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
"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
"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
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
"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 face.
"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.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~