The Hasheesh Eater
It was at Damascus that I took my first dose of hasheesh, and laid the foundations of that habit which, through the earlier years of my manhood, imprisoned me like an enchanted palace.
It was surely a worthy spot on which to build up such an edifice of hallucinations as I did there erect and cement around my soul by the daily use of this weed of insanity. Certainly no other spot could be so worthy, unless it were Baghdad, the marvelous city of the marvelous Sultan, Haroun al Rashid. I need not tell the reasons: every one can imagine them; every one, at least, who knows what Damascus is; much more everyone who has been there.
It was among shadowy gardens, filled with oriental loungers, and in Saracenic houses, gay as kaleidoscopes with gilding and bright tintings, that I made myself the slave of the hasheesh. It was surrounded by objects so suitable for dream-work, that, by the aid of this wizard of plants, I fabricated that palace of alternating pleasure and torture which was for years my abiding place. In this palace I sometimes reveled with a joy so immense that I may well call it multitudinous; or I ran and shrieked it through its changeful spaces with an agony which the pen of a demon could not describe suitably; surrounded, chased, overclouded by all the phantasms of mythology or the Arabian Nights; by every strange, ludicrous, or horrible shape that ever stole into my fancy, from books of romance or tales of spectredom.
It is useless to think of relating, or even mentioning, the visions which, during four or five years, passed through my drugged brain. A library would not suffice to describe them all: many, also, were indistinct in their first impressions, and others have so mingled together with time, that I cannot now trace their individual outlines. As the habit grew upon me, too, my memory gradually failed, and a stupor crept over me which dulled the edges of all events, whether dreams or realities. A dull confusion surrounded me at all times, and I dropped down its hateful current, stupid, indifferent, unobserving, and never thoroughly awake except when a fresh dose of the plant stimulated my mind into a brief consciousness of itself and its surroundings. The habit and its consequences naturally deepened my morbid unsociability of temper, and sunk me still more fixedly in the hermit-like existence which I had chosen. For some years I made no acquaintance with the many European travelers who pass through Syria; and I even, at last, got to avoid the presence of my listless oriental companions—keeping up no intimacy except with those who, like myself, daily wandered through the saharas and eases of hasheesh dreamland. Never before did I so completely give myself up to my besetting sin; for a sin I now consider it to cast off one’s moorings to humanity to fly from one’s fellow-beings and despise, at once, their good will and their censure.
A terrible fever at last came to my relief and saved me by dragging me, as it were, through the waters of death. While the sickness continued, I could not take the hasheesh; and when I recovered, I had so far gained my self-control, that I resolved to fling the habit aside forever. I am ashamed to confess that it was partly the urgings of an old friend which supported me to this pitch of real heroism. He was a young physician from my own city, and we had been companions and often room-mates through school and college, although it was by the merest accident that he met me in Beirut a few days before my seizure. Two months he watched by me, and then perfected his work by getting me on board the steamer for Marseilles, and starting me well homeward. I shall have to speak of him again; but I cannot give his name, further than to call him Doctor Harry, the pet title by which he was known in his own family.
I reached Marseilles, hurried through France, without passing more than a night even at Paris, and sailed for New York in a Havre steamer. In less than a month after I stepped from the broken columns which lie about the landing place of Beirut, I was strolling under the elms of my native city in Connecticut. The spell was broken by this time, and its shackles fallen altogether both from mind and body. I felt no longing after the hasheesh; and the dreary languor which once seemed to demand its restorative energy had disappeared: for my constitution was vigorous, and I was still several years under thirty. But such chains as I had worn could not be carried so long without leaving some scars behind them. The old despotism asserted itself yet in horrible dreams, or in painful reveries which were almost as vivid, and as difficult to break as dreams. These temporary illusions generally made use of two subjects, as the scaffolds on which to erect their troublesome cloud-castles: First, the scenery and personages of my old hasheesh visions; second, the incidents of my journey homeward. I was not at all surprised to find myself haunted by sultans, Moors, elephants, afreets, rocs, and other monstrosities of the Arabian Nights; but it did seem unreasonable that I should be plagued, in the least degree, by the reminiscences of that wholesome, and, on the whole, pleasant flight from the land of my captivity. The rapidity and picturesqueness of the transit had impressed themselves on my imagination; and I now journeyed in spirit, night after night, and sometimes day after day, without rest and without goal; hurried on by an endless succession of steamers, diligences and railroad trains, all driven at their utmost speed; beholding oceans of foam, immeasurable snow mountains, cities of many leagues in extents and population, whose multitudes obstructed my passage.
