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Title: An Old Woman's Tale - (From: "The Doliver Romance and Other Pieces: Tales and Sketches")
Author: Hawthorne, Nathaniel
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "An Old Woman's Tale - (From: "The Doliver Romance and Other Pieces: Tales and Sketches")" ***

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                 THE DOLIVER ROMANCE AND OTHER PIECES

                         TALES AND SKETCHES

                       By Nathaniel Hawthorne


                         AN OLD WOMAN’S TALE



In the house where I was born, there used to be an old woman crouching
all day long over the kitchen fire, with her elbows on her knees and her
feet in the ashes.  Once in a while she took a turn at the spit, and she
never lacked a coarse gray stocking in her lap, the foot about half
finished; it tapered away with her own waning life, and she knit the
toe-stitch on the day of her death.  She made it her serious business
and sole amusement to tell me stories at any time from morning till
night, in a mumbling, toothless voice, as I sat on a log of wood,
grasping her check-apron in both my hands.  Her personal memory included
the better part of a hundred years, and she had strangely jumbled her
own experience and observation with those of many old people who died in
her young days; so that she might have been taken for a contemporary of
Queen Elizabeth, or of John Rogers in the Primer.  There are a thousand
of her traditions lurking in the corners and by-places of my mind, some
more marvellous than what is to follow, some less so, and a few not
marvellous in the least, all of which I should like to repeat, if I were
as happy as she in having a listener.  But I am humble enough to own,
that I do not deserve a listener half so well as that old toothless
woman, whose narratives possessed an excellence attributable neither to
herself, nor to any single individual.  Her ground-plots, seldom within
the widest scope of probability, were filled up with homely and natural
incidents, the gradual accretions of a long course of years, and fiction
hid its grotesque extravagance in this garb of truth, like the Devil (an
appropriate simile, for the old woman supplies it) disguising himself,
cloven-foot and all, in mortal attire.  These tales generally referred
to her birthplace, a village in the valley of the Connecticut, the
aspect of which she impressed with great vividness on my fancy.  The
houses in that tract of country, long a wild and dangerous frontier,
were rendered defensible by a strength of architecture that has
preserved many of them till our own times, and I cannot describe the
sort of pleasure with which, two summers since, I rode through the
little town in question, while one object after another rose familiarly
to my eye, like successive portions of a dream becoming realized.  Among
other things equally probable, she was wont to assert that all the
inhabitants of this village (at certain intervals, but whether of
twenty-five or fifty years, or a whole century, remained a disputable
point) were subject to a simultaneous slumber, continuing one hour’s
space.  When that mysterious time arrived, the parson snored over his
half-written sermon, though it were Saturday night and no provision made
for the morrow,--the mother’s eyelids closed as she bent over her
infant, and no childish cry awakened,--the watcher at the bed of mortal
sickness slumbered upon the death-pillow, and the dying man anticipated
his sleep of ages by one as deep and dreamless.  To speak emphatically,
there was a soporific influence throughout the village, stronger than if
every mother’s son and daughter were reading a dull story;
notwithstanding which the old woman professed to hold the substance of
the ensuing account from one of those principally concerned in it.

One moonlight summer evening, a young man and a girl sat down together
in the open air.  They were distant relatives, sprung from a stock once
wealthy, but of late years so poverty-stricken, that David had not a
penny to pay the marriage fee, if Esther should consent to wed.  The
seat they had chosen was in an open grove of elm and walnut trees, at a
right angle of the road; a spring of diamond water just bubbled into the
moonlight beside them, and then whimpered away through the bushes and
long grass, in search of a neighboring millstream.  The nearest house
(situate within twenty yards of them, and the residence of their
great-grandfather in his lifetime) was a venerable old edifice, crowned
with many high and narrow peaks, all overrun by innumerable creeping
plants, which hung curling about the roof like a nice young wig on an
elderly gentleman’s head.  Opposite to this establishment was a tavern,
with a well and horse-trough before it, and a low green bank running along
the left side of the door.  Thence, the road went onward, curving scarce
perceptibly, through the village, divided in the midst by a narrow
lane of verdure, and bounded on each side by a grassy strip of twice its
own breadth.  The houses had generally an odd look.  Here, the moonlight
tried to get a glimpse of one, a rough old heap of ponderous timber,
which, ashamed of its dilapidated aspect, was hiding behind a great
thick tree; the lower story of the next had sunk almost under ground, as
if the poor little house were a-weary of the world, and retiring into
the seclusion of its own cellar; farther on stood one of the few recent
structures, thrusting its painted face conspicuously into the street,
with an evident idea that it was the fairest thing there.  About midway
in the village was a grist-mill, partly concealed by the descent of the
ground towards the stream which turned its wheel.  At the southern
extremity, just so far distant that the window-paces dazzled into each
other, rose the meeting-house, a dingy old barn-like building, with an
enormously disproportioned steeple sticking up straight into heaven, as
high as the Tower of Babel, and the cause of nearly as much confusion in
its day.  This steeple, it must be understood, was an afterthought, and
its addition to the main edifice, when the latter had already begun to
decay, had excited a vehement quarrel, and almost a schism in the
church, some fifty years before.  Here the road wound down a hill and
was seen no more, the remotest object in view being the graveyard gate,
beyond the meetinghouse.  The youthful pair sat hand in hand beneath the
trees, and for several moments they had not spoken, because the breeze
was hushed, the brook scarce tinkled, the leaves had ceased their
rustling, and everything lay motionless and silent as if Nature were
composing herself to slumber.

