The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow

Chapter XX. Leaving the Schoolmaster, the Pythagorean sets up for himself.

During the progress of the events which have hitherto occupied my narrative, I had become a graduate of my college. Willing for a while to defer the prosecution of more immediately professional studies, I cast about for some employment which for a year might engage a portion of my efforts, and leave, at the same time, a reasonable amount of leisure for private reading. As is the case with so many of our newly-fledged American alumni, my choice fell upon the assumption of the pedagogic purple. There were doubtless, somewhere in the States, candidates for induction into the mysteries of the Greek and Latin tongues — some youths of promise who burned for an acquaintance with the arts of address, and who would not scorn to receive, even from the hands of an own countryman, the crumbs of literature which fall from the Gallic table. If my horoscope had not failed me, I could find them out.

Accordingly, at the bar of my college, whither petitions for instruction very frequently came in from the benighted world, I lodged an application for the most eligible situation of the kind above stated which should present itself. Before long a letter reached me, offering a post of teachership, situated somewhere between the Hudson and Fort Laramie, in a village glorified with some name of Epic valor, mighty in the appanage of ten dwelling-houses and a post-office, and, like all places sanctified by the presence of the educational genius, “refined, salubrious, and highly religious.” As to the first item in this latter statement, there was every reason to be satisfied of its truth, since the writer of the letter was evidently a gentleman, and, to judge from the size of the place, he was a very large integral portion of its population. Upon the second point it was rather more difficult to be assured, since any number of deaths possible to the dimensions of the village might have occurred there without their wave of agitation reaching the shore that acknowledges the jurisdiction of bills of mortality. Finally came the question of “highly-religiousness.” On this head, nothing could have given my doubts a more decisive quietus than the fact that the community wanted a teacher, since, just then looking through the Lorraine-glass of enthusiasm for a chosen occupation, I saw a peculiar force and beauty in the words, “Science, the handmaid of Religion.” Yet one thing there was which stood as a slight obstacle in the way of accepting the position. I had determined, for the year to come, to be independent for a support of all aid save my own exertions. Entire self-sustenance was a very dear project with me. Could I hope for it there?

My correspondent informed me that no very great pecuniary inducements could be offered, but seductively added that, to a young man of excellent principles, who desired to establish himself as a moral centre in the community, no opening could be more promising. As he did not go on to advise me whether, in his portion of the country, “moral centres” were gratuitously fed, lodged, and clothed, besides being generously presented, as a slight token of popular esteem, with their laundry-bills, fuel, lights, and stationery, I concluded not to close with his offer, thus forever losing, for the basest of earthly considerations, the priceless opportunity of radiating circular waves of an unctuous excellence through it is impossible to tell how large an area of uninhabited timber-region. Whether any sufficiently self-sacrificing incumbent has been found to fill the rejected vacancy, from want of data is uncertain; if not, the place with the Homeric name wanders in heathen ignorance to this day.

Another application which came to me, seeming in all points satisfactory, was accepted. In the town of W——, in the State of New York, a cry had gone up for a teacher, who might be absorbent as well as radiant, and one, moreover, who might indulge the hope of moderate leisure for his own self-disciplinary purposes.

There, as I began arranging matters for my departure from home, I flattered myself that a stated occupation should absorb me from regrets over the loss of my old indulgence; quiet, books, and a regular life should create in me a new stimulus and energy. The department of pedagoguery over which I was to be installed was congenial to long-consolidated tastes — the ancient and the English classics. Thus I should gradually emerge out of shadows into a being with new motives, and by moderate cares blunt the pains of progress. How far I harvested my hope the sequel will show.

Having reached the scene of my labors, I found myself associated with a teacher who, like myself, was a new-comer, yet not, like myself, a neophyte in the profession, for he had grown venerable in the priesthood of Minerva, having, in all probability, during his previous life, offered up numerous hecatombs of youthful victims, both male and female, upon her altar. At the same time that I congratulated myself upon possessing the aid of his experience, I discovered that I must look elsewhere for congenial sympathies, since he was one of those persons whose metal is not annealed. In youth he had indulged a happy disposition, but now saw the folly of it. Through some fault of my own early training, I was unable to discover the necessary connection between sanctity and acridity, a heart like Enoch and a face like Sphinx.

Yet upon external sympathy I did not expect to be very dependent. The institution in which I was resident offered that invaluable advantage, a large and well-selected library, where I hoped to find all those choice attachments which from without my position might deny me.

