Chapter XXVII. A Slave
 

The physician was right. A more abject and pitiable spectacle than Mr. Jocelyn could scarcely have been found among the miserable unfortunates of a city noted for its extremes in varied condition. Even in his false excitement he was dimly aware that he was facing a dreadful emergency, and following an instinctive desire for solitude so characteristic of those in his condition, he took a room in an obscure hotel and gave himself up to thoughts that grew more and more painful as the unnatural dreams inspired by opium shaped themselves gradually into accord with the actualities of his life.

For a month or two past he had been swept almost unresistingly down the darkening and deepening current of his sin. Whenever he made some feeble, vacillating effort to reduce his allowance of the drug, he became so wretched, irritable, and unnatural in manner that his family were full of perplexed wonder and solicitude. To hide his weakness from his wife was his supreme desire; and yet, if he stopped--were this possible--the whole wretched truth would be revealed. Each day he had been tormented with the feeling that something must be done, and yet nothing had been done. He had only sunk deeper and deeper, as with the resistless force of gravitation.

His vague hope, his baseless dream that something would occur which would make reform easier or the future clearer, had now been dissipated utterly, and every moment with more terrible distinctness revealed to him the truth that he had lost his manhood. The vice was already stamped on his face and manner, so that an experienced eye could detect it at, once; soon all would see the degrading brand. He, who had once been the soul of honor and truth, had lied that day again and again, and the thought pierced him like a sword.

And now, after his useless falsehoods, what should he do? He was no longer unacquainted with his condition--few opium victims are, at his advanced stage of the habit--and he knew well how long and terrible would be the ordeal of a radical cure, even if he had the will-power to attempt it. He had, of late, taken pains to inform himself of the experience of others who had passed down the same dark, slippery path, and when he tried to diminish instead of increasing his doses of morphia, he had received fearful warnings of the awful chasm that intervened between himself and safety.

A few opium consumers can go on for years in comparative tranquillity if they will avoid too great excess, and carefully increase their daily allowance so as not to exhibit too marked alternations of elation and depression. Now and then, persons of peculiar constitution can maintain the practice a long time without great physical or moral deterioration; but no habitue can stop without sufferings prolonged and more painful than can be described. Sooner or later, even those natures which offer the strongest resistance to the ravages of the poison succumb, and pass hopelessly to the same destruction. Mr. Jocelyn's sanguine, impulsive temperament had little capacity for resistance to begin with, and he had during the last year used the drug freely and constantly, thus making downward advances in months that in some instances require years of moderate indulgence. Moreover, as with alcohol, many natures have an unusual and morbid craving for opium after once acquiring the habit of its use. Their appetite demands it with an imperiousness which will not be denied, even while in soul they recoil and loathe the bondage. This was especially true of Mr. Jocelyn. The vice in his case was wrecking a mind and heart naturally noble and abounding in the best impulses. He was conscious, too, of this demoralization, and suffered almost as greatly as would a true, pure woman, if, by some fatal necessity, she were compelled to live a life of crime.

He had already begun to shrink from the companionship of his family. The play and voices of his little children jarred his shattered nerves almost beyond endurance; and every look of love and act of trust became a stinging irritant instead of the grateful incense that had once filled his home with perfume. In bitter self-condemnation he saw that he was ceasing to be a protector to his daughters, and that unless he could break the dark, self-woven spells he would drag them down to the depths of poverty, and then leave them exposed to the peculiar temptations which, in a great city, ever assail girls so young, beautiful, and friendless. Mildred, he believed, would die rather than sin; but he often groaned in spirit as he thought of Belle. Their considerate self-denial that he might not be disturbed after his return from business, and their looks of solicitude, pierced him daily with increasing torture; and the knowledge that he added to the monotony of their lives and the irksomeness of their poverty oppressed him with a dejection that was relieved only by the cause of all his troubles.

But the thought of his loving, trusting, patient wife was the most unendurable of all. He had loved her from the first as his own soul, and her love and respect were absolutely essential to him, and yet he was beginning to recoil from her with a strange and unnatural force. He felt that he had no right to touch her while she remained so true and he was so false. He dreaded her loving gaze more than a detective's cold, searching eye. He had already deceived her in regard to the marks of the hypodermic needle, assuring her that they were caused by a slight impurity in his blood, and she never questioned anything he said. He often lay awake through interminable nights--the drug was fast losing its power to produce quiet sleep--trembling and cold with apprehension of the hour when she would become aware that her husband was no longer a man, but the most degraded of slaves. She might learn that she was leaning, not even on a frail reed, but on a poisoned weapon that would pierce her heart. It seemed to him that he would rather die than meet that hour when into her gentle eyes would come the horror of the discovery, and in fact the oft-recurring thought of it all had caused more pain than a hundred deaths.

