The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow

Chapter XVII. Down with the Tide.

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

For days after the last-mentioned suffering I adhered sacredly to my vow. Fortified by the sympathy of my friends, nerved by the images of a fearful memory, staying myself on the Divine, I battled against the fascinations of the drug successfully. At last there came a time when nothing but superhuman endurance could withstand and conquer.

As I have frequently said, I felt no depression of body. The flames of my vision had not withered a single corporeal tissue nor snapped a single corporeal cord. All the pains induced by the total abandonment of hasheesh were spiritual. From the ethereal heights of Olympus I had been dropped into the midst of an Acherontian fog. My soul breathed laboriously, and grew torpid with every hour. I dreaded an advancing night of oblivion. I sat awaiting extinction. The shapes which moved about me in the outer world seemed like galvanized corpses; the living soul of Nature, with which I had so long communed, had gone out like the flame of a candle, and her remaining exterior was as poor and meaningless as those wooden trees with which children play, and the cliffs and chalets carved out of box-wood by some Swiss in his winter leisure.

Moreover, actual pain had not ceased with abandonment of the indulgence. In some fiery dream of night, or some sudden thrill of daylight, the old pangs were reproduced with a vividness only less than amounting to hallucination. I opened my eyes, I rubbed my forehead, I arose and walked: they were then perceived to be merely ideal; but the very necessity of this effort to arouse myself, a necessity which might occur at any time and in any place, became gradually a grievous thraldom.

But harder to endure than all these was a sudden flash of that supernatural beauty which had so often tinged my past experience — a quick disclosure of the rosy hasheesh sky let in upon me by some passing wind which fanned aside the dense vapors of my present life — a peal of the remembered mighty music pouring through the gratings of my voiceless prison, and dying sadly away against its granite walls. Ah! well may the most rigid moral critic forgive me, if, looking upward to my former peak of vision, I spoke to my past self as if it were still sitting there.

“So mayst thou watch me where I weep,
   As unto vaster motions bound,
   The circuits of thine orbit round
 A higher height, a deeper deep.”

Like Eblis, I refused to worship earth when I had seen heaven, and once more dared to assume his pride even with his pangs.

I returned to hasheesh, but only when I had become hopeless of carrying out my first intention — its utter and immediate abandonment. I now resolved to abandon it gradually — to retreat slowly from my enemy, until I had passed the borders of his enchanted ground, whereon he warred with me at vantage. Once over the boundaries, and the nightmare spell unloosed, I might run for my life, and hope to distance him in my own recovered territory.

This end I sought to accomplish by diminishing the doses of the drug. The highest I had ever reached was a drachm, and this was seldom necessary except in the most unimpressible states of the brain, since, according to the law of the hasheesh operation which I have stated to hold good in my experience, a much less bolus was ordinarily sufficient to produce full effect at this time than when I commenced the indulgence. I now reduced my daily ration to ten or fifteen grains.

The immediate result of even this modified resumption of the habit was a reinstatement into the glories of the former life. I came out of my clouds; the outer world was reinvested with some claim to interest, and the lethal torpor of my mind was replaced by an airy activity. I flattered myself that there was now some hope of escape by grades of renunciation, and felt assured, moreover, that since I now seldom experienced any thing approaching hallucination, I might pass through this gradual course without suffering on the way.

I did not reveal to my friends the fact of my once more eating hasheesh. To no one who had not participated in my sufferings could I have shown adequate reasons for doing so. I should have pleaded an excuse which none but myself could feel; I should have been answered by the earnest entreaty to cleave to my first purpose — perhaps by the expressed or tacit distrust of my intention to abjure the indulgence at all. But I felt no danger of betraying myself, since from the meditations and the ecstasies in which I now sat I could arouse myself at need, talk and act naturally, or perform any of the duties to which I might be called. I do not think there was a person beside myself who once suspected, at this time, my return to the indulgence. I was not even questioned upon the subject.

Once, and once only, was I in peril of making known my secret. With two or three of my friends I had made an agreement that on a certain afternoon, as was our wont, we should speak in turn, and subject to each other’s criticism, for the sake of improvement in oratory. When the time arrived, I found myself not only adequate to any amount of speech-making, but liable to adorn my sentences with an Oriental luxuriance of imagery which would infallibly disclose the fact of my having taken hasheesh two hours before, for the dose, although not extending in size beyond the boundary I had set myself, had still operated with an unusual power.

When my friends called for me I knew not what to do. There was no sickness to plead — the animation with which every word was uttered would have belied that; other engagement I had not, for the appointment had been made unconditionally and some time before. If I went with them, it amounted almost to a physical certainty that I would break forth into some rapture which would let me out. Yet there was no time to be lost. I resolved to go, and giving into the hand of Will the curb of Passion, started with them down the street.

The struggle which I made to keep silent, or, at furthest, to talk in a practical way, was among the hardest of my lifetime. There is a game of forfeits, to most of my readers no doubt well enough known, which consists in walking three times diagonally across a room, bearing a lighted candle, and repeating the most absurd formula to a person who meets you similarly furnished, without moving a muscle of the face. There is also a legend, woven into the Arabian Nights, of a young man who, in fulfillment of some enterprise, descended through a demon-haunted cavern where, though assailed on every side by sights of astoundment most provocative of speech, he was compelled to seal his lips under pain of a terrible retribution.

