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The Demon of the Orient

Allen S. Williams New York:

"Published by the Author," 1883


Chapter IV. An American's Palace Joint

The fact of an American deliberately investing his money in the business of propagating a body-killing, soul-destroying vice like this one of opium smoking is sufficient to evoke a feeling of disgust, and should call down the strongest condemnation from principled individuals, as it will shortly do in all probability from the courts of justice.

The pioneer in this business was Frederick D. Hughes. He began joint keeping on a large scale in apartments adjoining the Cremorne Garden on West Thirty-second street, he being the principal of the firm who carried on the disreputable business of the former resort. He is a devoted yachtsman, having preference for catamarans, and of those craft he has owned and sailed the swiftest of the swift. Among the fiends he is considered a good fellow. To the entrance to his joint a short flight of stone steps led; there was an inner-glazed door and a long hall. The smoking-room was entered from the rear; it was an extensive apartment, presenting a rich and gorgeous interior to eyes accustomed to the gloomy dens of Chinatown. The walls were covered with heavy gilt and brown paper, with tasteful dado and frieze. At either end of the room were rich mural hangings falling from the ceiling, and from the window cornices hung handsome lambrequins and heavy curtains. Two brazen chandeliers were provided with globes of colored glass, which softened the dimly-burning lights, and rested the visual organs of the smokers, while it enhanced the aesthetic beauty of their surroundings. Costly imported carpets covered the oiled floor; they gently sank beneath the feet but returned no sound.

At the northern end of the room was a fireplace, beneath a carven, colored mantel. In the long Winter nights there glowed an anthracite coal fire, and the fuel slowly consuming seemed a not inapt simile to the physical and mental organizations of the smokers. They seemed to have no such gruesome reflections, but contented lay and gazed into its fiery recesses and imagined them to be unearthly grottoes, and conjured up a host of jolly salamanders to people them.

Reaching the length of the room on either side, and separated by a broad isle, were platforms about three feet in height. These were strewn with soft, warm and yielding Smyrna rugs. Circular inflated rubber pillows were used for the head instead of the barbarous neck-stiffening stools of Chinese origin.

In this place can, at the present writing, be found from ten to thirty habitues of a night. There lie they throughout the long dream-night of enervating intoxication. To the neophyte the toned softness of the light, the graceful abandon of the forms, negligent and lapped in lazy luxury upon their Oriental couches, the silent footsteps of the attendants as they move to and fro in the misty air, the dulcet and beautifully modulated tones in which the fiends murmur, all creep upon the mind like a vision from another world, and the imagination, reeking with the seductive fumes, yields itself up helplessly to the beatitude of the hour.

Apparently no vicious impulse, no harsh thought, no remorseful recollection, disturbs the perfect harmony of the surroundings; and the after memory of the Circean enthrallment of Emotion and Reason appalls the senses at the terrible fascination of the gulf upon whose brink the opium smoker stands.

Occasionally throughout the night demands are made for beverages either harmless or intoxicating. Seltzer lemonade appears to be a favorite with the smokers at Cremorne, but that does not preclude their indulgence in vinous spirituous or malt liquors.

The smoking habit is claimed by its infatuated serfs to nullify the "curse o'rum." If they have no desire for it they drink it just the same, perhaps through pure "cussedness."

The joint is kept open all night and a good part of the day. Some of the most vicious fiends stay there from the opening to the closing hour, and at the last feel indisposed to leave. As is well-known, it is characteristic of the habit to hate exertion of any kind.

To one under the god Opien's influence time is nil. So long as his money holds out, he will "hang out." This joint used to be kept open all the time, but its proprietor now has the consideration to close up long enough occasionally to sweep out and ventilate his palace.

As the proprietor has truly said all classes have patronized his place; when he first opened, he was, according to his own statement, overrun with Wall street brokers, who, he says, are always after a new sensation. He once said to an inquiring visitor in whom he had confidence:

"You would be astonished if I should name over some of the people of both sexes who patronize my place. I have private rooms upstairs for the high toned ones, so that they can come and go without seeing anyone but the cooks and the man at the door."

It was the night of my debut in this palace, out from which the Chinese were barred, and all there were "sovereigns in their own right"--being Americans--although their pretense of ruling themselves was a shallow and pitiable mockery. I had not smoked enough to arrive at that blissful state which cold Northern English cannot express; which warm Southern Italian comes nearer to describing with its dolce far niente, but which the kief of the Orientals comprehensively and tersely tells. It is a perfect ease of body, brain, and conscience, a carelessness for what may come. The subject knows not fear, and wants nothing. I had not reached this paradise, purchasable far from fifty cents to a dollar, however, and lazily reclined gazing at the proprietor, who was an entertaining and companionable host.

He did not look half a bad fellow, and I reflected that he must be a lover of nature, like all Corinthian sailors; by an easily followed step of thought the host's personality gave place to Henry D. Thoreau's. My pleasant reflections upon the simple life of the hermit of Walden Pond, who was among nature's most ardent lovers, were rudely interrupted by the host's voice uttering with a laugh, the following sentiment: "Well, if I have got to send souls to hell, I am going to send lots of them." And the fiends laughed too.

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