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    The Haunted Mind

    by Nathaniel Hawthorne
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    • Average Rating: 4.3 out of 5 based on 3 ratings
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    From "Twice Told Tales"



    What a singular moment is the first one, when you have hardly begun to
    recollect yourself after starting from midnight slumber! By unclosing
    your eyes so suddenly, you seem to have surprised the personages of
    your dream in full convocation round your bed, and catch one broad
    glance at them before they can flit into obscurity. Or, to vary the
    metaphor, you find yourself, for a single instant, wide awake in that
    realm of illusions, whither sleep has been the passport, and behold
    its ghostly inhabitants and wondrous scenery, with a perception of
    their strangeness, such as you never attain while the dream is
    undisturbed. The distant sound of a church-clock is borne faintly on
    the wind. You question with yourself, half seriously, whether it has
    stolen to your waking ear from some gray tower, that stood within the
    precincts of your dream. While yet in suspense, another clock flings
    its heavy clang over the slumbering town, with so full and distinct a
    sound, and such a long murmur in the neighboring air, that you are
    certain it must proceed from the steeple at the nearest corner. You
    count the strokes--one--two, and there they cease, with a booming
    sound, like the gathering of a third stroke within the bell.

    If you could choose an hour of wakefulness out of the whole night, it
    would be this. Since your sober bedtime, at eleven, you have had rest
    enough to take off the pressure of yesterday's fatigue; while before
    you, till the sun comes from "far Cathay" to brighten your window,
    there is almost the space of a summer night; one hour to be spent in
    thought, with the mind's eye half shut, and two in pleasant dreams,
    and two in that strangest of enjoyments, the forgetfulness alike of
    joy and woe. The moment of rising belongs to another period of time,
    and appears so distant, that the plunge out of a warm bed into the
    frosty air cannot yet be anticipated with dismay. Yesterday has
    already vanished among the shadows of the past; to-morrow has not yet
    emerged from the future. You have found an intermediate space, where
    the business of life does not intrude; where the passing moment
    lingers, and becomes truly the present; a spot where Father Time, when
    he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the wayside to take
    breath. O that he would fall asleep, and let mortals live on without
    growing older!

    Hitherto you have lain perfectly still, because the slightest motion
    would dissipate the fragments of your slumber. Now, being irrevocably
    awake, you peep through the half-drawn window-curtain, and observe
    that the glass is ornamented with fanciful devices in frostwork, and
    that each pane presents something like a frozen dream. There will be
    time enough to trace out the analogy, while waiting the summons to
    breakfast. Seen through the clear portion of the glass, where the
    silvery mountain-peaks of the frost scenery do not ascend, the most
    conspicuous object is the steeple, the white spire of which directs
    you to the wintry lustre of the firmament. You may almost distinguish
    the figures on the clock that has just told the hour. Such a frosty
    sky, and the snow-covered roofs, and the long vista of the frozen
    street, all white, and the distant water hardened into rock, might
    make you shiver, even under four blankets and a woollen comforter.
    Yet look at that one glorious star! Its beams are distinguishable
    from all the rest, and actually cast the shadow of the casement on the
    bed, with a radiance of deeper hue than moonlight, though not so
    accurate an outline.

    You sink down and muffle your head in the clothes, shivering all the
    while, but less from bodily chill than the bare idea of a polar
    atmosphere. It is too cold even for the thoughts to venture abroad.
    You speculate on the luxury of wearing out a whole existence in bed,
    like an oyster in its shell, content with the sluggish ecstasy of
    inaction, and drowsily conscious of nothing but delicious warmth, such
    as you now feel again. Ah! that idea has brought a hideous one in its
    train. You think how the dead are lying in their cold shrouds and
    narrow coffins, through the drear winter of the grave, and cannot
    persuade your fancy that they neither shrink nor shiver, when the snow
    is drifting over their little hillocks, and the bitter blast howls
    against the door of the tomb. That gloomy thought will collect a
    gloomy multitude, and throw its complexion over your wakeful hour.