But these illusions, whether sleeping or waking, were faint and mild compared with my old hasheesh paroxysms, and they grew rapidly weaker as time passed onward. The only thing which seriously and persistently annoyed me was an idea that my mind was slightly shaken. I vexed myself with minute self-examinations on this point, and actually consulted a physician as to whether some of my mental processes did not indicate incipient insanity. He replied in the best manner possible: he laughed at me, and forbade my pursuing those speculations.
All this time I amused myself in society, and even worked pretty faithfully at my legal profession. I shall say nothing of my cases, however, for, like most young lawyers, I had very few of them; all the fewer, doubtless, because long residence abroad had put me back in my studies. But I must speak at some length of my socialities, inasmuch as they soon flung very deep roots into my heart, and mingled themselves there with the poisonous decay of my former habit.
The first family whose acquaintance I renewed on reaching home was that of my dear friend, Doctor Harry. His father, the white-headed old doctor, and his dignified, kindly mother, greeted me with a heartiness that was like enthusiasm. I had been a school-fellow of their absent son; and more than that I had very lately seen him; and more still, I spoke of him with warm praise and gratitude. They treated me with as much affection as if it were I who had saved Harry’s life, and not Harry who had saved mine.
A reception equally cordial was granted me by the doctor’s two daughters: Ellen and Ida. Ellen, whom I knew well, was twenty-three years old, and engaged to be married. She was the same lively, nervous, sentimental thing as of old; wore the same long black ringlets, and tossed her head in the same flighty style. Ida, four years younger than her sister, was almost a stranger to me; for she was a mere child when I first became a beau, and had been transferred from the nursery to the boarding-school without attracting my student observation. She was quite a novelty, therefore, a most attractive novelty also — the prettiest, unobtrusive style of woman that ever made an unsought conquest. I was the conquest; not the only conquest that she ever made, indeed, but the only one that she ever designed to accept. I could not resist the mild blue eyes, the sunny brown hair, the sweet blonde face, and the dear little coral mouth. She had the dearest little expression in her mouth when she was moved; a pleading, piteous expression that seemed to beg and entreat without a spoken word; an expression that was really infantine, not in silliness, but in an unutterable pathetic innocence. Well, she quite enslaved me, so that in three months I was more her captive than I had ever been to the hasheesh, even in the time of my deepest enthrallment.
I would not, however, offer myself to her until I had written to Doctor Harry, and asked him if he could permit his little sister to become the wife of the hasheesh eater. His reply was not kinder than I expected, but it was more cordial, and fuller of confidence. He knew little, in comparison with myself, of the strength of that old habit; nothing at all of the energy with which it can return upon one of its escaped victims. He was sure that I had broken its bonds; sure that I never would be exposed to its snares again; sure that I would resist the temptation, were it to come ever so powerful. Yes, he was quite willing that I should marry Ida; he would rejoice to meet me at his home as his brother. I might, if I chose, tell my history to his father, and leave the matter to him; but that was all that honor could demand of me, and even that was not sternly necessary.
I did as Harry directed, and related to the old physician all my dealings with the demon of hasheesh. Like a true doctor, he was immensely interested in the symptoms, and plunged into speculations as to whether the diabolical plant could not be introduced with advantage into the materia medica. No astonishment at my rashness; no horror at my danger; no grave disapproval of my weak wickedness; no particular rejoicing at what I considered my wonderful escape. And when, a few days after, I asked him if he could surrender his child to such a man as I, he laughed heartily, and shook both my hands with an air of the warmest encouragement. I felt guilty at that moment, as well as happy; for it seemed as if I were imposing upon an unsuspecting ignorance, which could not and would not be enlightened. Nor did Ida say no any more than the others, although she made up a piteous little face when I took her hand, and looked as if she thought I had no right to ask her for so much as her whole self. So I was engaged to Ida, and was happier than all the hasheesh eaters from Cairo to Stamboul.
