One December evening.... I arrived in a remote quarter in the middle of Paris, a kind of solitary oasis which the river encircles in its arms on both sides as though to defend it against the encroachments of civilization. It was in an old house on the ile St. Louis, the Pimodan hotel built by Lauzun, where the strange club which I had recently joined held its monthly sÉance. I was attending for the first time.
Though it was scarcely six o clock, the night was black. A fog, made thicker still by the nearness of the Seine, blurred all the shapes under its quilting... The pavement, inundated with rain, glistened under the street lamp as water reflects an image; a sharp dry wind carrying particles of sleet whipped into the face... None of winter's rude poetry was wanting that night.
It was difficult in the clump of somber buildings along that deserted quay to distinguish the house for which I searched; nevertheless my coachman, perched high on his seat, managed to read on a marble plaque the half-worn, gilded name of the old hotel, the gathering place for the initiates.
I raised the carved knocker,... and several times heard the catch grate unsuccessfully; at last, succumbing to a more vigorous pull, the rusty old bolt opened and the door of massive planks turned on its hinges.
As I entered, an old porter, roughly outlined by the flickerings of a candle, appeared behind a pane of yellowish transparency, a perfect Skalken painting. The face regarded me with singular grimace, and a skinny finger stretched outwards to point my way....
Once up the flight of steps, I found myself at the bottom of one of those immense staircases constructed during the time of Louis XIV, and in which a modern house would dance with ease. An Egyptian chimera, in the style of Lebrun, with a Cupid astride, rested its feet on a pedestal and held a light in claws bent round to form candlesticks.
The incline was gentle. Well-placed landings attested to the genius of the late architect and to the grandiose life of bygone centuries; in climbing the impressive stair, attired as I was in my thin black frockcoat, I felt like a blemish on the scene, usurping a right not mine; the service stairway would have done well enough for me.
Paintings, for the most part frameless, copies of masterpieces from the Italian and Spanish schools, hung on the walls; and high above, in the shadows, could barely be discerned a huge mythological ceiling painted in fresco.
I arrived at the designated floor. A worn and shiny velvet tapestry from Utrecht, whose yellow borders and bruised threads bespoke long service, showed me the door.
I rang; it was opened with the usual precautions and I found myself in a huge room lit at the end by several lamps. To enter here was to step backwards two centuries. Time, Which passes so quickly, seemed not to have flown in this house and, as a forgotten clock left unwound, its hands pointed always to the same place....
I moved into the luminous portion of the room where several human shapes were stirring about a table, and as soon as the ligrht reached me and I was recognized, a vigorous shout shook the sonorous depths of the ancient edifice.
"It's he! It's he!" cried some voices together; "let's give him his due!"
The doctor stood by the side of a buffet on which lay a platter filled with small Japanese saucers. He spooned a morsel of paste or greenish jam about as large as the thumb from a crystal vase, and placed it next to the silver spoon on each saucer.
The doctor's face radiated enthusiasm; his eyes glittered, his purple cheeks were aglow, the veins in his temples stood out strongly, and he breathed heavily through dilated nostrils.
"This will be deducted from your share in Paradise," he said as he handed me my portion.
After each had eaten his due, coffee was served in the Arab manner, that is to say, with the coffee grounds and no sugar. Then we sat down at the table....
The meal was served in singular fashion and in all sorts of elaborate and picturesque dishes.
Large Venetian goblets, cut in milky spirals, German steins embellished with coats of arms and legends, Flemish jugs of enamel, and slender-necked bottles twisted in their reed encasements replaced the ordinary glasses, pitchers and carafes.
The opaque porcelain of Louis Lebeuf and the flowered English crockery, customary ornaments of bourgeois settings, were conspicuous in their absence. No plate was identical, but each had its own particular virtue. From China, Saxony and Japan were examples of the loveliest sort and richest color, all a trifle cracked or broken, but in exquisite taste.
The plates were, for the most part, enamel of Bernard de Palissy or china from Limoges, and occasionally under the meat, the carver's knife met a reptile, frog or bird in bas-relief. The cooked eel mixed his coils with those of the patterned serpent below.
An honest Philistine would have experienced some trepidation at the sight of such table companions, hirsute, bearded, mustached, or shorn in singular fashion, brandishing poignards from the sixteenth century, Malayan daggers or machetes, and bent over their food to which the flickering lamps gave a disquieting aspect.