“What a beautiful night it is, Esther!” remarked David, somewhat
drowsily.

“Very beautiful,” answered the girl, in the same tone.

“But how still!” continued David.

“Ah, too still!”  said Esther, with a faint shudder, like a modest leaf
when the wind kisses it.

Perhaps they fell asleep together, and, united as their spirits were by
close and tender sympathies, the same strange dream might have wrapped
them in its shadowy arms.  But they conceived, at the time, that they
still remained wakeful by the spring of bubbling water, looking down
through the village, and all along the moonlighted road, and at the
queer old houses, and at the trees which thrust their great twisted
branches almost into the windows.  There was only a sort of mistiness
over their minds like the smoky air of an early autumn night.  At
length, without any vivid astonishment, they became conscious that a
great many people were either entering the village or already in the
street, but whether they came from the meeting-house, or from a little
beyond it, or where the devil they came from, was more than could be
determined.  Certainly, a crowd of people seemed to be there, men,
women, and children, all of whom were yawning and rubbing their eyes,
stretching their limbs, and staggering from side to side of the road, as
if but partially awakened from a sound slumber.  Sometimes they stood
stock-still, with their hands over their brows to shade their sight from
the moonbeams.  As they drew near, most of their countenances appeared
familiar to Esther and David, possessing the peculiar features of
families in the village, and that general air and aspect by which a
person would recognize his own townsmen in the remotest ends of the
earth.  But though the whole multitude might have been taken, in the
mass, for neighbors and acquaintances, there was not a single individual
whose exact likeness they had ever before seen.  It was a noticeable
circumstance, also, that the newest fashioned garment on the backs of
these people might have been worn by the great-grandparents of the
existing generation.  There was one figure behind all the rest, and not
yet near enough to be perfectly distinguished.

“Where on earth, David, do all these odd people come from?” said Esther,
with a lazy inclination to laugh.

“Nowhere on earth, Esther,” replied David, unknowing why he said so.

As they spoke, the strangers showed some symptoms of disquietude, and
looked towards the fountain for an instant, but immediately appeared to
assume their own trains of thought and previous purposes.  They now
separated to different parts of the village, with a readiness that
implied intimate local knowledge, and it may be worthy of remark, that,
though they were evidently loquacious among themselves, neither their
footsteps nor their voices reached the ears of the beholders.  Wherever
there was a venerable old house, of fifty years’ standing and upwards,
surrounded by its elm or walnut trees, with its dark and weather-beaten
barn, its well, its orchard and stone-walls, all ancient and all in good
repair around it, there a little group of these people assembled.  Such
parties were mostly composed of an aged man and woman, with the younger
members of a family; their faces were full of joy, so deep that it
assumed the shade of melancholy; they pointed to each other the minutest
objects about the homesteads, things in their hearts, and were now
comparing them with the originals.  But where hollow places by the
wayside, grass-grown and uneven, with unsightly chimneys rising ruinous
in the midst, gave indications of a fallen dwelling and of hearths long
cold, there did a few of the strangers sit them down on the mouldering
beams, and on the yellow moss that had overspread the door-stone.  The
men folded their arms, sad and speechless; the women wrung their hands
with a more vivid expression of grief; and the little children tottered
to their knees, shrinking away from the open grave of domestic love.
And wherever a recent edifice reared its white and flashy front on the
foundation of an old one, there a gray-haired man might be seen to shake
his staff in anger at it, while his aged dame and their offspring
appeared to join in their maledictions, forming a fearful picture in the
ghostly moon light.  While these scenes were passing, the one figure in
the rear of all the rest was descending the hollow towards the mill, and
the eyes of David and Esther were drawn thence to a pair with whom they
could fully sympathize.  It was a youth in a sailor’s dress and a pale
slender maiden, who met each other with a sweet embrace in the middle of
the street.