In a good library how swiftly time melts away! Not merely in the sense of its rapid passage through our absorption in other interests, but as an element in any consideration, it becomes entirely neglected. In practical business the present is our only actuality; the past has been cast down like a ladder whose rounds have helped us up to a height whence we never again expect to descend. Among books, all temporal successions are obliterated; Plato and Coleridge walk arm-in-arm; genial Chaucer and loving Elia shake hands; with them, with all, we stand enraptured upon the same plane of time, in one age, the ceaseless age of the communion of souls. Well did Heinsius say, as he locked himself into the library of Leyden, Nunc sum in gremio sæculorum! — “Now I am in the lap of eternity!”

But gradually the increasing pressure of duties connected with my new vocation more and more deprived me of leisure for enjoying any other literature than that of text-books. Long after the last noisy foot had pattered down the front steps of the school building did my table groan with incorrigible exercises which demanded correction, one leaf of which, laid upon the grave of any worthy — Molière, for instance — who spoke the language which it assassinated, would have brought up as deep a groan from the depths below as when the mandrake is uprooted.

I had promised myself regular habits; but the wanderer who was so unfortunate or so eccentric as to be shelterless at that hour, might have seen, at two or three o’clock of almost every morning, the light of my lamp shining through one of the tall windows that looked upon the street. Not that I rose early, but that I retired early — in the morning. It was not the mere sense of duty and responsibility which impelled me to such labors for the school, although, indeed, these had their just, perhaps their exorbitant weight with me. An element more selfish entered into the consideration — the dread of being haunted on the morrow by unappeased ghosts of business. The accumulative nature of work distressed me; the slightest thing left unfinished at the close of one day added itself to the labors of the next, and it had grown mightily during the night. There are some people so constituted that they can not slur matters if they would. No one else may notice the mint, anise, and cummin which they have forborne to tithe, but they can no more themselves overlook the deficiency than if they had neglected the weightier matters of the law.

It will be easily understood that late hours, hard work, and an almost total cessation from bodily exercise were not the best means that could have been taken to restore tone and elasticity to a mind struggling with the horrors of an abandoned stimulus. Without cares of some kind, I had doubtless been at this time a most unhappy being; yet, under such pressure as I then felt, an overtasked mind had no opportunity to recover itself, but rather grew sensitive daily to the loss of its former support. Perhaps, however, even such a state of things was better than an absence of all absorbing employment; for, although I dreaded a return to hasheesh as an upright man dreads the violation of his most sacred oath, I had not reached a point at which I could utterly execrate the drug. The only feat of righteous indignation which was then possible was to think ill of it, as the lover of a faithless mistress whom he must abandon, or as the patriot of his fatherland, swayed by vile rulers, when, “fallen upon evil times,” he flies it in voluntary exile. Unemployed with daily and perplexing duties, I might have heard the former siren-voice floating into my careless quiet, and, step by step, have been almost unconsciously led back into the old snares.

As it was, the fascinations of the past were hard enough to resist. If ever for a moment I granted myself leisure to sit still and think — if, especially, I resigned myself with closed eyes to the train of meditations set in motion by good music, I was infallibly borne back into the hasheesh world, and placed face to face with its now irretrievable glories. In quick flashes the old empurpled heights for a moment broke upon me, or amid cloud battalions in their rainbow armor I floated through a tremendous heaven. Or the far windings of some wondrous river allured me into the luxuriant shadows which trembled over its brink, and I sighed for an instant with an unutterable yearning as I thought that its waves were never more to upbear my shallop of gramarye. The embodied temptation of exquisite houris swam in ethereal dance down a garden of Gul: never more were their rosy arms to embrace me. Grand temples reared their spotless pediments into a sapphire sky; a lake that answered back in its own hue the look of heaven, kissed, dimpling with a fairy laughter, the steps that ascended to their portals — portals eternally barred on me. And sometimes, more solemnly alluring than all these, for an instant I caught a view of that light wherein I had of old read the sublime secrets of things by unbearable apocalypse. At such a season, well — oh! unspeakably well was it that hundreds of miles stretched between me and the nearest box of hasheesh, for, had I possessed the means, I should have rushed to the indulgence, though it were necessary to swim a whirlpool on the way.

I made acquaintances at W—— who could play cunningly upon an instrument, that universal one, the piano, especially. Knowing that there was no possibility of yielding to the allurement, I, often as possible, had them play for me, while I sat almost unconscious of any thing outward, abandoning myself to music-inspired visions. Yet even then, perfectly assured that I had no power to gratify the hasheesh appetite, I have started up from my seat to dispel by walking and the sight of familiar objects a rapture which was enchanting me irresistibly.

