepared as quickly as possible, lest the flames should spread by waiting. In this way I kept a man busy with the composition of lemonade after lemonade, plunging my tube over the edge of the drained tumbler into the full one with a precipitate haste for which there were mortal reasons, until six had been consumed.

And now, almost entirely restored, I assured myself that I had expiated my full penal term, and passed out rejoicing. Baseless hope! In a moment my heart caught fire again, and now it was a huge cathedral organ wrapped in a garment of flame, and played upon mysteriously by the fingers of the element which was burning it up. Every stop that could sound like the despairing shrieks and groans of a human soul was open; nay, it was human; it lived in this slow and cruel death, and I felt its torture. A devil-choir sang anthems of mockery to its accompaniment, and I grew phrensied as I recognized the voices which ages back in the measureless past had blasphemed over my white-hot cradle and rocked me with the lullaby of hell. As we came along the broad terrace which extends before the colleges, I looked into heaven, and lo! upon rosy coursers serene angels were riding like an army, with incredible swiftness, upon some expedition of succor. Behind them trailed on winds that blew from the gates of Paradise resplendent garments of cloud ermine dotted with stars. In an ecstasy which upbore me above my demoniac pangs, I clasped my hands and shouted, “It is I whom they are coming to save!”

Just then a black hand parted the top of heaven and shook at me menacingly. Talk not to me of faces instinct with spiritual expression; that hand, slowly brandished and then withdrawn, held more expression than the most facile face. It told me all things of terror and of doom.

Until we arrived at the door of my entry I was speechless. Here my companion left me, and once more I gathered strength to burst into a bitter cry, “O God, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” I used the prayer of the Divine One with a most reverent soul, and hoping that the remembered words of his Son might move the heart of the Father.

I added also a promise, “Save me, and I will never take hasheesh again.” Once more the voice spoke and answered me, “Many a time hast thou promised this before. Speak! how hast thou kept thy vow?”

This was true. Repeatedly during the seasons of my suffering I had resolved, yes, sworn, that if I ever escaped with life and reason from the then present delirium, I would abjure the weed of madness forever. On returning to the natural state I always recollected having made a promise, but regarded it as the act of an unphilosophic fear in irresponsible circumstances, and moved by a suffering which it was perfectly possible to prevent by sufficient attention to general health and spirits as elements materially modifying the effect of the drug. Holding it, therefore, not at all binding, I had broken it as I would if it had been made in some terrific dream. Yet always when the hasheesh suffering brought me into the same court before whose awful bar I had bound myself at my last similar trial, I was charged by the prosecuting voice with my breach of faith, convicted, sentenced by my own soul, and after that the pangs were sharp with the blade of Nemesis. I writhed not under affliction, but under penalty.

At this moment I answered the voice, “I have not kept my vow, but for this once be merciful, and I will sin no more.”

Again my accuser spoke: “Once more shalt thou go free — remember — once!

I accepted this promise as the safe-conduct of Deity; my pain ceased, and I walked fearlessly.

But, oh unbearable! In an instant it seized me again, and I groaned out, “Hath even faith perished in the Divine? O God, hast thou broken faith with me?” I received no reply. For a few moments I paced up and down an empty room into which I had entered, with my hand upon my struggling heart, and feeling its mighty beats blend with the throbs of the devilish enginery.

Then I came out into the entry. From the opposite door a man was approaching me. I stood still, and he also stopped. I walked forward, and he came to meet me. I turned away, and he followed behind me. I faced him — we were foot to foot — it was myself! Yes, there stood my double, resembling me as face answereth to face in water. Another being for whose crimes I had to answer, whose wrathful portion I should suffer! It was too much to endure. I fell upon my knees, and called out to Heaven, “Oh! do I not dream? Tell me, tell me, am I indeed more than one?” I was answered, “Thou are Legion!” I looked away toward the stairs. Crouching upon a step, glaring upon me between the posts of the balustrade, clutching at me like a tiger-cat, sat — myself again! I rushed toward the door of another room; I would lock myself in from my multitude of being. At that door, tearing his hair, gnashing his teeth, smiling with a maniac smile of pain, stood once more myself!

The remainder of my personalities I was spared from seeing. One more would have driven me forever mad.

For the last time I cried to Heaven, “How shall I be saved?” I was now finally answered, “Thy goodness extendeth not to God. To man must thou repay thy fault in that thou hast sought to lift thyself above humanity. Go find a man who will believe thy promise and thou shalt be saved.”

Hard condition. So many of my friends had known the former vows, and seen how I had kept them, that I bitterly feared I should never be able to fulfill it.

But as in this lay my last hope, I rushed up the staircase to find the man who would accept my security. The first I met was at the top of the farthest stairs. There he was sitting, as if in anticipation that I should come, on the throne of a solemn tribunal.

Yet not a tribunal of severe and unrelenting justice. The courtly appanage of the scene which surrounded him was necessary for my very sense of security, since, in bringing my case to any other than the most august judication, I should have felt that I was trifling with immeasurable destiny.

Moreover, the man was my bosom friend. In his truthful and serene eyes nothing but love for me had ever sat, nothing but most brother pity was in them now. I loved him for himself — I reverenced him for what he was, the calm, the thoughtful, the wise, the sincere. Heaven had sent him now to hear me, and both in his affection and his character I put my trust.

“Robb, my dear, my priceless friend, have pity on me. Accept my pledge. I will take hasheesh no more.”

I spoke to him as if he knew what he did not know, my previous suffering. So he replied sadly, “Ah! you have said that many times before.” I began to fear he might refuse me. I looked around, and standing not three paces off stood a cold shadow, and with its lip and finger it mocked me, saying plainly without words, “You are mine; he will not believe you.” It was Insanity.

Once more I turned, and looking at him as such a sight along could make one look, I simply said, “Believe me!” This was all, but the intensity of that one expression contained in it enough meaning to show what a dire spiritual necessity there was that he should grant my request. With emphasis he answered, “I do believe you.” With a look of baffled hellish malice the shadow fled away.

After this I was but once more in pain. As a great chimney, I had grown hundreds of feet into the air; with pitch and fagots of wood, with all things inflammable, I was completely filled. Suddenly some one approached and held a lighted torch to the draught below. In an instant, from basement to spiral jets, my head was crowned with flame and plumed with smoke, and far down in the middle of the blazing mass my heart lay cracking and singing in agony.

“Water!” I shouted; “I am on fire! Help, for the love of heaven!” They tore my clothes from me in the most precipitous haste. From head to foot they deluged me with water. I heard within me the coals hiss and the cinders fall down dead into the grate below, as in an extinguished furnace.

And then I grew calm.

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