“How long it must be since they parted,” observed David.

“Fifty years at least,” said Esther.

They continued to gaze with unwondering calmness and quiet interest, as
the dream (if such it were) unrolled its quaint and motley semblance
before them, and their notice was now attracted by several little knots
of people apparently engaged in conversation.  Of these one of the
earliest collected and most characteristic was near the tavern, the
persons who composed it being seated on the low green bank along the
left side of the door.  A conspicuous figure here was a fine corpulent
old fellow in his shirt-sleeves and flame-colored breeches, and with a
stained white apron over his paunch, beneath which he held his hands and
wherewith at times be wiped his ruddy face.  The stately decrepitude of
one of his companions, the scar of an Indian tomahawk on his crown, and
especially his worn buff coat, were appropriate marks of a veteran
belonging to an old Provincial garrison, now deaf to the roll-call.
Another showed his rough face under a tarry hat and wore a pair of wide
trousers, like an ancient mariner who bad tossed away his youth upon the
sea, and was returned, hoary and weather-beaten, to his inland home.
There was also a thin young man, carelessly dressed, who ever and anon
cast a sad look towards the pale maiden above mentioned.  With these
there sat a hunter, and one or two others, and they were soon joined by
a miller, who came upward from the dusty mill, his coat as white as if
besprinkled with powdered starlight.  All these (by the aid of jests,
which might indeed be old, but had not been recently repeated) waxed
very merry, and it was rather strange, that just as their sides shook
with the heartiest laughter, they appeared greatly like a group of
shadows flickering in the moonshine.  Four personages, very different
from these, stood in front of the large house with its periwig of
creeping plants.  One was a little elderly figure, distinguished by the
gold on his three-cornered bat and sky-blue coat, and by the seal of
arms annexed to his great gold watch-chain; his air and aspect befitted
a Justice of Peace and County Major, and all earth’s pride and pomposity
were squeezed into this small gentleman of five feet high.  The next in
importance was a grave person of sixty or seventy years, whose black
suit and hand sufficiently indicated his character, and the polished
baldness of whose head was worthy of a famous preacher in the village,
half a century before, who had made wigs a subject of pulpit
denunciation.  The two other figures, both clad in dark gray, showed the
sobriety of Deacons; one was ridiculously tall and thin, like a man of
ordinary bulk infinitely produced, as the mathematicians say; while the
brevity and thickness of his colleague seemed a compression of the same
man.  These four talked with great earnestness, and their gestures
intimated that they had revived the ancient dispute about the meeting-house
steeple.  The grave person in black spoke with composed solemnity,
as if he were addressing a Synod; the short deacon grunted out
occasional sentences, as brief as himself; his tall brother drew the
long thread of his argument through the whole discussion, and (reasoning
from analogy) his voice must indubitably have been small and squeaking.
But the little old man in gold-lace was evidently scorched by his own
red-hot eloquence; he bounced from one to another, shook his cane at the
steeple, at the two deacons, and almost in the parson’s face, stamping
with his foot fiercely enough to break a hole through the very earth;
though, indeed, it could not exactly be said that the green grass bent
beneath him.  The figure, noticed as coming behind all the rest, had now
surmounted the ascent from the mill, and proved to be an elderly lady
with something in her hand.

“Why does she walk so slow?” asked David.

“Don’t you see she is lame?” said Esther.

