by Nathaniel Hawthorne

IN THOSE STRANGE OLD TIMES, when fantastic dreams and madmen's
reveries were realized among the actual circumstances of life, two
persons met together at an appointed hour and place. One was a lady,
graceful in form and fair of feature, though pale and troubled, and
smitten with an untimely blight in what should have been the fullest
bloom of her years; the other was an ancient and meanly-dressed woman,
of ill-favored aspect, and so withered, shrunken, and decrepit, that
even the space since she began to decay must have exceeded the
ordinary term of human existence. In the spot where they
encountered, no mortal could observe them. Three little hills stood
near each other, and down in the midst of them sunk a hollow basin,
almost mathematically circular, two or three hundred feet in
breadth, and of such depth that a stately cedar might but just be
visible above the sides. Dwarf pines were numerous upon the hills, and
partly fringed the outer verge of the intermediate hollow, within
which there was nothing but the brown grass of October, and here and
there a tree trunk that had fallen long ago, and lay mouldering with
no green successor from its roots. One of these masses of decaying
wood, formerly a majestic oak, rested close beside a pool of green and
sluggish water at the bottom of the basin. Such scenes as this (so
gray tradition tells) were once the resort of the Power of Evil and
his plighted subjects; and here, at midnight or on the dim verge of
evening, they were said to stand round the mantling pool, disturbing
its putrid waters in the performance of an impious baptismal rite. The
chill beauty of an autumnal sunset was now gilding the three
hill-tops, whence a paler tint stole down their sides into the hollow.
"Here is our pleasant meeting come to pass," said the aged crone,
"according as thou hast desired. Say quickly what thou wouldst have of
me, for there is but a short hour that we may tarry here."
As the old withered woman spoke, a smile glimmered on her
countenance, like lamplight on the wall of a sepulchre. The lady
trembled, and cast her eyes upward to the verge of the basin, as if
meditating to return with her purpose unaccomplished. But it was not
so ordained.
"I am a stranger in this land, as you know," said she at length.
"Whence I come it matters not; but I have left those behind me with
whom my fate was intimately bound, and from whom I am cut off forever.
There is a weight in my bosom that I cannot away with, and I have come
hither to inquire of their welfare."
"And who is there by this green pool that can bring thee news
from the ends of the earth?" cried the old woman, peering into the
lady's face. "Not from my lips mayst thou hear these tidings; yet,
be thou bold, and the daylight shall not pass away from yonder
hill-top before thy wish be granted."
"I will do your bidding though I die," replied the lady
The old woman seated herself on the trunk of the fallen tree, threw
aside the hood that shrouded her gray locks, and beckoned her
companion to draw near.
"Kneel down," she said, and lay your forehead on my knees."
She hesitated a moment, but the anxiety that had long been kindling
burned fiercely up within her. As she knelt down, the border of her
garment was dipped into the pool; she laid her forehead on the old
woman's knees, and the latter drew a cloak about the lady's face, so
that she was in darkness. Then she heard the muttered words of prayer,
in the midst of which she started, and would have arisen.
"Let me flee- let me flee and hide myself, that they may not look
upon me!" she cried. But, with returning recollection, she hushed
herself, and was still as death.
For it seemed as if other voices- familiar in infancy, and
unforgotten through many wanderings, and in all the vicissitudes of
her heart and fortune- were mingling with the accents of the prayer.
At first the words were faint and indistinct, not rendered so by
distance, but rather resembling the dim pages of a book which we
strive to read by an imperfect and gradually brightening light. In
such a manner, as the prayer proceeded, did those voices strengthen
upon the ear; till at length the petition ended, and the
conversation of an aged man, and of a woman broken and decayed like
himself, became distinctly audible to the lady as she knelt. But those
strangers appeared not to stand in the hollow depth between the
three hills. Their voices were encompassed and reechoed by the walls
of a chamber, the windows of which were rattling in the breeze; the
regular vibration of a clock, the crackling of a fire, and the
tinkling of the embers as they fell among the ashes, rendered the
scene almost as vivid as if painted to the eye. By a melancholy hearth
sat these two old people, the man calmly despondent, the woman
querulous and tearfull and their words were all of sorrow. They
spoke of a daughter, a wanderer they knew not where, bearing
dishonor along with her, and leaving shame and affliction to bring
their gray heads to the grave. They alluded also to other and more
recent wo, but in the midst of their talk their voices seemed to
melt into the sound of the wind sweeping mournfully among the autumn
leaves; and when the lady lifted her eyes, there was she kneeling in
the hollow between three hills.
