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 wayfarer, 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 some one 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
"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
"Yes; to Burlington, and far enough beyond," replied he. "I meant
to have been at Ethan Crawford's to-night; 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
"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
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
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 to-morrow, 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
"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 a widower?"
"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, to-night," 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
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
graveclothes 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 sepulchre?"
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
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. Woe 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