The Hollow of the Three Hills 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
successsor 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
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
tearful, 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
woe, 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 flames 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
"Couldst thou have thought there were such merry times in a
madhouse?" 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 woe 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.