The meal drew to an end; already some of the more fervent members felt the effects of the green jam: for my part, I had experienced a complete transformation in taste. The water I drank seemed the most exquisite wine, the meat, once in my mouth, became strawberries, the strawberries, meat. I could not have distinguished a fish from a cutlet.
My neighbors began to appear somewhat strange. Their pupils became big as a screech owl's; their noses stretched into elongated proboscises; their mouths expanded like bell bottoms. Faces were shaded in supernatural light. One among them, a pale countenance in a black beard, laughed aloud at an invisible spectacle; another made incredible efforts to raise his glass to his lips and the resulting contortions aroused deafening hoots from his companions; a man, shaken with nervous convulsions, turned his thumbs with remarkable agility; another, fallen against the back of his chair, his eyes unseeing and his arms inert, let himself drift voluptuously in the bottomless sea of nothingness.
My elbows on the table, I considered all this with clarity and a vestige of reason which came and went by intervals, like the light of a lantern about to flicker and die. A deadening warmth pervaded my limbs, and dementia, like a wave which breaks foaming onto a rock, then withdraws to break again, invaded and left my brain, finally enveloping it altogether. That strange visitor, hallucination, had come to dwell within me.
"To the salon, to the salon!" cried one of the guests; "can't you hear those heavenly choirs? The musicians have been gathered for a long time."
And indeed, a delectable harmony reached us in whiffs across the tumult of the conversation.
The salon was an enormous room of carved and gilded paneling, a painted ceiling whose friezes depicted satyrs chasing nymphs through the grasses, a monumental fireplace of colored marble and abundant brocade curtains. Here one inhaled the luxurious airs of times gone by. Embroidered chairs, canapés, settees and bergères, large enough for the skirts of duchesses and marquesas to spread with ease, seated the hachichins and welcomed them with soft and open arms. A warmth from the corner of the chimney invited me, and I settled there, abandoning myself without resistance to the fantastic effects of the drug.
After several moments, my companions disappeared... Quiet reigned in the salon, and a few vague, flickering lamps; then, suddenly a flash of red under my eyelids, as though countless candles had lit themselves, and I felt bathed in a pale and tepid glow. The room in which I sat was indeed the same, but, like a rough sketch for a painting, everything seemed larger, richer, more splendid. In the opulence of hallucination, reality appears only at the point of departure.
I still saw no one, yet imagined the presence of a multitude. I heard the sounds of rustling fabrics, the clicking of heels, voices whispering, murmuring, lisping and stammering, peals of smothered laughter and the scrape of chair and table legs. Porcelain clattered and doors were opened and shut; something unaccustomed was happening.
An enigmatic personage suddenly appeared before me. From whence did he come? I do not know. But his aspect caused me no alarm; his nose was bent like the beak of a bird, his green eyes, which he wiped frequently with a large handkerchief, were encircled with three brown rings, and caught in the knot of a high white starched collar was a visiting card which read: Daucus-Carota, du Pot d'or. The collar choked his thin neck so that the skin of his cheeks overflowed in reddish creases; a black frockcoat, from which hung a chain with a grape chlster, imprisoned his body, which bulged like the breast of a capon. As for his legs, I must avow that they were like mandrake roots, bisected, black, rough, knotty and full of warts, as if torn from the ground with pieces of earth still clinging to the ends. These legs wriggled and twisted with extraordinary activity, and when the small torso which they held stood before me, the strange creature, bursting with sobs, and wiping his eyes first with one arm, then with the other, addressed me in the most pitiful voice: "Today is the day that we must die laughing." And large, weighty tears rolled down the flanks of his nose. "To laugh ... To laugh ..." repeated an echoing chorus of discordant and snuffling voices.
...Little by little the salon was filled with extraordinary figures, such as are found only in the etchings of Callot or the aquatints of Goya; a pêle-mêle of rags and tatters, bestial and human shapes; at any other time I should have been uneasy in such company, but there was nothing menacing in these monstrosities. It was cunning, not malice, which sparkled in the eye. Only in a grin of good humor could one discover the uneven fangs and pointed teeth.
As if I were the king of the feast, each figure came up in turn into the luminous circle of which I was the center, and with a solemn and grotesque air, mumbled pleasantries in my ear, none of which I can recall, but which, at the time, seemed to me prodigiously clever and which filled me with the maddest gaiety.
