by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
One December night, a long, long time ago,
a family sat around the fireplace in their home. A golden light
from the fire filled the room. The mother and father laughed at
something their oldest daughter had just said.
The girl was seventeen, much older than her
little brother and sister, who were only five and six years old.
A very old woman, the family's grandmother, sat knitting in the
warmest corner of the room. And a baby, the youngest child, smiled
at the fire's light from its tiny bed.
This family had found happiness in the worst
place in all of New England. They had built their home high up
in the White Mountains, where the wind blows violently all year
The family lived in an especially cold and
dangerous spot. Stones from the top of the mountain above their
house would often roll down the mountainside and wake them in the
middle of the night.
No other family lived near them on the mountain.
But this family was never lonely. They enjoyed each other's company,
and often had visitors.
Their house was built near an important road
that connected the White Mountains to the Saint Lawrence River.
People traveling through the mountains in wagons always stopped
at the family's door for a drink of water and a friendly word.
Lonely travelers, crossing the mountains on
foot, would step into the house to share a hot meal. Sometimes,
the wind became so wild and cold that these strangers would spend
the night with the family. The family offered every traveler who
stopped at their home a kindness that money could not buy.
On that December evening, the wind came rushing
down the mountain. It seemed to stop at their house to knock at
the door before it roared down into the valley.
The family fell silent for a moment. But then
they realized that someone really was knocking at their door. The
oldest girl opened the door and found a young man standing in the
The old grandmother put a chair near the fireplace
for him. The oldest daughter gave him a warm, shy smile. And the
baby held up its little arms to him.
"This fire is just what I needed," the
young man said. "The wind has been blowing in my face for
the last two hours."
The father took the young man's travel bag. "Are
you going to Vermont?" the older man asked.
"Yes, to Burlington," the traveler
replied. "I wanted to reach the valley tonight. But when I
saw the light in your window, I decided to stop. I would like to
sit and enjoy your fire and your company for a while."
As the young man took his place by the fire,
something like heavy footsteps was heard outside. It sounded as
if someone was running down the side of the mountain, taking enormous
The father looked out one of the windows.
"That old mountain has thrown another
stone at us again. He must have been afraid we would forget him.
He sometimes shakes his head and makes us think he will come down
on top of us," the father explained to the young man.
"But we are old neighbors," he smiled. "And
we manage to get along together pretty well. Besides, I have made
a safe hiding place outside to protect us in case a slide brings
the mountain down on our heads."
As the father spoke, the mother prepared a
hot meal for their guest. While he ate, he talked freely to the
family, as if it were his own.
This young man did not trust people easily.
Yet on this evening, something made him share his deepest secret
with these simple mountain people.
The young man's secret was that he was ambitious.
He did not know what he wanted to do with his life, yet. But he
did know that he did not want to be forgotten after he had died.
He believed that sometime during his life, he would become famous
and be admired by thousands of people.
"So far," the young man said, "I
have done nothing. If I disappeared tomorrow from the face of the
earth, no one would know anything about me. No one would ask 'Who
was he. Where did he go?' But I cannot die until I have reached
my destiny. Then let death come! I will have built my monument!"
The young man's powerful emotions touched the
family. They smiled.
"You laugh at me," the young man
said, taking the oldest daughter's hand. "You think my ambition
She was very shy, and her face became pink
with embarrassment. "It is better to sit here by the fire," she
whispered, "and be happy, even if nobody thinks of us."
Her father stared into the fire.
"I think there is something natural in
what the young man says. And his words have made me think about
our own lives here.
"It would have been nice if we had had
a little farm down in the valley. Some place where we could see
our mountains without being afraid they would fall on our heads.
I would have been respected by all our neighbors. And, when I had
grown old, I would die happy in my bed. You would put a stone over
my grave so everyone would know I lived an honest life."
You see!" the young man cried out. "It
is in our nature to want a monument. Some want only a stone on
their grave. Others want to be a part of everyone's memory. But
we all want to be remembered after we die!"
The young man threw some more wood on the fire
to chase away the darkness.
The firelight fell on the little group around
the fireplace: the father's strong arms and the mother's gentle
smile. It touched the young man's proud face, and the daughter's
It warmed the old grandmother, still knitting
in the corner. She looked up from her knitting and, with her fingers
still moving the needles, she said, "Old people have their
secrets, just as young people do."
The old woman said she had made her funeral
clothes some years earlier. They were the finest clothes she had
made since her wedding dress. She said her secret was a fear that
she would not be buried in her best clothes.
The young man stared into the fire.
"Old and young," he said. "We
dream of graves and monuments. I wonder how sailors feel when their
ship is sinking, and they know they will be buried in the wide
and nameless grave that is the ocean?"
A sound, rising like the roar of the ocean,
shook the house. Young and old exchanged one wild look. Then the
same words burst from all their lips.
"The slide! The slide!"
They rushed away from the house, into the darkness,
to the secret spot the father had built to protect them from the
The whole side of the mountain came rushing
toward the house like a waterfall of destruction. But just before
it reached the little house, the wave of earth divided in two and
went around the family's home. Everyone and everything in the path
of the terrible slide was destroyed, except the little house.
The next morning, smoke was seen coming from
the chimney of the house on the mountain.
Inside, the fire was still burning. The chairs
were still drawn up in a half circle around the fireplace. It looked
as if the family had just gone out for a walk.
Some people thought that a stranger had been
with the family on that terrible night. But no one ever discovered
who the stranger was. His name and way of life remain a mystery.
His body was never found.