ONE SEPTEMBER NIGHT a family had gathered round their hearth, and piled it high
with the driftwood of mountain streams, the dry cones of the pine, and the splintered
ruins of great trees that had come crashing down the precipice. Up the chimney roared
the fire, and brightened the room with its broad blaze. The faces of the father and
mother had a sober gladness; the children laughed; the eldest daughter was the image of
Happiness at seventeen; and the aged grandmother, who sat knitting in the warmest
place, was the image of Happiness grown old. They had found the "herb, heart's-ease,"
in the bleakest spot of all New England. This family were situated in the Notch of the
White Hills, where the wind was sharp throughout the year, and pitilessly cold in the
winter--giving their cottage all its fresh inclemency before it descended on the valley of
the Saco. They dwelt in a cold spot and a dangerous one; for a mountain towered
above their heads, so steep, that the stones would often rumble down its sides and
startle them at midnight.
The daughter had just uttered some simple jest that filled them all with mirth, when the
wind came through the Notch and seemed to pause before their cottage--rattling the
door, with a sound of wailing and lamentation, before it passed into the valley. For a
moment it saddened them, though there was nothing unusual in the tones. But the family
were glad again when they perceived that the latch was lifted by some traveller, whose
footsteps had been unheard amid the dreary blast which heralded his approach, and
wailed as he was entering, and went moaning away from the door.
Though they dwelt in such a solitude, these people held daily converse with the world.
The romantic pass of the Notch is a great artery, through which the life-blood of internal
commerce is continually throbbing between Maine, on one side, and the Green
Mountains and the shores of the St. Lawrence, on the other. The stage-coach always
drew up before the door of the cottage. The way-farer, with no companion but his staff,
paused here to exchange a word, that the sense of loneliness might not utterly overcome
him ere he could pass through the cleft of the mountain, or reach the first house in the
valley. And here the teamster, on his way to Portland market, would put up for the
night; and, if a bachelor, might sit an hour beyond the usual bedtime, and steal a kiss
from the mountain maid at parting. It was one of those primitive taverns where the
traveller pays only for food and lodging, but meets with a homely kindness beyond all
price. When the footsteps were heard, therefore, between the outer door and the inner
one, the whole family rose up, grandmother, children, and all, as if about to welcome
someone who belonged to them, and whose fate was linked with theirs.
The door was opened by a young man. His face at first wore the melancholy
expression, almost despondency, of one who travels a wild and bleak road, at nightfall
and alone, but soon brightened up when he saw the kindly warmth of his reception. He
felt his heart spring forward to meet them all, from the old woman, who wiped a chair
with her apron, to the little child that held out its arms to him. One glance and smile
placed the stranger on a footing of innocent familiarity with the eldest daughter.
"Ah, this fire is the right thing!" cried he; "especially when there is such a pleasant circle
round it. I am quite benumbed; for the Notch is just like the pipe of a great pair of
bellows; it has blown a terrible blast in my face all the way from Bartlett."
"Then you are going towards Vermont?" said the master of the house, as he helped to
take a light knapsack off the young man's shoulders.
"Yes; to Burlington, and far enough beyond," replied he. "I meant to have been at Ethan
Crawford's tonight; but a pedestrian lingers along such a road as this. It is no matter;
for, when I saw this good fire, and all your cheerful faces, I felt as if you had kindled it
on purpose for me, and were waiting my arrival. So I shall sit down among you, and
make myself at home."
The frank-hearted stranger had just drawn his chair to the fire when something like a
heavy footstep was heard without, rushing down the steep side of the mountain, as with
long and rapid strides, and taking such a leap in passing the cottage as to strike the
opposite precipice. The family held their breath, because they knew the sound, and their
guest held his by instinct.
"The old mountain has thrown a stone at us, for fear we should forget him," said the
landlord, recovering himself. "He sometimes nods his head and threatens to come down;
but we are old neighbors, and agree together pretty well upon the whole. Besides we
have a sure place of refuge hard by if he should be coming in good earnest."
Let us now suppose the stranger to have finished his supper of bear's meat; and, by his
natural felicity of manner, to have placed himself on a footing of kindness with the whole
family, so that they talked as freely together as if he belonged to their mountain brood.
He was of a proud, yet gentle spirit--haughty and reserved among the rich and great;
but ever ready to stoop his head to the lowly cottage door, and be like a brother or a
son at the poor man's fireside. In the household of the Notch he found warmth and
simplicity of feeling, the pervading intelligence of New England, and a poetry of native
growth, which they had gathered when they little thought of it from the mountain peaks
and chasms, and at the very threshold of their romantic and dangerous abode. He had
travelled far and alone; his whole life, indeed, had been a solitary path; for, with the lofty
caution of his nature, he had kept himself apart from those who might otherwise have
been his companions. The family, too, though so kind and hospitable, had that
consciousness of unity among themselves, and separation from the world at large,
which, in every domestic circle, should still keep a holy place where no stranger may
intrude. But this evening a prophetic sympathy impelled the refined and educated youth
to pour out his heart before the simple mountaineers, and constrained them to answer
him with the same free confidence. And thus it should have been. Is not the kindred of a
common fate a closer tie than that of birth?