It was about a month after our engagement, and two months before the time fixed for our marriage, that a box reached us from Smyrna. It contained a quantity of Turkish silks, and other presents from Harry to his sisters, besides the usual variety of nargeelehs, chibouks, tarbooshes, scimitars, and so forth, such as young travelers usually pick up in the East. The doctor and I opened the packages, while Ellen, Ida, and their mother skipped about in delight from wonder to wonder. Among the last things came a small wooden box, which Ellen eagerly seized upon, declaring that it contained attar of roses. She tore off the cover, and displayed to my eyes a mass of that well-remembered drug, the terrible hasheesh.
“What is it?” she exclaimed, “Is this attar of roses? No, it isn’t. What is it, Edward? Here, you ought to know.”
“It is hasheesh,” I said, looking at it as if I saw an afreet or a ghoul.
“Well, what is hasheesh? Is it good to eat? Why, what are you staring at it so for? Do you want some? Here, eat a piece. I will if you will.”
“Bless me!” exclaimed the doctor, dropping a Persian dagger and coming hastily forward. “Is that the real hasheesh? Bless me, so that is hasheesh, is it? Dear me, I must have a specimen. What is the ordinary dose for an adult, Edward?”
I took out a bit as large as a hazelnut, and held it up before his eyes. He received it reverently from my hands, and surveyed it with a prodigious scientific interest. “Wife,” said he, “Ellen, Ida, this is hasheesh. This is an ordinary dose for an adult.”
“Well, what is hasheesh?” repeated Ellen, tossing her ringlets as a colt does his mane. “Father! what is it? Did you ever take any, Edward?”
“Yes,” mumbled the doctor, examining the lump with microscopic minuteness; “Edward is perfectly acquainted with the nature of the drug; he has made some very interesting experiments with it.”
“Oh, take some, Edward,” cried Ellen. “Come, that’s a good fellow. Here, take this other bit. Let’s take a dose all round.”
“No, no,” said Ida, catching her sister’s hand. “Why, you imprudent child! Better learn a little about it before you make its acquaintance. Tell us, Edward, what does it do to people?”
I told them in part what it had done to me; that is, I told them what mighty dreams and illusions it had wrapped around me; but I could not bring myself to narrate before Ida how shamefully I had been its slave.
When I had finished my story, Ellen broke forth again: “Oh, Edward, take a piece, I beg of you. I want to see you crazy once. Come, you are sane enough in a general way; and we should all enjoy it so to see you make a fool of yourself for an hour or two.”
She put the morsel to my lips and held it there until Ida pushed her hand away, almost indignantly. I looked at my little girl, and, although she said nothing, I saw on her mouth that piteous, pleading expression which appeared to me enough to move angels or demons. It moved me, but not sufficiently; the smell of the hasheesh seemed to sink into my brain; the thought of the old visions came up like a wave of intoxication. Still I refused; two or three times that afternoon I refused; but in the evening, Ellen handed me the drug again. “It is the last time,” I said to myself; and taking it from her hand I began to prepare it. The doctor stood by, nervous with curiosity, and urged caution; nothing more than caution; that was the whole of his warning. Ida looked at me in her imploring way, but said nothing; for she only suspected, and did not at all comprehend the danger.
I swallowed the drug while they all stood silent around me; and I laughed loudly, with a feeling of crazed triumph, as I perceived the well-remembered savor. My little girl caught my sleeve with a look of extremest terror; the doctor quite as eagerly seized my pulse and drew out his repeater. “Oh, what fun!” said Ellen. “Do you see anything now, Edward?”
Of course I saw nothing as yet; for, be it known, that the effect of the hasheesh is not immediate; half an hour or even an hour must elapse before the mind can fully feel its influence. I told them so, and I went on talking in my ordinary style until they thought that I had been jesting with them, and had taken nothing. But forty minutes had not passed before I began to feel the usual symptoms, the sudden nervous thrill, followed by the whirl and prodigious apparent enlargement of the brain. My head expanded wider and wider, revolving with inconceivable rapidity, and enlarging in space with every revolution. It filled the room — the house — the city; it became a world, peopled with the shapes of men and monsters. I spun away into its great vortex, and wandered about its expanses as about a universe. I lost all perception of time and space, and knew no distinction between the realities around me, and the phantasmata which sprung in endless succession from my brain. Ida and the others occasionally spoke to me; and once I thought that they kneeled around and worshipped me, while I, from behind a marble altar, responded like a Jupiter. Then night descended, and I heard a voice saying: “Christ is come, and thou art no more a divinity.”