Constantly, notwithstanding all my occupation of mind, the cloud of dejection deepened in hue and in density. My troubles were not merely negative, simply regrets for something which was not, but a loathing, a fear, a hate of something which was. The very existence of the outer world seemed a base mockery, a cruel sham of some remembered possibility which had been glorious with a speechless beauty. I hated flowers, for I had seen the enameled meads of Paradise; I cursed the rocks because they were mute stone, the sky because it rang with no music; and the earth and sky seemed to throw back my curse.

An abhorrence of speech or action, except toward the fewest possible persons, possessed me. For the sake of not appearing singular or ascetic, and so crippling my power for whatever little good I might do, I at first mingled with society, forcing myself to laugh and to talk conventionalities. At last associations grew absolutely unbearable; the greatest effort was necessary to speak with any but one or two to whom I had fully confided my past experience. A footstep on the stairs was sufficient to make me tremble with anticipations of a conversation; every morning brought a resurrection into renewed horrors, as I thought of the advancing necessity of once more coming in contact with men and things. Any man who has felt the pangs of some bitter bereavement can understand this experience when he remembers how many a time he awoke after his affliction, and for a moment remained forgetful that it had fallen upon him. Then suddenly gathering a fearful strength, the knowledge of the reality flashed upon him, and he groaned aloud as if some fresh arrow had entered his soul. At times the awakening was so terrible an experience to me that from any other than my own hand I would have courted death as a mercy. The death which was but another birth and possible, the death which was utter extinction and an impossibility, seemed either of them preferable to that illusion into which the light aroused me, which men called life, but which was, after all, but death in its most horrible form, death vivified, stalking about in hollow pageantry, breathing meaningless utterances, interchanging salutations, mocking spirit by gestures without spirit, and unable to return to its legitimate corruption.

Aware as I was that this terrible state was the revenge of the rejected sorceress, and feeling it grow bitterer every day to bear, I began to struggle against two temptations, yielding to either of which seemed to offer some change of suffering, if not a permanent relief. One of these was self-destruction, the other return to hasheesh, and I can hardly pronounce which of the two was the most abhorrent idea. Either of them ultimately led in the same direction. My argument with myself was, that there must be some turning point, some lowest depth to the abyss which I was descending; the hope I could not see, but faith clung to it desperately, and ever kept repeating,

“Behold! we know not any thing;
 I can but trust that good shall fall
 At last — far off —”

But, though day was terrible, night was often as much so. While indulging in hasheesh, none of its images had ever been reproduced in dreams, provided that I retired to sleep thoroughly restored from the last dose. Indeed, it is a singular fact, that although, previously to acquiring the habit, I never slept without some dream more or less vivid, during the whole progress of the hasheesh life my rest was absolutely dreamless. The visions of the drug entirely supplanted those of nature.

Now the position of things was transposed. Day was a rayless blank, night became frightful with fire. The first phenomenon which I began to notice, as I entered this condition, was the peculiar susceptibility of the brain to its last impression before my chamber was darkened. Did I look at the flame of the lamp before putting it out? — for an hour afterward I lay tossing and sleepless, because one fiery spot burned unquenchably upon the surrounding blackness. Did I shut the pages of a book immediately before lying down? — the last sentence I had read was as distinctly printed on the dark as it could have been upon a scroll, and there for half the night I read it till it grew maddening. Well was it for me if the words were not of gloomy import, for I could endure with measurable patience even the wearily monotonous assurance of good cheer; but one night I was forced to rise and relight my lamp to blot out the sight of such an awful sentence as this:

“Depart, ye cursed!”

At length I used the habitual precaution, borrowed from my former usage in the hasheesh state, of keeping one wick of my lamp burning while I slept. At first this was very painful to my eyes; but so much better was any pain than the horror of that last permanency of the final impression, that I bore it willingly.

Gradually my rest began to be broken by tremendous dreams, that mirrored the sights and echoed the voices of the former hasheesh life. In them I faithfully lived over my past experience, with many additions, and but this one difference. Out of the reality of the hasheesh state there had been no awakening possible; from this hallucination of dreams I awoke when the terrors became too superhuman.

What has been said in an earlier part of this narrative upon the indelible characteristic of all the impressions of our life seemed to find illustration here. Doomed to re-read the old, yet, though sometimes forgotten, never obliterated inscriptions, I wandered up and down the halls of sleep with my gaze fixed upon the mind’s judicial tablets. Not always were the memories in themselves painful; where of old I had felt ecstasy, in the same place I rejoiced wildly now; yet the close of that season of rejoicing was often tinged with most melancholy dye, for, from my recollection of the former order of succession, I could infallibly tell what was coming next, and many a time was it a vision of pain.