Could he go home now and reveal his degradation? Great drops of cold perspiration drenched him at the bare thought. The icy waters, the ooze and mud of the river seemed preferable. He could not openly continue his vice in the presence of his family, nor could he conceal it much longer, and the attempt to stop the drug, even gradually, would transform him almost into a demon of irritability and perhaps violence, so frightful is the rebellion of the physical nature against the abstinence essential to a final cure.

At last he matured and carried out the following plan: Returning to the firm that had employed him, he told them of his purpose to go South among his old acquaintances and begin life anew, and of his belief that a sea voyage and change of scene would enable him to break the habit; and he so worked upon their sympathies that they promised to say nothing of his weakness, and not to let the past stand in his way if he would redeem himself.

Then fortifying his nerves carefully with morphia he went home and broached the project to his wife and Mildred, plausibly advancing the idea that the change might restore his failing health. To his relief they did not oppose his scheme, for indeed they felt that something must be done speedily to arrest his decline; and although the separation would be hard for the wife to endure, and would become a source of increased anxiety for a time, it was much better than seeing him fail so steadily before her eyes. His plan promised improvement in their fortunes and cure of the mysterious disease that was slowly sapping his life. Therefore she tearfully consented that he should go, and if the way opened favorably it was decided that the family should follow him.

The only question now was to raise the money required; and to accomplish this they sold the household effects still in storage, and Mildred, without a word, disposed of the most of her jewelry and brought the proceeds to her father; for the gold and gems worn in days that accorded with their lustre were as nothing to her compared with her father's life and health.

"I would turn my blood into gold if I could, father," she said, with swimming eyes, "if it would only make you well and strong as you once were."

The man's hand so trembled that he could scarcely receive the money. When by himself he groaned, "Oh, how awful and deep will be the curse of God if I turn this money against her by using it for the damnedest poison the devil ever brewed!" and he wrapped it up separately with a shudder.

A few days later, with many tears and clinging embraces, they parted with him, his wife whispering in his ear at the last moment, "Martin, my every breath will be a prayer for your safety and health."

Under the influence of the powerful emotions inspired by this last interview he threw his hypodermic syringe and morphia bottle overboard from the deck of the steamer, saying, with a desperate resolution which only an opium slave could understand, "I'll break the habit for one week if I die for it," and he sailed away into what seemed a region of unimaginable horrors, dying ten thousand deaths in the indescribable anguish of his mind and body. The winter storm that soon overtook the ship was magnified by his disordered intellect until its uproar was appalling in the last degree. The people on the vessel thought him demented, and for a few days the captain kept him under a continuous guard, and considerately suppressed the cause of his behavior, that was soon revealed by requests for opium that were sometimes pitiful pleadings and again irritable demands. He soon passed into a condition approaching collapse, vomiting incessantly, and insane in his wild restlessness. Indeed he might have died had not the captain, in much doubt and anxiety, administered doses of laudanum which, in his inexperience, were appalling in their amount.

At last, more dead than alive, with racking pains, shiverings and exhaustion from prolonged insomnia, he was taken ashore in a Southern city and a physician summoned, who, with a promptness characteristic of the profession, administered a preparation of morphia, and the old fatal spell was renewed at once. The vitiated system that for days had been largely deprived of its support seized upon the drug again with a craving as irresistible as the downward rush of a torrent. The man could no more control his appetite than he could an Atlantic tide. It overwhelmed his enervated will at once, and now that morphine could be obtained he would have it at any and every cost. Of course he seemingly improved rapidly under its influence, and cunningly disguising his condition from the physician, soon dismissed him and resumed his old habits. He felt that it was impossible to endure the horrors of total abstinence, and, now that he was no longer under the observation of his family, he again tried to satisfy his conscience by promising himself that he would gradually reduce the amount used until he could discontinue it utterly--delusive hope, that has mocked thousands like himself. If he could have gone to an asylum and surrounded his infirm will by every possible safeguard, he might have been carried through the inevitable period of horrible depression; but even then the habit had become so confirmed that his chances would have been problematical, for experience sadly proves that confirmed opium-consumers are ever in danger of a relapse.