The altar disappeared at that instant, and I came back to this present century, and to my proper human form. I was in the doctor’s house, standing by a window, and gazing out upon a moonlit street filled with promenading citizens. Beside me was a sofa upon which Ida lay and slept, with her head thrown back, and her throat bared to the faint silvery brilliance which stole through the gauze curtains. I stooped and kissed it passionately; for I had never before seen her asleep, nor so beautiful; and I loved her as dearly in that moment as I had ever done when in full possession of my sanity. As I raised my head, her father opened a door and looked into the room. He started forward when he saw me; then he drew back, and I heard him whisper to himself: “She is safe enough, he will not hurt her.”
The moment he closed the door a window opened, and a voice muttered: “Kill her, kill her, and the altar and the adoration shall be yours again,” to which innumerable voices from the floor and the ceiling and the four walls responded: “Glory, glory in the highest to him who can put himself above man, and to him who fears not the censure of man!”
I drew a knife from my pocket, and opened it instantly; for a mighty persuasion was wrought in me by those promises. “I will kill her,” I said to myself, “dearly as I love her; for the gift of Divinity outweighs the love of woman or the wrath of man.”
I bent over her and placed the knife to her throat without the least pity or hesitation, so completely had all love, all nobleness, all humanity, been extinguished in me by the abominable demon of hasheesh. But suddenly she awoke, and fixed on me that sweet, piteous, startled look which was so characteristic of her. It made me forget my purpose for one moment, so that, with a lunatic inconsistency, I bent my head and kissed her hand as gently as I had ever done. Then the demoniac whisper, as if to recall my wandering resolution, swept again through the eglantines of the window: “Kill her, kill her, and the altar and the adoration shall be yours again.”
She did not seem to hear it; for she stretched out her hands to give me a playful push backwards, while, closing her eyes again, she sank back to renewed slumber. Then, in the height of my drugged insanity, in the cold fury of my possession, I struck the sharp slender blade into her white throat once, and once more, with quick repetition, into her heart. “Oh, Edward, you have killed me!” she said, and seemed to die with a low moan, not once stirring from her position on the sofa.
I took no further notice of her; I did not see her in fact after the blow; for the smoke of sacrifices rose around me, obscuring the room; and once more I stood in divine elevation above a marble altar. There were giant colonnades on either side, sweeping forward to a monstrous portal, through which I beheld countless sphinxes facing each other adown an interminable avenue of granite. Before me, in the mighty space between the columns, was a multitude of men, all bowing with their faces to the earth, while priests chanted anthems to my praise as the great Osiris. But suddenly, before I could shake the temple with my nod, I saw one in the image of Christ enter the portal and advance through the crowd to the foot of my altar. It was not Christ the risen and glorified; but the human and crucified Jesus of Nazareth. I knew him by his grave sweetness of countenance; I knew him still better by his wounded hands and bloody vestments. He beckoned me to descend and kneel before him; and when I would have called on my worshipers for aid, I found that they had all vanished; so that I was forced to come down and fall at his pierced feet in helpless condemnation. Then he passed judgment upon me, saying: “Forasmuch as thou hast sought to put thyself above man, all men shall abhor and shun thee.”
He disappeared, and when I rose the temple had disappeared also, with every trace of that mighty worship by which I had been for a moment surrounded. Then did my punishment commence; nor did it cease throughout a seeming eternity; for, in order to complete it, time was reversed, and I could live in bygone ages; so that I ran through the whole history of the world, and was avoided with loathing by every generation. First I stood near the garden of Eden, and saw a hideous man hurrying by it, alone, with a bloody mark on his forehead. “This is Cain,” I said to myself; “this is a wicked murderer, also, and he will be my comrade.”
