SKETCHES FROM MEMORY
From "Mosses From An Old Manse"
It was now the middle of September. We had come since sunrise from
In old times the settlers used to be astounded by the inroads of the Northern Indians, coming down upon them from this mountain rampart through some defile known only to themselves. It is, indeed, a wondrous path. A demon, it might be fancied, or one of the Titans, was travelling up the valley, elbowing the heights carelessly aside as he passed, till at length a great mountain took its stand directly across his intended road. He tarries not for such an obstacle, but, rending it asunder a thousand feet from peak to base, discloses its treasures of hidden minerals, its sunless waters, all the secrets of the mountain's inmost heart, with a mighty fracture of rugged precipices on each side. This is the Notch of the White Hills. Shame on me that I have attempted to describe it by so mean an image, feeling, as I do, that it is one of those symbolic scenes which lead the mind to the sentiment, though not to the conception, of Omnipotence.
. . . . .
We had now reached a narrow passage, which showed almost the
appearance of having been cut by human strength and artifice in the solid
rock. There was a wall of granite on
each side, high and precipitous, especially on our right, and so smooth that a
few evergreens could hardly find foothold enough to grow there. This is the entrance,
or, in the direction we were going, the extremity, of the romantic defile of
the Notch. Before emerging from it, the
rattling of wheels approached behind us, and a stage-coach rumbled out of the
mountain, with seats on top and trunks behind, and a smart driver, in a drab
great-coat, touching the wheel-horses with the whip-stock and reigning in the
leaders. To my mind there was a sort of poetry in such an incident, hardly
inferior to what would have accompanied the painted array of an Indian
war-party gliding forth from the same wild chasm. All the passengers, except a very fat lady on
the back seat, had alighted. One was a
mineralogist, a scientific, green-spectacled figure in black, bearing a heavy
hammer, with which he did great damage to the precipices, and put the fragments
in his pocket. Another was a well-dressed young man, who carried an operaglass
set in gold, and seemed to be making a quotation from some of Byron's
rhapsodies on mountain scenery. There was also a trader, returning from
They disappeared, and we followed them, passing through a
deep pine forest, which for some miles allowed us to see nothing but its own
dismal shade. Towards nightfall we
reached a level amphitheatre, surrounded by a great rampart of hills, which
shut out the sunshine long before it left the external world. It was here that we obtained our first view,
except at a distance, of the principal group of mountains. They are majestic, and even awful, when
contemplated in a proper mood, yet, by their breadth of base and the long
ridges which support them, give the idea of immense bulk rather than of
The air, not often sultry in this elevated region, nearly two thousand feet above the sea, was now sharp and cold, like that of a clear November evening in the lowlands. By morning, probably, there would be a frost, if not a snowfall, on the grass and rye, and an icy surface over the standing water. I was glad to perceive a prospect of comfortable quarters in a house which we were approaching, and of pleasant company in the guests who were assembled at the door.
WE stood in front of a good substantial farm-house, of old date in that wild country. A sign over the door denoted it to be the White Mountain Post-Office,--an establishment which distributes letters and newspapers to perhaps a score of persons, comprising the population of two or three townships among the hills. The broad and weighty antlers of a deer, "a stag of ten," were fastened at the corner of the house; a fox's bushy tail was nailed beneath them; and a huge black paw lay on the ground, newly severed and still bleeding, the trophy of a bear-hunt. Among several persons collected about the doorsteps, the most remarkable was a sturdy mountaineer, of six feet two, and corresponding bulk, with a heavy set of features, such as might be moulded on his own blacksmith's anvil, but yet indicative of mother wit and rough humor. As we appeared, he uplifted a tin trumpet, four or five feet long, and blew a tremendous blast, either in honor of our arrival or to awaken an echo from the opposite hill.
Ethan Crawford's guests were of such a motley description as
to form quite a picturesque group, seldom seen together except at some place
like this, at once the pleasure-house of fashionable tourists and the homely
inn of country travellers. Among the
company at the door were the mineralogist and the owner of the gold operaglass
whom we had encountered in the Notch; two Georgian gentlemen, who had chilled
their Southern blood that morning on the top of Mount Washington; a physician
and his wife from Conway; a trader of Burlington and an old squire of the Green
Mountains; and two young married couples, all the way from Massachusetts, on
the matrimonial jaunt. Besides these
strangers, the rugged
I had joined the party, and had a moment's leisure to examine them before the echo of Ethan's blast returned from the hill. Not one, but many echoes had caught up the harsh and tuneless sound, untwisted its complicated threads, and found a thousand aerial harmonies in one stern trumpet-tone. It was a distinct yet distant and dream-like symphony of melodious instruments, as if an airy band had been hidden on the hillside and made faint music at the summons. No subsequent trial produced so clear, delicate, and spiritual a concert as the first. A field-piece was then discharged from the top of a neighboring hill, and gave birth to one long reverberation, which ran round the circle of mountains in an unbroken chain of sound and rolled away without a separate echo. After these experiments, the cold atmosphere drove us all into the house, with the keenest appetites for supper.