All the facts of a recalled experience took their regular relative position save one — I never dreamed of taking hasheesh. I was always seized suddenly by the thrill; it came upon me unexpectedly, while walking with friends or sitting alone. This ignorance of any time when I took the dose did not, however, absolve me from self-convicting pangs. Invariably my first cry was, “I have broken my vow! Alas! alas!” Then followed furious exultancy. I rushed like a Maenad through colossal scenery; I leaped unhurt down measureless cataracts; I whirled between skies and oceans, both shining in fiery sapphire; I stood alone amid ruined piles as vast as the demon-built palaces of Baly. Then an undefined horror seized me. I fled from it to find my friends, but there were none to comfort me. Finally, reaching the climax of pain, I caught fire, or saw the approach of awful presences.

Then I awoke. But not always into the delicious comfort of a calm reality — I may almost say, never; ordinarily to cry out to Heaven for the boon of an unpeopled darkness; always to find the beating of my heart either totally stopped, or so swift and loud that I could hear it with the utmost distinctness, like a rapid, muffled hammer; frequently to discover that the idea of fire had some ground in a raging fever, which parched my lips, and swelled the veins upon my forehead till they projected in relief. At such times my course was to rise and walk the floor for an hour, if need were, at the same time bathing my head until the heat was assuaged.

If memory, still blunted by the body, could thus clearly and faithfully read her old records, in what astonishing apocalypse shall they stand forth at the unerring wand of the disembodying change!

I have spoken of additions to the original scroll of visions. It remains to mention some of them.

The region around W—— is a limestone formation, tunneled in one place by a rather extensive and remarkable cave. I have never found there any of those lofty halls and vast stalactites which render certain other caverns famous; the calcareous depositions are very much in miniature, but some of them of a most delicate beauty. One, in particular, is a most perfect statuette (if the term may be allowed in such a connection) of Niagara Falls; the Rapids, Goat Island, with its precipitous battlement toward the lower river, the American Fall, the Horse-shoe, all are there, exquisitely carved, on a scale of not quite an inch to the foot. Another is a Gothic monastery, with its shrine and Madonna just outside the grille, and a cresset hanging from the point of the portal’s arch. The chambers are often narrow and sinuous; there is nothing there to astound any one who has visited Weyer’s Cave or the Mammoth; but as this was the only one that I had ever seen, it was there that I found my cavernous ideal.

My guide through it was a young man of the neighborhood, whose gratification in obliging a stranger was the only recompense which he would not refuse; yet dear enough was the price which I paid for my visit.

It was no less than the punishment of being cavern-haunted for weeks. Nightly I was compelled to explore the most fearful of subterraneous labyrinths alone. Now climbing crags which gave way behind me, hanging to round projections of slippery limestone, while I heard the dislodged débris go bounding down from ledge to ledge of a yawning pit of darkness and reaching no bottom. Now crawling painfully like a worm, pushed on through winding passages no wider than a chimney, by a Fate whose will I doubted ever to bring me back. Now beholding far above my head the rifted ceiling tremble with the echo of my least footstep, in momentary agony to see it fall. Now joyfully hastening toward a glimpse of daylight, coming up to it, and falling backward just in time to save myself from plunging down some sheer wall of measureless height, upon which the labyrinth opened.

From that visit to the W—— cave I suffered that which only the hasheesh-eater and a soul in the other hell can suffer. In time, however, I slowly outgrew its memory, but only to replace it by others almost as fearful. I cite but one more in this place.

I had been sitting upon the window-sill one day, with my body partly outside, for the purpose of performing some repair upon the sash. My sleep thereafter was scared by a vision of a house supernaturally high, upon whose topmost window-sill I stood, holding on by a projecting cornice with one hand, while with the other I sought to perform some impossible purpose, which prevented it from assisting its mate. Still the cornice kept crumbling. I grasped it by a fresh projection. That also gave way; another, and that was broken by my grasp. This position was brought to a crisis in several ways. Sometimes by a powerful impulse I swayed myself inside, and the current of the dream changed. Sometimes, without my knowing how, the vision passed utterly away. Once the whole building on whose side I stood from basement to cap-stone took fire in an instant; I leaped to the more merciful, to avoid the more cruel death, and, awaking, found myself upon the floor in one of those feverish states of which I have spoken.

That night I slept no more. At dawn I laid myself down for an hour of disturbed slumber, to awake again to a day which was as much to be dreaded as the night.

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