This gentlewoman, whose infirmity had kept her so far in the rear of the
crowd, now came hobbling on, glided unobserved by the polemic group, and
paused on the left brink of the fountain, within a few feet of the two
spectators.  She was a magnificent old dame, as ever mortal eye beheld.
Her spangled shoes and gold-clocked stockings shone gloriously within the
spacious circle of a red hoop-petticoat, which swelled to the very point
of explosion, and was bedecked all over with embroidery a little
tarnished.  Above the petticoat, and parting in front so as to display
it to the best advantage, was a figured blue damask gown.  A wide and
stiff ruff encircled her neck, a cap of the finest muslin, though rather
dingy, covered her head; and her nose was bestridden by a pair of
gold-bowed spectacles with enormous glasses.  But the old lady’s face was
pinched, sharp and sallow, wearing a niggardly and avaricious
expression, and forming an odd contrast to the splendor of her attire,
as did likewise the implement which she held in her hand.  It was a sort
of iron shovel (by housewives termed a “slice”), such as is used in
clearing the oven, and with this, selecting a spot between a walnut-tree
and the fountain, the good dame made an earnest attempt to dig.  The
tender sods, however, possessed a strange impenetrability.  They
resisted her efforts like a quarry of living granite, and losing her
breath, she cast down the shovel and seemed to bemoan herself most
piteously, gnashing her teeth (what few she had) and wringing her thin
yellow hands.  Then, apparently with new hope, she resumed her toil,
which still had the same result,--a circumstance the less surprising to
David and Esther, because at times they would catch the moonlight
shining through the old woman, and dancing in the fountain beyond.  The
little man in goldlace now happened to see her, and made his approach on
tiptoe.

“How hard this elderly lady works!” remarked David.

“Go and help her, David,” said Esther, compassionately.

As their drowsy void spoke, both the old woman and the pompous little
figure behind her lifted their eyes, and for a moment they regarded the
youth and damsel with something like kindness and affection; which,
however, were dim and uncertain, and passed away almost immediately.
The old woman again betook herself to the shovel, but was startled by a
hand suddenly laid upon her shoulder; she turned round in great
trepidation, and beheld the dignitary in the blue coat; then followed an
embrace of such closeness as would indicate no remoter connection than
matrimony between these two decorous persons.  The gentleman next
pointed to the shovel, appearing to inquire the purpose of his lady’s
occupation; while she as evidently parried his interrogatories,
maintaining a demure and sanctified visage as every good woman ought, in
similar cases.  Howbeit, she could not forbear looking askew, behind her
spectacles, towards the spot of stubborn turf.  All the while, their
figures had a strangeness in them, and it seemed as if some cunning
jeweller had made their golden ornaments of the yellowest of the setting
sunbeams, and that the blue of their garments was brought from the dark
sky near the moon, and that the gentleman’s silk waistcoat was the
bright side of a fiery cloud, and the lady’s scarlet petticoat a remnant
of the blush of morning,--and that they both were two unrealities of
colored air.  But now there was a sudden movement throughout the
multitude.  The Squire drew forth a watch as large as the dial on the
famous steeple, looked at the warning hands and got him gone, nor could
his lady tarry; the party at the tavern door took to their heels, headed
by the fat man in the flaming breeches; the tall deacon stalked away
immediately, and the short deacon waddled after, making four steps to
the yard; the mothers called their children about them and set forth,
with a gentle and sad glance behind.  Like cloudy fantasies that hurry
by a viewless impulse from the sky, they all were fled, and the wind
rose up and followed them with a strange moaning down the lonely street.
Now whither these people went, is more than may be told; only David and
Esther seemed to see the shadowy splendor of the ancient dame, as she
lingered in the moonshine at the graveyard gate, gazing backward to the
fountain.

“O Esther!  I have had such a dream!” cried David, starting up, and
rubbing his eyes.

“And I such another!” answered Esther, gaping till her pretty red lips
formed a circle.

“About an old woman with gold-bowed spectacles,” continued David.

“And a scarlet hoop-petticoat,” added Esther.  They now stared in each
other’s eyes, with great astonishment and some little fear.  After a
thoughtful moment or two, David drew a long breath and stood upright.

“If I live till to-morrow morning,” said he, “I’ll see what may be
buried between that tree and the spring of water.”

“And why not to-night, David?” asked Esther; for she was a sensible
little girl, and bethought herself that the matter might as well be done
in secrecy.

David felt the propriety of the remark and looked round for the means of
following her advice.  The moon shone brightly on something that rested
against the side of the old house, and, on a nearer view, it proved to
be an iron shovel, bearing a singular resemblance to that which they had
seen in their dreams.  He used it with better success than the old
woman, the soil giving way so freely to his efforts, that he had soon
scooped a hole as large as the basin of the spring.  Suddenly, he poked
his head down to the very bottom of this cavity.  “Oho!--what have we
here?” cried David.





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