It did one's heart good to see the great fires that were kindled in the parlor and bar-room, especially the latter, where the fireplace was built of rough stone, and might have contained the trunk of an old tree for a backlog.
A man keeps a comfortable hearth when his own forest is at
his very door. In the parlor, when the
evening was fairly set in, we held our hands before our eyes to shield them
from the ruddy glow, and began a pleasant variety of conversation. The mineralogist and the physician talked
about the invigorating qualities of the mountain air, and its excellent effect
on Ethan Crawford's father, an old man of seventy-five, with the unbroken frame
of middle life. The two brides and the
doctor's wife held a whispered discussion, which, by their frequent titterings
and a blush or two, seemed to have reference to the trials or enjoyments of the
matrimonial state. The bridegrooms sat
together in a corner, rigidly silent, like Quakers whom the spirit moveth not,
being still in the odd predicament of bashfulness towards their own young
Such was our party, and such their ways of amusement. But on a winter evening another set of guests
assembled at the hearth where these summer travellers were now sitting. I once had it in contemplation to spend a
month hereabouts, in sleighing-time, for the sake of studying the yeomen of New
England, who then elbow each other through the Notch by hundreds, on their way
The conversation of our party soon became more animated and
sincere, and we recounted some traditions of the Indians, who believed that the
father and mother of their race were saved from a deluge by ascending the
The hearts of the palefaces would not thrill to these superstitions of the red men, though we spoke of them in the centre of their haunted region. The habits and sentiments of that departed people were too distinct from those of their successors to find much real sympathy. It has often been a matter of regret to me that I was shut out from the most peculiar field of American fiction by an inability to see any romance, or poetry, or grandeur, or beauty in the Indian character, at least till such traits were pointed out by others. I do abhor an Indian story. Yet no writer can be more secure of a permanent place in our literature than the biographer of the Indian chiefs. His subject, as referring to tribes which have mostly vanished from the earth, gives him a right to be placed on a classic shelf, apart from the merits which will sustain him there.
I made inquiries whether, in his researches about these
parts, our mineralogist had found the three "Silver Hills" which an
Indian sachem sold to an Englishman nearly two hundred years ago, and the
treasure of which the posterity of the purchaser have been looking for ever
since. But the man of science had
ransacked every hill along the
I was inclined to be poetical about the
Behold us, then, fairly afloat, with three horses harnessed
to our vessel, like the steeds of
Sometimes we met a black and rusty-looking vessel, laden
with lumber, salt from
Had I been on my feet at the time instead of sailing slowly
along in a dirty canal-boat, I should often have paused to contemplate the
diversified panorama along the banks of the canal. Sometimes the scene was a forest, dark,
dense, and impervious, breaking away occasionally and receding from a lonely
tract, covered with dismal black stumps, where, on the verge of the canal,
might be seen a log-cottage and a sallow-faced woman at the window. Lean and aguish, she looked like poverty
personified, half clothed, half fed, and dwelling in a desert, while a tide of wealth
was sweeping by her door. Two or three
miles farther would bring us to a lock, where the slight impediment to
navigation had created a little mart of trade.
Here would be found commodities of all sorts, enumerated in yellow
letters on the window-shutters of a small grocery-store, the owner of which had
set his soul to the gathering of coppers and small change, buying and selling
through the week, and counting his gains on the blessed Sabbath. The next scene might be the dwelling-houses
and stores of a thriving village, built of wood or small gray stones, a
church-spire rising in the midst, and generally two taverns, bearing over their
piazzas the pompous titles of "hotel," "exchange,"
"tontine," or "coffee-house." Passing on, we glide now into the unquiet
heart of an inland city,--of
This sounds not amiss in description, but was so tiresome in
reality that we were driven to the most childish expedients for amusement. An
English traveller paraded the deck, with a rifle in his walking-stick, and
waged war on squirrels and woodpeckers, sometimes sending an unsuccessful
bullet among flocks of tame ducks and geese which abound in the dirty water of
the canal. I, also, pelted these foolish
birds with apples, and smiled at the ridiculous earnestness of their scrambles
for the prize while the apple bobbed about like a thing of life. Several little accidents afforded us
good-natured diversion. At the moment of
changing horses the tow-rope caught a
. . . . . . . .