At each new apparition, a laugh, Homeric, Olympian, immense and stupefying, which seemed to resound into infinity, burst about me with the bellowings of thunder. Voices at one moment screeching, the next sepulchral, cried out: "No, it's too funny!; that's enough of that! Let's finish this, I can't go on...Ho! Ho! hu! hu! hi! hi! What a perfect farce! What a lovely punster! Stop! I'm choking! I'm strangling! Don't look at me like that... or bind me in hoops, for I shall burst!" In spite of these partly jesting, partly supplicating protestations, the splendid hilarity grew even greater, the uproar augmented in intensity and, like a human diaphragm, the floorboards and walls of the house heaved and throbbed, shaken as they were by this frenetic, irresistible, ruthless laughter....
All the creatures engendered by the mocking zest of the masses and the artists were renunited there, but increased in force tenfold, a hundred fold. It was a bizarre throng... It teemed, it crawled, it toddled, it leapt, it grumbled, it hissed, as Goethe says in the Walpurgis Night.
In order to flee the excessive eagerness of these baroque creatures, I took refuge in an obscure corner where I could watch them throwing themselves into dances unknown in the Renaissance of Chicard or the opera under Mussard, that king of the elaborate quadrille. These dancers, a thousand times superior to Molière, Rabelais, Swift and Voltaire, composed with an entrechat or a pose, comedies so profoundry philosophical, satires so large in scope and salty in content, that I, in my corner, was forced to hold my sides.
Daucus-Carota, all the while wiping his eyes, performed pirouettes and cabrioles, extraordinary for a man whose legs were mandrake roots, and in a ridiculously pitiful tone repeated, "Today is the day that we must die laughing."...
What outlandishly convulsed faces! What winking eyes sparkling with sarcasm under their birdlike countenance! What leering, piggy-bank grins! What hatchet mouths! What jocular dodecahedral noses! What abdomens large with pantagruelian mockeries! Across the swarm of this blissful nightmare, sudden portraits of irresistible effect were sketched in flashes, caricatures to render jealous a Daumier or Garvarni, fantasies to make the marvelous Chinese artists, the Phidiases of the paunchy, potbellied figure, gape in admiration!
Not all the visions were monstrous or burlesque, however. Grace was also evident in this carnival of forms: near the chimney a small child with smooth cheek rolled upon her blond tresses, showing in an interminable access of gaiety, thirty-two teeth no larger than grains of rice, and sending forth bursts of laughter, shrill, vibrant, silvery, prolonged, embroidered with trills, which pierced the eardrum and whose intense magnetism drew me into innumerable follies.
The joyous frenzy was at its height; only convulsive sighs could be heard, inarticulate cluckings. Laughter had lost its timbre and turned into groans, spasm followed pleasure; Daucus-Carota's refrain had come true. Already several prostrate hachichins had rolled on to the floor with that slack heaviness of drunkenness which makes falls somewhat perilous; such exclamations as, "My God, I'm happy! What bliss! I'm swimming in ecstasy! I'm in Paradise! I'm plunging into the depths of delight!" intersected, mingled and were absorbed. Raucous cries sprung from oppressed breasts; arms strained madly toward fugitive apparitions; claws and necks drummed on the floor. It was time to throw a drop of cold water upon that burning vapor, where the boiler had burst. The human frame, which possesses so little power for pleasure and so much for pain, could no longer have borne such intensities of happiness.
One of the club members, who had not taken part in the voluptuous intoxications, in order to survey the phantasma and prevent those of us who believed we possessed wings from leaping out the windows, got up, opened the piano, and sat down. His two hands plunged together into the ivories of the clavier and a glorious chord, resounding forcefully, silenced the clamor and changed the direction of the drunkenness.
The melody thus assaulted was, I believe, Agatha's air from Die Freischutz; this celestial tune soon scattered the outlandish visions which obsessed me as a wind brushes away misshapen clouds. The grimacing phantoms withdrew, sliding onto the chairs or hiding in the folds of curtains, emitting small, smothered sighs, and again it seemed that I was alone in the salon.
...soon the tune seemed to come out of myself; my fingers fluttered on a non-existent clavier; the sounds gushed forth in blues and reds, in electric flashes; Weber's soul was embodied in mine. When the piece was finished, I continued, in the style of a German master, with my own improvisations which caused me ineffable raptures; what a pity that a magic stenographer could not have recorded these inspired rhapsodies, heard by me alone, and which, in all modesty, I do not hesitate to place before the masterpieces of Rossini, Meyerbeer, Felicien David....