The secret of the young man's character was a high and abstracted ambition. He could
have borne to live an undistinguished life, but not to be forgotten in the grave. Yearning
desire had been transformed to hope; and hope, long cherished, had become like
certainty, that, obscurely as he journeyed now, a glory was to beam on all his pathway-
though not, perhaps, while he was treading it. But when posterity should gaze back into
the gloom of what was now the present, they would trace the brightness of his
footsteps, brightening as meaner glories faded, and confess that a gifted one had passed
from his cradle to his tomb with none to recognize him.
"As yet," cried the stranger--his cheek glowing and his eye flashing with enthusiasm--"as
yet, I have done nothing. Were I to vanish from the earth tomorrow, none would know
so much of me as you: that a nameless youth came up at nightfall from the valley of the
Saco, and opened his heart to you in the evening, and passed through the Notch by
sunrise, and was seen no more. Not a soul would ask, 'Who was he? Whither did the
wanderer go?' But I cannot die till I have achieved my destiny. Then, let Death come! I
shall have built my monument!"
There was a continual flow of natural emotion, gushing forth amid abstracted reverie,
which enabled the family to understand this young man's sentiments, though so foreign
from their own. With quick sensibility of the ludicrous, he blushed at the ardor into
which he had been betrayed.
"You laugh at me," said he, taking the eldest daughter's hand, and laughing himself. "You
think my ambition as nonsensical as if I were to freeze myself to death on the top of
Mount Washington, only that people might spy at me from the country round about.
And, truly, that would be a noble pedestal for a man's statue!"
"It is better to sit here by this fire," answered the girl, blushing, "and be comfortable and
contented, though nobody thinks about us."
"I suppose," said her father, after a fit of musing, "there is something natural in what the
young man says; and if my mind had been turned that way, I might have felt just the
same. It is strange, wife, how his talk has set my head running on things that are pretty
certain never to come to pass."
"Perhaps they may," observed the wife. "Is the man thinking what he will do when he is
"No, no!" cried he, repelling the idea with reproachful kindness. "When I think of your
death, Esther, I think of mine, too. But I was wishing we had a good farm in Bartlett, or
Bethlehem, or Littleton, or some other township round the White Mountains; but not
where they could tumble on our heads. I should want to stand well with my neighbors
and be called Squire, and sent to General Court for a term or two; for a plain, honest
man may do as much good there as a lawyer. And when I should be grown quite an old
man, and you an old woman, so as not to be long apart, I might die happy enough in my
bed, and leave you all crying around me. A slate gravestone would suit me as well as a
marble one--with just my name and age, and a verse of a hymn, and something to let
people know that I lived an honest man and died a Christian."
"There now!" exclaimed the stranger; "it is our nature to desire a monument, be it slate
or marble, or a pillar of granite, or a glorious memory in the universal heart of man."
"We're in a strange way, tonight," said the wife, with tears in her eyes. "They say it's a
sign of something, when folks' minds go a-wandering so. Hark to the children!"
They listened accordingly. The younger children had been put to bed in another room,
but with an open door between, so that they could be heard talking busily among
themselves. One and all seemed to have caught the infection from the fireside circle, and
were outvying each other in wild wishes, and childish projects, of what they would do
when they came to be men and women. At length a little boy, instead of addressing his
brothers and sisters, called out to his mother.
"I'll tell you what I wish, mother," cried he. "I want you and father and grandma'm, and
all of us, and the stranger too, to start right away, and go and take a drink out of the
basin of the Flume!"
Nobody could help laughing at the child's notion of leaving a warm bed, and dragging
them from a cheerful fire, to visit the basin of the Flume--a brook, which tumbles over
the precipice, deep within the Notch. The boy had hardly spoken when a wagon rattled
along the road, and stopped a moment before the door. It appeared to contain two or
three men, who were cheering their hearts with the rough chorus of a song, which
resounded, in broken notes, between the cliffs, while the singers hesitated whether to
continue their journey or put up here for the night.
"Father," said the girl, "they are calling you by name."
But the good man doubted whether they had really called him, and was unwilling to
show himself too solicitous of gain by inviting people to patronize his house. He
therefore did not hurry to the door; and the lash being soon applied, the travellers
plunged into the Notch, still singing and laughing, though their music and mirth came
back drearily from the heart of the mountain.
"There, mother!" cried the boy, again. "They'd have given us a ride to the Flume."
Again they laughed at the child's pertinacious fancy for a night ramble. But it happened
that a light cloud passed over the daughter's spirit; she looked gravely into the fire, and
drew a breath that was almost a sigh. It forced its way, in spite of a little struggle to
repress it. Then starting and blushing, she looked quickly round the circle, as if they had
caught a glimpse into her bosom. The stranger asked what she had been thinking of.
"Nothing," answered she, with a downcast smile. "Only I felt lonesome just then."