The nature only, and not the degree of self-control demanded by my circumstances, is foreshadowed by these illustrations. I was assailed with every possible temptation to laughter and to open amazement. At the very commencement of my walk, for the first time in several months I was in China. All the roofs turned up at the corners, and amorphous dragons flaunted in red, green, and gold from their peaks. The air smelt of orange-blossoms, and boys hawked fruit about the streets in the dialect of Whampoa.

But the Chinese hallucination did not long continue. I presently remembered the old familiar town in which I was walking, yet what a singular change in manners had passed over it! Every house had been to dancing-school, and returned educated into the most excruciating politeness. They were all paying me their salutations as I passed with a knowledge of good-breeding absolutely overwhelming.

A spruce brick tenement, evidently a new-comer, and, on account of the insecurity of his social position, particularly anxious to ingratiate himself with the habitués, made me a profound bow, even unto his doorstep.

A respectable old house, that had been there since the last war, looked stiffly over the walls which flanked his chimneys, and slightly inclined himself with a rigid courtliness — a very Roger de Coverley in stone and mortar.

A fast-looking house of a particularly vivid color, conscious of containing all the modern improvements, and profusely ornamented in gingerbread-carved workmanship, took upon himself to be easy in his address as a soi-disant fashionable, and nodded to me familiarly, at the same time saying at his front door, “How are you, old fellow?” “Curse his impudence!” said I to myself, and walked on.

The next was a maidenly little cottage, who modestly dropped her second-story window-sashes, and blushed up to her eaves-trough as we came by, at the same time courtesying clear into her back yard.

A church smiled condescendingly on me from its belfry, bowed forward, and immediately took it back by making another bow backward, with a look which said, “I hope you take care of yourself, young man.”

A shop bowed blandly and inquiringly, with a what-d’ye-buy air, and even a poor lawyer’s office abased its cornice cautiously, as if it feared to commit itself. In all these salutations there was something which gave me a half-consciousness that after all it was only an emblematical show, yet it required all my self-constraint to refrain from returning the compliment in a succession of bows. I mentally represented to myself my circumstances as nearly as I could make them natural. I painted the necessity of keeping still with all the picturesqueness of which I was capable, and so succeeded in controlling all outbreaks of my feeling.

At length we arrived at the place of our appointment (a church to which we had the key), and one after another my friends spoke, and I listened quietly until my own turn came. With a terrible effort I held myself in, and walked to the platform still guiltless of my own betrayal. If I could resist a few moments more, I was safe.

Hardly had I uttered my first sentence before I awakened to the consciousness that I was Rienzi proclaiming freedom to enthralled Rome. I portrayed the abased glories of the older time; I raised both the Catos from their graves to groan over the present slavery; I hurled fiery invective against the usurpations of Colonna, and pointed the way through tyrant blood up to an immortal future. The broad space below the tribune grew populous with a multitude of intense faces, and within myself there was a sense of towering into sublimity, as I knew that it was my eloquence which swayed that great host with a storm of indignation, like the sirocco passing over reeds.

Strange to say, I did not even here reveal my state. That vigilant portion of my duality which had controlled me hitherto, guarded me from any unwarrantable excess even in the impassioned character of Rienzi.

For a number of weeks I continued this moderate employment of hasheesh, sometimes diminishing the doses, then returning to the boundary, but never beyond it. As the diminutions went on by a tolerably regular but slow ratio, I flattered myself that I was advancing toward a final and perfect emancipation. But the progress was not that painless one with which I had flattered myself. There was much less to endure than in the worst part of the former period of indulgence, yet it could have been many times diminished in intensity without descending to the plane of ordinary physical or spiritual suffering.

One of the most bitter experiences of hasheesh occurred to me about this time, and since it is the only one which in my memory stands in peculiar distinctness of outline from the vague background of alternating lights and shadows, I give it as powerful and recompensing contrast to the formerly-detailed vision in which I triumphed as the millennial king.

It was now with Christ the crucified that I identified myself. In dim horror I perceived the nails piercing my hands and my feet, but it was not this which seemed the burden of my suffering. Upon my head, in a tremendous and ever-thickening cloud, came slowly down the guilt of all the ages past and all the world to come. By a dreadful quickening, I beheld every atrocity and nameless crime coming up from all time on lines that centred in myself. The thorns clung to my brow, and bloody drops stood like dew upon my hair, yet these were not the instruments of my agony. I was withered like a leaf in the breath of a righteous vengeance. The curtain of a lurid blackness hung between me and heaven; mercy was dumb, and I bore the anger of Omnipotence alone. Out of a fiery distance demon chants of triumphant blasphemy came surging on my ear, and whispers of ferocious wickedness ruffled the leaden air about my cross. How long I bore this vicarious agony I have never known; from the peculiarity of the time in such states, it would be impossible to know.

But, in general, while feeling the full effect of the dose, I sat in solitude, with closed eyes, enjoying the tranquil procession of images, especially those of scenery, which I could dispel at will, since they did not reach the reality of hallucination. Or, if my quiet was broken by the entrance of others, by an effort conversation was possible with them, so long as care was taken to prevent the introduction of any powerfully-agitating subject. This care I found to be extremely necessary, as the peculiar sensitiveness to impression which is induced by hasheesh made sympathy so deep as to be painful. In one instance this fact discovered itself with sufficient clearness to warn me ever afterward. To comply with the request of a friend, I read him some verses upon doubts of human immortality. Upon arriving at a passage where one of our primeval fathers is introduced as speaking in agony of his dread of advancing death, I felt that agony becoming, by sympathy, so strongly my own emotion, that, lest I should completely identify myself with the sufferer, I was forced to lay down the manuscript, and plead some excuse for not continuing the reading.

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