The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow

Chapter XXIII. The Hell of Waters and the Hell of Treachery.

It is not to be supposed, however, that, with all these expedients, I was now leading a life of quite tolerable calm; on the whole, rather enviable for its ideal diversions, and free from most of those sufferings which, at its abandonment, if not before, Nature sets as her unmistakable seal of disapprobation upon the use of any unnatural stimulus. If, from a human distaste of dwelling too long upon the horrible, I have been led to speak so lightly of the facts of this part of my experience that any man may think the returning way of ascent an easy one, and dare the downward road of ingress, I would repair the fault with whatever of painfully-elaborated prophecy of wretchedness may be in my power, for through all this time I was indeed a greater sufferer than any bodily pain could possibly make me.

For many a month my nights, or whatever portion of them was given to sleep, were tormented with terrific visitations. After a time Niagara began again especially to haunt me. In every variety of dangerous posture, helpless, friendless, frequently deserted utterly of every living being, I hung suspended over the bellowing chasm, or slid down crumbling cliffs toward the treacherous pavement of ever-shifting emerald. But one consolation ever broke in upon my distress; it was that stony face, which mutely shared with me, beneath its everlasting veil, the terror of the waters. Could I but crouch beside it in my dream, one element was wanting to my utter isolation.

Yet it was not invariably for myself alone that I feared. Sometimes a tremendous ship came floating up the river without a sign of life upon its decks of man or beast. Against the current it made headway without wheels or sails, but on coming to a certain place always stood still. I soon learned to foretell what was next coming, so that I groaned in the consciousness of an infallible prophecy of evil. A shudder shook the river, as if some dire convulsion was breaking up from its measureless abysses, and then slowly did the giant vessel begin to sink, bow foremost. Slowly she settled till her fore-chains were out of sight; then came a tumultuous surging outcry of despair; the decks, the shrouds, the stays were populous with human beings, unseen until that moment of ruin, and still clinging with iron clutch to those vain supports for the life which could not last. I saw them, one by one, lapped in as the green water mounted, and with the last bubble of their dying breath the main truck disappeared, and a moment more saw the river sliding onward as before.

I have no idea how many times sleep rang changes of horror upon that dreadful dream, but often enough, indeed, to make me shudder with a speechless pang whenever water flowed or a ship drifted into the vast area of my nightly vision.

Gradually it grew the habitual tendency of my dreaming state to bring all its scenes, whether of pleasure or of pain, to a crisis through some catastrophe by water. Earlier in the state which ensued upon my abandonment of hasheesh I had been affrighted particularly by seeing men tumble down the shafts of mines, or, as I have before detailed, either dreading or suffering some fall into abysses on my own part; yet now, upon whatever journey I set out, to cross the Atlantic or to travel inland, sooner or later I inevitably came to an end by drowning, or in the imminent peril of it. It seemed singular to me, in the waking state, that I never made use of past experience, during terrific dreams, to assure myself that a certain danger was only imaginary. Before abandoning hasheesh, in natural dreams I had frequently employed the power of logical deduction — which, in the case of many persons, remains tolerably active during sleep — saying to myself, “You were frightened by this same danger before, and it turned out to be only ideal after all;” upon which I immediately awoke, or beheld the danger pass away.

Aware of this fact, I often determined, in the daytime, to rouse myself from the distresses of the night by the same expedient, but when they came it was never once thought of. That law of hasheesh operation by which all existence is merged in the present, and there is no memory of having ever lived in a previous state, was most consistently obeyed by the sleeping horrors of abandonment. There was no way so much as conjectured by which the spell of reality might be broken, and the determination of the day being thoroughly ignored, the only remedy was to endure unto the end.

Yet there was one most agonizing vision, whose close proved an exception to the ordinary watery catastrophe, and which stamped itself upon my mind with a vividness lingering, even while I was awake, for many days. It also, like so many of the rest, was connected with Niagara.

On a cliff below the Fall, elevated to a height above the water such as only hasheesh can give, I found myself seated upon a broad flat stone.

Beside me, and resting her hand upon my own, sat a person whom I well knew, when awake, as a queenly woman of the world, who caressed society and was caressed by it in return. So far as man has a right to weigh his neighbor in the scales of private judgment, she was utterly hollow, selfish, and politic almost for policy’s sake. Indeed, I felt this, when awake, acting so powerfully as a repulsion, that had I, in actual life, found her so near me, I should have arisen and walked away for fear of showing her my true dislike. Now, however, I did not stir, for a singular fascination held me.

Presently she spoke, and called my attention to some object which was going down the river. I turned to look, but almost immediately heard a grinding sound beneath me, and felt the stone on which I sat slowly sliding toward the edge of the cliff. Facing about in an instant, I saw the woman gazing earnestly in another direction. Soon again she called me to look at some appearance in the river. Strangely reckless, I obeyed her. The stone slipped forward once more. This time I turned quick enough to detect her hand just moving away from the side. I sprang up; I caught her by the arm; I glared into her beautiful icy eyes; I cried out, “Woman! accursed woman! is this your faith?” Now, casting off all disguise, she gave a hollow laugh, and spoke: “Faith! do you look for faith in hell? I would have cast you to the fishes.” My eyes were opened. She said truly. We were indeed in hell, and I had not known it until now. Wearing the same features, with the demoniac instead of the human soul speaking through them — wandering about the same earth, yet aware of no presence but demons like ourselves — lit by the same sky, but hope spoke down from it no more.

I left the she-fiend by the river-brink, and met another as well known to me in the former life. Blandly she wound to my side as if she would entrap me, thinking that I was a new-comer into hell. Knowing her treachery, as if to embrace her I caught her in my arms, and, knitting them about her, strove to crush her out of being. With a look of awful malignity, she loosed one hand, and, tearing open her bosom, disclosed her heart, hissing hot, and pressed it upon my own. “The seal of love I bear thee, my chosen fiend!” she cried. Beneath that flaming signet my heart caught fire; I dashed her away, and then, thank God, awoke.

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