The table being now lengthened through the cabin and spread for supper, the next twenty minutes were the pleasantest I had spent on the canal, the same space at dinner excepted. At the close of the meal it had become dusky enough for lamplight. The rain pattered unceasingly on the deck, and sometimes came with a sullen rush against the windows, driven by the wind as it stirred through an opening of the forest. The intolerable dulness of the scene engendered an evil spirit in me. Perceiving that the Englishman was taking notes in a memorandum-book, with occasional glances round the cabin, I presumed that we were all to figure in a future volume of travels, and amused my ill-humor by falling into the probable vein of his remarks. He would hold up an imaginary mirror, wherein our reflected faces would appear ugly and ridiculous, yet still retain all undeniable likeness to the originals. Then, with more sweeping malice, he would make these caricatures the representatives of great classes of my countrymen.
He glanced at the
In this manner I went all through the cabin, hitting everybody as hard a lash as I could, and laying the whole blame on the infernal Englishman. At length I caught the eyes of my own image in the looking-glass, where a number of the party were likewise reflected, and among them the Englishman, who at that moment was intently observing myself.
. . . . . . . .
The crimson curtain being let down between the ladies and gentlemen, the cabin became a bedchamber for twenty persons, who were laid on shelves one above another. For a long time our various incommodities kept us all awake except five or six, who were accustomed to sleep nightly amid the uproar of their own snoring, and had little to dread from any other species of disturbance. It is a curious fact that these snorers had been the most quiet people in the boat while awake, and became peace-breakers only when others cease to be so, breathing tumult out of their repose. Would it were possible to affix a wind-instrument to the nose, and thus make melody of a snore, so that a sleeping lover might serenade his mistress or a congregation snore a psalm-tune! Other, though fainter, sounds than these contributed to my restlessness. My head was close to the crimson curtain,--the sexual division of the boat, --behind which I continually heard whispers and stealthy footsteps; the noise of a comb laid on the table or a slipper dropped on the floor; the twang, like a broken harp-string, caused by loosening a tight belt; the rustling of a gown in its descent; and the unlacing of a pair of stays. My ear seemed to have the properties of an eye; a visible image pestered my fancy in the darkness; the curtain was withdrawn between me and the Western lady, who yet disrobed herself without a blush.
Finally all was hushed in that quarter. Still I was more broad awake than through the whole preceding day, and felt a feverish impulse to toss my limbs miles apart and appease the unquietness of mind by that of matter. Forgetting that my berth was hardly so wide as a coffin, I turned suddenly over and fell like an avalanche on the floor, to the disturbance of the whole community of sleepers. As there were no bones broken, I blessed the accident and went on deck. A lantern was burning at each end of the boat, and one of the crew was stationed at the bows, keeping watch, as mariners do on the ocean. Though the rain had ceased, the sky was all one cloud, and the darkness so intense that there seemed to be no world except the little space on which our lanterns glimmered. Yet it was an impressive scene.
We were traversing the "long level," a dead flat
My fancy found another emblem. The wild nature of
Looking ahead, I discerned a distant light, announcing the approach of another boat, which soon passed us, and proved to be a rusty old scow,--just such a craft as the "Flying Dutchman" would navigate on the canal. Perhaps it was that celebrated personage himself whom I imperfectly distinguished at the helm in a glazed cap and rough great-coat, with a pipe in his mouth, leaving the fumes of tobacco a hundred yards behind. Shortly after our boatman blew a horn, sending a long and melancholy note through the forest avenue, as a signal for some watcher in the wilderness to be ready with a change of horses. We had proceeded a mile or two with our fresh team when the tow-rope got entangled in a fallen branch on the edge of the canal, and caused a momentary delay, during which I went to examine the phosphoric light of an old tree a little within the forest. It was not the first delusive radiance that I had followed.
The tree lay along the ground, and was wholly converted into a mass of diseased splendor, which threw a ghastliness around. Being full of conceits that night, I called it a frigid fire, a funeral light, illumining decay and death, an emblem of fame that gleams around the dead man without warming him, or of genius when it owes its brilliancy to moral rottenness, and was thinking that such ghostlike torches were just fit to light up this dead forest or to blaze coldly in tombs, when, starting from my abstraction, I looked up the canal. I recollected myself, and discovered the lanterns glimmering far away.
"Boat ahoy!" shouted I, making a trumpet of my closed fists.
Though the cry must have rung for miles along that hollow passage of the woods, it produced no effect. These packet-boats make up for their snail-like pace by never loitering day nor night, especially for those who have paid their fare. Indeed, the captain had an interest in getting rid of me; for I was his creditor for a breakfast.
"They are gone, Heaven be praised!" ejaculated I;
"for I cannot possibly overtake them.
Here am I, on the 'long level,' at midnight, with the comfortable
prospect of a walk to