I ran toward him confidently, eagerly, and with an intense longing for companionship; but when he saw me he covered his face and fled away from me, with incomparable swiftness, shrieking: “Save me, O God, from this abominable wretch!”
After that, I hastened wildly over earth, across many countries, and through many successive ages, alone always, avoided always, an object of fear, of horror, of incredible detestation. Every one that saw me, knew me, and fled from my presence, even to certain death, if that were necessary, to evade my contact. I saw men of Gomorrah rush back into the flames of their perishing city, when they beheld me coming humbly to meet them. Egyptians, who had barely escaped from the Red Sea, leaped again into the foaming waters as I ran toward them along the shore. Everywhere that I went, populations, even of mighty cities, scattered from my track, like locusts rising in hurried flight before the feet of a camel. The loneliest shipwrecked sailor, on the most savage island of the sea, fled from his hut of reeds, and plunged into untracked and serpent-haunted marshes at the sight of my supplicating visage. Unable to obtain the companionship of men, I at last sought that of wild beasts and reptiles — of the gods of ancient mythology, and the monsters of fairydom; but, all to no purpose. The crocodiles buried themselves in the mid-current of the nile, as I stealthily approached its banks. I unavailingly chased the terrified speed of tigers and anacondas through the stifling heat of the jungles of Bengal. Memnon arose from his throne, and hid himself in the clouds, when he saw me kneeling at his granite feet. I followed in vain the sublime flight of Odin over the polar snows and ice-islands of both hemispheres. Satyrs hid from me; dragons and gorgons avoided me. The very ants and insects disappeared from my presence, taking refuge in dead trunks, and in the bowels of the earth. My punishment was constant and fearful — it was greater than I could bear; yet, I bore it for ages. I tried in many ways to escape from it by death; but always unsuccessfully. I sought to fling myself down precipices, but an unseen power drew me back; I endeavored to drown myself in the sea, but the billows upheld me, like a feather. It was not remorse that prompted me to these attempts at self-destruction. Remorse, penitence, and every other noble emotion had been swallowed up in mere anguish under the dreadfulness of my punishment. Sometimes I could not believe that all this was a reality, and struggled with wild, but useless ragings to break the dreadful presence of horror. At other times I felt convinced of its perfect truth; because I saw that the punishment was exactly suited to the offense, and that it reproved, with astonishing directness, that unsocial and almost misanthropic spirit which I had so long encouraged by my habits of life and temper of thought. Thus, dragging about with me a ghastly immortality, I wandered through miserable year after year, through desolation after desolation, until I stood once more on the deck of the steamer to Marseilles. Now I again performed my journey homeward, passing, as before, through a succession of steamers, railroads, and diligences. But the steamers were empty; for the passengers and sailors leaped overboard at my appearance: and the vessel reeled on unguided, through wild, lonely seas that I knew not. Just in the same manner, every one fled before me from the rail-cars; and, through deserted plains and valleys, I arrived, at headlong speed, in great cities, as the only passenger. My diligence journeys were performed without companion, or conductor, or postillion, in shattering vehicles, drawn by horses which flew in the very lunacy of fright. Paris was a solitude. When I entered it — without man, and without inhabitant, and without beast — silence in its streets, in its galleries, and in its palaces — the sentinels all fled from the gates, and the children from the gardens.
At last I arrived at the entrance of my native city; and now I hoped that in presence of this familiar spot my vision would break; but it did not, and so I paused in a most miserable stupor of despair. It was early dawn, and the sky was yet gray; nor had many people arisen from their sleep. I heard dogs barking in the streets, and birds singing in the orchards; but, as always, neither the one race nor the other ventured near the spot where I stood. I sat down behind a thicket, where I could see the road, but could not be seen from it, and wept for an hour over my terrible misery. It was the first time that tears had come to soften my terrible punishment; for, hitherto my anguish had been desperate and sullen, or wild and blasphemous; but now I wept easily, with some feeling of tender penitence, and speechless supplication. I looked wistfully down the street, longing to enter the town, yet dreading to see the universal terror which I knew would spread through the inhabitants the moment I stepped in among them.