The slightly convulsive gaiety of the beginning was succeeded by an undefinable sense of well-being, a calm without end. I was in the blessed phase of hashish which the Orientals call kief. No longer could I feel my body; the bonds between mind and matter were slender, I moved by simple desire into an environment which offered no resistance. It is thus, I would imagine, that spirits, from the aromatic world to which we journey after death, must act. A bluish haze, an Elysian day, a reflection of an azurine grotto, formed, in the room, an atmosphere where I could see uncertain shapes vaguely tremble; this atmosphere, both cool and tepid, humid and perfumed, enveloped me like bath water in its embrace of debilitating gentleness; if I wanted to change my seat, the air caressed about me in a thousand voluptuous whirlpools; a delectable apathy took hold of my senses and spilled me onto the sofa, where I sank like an abandoned garment. I understood at last the joys which, according to their degree of perfection, spirits and angels sense while floating across the ethers and heavens, and how eternity must pass in Paradise.
Nothing materialistic merged with this ecstasy; no terrestial desires impaired its purity. Moreover the sentiment of love itself could not have intensified the bliss, and a hashish Romeo would have forgotten his Juliet. The poor child, leaning over the jasmine atop her balcony, would have stretched her graceful alabaster arms across the night in vain. Romeo would have remained at the foot of the silken ladder and even though I am hopelessly enamored of the Angel of Youth and the glories of Shakespeare, I must acknowledge that, for a hachichin, the loveliest lady of Verona is not worth the bother.
Also, though admittedly charmed, I considered with complacent eye the garland of ideally beautiful creatures who crowned the fresco with their sublime nakedness; without the least temptation I observed their satiny shoulders gleam, their silvery bosoms sparkle, their dainty feet with rosy soles, their undulating, opulent hips. The charming forms which disturbed St. Anthony held no lure for me.
After some moments of contemplation and by a strange miracle, I myself melted into the objects I regarded; I became that very object. Thus was I transformed into the nymph Syrinx. For, in fact, the frieze depicted Ladon's daughter pursued by Pan. I felt all the terrors of the wretched fugitive, and I sought to conceal myself behind the giant reeds in order to escape the goat-footed monster.
During this ecstasy, Daucus-Carota returned. Seated like a tailor or a pasha on his appropriately twisted roots, he stared at me with flaming eye; his beak cracked in such sardonic manner, such a mockingly triumphant expression burst from all of his little counterfeit person, that I shivered in spite of myself. Sensing my terror, he redoubled his scowls and contortions and approached, hopping like a wounded daddy-long-legs or a cripple in his walking basket.
Suddenly I felt a chill wind in my ear and a voice, whose accent was known to me though I could not have determined to whom it belonged, said: "This miserable Daucus-Carota, who has sold his legs in order to drink, has pilfered your head and put in its place, not the head of a donkey as Puck did to Bottom, but the head of an elephant!"
Singularly intrigued, I went straightway to the mirror and saw that the admonition was not false. One would have taken me for a Javanese or Hindu idol: my forehead was high, my nose, lengthened into a trunk, curved onto my chest, my ears brushed my shoulders, and to make matters more discomforting still, I was the color of indigo, like Shiva, the blue deity.
Exasperated with fury, I began to pursue Daucus-Carota, who leapt and screeched and gave all the signs of extreme fright; I succeeded in catching him and knocked him so violently against the edge of the table that he ended up by returning my head, which he had had wrapped in his handkerchief.
Pleased with this victory, I returned to my place on the canapé but the same small, unknown voice said to me: "Take care, for you are surrounded by enemies; invisible forces are trying to lure and hold you. You are a prisoner here: Try to escape and you shall see."
A veil was torn away from my mind's eye, and it became apparent to me that the club's members were none other than Cabalists and sorcerers who wished to sweep me to my doom.
I rose to my feet with difficulty and went toward the door of the salon, which I reached at last after a considerable time, an unknown force pulling me back one step in every three. My calculation is that ten years elapsed before I covered that distance. Daucus-Carota followed me, snickering and muttering with an air of false commiseration: "If he walks at this rate, he'll be an old man by the time he arrives."
...I was overcome with discouragement and about to stop when the small voice said, almost brushing my lips: "Courage! It's set for you at eleven o'clock."
...I succeeded with enormous projection of will in raising my feet which clung to the ground and which I was forced to uproot like tree trunks. The monster with mandrake legs escorted me, lampooning my efforts and chanting in a tone of drawling psalmody: "The marble's gaining! The marble's gaining!"
