GUEST

 

1835
TWICE-TOLD TALES
THE AMBITIOUS GUEST
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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 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, 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 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 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?


THE END

 

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