" A weary and lonesome time yonder old couple have of it," remarked
the old woman, smiling in the lady's face.
"And did you also hear them?" exclaimed she, a sense of intolerable
humiliation triumphing over her agony and fear.
"Yea; and we have yet more to hear," replied the old woman.
"Wherefore, cover thy face quickly."
Again the withered hag poured forth the monotonous words of a
prayer that was not meant to be acceptable in heaven; and soon, in the
pauses of her breath, strange murmurings began to thicken, gradually
increasing so as to drown and overpower the charm by which they
grew. Shrieks pierced through the obscurity of sound, and were
succeeded by the singing of sweet female voices, which, in their turn,
gave way to a wild roar of laughter, broken suddenly by groanings
and sobs, forming altogether a ghastly confusion of terror and
mourning and mirth. Chains were rattling, fierce and stern voices
uttered threats, and the scourge resounded at their command. All these
noises deepened and became substantial to the listener's ear, till she
could distinguish every soft and dreamy accent of the love songs
that died causelessly into funeral hymns. She shuddered at the
unprovoked wrath which blazed up like the spontaneous kindling of
flame, and she grew faint at the fearful merriment raging miserably
around her. In the midst of this wild scene, where unbound passions
jostled each other in a drunken career, there was one solemn voice
of a man, and a manly and melodious voice it might once have been.
He went to and fro continually, and his feet sounded upon the floor.
In each member of that frenzied company, whose own burning thoughts
had become their exclusive world, he sought an auditor for the story
of his individual wrong, and interpreted their laughter and tears as
his reward of scorn or pity. He spoke of woman's perfidy, of a wife
who had broken her holiest vows, of a home and heart made desolate.
Even as he went on, the shout, the laugh, the shriek, the sob, rose up
in unison, till they changed into the hollow, fitful, and uneven sound
of the wind, as it fought among the pine-trees on those three lonely
hills. The lady looked up, and there was the withered woman smiling in
her face.
"Couldst thou have thought there were such merry times in a
mad-house?" inquired the latter.
"True, true," said the lady to herself; "there is mirth within
its walls, but misery, misery without."
"Wouldst thou hear more?" demanded the old woman.
"There is one other voice I would fain listen to again," replied
the lady faintly.
"Then, lay down thy head speedily upon my knees, that thou mayst
get thee hence before the hour be past."
The golden skirts of day were yet lingering upon the hills, but
deep shades obscured the hollow and the pool, as if sombre night
were rising thence to overspread the world. Again that evil woman
began to weave her spell. Long did it proceed unanswered, till the
knolling of a bell stole in among the intervals of her words, like a
clang that had travelled far over valley and rising ground, and was
just ready to die in the air. The lady shook upon her companion's
knees as she heard that boding sound. Stronger it grew and sadder, and
deepened into the tone of a death bell, knolling dolefully from some
ivy-mantled tower, and bearing tidings of mortality and wo to the
cottage, to the hall, and to the solitary wayfarer, that all might
weep for the doom appointed in turn to them. Then came a measured
tread, passing slowly, slowly on, as of mourners with a coffin,
their garments trailing on the ground, so that the ear could measure
the length of their melancholy array. Before them went the priest,
reading the burial service, while the leaves of his book were rustling
in the breeze. And though no voice but his was heard to speak aloud,
still there were revilings and anathemas, whispered but distinct, from
women and from men, breathed against the daughter who had wrung the
aged hearts of her parents- the wife who had betrayed the trusting
fondness of her husband- the mother who had sinned against natural
affection, and left her child to die. The sweeping sound of the
funeral train faded away like a thin vapor, and the wind, that just
before had seemed to shake the coffin pall, moaned sadly round the
verge of the Hollow between three Hills. But when the old woman
stirred the kneeling lady, she lifted not her head.
"Here has been a sweet hour's sport!" said the withered crone,
chuckling to herself.



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