    In the depths of every heart there is a tomb and a dungeon, though the
    lights, the music, and revelry above may cause us to forget their
    existence, and the buried ones, or prisoners whom they hide. But
    sometimes, and oftenest at midnight, these dark receptacles are flung
    wide open. In an hour like this, when the mind has a passive
    sensibility, but no active strength; when the imagination is a mirror,
    imparting vividness to all ideas, without the power of selecting or
    controlling them; then pray that your griefs may slumber, and the
    brotherhood of remorse not break their chain. It is too late! A
    funeral train comes gliding by your bed, in which Passion and Feeling
    assume bodily shape, and things of the mind become dire spectres to
    the eye. There is your earliest Sorrow, a pale young mourner, wearing
    a sister's likeness to first love, sadly beautiful, with a hallowed
    sweetness in her melancholy features, and grace in the flow of her
    sable robe. Next appears a shade of ruined loveliness, with dust
    among her golden hair, and her bright garments all faded and defaced,
    stealing from your glance with drooping head, as fearful of reproach;
    she was your fondest Hope, but a delusive one; so call her
    Disappointment now. A sterner form succeeds, with a brow of wrinkles,
    a look and gesture of iron authority; there is no name for him unless
    it be Fatality, an emblem of the evil influence that rules your
    fortunes; a demon to whom you subjected yourself by some error at the
    outset of life, and were bound his slave forever, by once obeying him.
    See! those fiendish lineaments graven on the darkness, the writhed lip
    of scorn, the mockery of that living eye, the pointed finger, touching
    the sore place in your heart! Do you remember any act of enormous
    folly, at which you would blush, even in the remotest cavern of the
    earth? Then recognize your Shame.

    Pass, wretched band! Well for the wakeful one, if, riotously
    miserable, a fiercer tribe do not surround him, the devils of a guilty
    heart, that holds its hell within itself. What if Remorse should
    assume the features of an injured friend? What if the fiend should
    come in woman's garments, with a pale beauty amid sin and desolation,
    and lie down by your side? What if he should stand at your bed's
    foot, in the likeness of a corpse, with a bloody stain upon the
    shroud? Sufficient without such guilt is this nightmare of the soul;
    this heavy, heavy sinking of the spirits; this wintry gloom about the
    heart; this indistinct horror of the mind, blending itself with the
    darkness of the chamber.

    By a desperate effort, you start upright, breaking from a sort of
    conscious sleep, and gazing wildly round the bed, as if the fiends
    were anywhere but in your haunted mind. At the same moment, the
    slumbering embers on the hearth send forth a gleam which palely
    illuminates the whole outer room, and flickers through the door of the
    bedchamber, but cannot quite dispel its obscurity. Your eye searches
    for whatever may remind you of the living world. With eager
    minuteness, you take note of the table near the fireplace, the book
    with an ivory knife between its leaves, the unfolded letter, the hat,
    and the fallen glove. Soon the flame vanishes, and with it the whole
    scene is gone, though its image remains an instant in your mind's eye,
    when darkness has swallowed the reality. Throughout the chamber,
    there is the same obscurity as before, but not the same gloom within
    your breast. As your head falls back upon the pillow, you think--in a
    whisper be it spoken--how pleasant in these night solitudes would be
    the rise and fall of a softer breathing than your own, the slight
    pressure of a tenderer bosom, the quiet throb of a purer heart,
    imparting its peacefulness to your troubled one, as if the fond
    sleeper were involving you in her dream.

    Her influence is over you, though she have no existence but in that
    momentary image. You sink down in a flowery spot, on the borders of
    sleep and wakefulness, while your thoughts rise before you in
    pictures, all disconnected, yet all assimilated by a pervading
    gladsomeness and beauty. The wheeling of gorgeous squadrons, that
    glitter in the sun, is succeeded by the merriment of children round
    the door of a school-house, beneath the glimmering shadow of old
    trees, at the corner of a rustic lane. You stand in the sunny rain of
    a summer shower, and wander among the sunny trees of an autumnal wood,
    and look upward at the brightest of all rainbows, overarching the
    unbroken sheet of snow, on the American side of Niagara. Your mind
    struggles pleasantly between the dancing radiance round the hearth of
    a young man and his recent bride, and the twittering flight of birds
    in spring, about their new-made nest. You feel the merry bounding of
    a ship before the breeze; and watch the tuneful feet of rosy girls, as
    they twine their last and merriest dance in a splendid ballroom; and
    find yourself in the brilliant circle of a crowded theatre, as the
    curtain falls over a light and airy scene.

    With an involuntary start, you seize hold on consciousness, and prove
    yourself but half awake, by running a doubtful parallel between human
    life and the hour which has now elapsed. In both you emerge from
    mystery, pass through a vicissitude that you can but imperfectly
    control, and are borne onward to another mystery. Now comes the peal
    of the distant clock, with fainter and fainter strokes as you plunge
    further into the wilderness of sleep. It is the knell of a temporary
    death. Your spirit has departed, and strays like a free citizen,
    among the people of a shadowy world, beholding strange sights, yet
    without wonder or dismay. So calm, perhaps, will be the final change;
    so undisturbed, as if among familiar things, the entrance of the soul
    to its Eternal home!
    If you're writing a The Haunted Mind essay and need some advice, post your Nathaniel Hawthorne essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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