"Oh, I have always had a gift of feeling what is in other people's hearts," said he, half
seriously. "Shall I tell the secrets of yours? For I know what to think when a young girl
shivers by a warm hearth, and complains of lonesomeness at her mother's side. Shall I
put these feelings into words?"
"They would not be a girl's feelings any longer if they could be put into words," replied
the mountain nymph, laughing, but avoiding his eye.
All this was said apart. Perhaps a germ of love was springing in their hearts, so pure that
it might blossom in Paradise, since it could not be matured on earth; for women worship
such gentle dignity as his; and the proud, contemplative, yet kindly soul is oftenest
captivated by simplicity like hers. But while they spoke softly, and he was watching the
happy sadness, the lightsome shadows, the shy yearnings of a maiden's nature, the wind
through the Notch took a deeper and drearier sound. It seemed, as the fanciful stranger
said, like the choral strain of the spirits of the blast, who in old Indian times had their
dwelling among these mountains, and made their heights and recesses a sacred region.
There was a wail along the road, as if a funeral were passing. To chase away the gloom,
the family threw pine branches on their fire, till the dry leaves crackled and the flame
arose, discovering once again a scene of peace and humble happiness. The light
hovered about them fondly, and caressed them all. There were the little faces of the
children, peeping from their bed apart, and here the father's frame of strength, the
mother's subdued and careful mien, the high-browed youth, the budding girl, and the
good old grandam, still knitting in the warmest place. The aged woman looked up from
her task, and, with fingers ever busy, was the next to speak.
"Old folks have their notions," said she, "as well as young ones. You've been wishing
and planning; and letting your heads run on one thing and another, till you've set my
mind a-wandering too. Now what should an old woman wish for, when she can go but
a step or two before she comes to her grave? Children, it will haunt me night and day till
I tell you."
"What is it, mother?" cried the husband and wife at once.
Then the old woman, with an air of mystery which drew the circle closer round the fire,
informed them that she had provided her grave-clothes some years before--a nice linen
shroud, a cap with a muslin ruff, and everything of a finer sort than she had worn since
her wedding day. But this evening an old superstition had strangely recurred to her. It
used to be said, in her younger days, that if anything were amiss with a corpse, if only
the ruff were not smooth, or the cap did not set right, the corpse in the coffin and
beneath the clods would strive to put up its cold hands and arrange it. The bare thought
made her nervous.
"Don't talk so, grandmother!" said the girl, shuddering.
"Now," continued the old woman, with singular earnestness, yet smiling strangely at her
own folly, "I want one of you, my children- when your mother is dressed and in the
coffin--I want one of you to hold a looking-glass over my face. Who knows but I may
take a glimpse at myself, and see whether all's right?"
"Old and young, we dream of graves and monuments," murmured the stranger youth. "I
wonder how mariners feel when the ship is sinking, and they, unknown and
undistinguished, are to be buried together in the ocean--that wide and nameless
For a moment, the old woman's ghastly conception so engrossed the minds of her
hearers that a sound abroad in the night, rising like the roar of a blast, had grown broad,
deep, and terrible, before the fated group were conscious of it. The house and all within
it trembled; the foundations of the earth seemed to be shaken, as if this awful sound
were the peal of the last trump. Young and old exchanged one wild glance, and
remained an instant, pale, affrighted, without utterance, or power to move. Then the
same shriek burst simultaneously from all their lips.
"The Slide! The Slide!"
The simplest words must intimate, but not portray, the unutterable horror of the
catastrophe. The victims rushed from their cottage, and sought refuge in what they
deemed a safer spot--where, in contemplation of such an emergency, a sort of barrier
had been reared. Alas! they had quitted their security, and fled right into the pathway of
destruction. Down came the whole side of the mountain, in a cataract of ruin. Just
before it reached the house, the stream broke into two branches--shivered not a
window there, but overwhelmed the whole vicinity, blocked up the road, and annihilated
everything in its dreadful course. Long ere the thunder of the great Slide had ceased to
roar among the mountains, the mortal agony had been endured, and the victims were at
peace. Their bodies were never found.
The next morning, the light smoke was seen stealing from the cottage chimney up the
mountain side. Within, the fire was yet smouldering on the hearth, and the chairs in a
circle round it, as if the inhabitants had but gone forth to view the devastation of the
Slide, and would shortly return, to thank Heaven for their miraculous escape. All had
left separate tokens, by which those who had known the family were made to shed a
tear for each. Who has not heard their name? The story has been told far and wide, and
will forever be a legend of these mountains. Poets have sung their fate.
There were circumstances which led some to suppose that a stranger had been received
into the cottage on this awful night, and had shared the catastrophe of all its inmates.
Others denied that there were sufficient grounds for such a conjecture. Wo for the
high-souled youth, with his dream of Earthly Immortality! His name and person utterly
unknown; his history, his way of life, his plans, a mystery never to be solved, his death
and his existence equally a doubt! Whose was the agony of that death moment?
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