At last persons began to pass me; chiefly, I believe, workmen, or market people; but among them were some whose faces I had seen before. I cannot describe the thrill of tremulous, fearful, painful pleasure with which I looked from so near upon these familiar human countenances. How I longed, yet dreaded, to have one of them turn his eyes upon me. At last I said to myself: “These people know of my crime; perhaps they will not fly from me, and will only kill me.”
I stepped out suddenly in front of a couple of ruddy countrymen, who were driving a market-cart from the city, and fell on my knees, with my hands uplifted toward their faces. For a moment they stared at me in ghastly horror, then, wheeling their rearing horse, they lashed him into violent flight. I rose in desperation, in fury, and, with the steps of a greyhound, leaped after them through streets now resonant with human footsteps. Oh, the wild terror! oh, the agonized shrieking! oh, the wide confusion! and oh, the swift vanishing of all life which marked my passage! I hastened on, panting, stamping, screaming, foaming in the uttermost extremity of despair and anguish, until I reached the house where my darling had once lived. As I neared the steps, I saw a person whom I knew to be Harry. He did not shriek and fly at my approach, but met me and looked me steadily in the face. His eyes, at first, were full of inquiry; but, in a moment, he seemed to gather the whole truth from my visage; and then, with a terrible tremor of abhorrence, he drew a pistol from his bosom.
“It is right, Harry,” I said; “kill me, as I killed her.”
But with a quick motion which I could not arrest, he placed the muzzle to his own temple, drew the trigger, and fell a disfigured corpse at my feet.
I howled as if I were a wild beast, and sprang over him into the doorway. I saw Ellen and her father and mother flying with uplifted hands out of the other end of the passage. I did not follow them, but turned into the parlor where I had committed my crime; and there, to my amazement, I saw Ida lying on the sofa in the same position in which I had left her; her head fallen backward, her eyes closed, her throat hidden by her long hair, and her hands clasped upon her bosom. On the floor lay my knife still open, just as it had fallen. I picked it up and passed my finger over the keen edge of the blade, muttering: “Now, I know that all this is real; now I can kill myself, for this is the time and the place to die.”
Just as I was placing the knife to my throat, I saw a sweet smile stealing over Ida’s lips. She has become a seraph, I thought, and is smiling to see the eternal glory. But, suddenly, as I looked at her for this last time, she opened her eyes on me, and over her mouth stole that sweet pleading expression which was the outward sign of her gentle spirit. “Stop, Edward!” she cried, earnestly; and springing up, she caught my hand firmly, although I could feel that her own trembled.
In that moment, my horrible dream began to fade from me, and I gazed around, no longer utterly blinded by the hazes of the hasheesh demon. She was not harmed, then! No, and I was not her murderer; no, and I had not been the loathing of mankind. Nothing of the whole scene had been real, except her slumber on the sofa, and the knife which I held in my hand. I flung it fiercely from me; for I thought of what I might have done with it had my madness been only a little more persistent and positive. Then, struck by a sudden thought, half suspicion and half comprehension, I ran to the front doorway. Harry was not, indeed, lying there in his blood; but he was there, nevertheless, upright and in full health; and we exchanged a delighted greeting before the rest of the family could reach him.
“Why, Harry,” said the doctor, in the parlor again, “that was a most interesting substance you sent us—that hasheesh. I have made an extraordinary experiment with it upon Edward here. He muttered wonders for an hour or two in my study. He then went to sleep, and I missed him about two minutes ago. I really had no idea that he had come to.”
That closing dream of crime and punishment, then, had passed through my brain in less than two minutes; and I had been standing by the sleeping form of my little girl all the time that I seemed to be wandering through that eternity of horror.
“What!” said Harry, “has Edward gone back to the hasheesh again?”
“Yes,” I replied; “but I have taken my last dose, my dear fellow. With your permission, doctor, I will pitch that infernal drug into the fire.”
“Really,” said the doctor, “I—-I—don’t know. I should like to reserve a few doses for experiments.”
“Oh! don’t throw it away,” urged Ellen. “It is such fun. Edward has been saying such queer things.”
“Where is it?” asked Harry resolutely. “I will settle that question.”
“It is in the fire, brother,” replied Ida. “I threw it there half an hour ago.”
I raised the little girl’s hand to my lips and kissed it; and since then I have taken no other hasheesh than such as that.
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