Indeed I felt my limbs turn to stone... I was a statue to the middle of my body.... Nonetheless I arrived at the stair landing, which I attempted to descend... On looking down, I saw an abyss of stairs, whirlpools of spirals, bewildering circumvolutions. This stair must pierce through the very ends of the earth, I thought, as I continued my mechanical march. I will reach the bottom the day after the Last Judgement.... The stick and flaccid stones gave way like toads' bellies; more landings, more stairs presented themselves ceaselessly to my unresisting feet, those which I had surmounted replaced themselves before me. This roundabout will last a thousand years, I thought. Finally I reached the vestibule, where another equally horrible ordeal awaited me.
The candle-clawed Chimera, which I had noticed as I came in, barred my passage with openly hostile intentions; her greenish eye sparkled with irony, her cunning mouth leered maliciously; she approached me almost flat-bellied, trailing her bronze trappings in the dust, but not submissively; terrible shudderings shook her lion's rump, and Daucus-Carota enflamed her like a bitch he wanted to make do battle: "Bite him! Bite him! Marble meat for a mouth of stone is a proud feast!"
Without allowing myself to be intimidated by this horrible beast, I passed beyond. A gust of cold air struck my face and the nocturnal sky, swept clean of clouds, suddenly appeared before me. A seed bed of stars powdered the great block of lapis lazuli with gold. I was in the courtyard.
In order to describe to you the effect this somber architecture had upon me, I would have needed the etching needle with which Piranesi engraved his marvelous copperplatings: The courtyard had taken on the dimensions of the Champs-de-Mars, and was bordered by gigantic edifices which cut up the horizon in a lacework of needles, cupolas, turrets, gables, and pyramids worthy of Rome or Babylon.
My astonishment was extreme. I had never supposed the Île St. Louis contained such monumental magnificence, which, in fact, would have covered its real surface twenty times over, and I could not imagine, without apprehension, the powers of sorcerers who could, in one evening, erect such constructions.
"You are the plaything of vain illusions; this courtyard is very small," murmured the voice. "Twenty-seven paces long and twenty-five paces wide."
"Yes, yes," muttered the pronged abortion in seven-league boots. "You will never arrive by eleven o'clock; fifteen hundred years have passed since you departed. Half your hair has already turned grey.... Go back, it would be wiser."
As I did not obey, the odious monster entangled me in the coils of his limbs, and, using his hands like fulcrums, dragged me against my will, forced me back up the stairs where I had so recently experienced such agonies, and, to my great despair, reinstalled me in the salon from which I had escaped so painfully.
Then vertigo enveloped me completely; I became mad, delirious. Daucus-Carota did cabrioles to the ceiling while saying, "Imbecile! I returned you your head, but earlier scooped out your brains with a spoon." I was overcome with despair, for, in lifting my hand to my skull, I found it open, and I lost consciousness.
Upon coming to, I noticed the room filled with figures dressed in black, who went up to one another with a sad air and shook hands with melancholy cordiality, as if afflicted by a common grief. They said: "Time is dead... and we are going to the funeral."
"It is true that he was very old, but I should not have expected such an occurrence: he carried himself remarkably for his age," added one of the mourners whom I recognized as a painter friend of mine.
"Eternity is threadbare; it needs to be brought to a finish," rejoined another.
"Great God!" I cried, struck by a sudden thought. "If time is no more, when will it be eleven o'clock?"...
"Never!" shouted the resounding voice of Daucus-Carota, thrusting his nose in my face and showing himself in his true colors... "Never... it will always be nine-fifteen... The hand will remain where it was when time ceased to be, and your corporal punishment will be to observe the motionless hands and return to your seat to start anew, and this until you walk on the bones of your heels."
"Come now," said the voyant. "I can see that it is necessary to exorcise the evil spirits. The thing has gone sour. Let's have a little music. David's Harp will be replaced by the clavichord of Érard."
And, seating himself upon the stool, he played melodies lively and gay... This appeared to vex greatly the mandrake man, who diminished, flattened, discolored, and shuddered inarticulately; finally he lost all human form and rolled upon the floor in the shape of a two-rooted salsify. The charm was broken.
"Hallelujah! Time is reborn," cried childish, joyous voices. "Go look at the clock now."
The hand pointed to eleven.
"Monsieur's carriage is waiting below," said a servant.
The dream had ended. The hachichins each escaped separately to their houses, like the officers after Malbrouck's funeral.
As for myself, I went down that stairway which had caused me such tortures with a light step, and several minutes later was in my own room, in full reality; the last, lingering mists of the hashish had disappeared. My reason had returned, or at least that which I call reason, for want of a better term. My lucidity would have been just sufficient to grasp a pantomime or vaudeville, or to make verses rhyming in three letters.